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The Independent Critic

 The Independent Critic Travels to Turtle Hill, Brooklyn 

There are certain films where as a film critic you end your viewing feeling like you simply have to find out more. That was my experience after watching Turtle Hill, Brooklyn, a recent release on home video written by and co-starring real-life partners Brian W. Seibert and Ricardo Valdez. I fell in love with the film and its characters, and I found myself determined to find out even more about the film, its inspiration and its co-writers. Fortunately, both Seibert and Valdez were more than happy to oblige.

From what I've read "Turtle Hill, Brooklyn" is a low budget film made over two four-day weekends? Can you talk to me about how this film actually came to be? I think what occurred to me was that it felt like you wrote these characters and you told their story as a primary focus. Quite often, when I attended an LGBT film festival it seems like I'm really getting hit over the head with "This is a queer film." With your film, I felt like the characters came first and, yes, they are gay. Was that intentional? Or did it just sort of work out that way?

Brian: We wanted to write a story about people we know, that are relate-able, and also about a couple dealing with universal relationship issues.  It worked out that we could include some funny happenings from parties we’ve thrown! And I’m so glad you didn’t get the sense that “this is a queer film!” There are different ways to take that right? But to us, it’s a film about a couple with issues. 

Ricardo: So we decided to create a story that it wasn’t about being gay, a situation that is universal, but it just so happened that the two main characters that are dealing with the conflict are gay. So yes, from the beginning the idea was intentional. A lot of the characters are based on friends of ours; we combined personalities and heightened some flaws to make it more interesting and dramatic.

You're both the writers and the co-leads. Ordinarily, that concerns me but it really works here because your chemistry together is quite believable with the full spectrum of emotions. Was it difficult to be in both roles (plus producers, as I recall)? 

Brian: Fortunately we had some great producers, crew and a great director which made things easier.  And though we were catering, re-writing some days due to constraints with weather or sunlight and it was shot in our house, there’s nothing we’d rather be doing.

Ricardo: It was difficult, mostly a big challenge, to put as many hats as we needed to to navigate a fairly new territory. Brian had produced a couple of shorts before, but we were the ones that believed in the project.  At this level, it's difficult to make people believe that what you are doing is a good product, so we had to be pro-active and push all our limits to get what we wanted.

Can you tell me a bit about yourselves? How you got involved in film? A little bit about backgrounds? Did you study film?

Ricardo: I am originally from Mexico with a degree in Actuarial Mathematics and I have been in NYC for fourteen years.  I studied cinematography at the New York Film Academy, and drama in every other studio in the city (HB Studio, Wynn Handman, private coaching etc.) 

Brian: When I was in grad school (at the Actors Studio Drama School at New School) I started producing theater in NYC and regionally.  I then started producing film.  Not to sound lame or self-important, but the act of producing was the study itself.  I'm originally from Michigan and have a degree in speech writing.

I read that you tried reaching out to non-LGBT film festivals. This film strikes me as having tremendous cross-over appeal, but I also think there's still a bit of a stereotype..."Oh, the lead characters are gay so it must be an LGBT film." How has your reception been on the festival circuit? Has there been a difference in response between LGBT film fests and non-LGBT? I've been on the jury for the Indianapolis LGBT Film Fest the last three years and I've seen very few films like it.

Brian: We shot for the moon and submitted to all the (non-gay) biggies.  We didn’t get in.  We also shot for pretty much everything in the gay festival circuit and didn’t get into many.  I don’t understand when it resonates with some programmers and not others, but it’s frustrating.  I think in a lot of ways, we're too gay for straight festivals and not gay enough (i.e., no hot gay sex) for some gay festivals.  Regardless of the type of festival we played at, people were really moved by what they saw on screen which included a lot of straight people at the gay fests.

