Forget about The Fast and the Furious, director Joey Curtis’ Quattro Noza is the real deal. It’s a blast of fresh air along the L.A. asphalt that drops you in the middle of modern drag racing with restless Angelenos hitting the pavement as hard as they hit each other.
So don’t expect artificially augmented sound effects or people running away from slow-motion fireballs, the fights here are as real as the street races. When fists fly you can’t help but flinch. When the cars slalom through freeway traffic at breakneck speed you grip the armrest. The film was three years in the making, and Derek Cianfrance, the director of photography, makes the digital video format sing. No, it’s not a documentary, but as Quattro Noza merges poetic cinema with the ideals of West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet, the sheer authenticity of the location shots, hip-hop culture, the people, and the vehicles they drive put one simple thought in your head: this is what it’s really like.
Quattro Noza screened at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival in the Dramatic Competition and won the Excellence in Cinematography Award. University of Colorado at Boulder’s Film Studies Program alumni Joey Curtis, Derek Cianfrance, and Robert Beaumont (who stars in the film as Quattro) were in attendance, along with a posse of Quattro Noza street racers who had Park City police jumping into action as the hot rodders peeled out of parking lots.
As for the filmmakers, they are no strangers to the festival circuit; Joey Curtis and Derek Cianfrance had teamed up before on Brother Tied, a modern-day Cain and Abel story that played at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and went on to travel to 30 other film festivals worldwide and win six prestigious awards.
I caught up with Joey and Derek at Sundance on January 24th, where they both talked about their fond memories studying film at C.U. Boulder. These two budding filmmakers have already amassed a wealth of experience shooting in L.A. and New York, but they still hold their experiences at C.U. Boulder in higher esteem than their coastal counterparts and they talk with glowing reverence about the faculty members here that both inspired and helped them get to where they are now. Also sitting in on the interview was Brihanna Hernandez, who stars in the film as Noza.
Pablo Kjolseth: Tell me about your film and your soundtrack choices.
Joey Curtis: Quattro Noza is about youth subculture in Los Angeles. I’ve been calling it a grandchild of American Graffiti and West Side Story, so it’s a very classic and romantic portrait of modern Los Angeles life as it pertains to youth, and it contains a great deal of modern and what I call science fiction music. The main composer is DJ Spooky, and there’s a lot of hip-hop in the film, classic oldies, and the Spanish-language theme song was performed by Rebekah Del Rio, who film fans might remember as the lady who performed her signature ballad “Llorando” in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
PK: Joey and Derek, you were both film students in Boulder, how did you first meet?
Derek Cianfrance: We met at a party one time. I saw Joey, he had these huge forearms. He looked like Popeye and I thought he looked cool. Then we started meeting up all the time in the editing room because there were a certain number of kids that were always working on films. It was always the same faces in the editing room. Me, Joey, and our other buddy Jimmy Helton, and that’s basically how we met – working on films all the time, and watching each others footage, and talking about movies, and then going to movies, and then taking pictures together, spending time together, and then pretty soon we became best friends.
PK: Your first feature film together was Derek’s directorial debut with Brother Tied. I noticed that film a small cameo in Quattro Noza.
JC: Our first picture, Brother Tied, went to Sundance in 1998. In Quattro Noza there’s a moment that takes place at the Youth Authority camp where all the kids are watching a scene from Brother Tied on television, so that’s a little homage there. Actually, a lot of homages are to our professors, Phil Solomon and Stan Brakhage, who taught us about experimental filmmaking and showed us some of the greatest films in the world that no one usually gets to see. I wanted to repay them for all those gifts that they gave to me and I created an aesthetic that’s very poetic. The visual imagery in the film reflects sometimes what the characters are thinking or feeling emotionally, and the way I chose to convey that was through experimental, visionary picture s on the screen. So there’s a lot of homage to Phil Solomon and Stan Brakhage in the film, and lots of colors, and different experimental tricks that we learned in film school, and then I kind of developed over time with my aesthetic on video and used it in a more narrative sense instead of just an abstract sense, so that the audience could plug it into a characters emotion or mindscreen, or mood, where you can hear and see the visuals inside their heads.
PK: Brihanna, how did you get involved?
Brihanna Hernandez: I met Joey, Derek, and Robert in 1999. I was just walking on the street when I saw three guys looking at me with cameras. They came up to me.
JC: We had already been looking for some girls all morning - combing the streets of LA because that’s were I grew up, and I knew Noza lived there because I had met her in a previous life and now I had to meet her in the present tense. I came up to Brihanna because when I saw her from across the street I turned to Derek and I said “Holy Sh-t! Look at her. That’s her. That’s Noza.” I just prayed to God that her personality would fit Noza. I walked up to Brihanna and I kept talking to her and I thought she was understanding me - but she really didn’t understand a word of what I was saying and I discovered that she didn’t speak a word of English. She actually turned out to be more like Noza than I had expected, in the sense that I had built this classic character, Noza, who is like this Madonna, old school Mexican girl, and Brihanna was actually from Mexico. I thought I was going to pick a Mexican-American girl, but Brihanna is as authentic as I could get it. I actually had to teach her English and press upon her that if she wanted to play the character Noza for the duration of the film that she was going to have to learn English, which gave her a reason to become fluent.
PK: Quattro Noza was shot using up to ten Sony PD100As and PD150As at any one time for the racings scenes. For dialogue scenes, up to three Canon XL1’s were used. Tell me more about the digital approach.
DC: We shot over 300 hours for Joey to whittle down into the two-hour film you saw here at Sundance. There’s this guy George Lucas who thinks that video is going to replace film, and he’s leading people in the wrong direction. All video has done is provide another format for you to execute your dreams and ideas.
In 1999 right around the time that we were shooting Quattro Noza there were two movies released on the same day. David Lynch’s The Straight Story and Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy, and I saw both of those films on the same day back-to-back. Julien Donkey-Boy was shot on digital video and The Straight Story was shot on 35mm, and they are both equally beautiful films. But neither one could have existed on the other format. The Straight Story could never have been made on digital video and Julien Donkey-Boy could never have been made on film. That was the first example to me that I saw that video could work and really look beautiful if it was used as video.
I think the mistake of many videos is that people shoot video as if they were shooting film, with no knowledge of the different world that it is from film. I shot this film in different ways. One of those ways was to shoot it as a surveillance film and use video as surveillance. How would you shoot a bank robbery? By placing a camera in the corner of a bank and pressing record, and waiting, a day, a month, a year, for a robber to come in and rob the bank. And then you’re going to have your ten seconds of footage that is going to be used.
That’s how we shot the car footage in most of the racing scenes in Quattro Noza. By setting up the cameras in a surveillance manner. I would set up the cameras. Joey would set up the action and put the actual “bank robbers” in the cars and set up situations where things would happen and just send the cars out loose into the real world. With these cameras all over the cars we’d get our five to ten seconds on each hour of tape that Joey would then use and construct into the film. The other way I used the photography was to shoot it as verite documentary.
Much of the scenes you see with the Hispanic kids I tried to shoot that way. Between Brother Tied and this film I shot quite a few documentaries for three years. So I used those techniques: getting close to subjects of the film, making the camera disappear, getting the subjects to accept you, trust you, put yourself in their culture and life. Joey did that too. He lived with his co-writer Albert Hernandez for a year in Crenshaw. The way we got the truth on this film and the documentary aesthetic was to go live it, become part of that world, become accepted by that world, and become one them.
JC: That was really hard on me because I was 26 and I was re-immersing myself into a youth culture where the median age was 16-20. And L.A., especially, is filled with temptation and “player” lifestyles. I used their stories. I put all their different characters into the characters in Qauttro Noza. I wanted to express every point of view that was interesting or needed to be told. I made this movie for those kids, for my generation, as a time capsule, to be as authentic as it could be, so every fight you see in the movie are real fights. Those people are really punching each other. And I used non-actors. Mixing and matching footage that is very dynamic that goes back and forth between reality and this documentary style, and the fantastic imagery that happens inside the characters minds.
The wrap-up: before Quattro Noza had it’s world premiere at Sundance their official website (www.quattronoza.com) got 1.5 million hits in the last four months. Joey Curtis, the director, writer, editor and principal stunt driver for Quattro Noza has had his license suspended six times. Derek Cianfrance is currently developing his next feature film, Blue Valentine. Both seemed optimistic that Quattro Noza, which was screened at Sundance via digital projection, would soon be transferred to a 35mm print to allow it wider exhibition.