Ricardo: It is interesting that you ask us this; we had had the strangest experiences with festivals, since no festival can actually tell you flat out if your film is good or bad and the real reason they didn't choose it. We are only left with letters that praise the film but decline to show it in their festival. Major LGBT festivals have declined this movie, I guess because of lack of nudity or hot guys, which I believe is a shame. LGBT movies should show more that just hot guys and pretty faces. The other film festivals rejected us without so much as a letter or email.

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Ryan Gielen was a terrific choice to direct, but I'm wondering what kept the two of you away from that task? How did he come to be involved?

Brian: I have worked with Ryan a number of times as an actor and a producer on his films.  He’s a good friend and a talented director, and I knew he’d kick ass making this feature in eight days on virtually no budget.  Also, this was like a normal film shoot on crack, so more hats wasn't the best idea.

Ricardo: This was my first feature film and it was more about the producing and acting part.  I didn’t want the pressure of having one more hat to wear.  We wanted someone that would handle the many restrictions of this project: 8 days shooting, basically no money, weather restrictions (we shot at the end of the summer).  Ryan loves a big challenge, and he took it.

This strikes me as a film, or it certainly was for me, where you finish watching it and you want to discuss it. You've certainly been popular with audiences. I'm wondering how the journey was for you...first you wrote the script, then you brought that script to life. Now, you've been on the festival circuit for awhile with the film. Whether it is or not, it "feels" like a personal film. I've read that the two of you are partners. Unintentionally or not, that adds yet another layer of intimacy to this film.

Brian: The added intimacy of us being partners didn't occur to me until we were in festivals when people would ask if we were still together, and I always wanted to say - you just watched fictional characters, not Ricardo and Brian.  But there are parts of us in those characters and I get it now.  As for the journey, I had a great time writing with Ricardo and we worked well as a team in production.  And it's been so much fun to talk to people at festivals, especially those in relationships who would say "my partner does the same thing!" Gay and straight couples.

Ricardo: It has been a long journey indeed, from the beginning the whole thing was personal, i.e., we created these characters that have pieces of us and friends, with voices that we think (we hope) most people have situations drawn from experiences and once we had it on paper it took another dimension.  We were looking for the right way to say things and a narrative coherence within. And then it became a task, an objective and the producer side of us took over. For a while it was all about technical issues but now that we are finally done I can watch it and feel like a slice of my own life is imprinted in this movie.

I think it's rare to find an ensemble cast that is uniformly strong. Can you talk a bit about casting the film? Did you set out intentionally to create such a diversity of characters? I also really appreciated that while you dealt with stereotypes at times, you didn't make light of or poke fun of the characters.

Brian: We know a lot of talented people.  Many of our friends are actors, writers and producers, so finding our creative and technical team wasn’t too difficult.  The funny thing about the diversity is it never strikes me as being super diverse.  The actors who played the roles perfectly fit the characters we wrote.  And as for stereotypes, it’s more interesting to me to watch real people.

Ricardo: Again since we are actors and we have a lot of friends that are actors we thought it was going to be great and easy to cast our friends and offer them some juicy parts, but we discovered that the majority were doing other projects or weren't so enthusiastic about it. We ended up having to cast from the outside and do regular casting calls. We always kept in our minds if the actor that was auditioning for us would be a good fit in a party like the one we created for the film, in addition to their acting skills. We saw a lot of great actors but we didn't see them as part of this particular party.

How important is the film festival circuit for an indie filmmaker? Where do you go from here? Any upcoming projects)? Any chance we'll see these characters again? They almost struck me as being like Jack & Diane or Tommy & Tina. Yes, I'm really mentioning Mellencamp and Bon Jovi ... but I'd love to see these characters down the line.

Brian: Both of us are writing separately right now and have an idea for another script together.  Not sure if you'll see Will and Mateo again, but thank you for the interest! I'm not a huge fan of answering all the questions by the end of the film; I like that people are left wondering and thinking about all the characters in the film.  But we have kicked around some ideas on sequels or a series.  We definitely have the material!

Ricardo: It is funny that you mention this, some people want us to create a TV show out of these people, others want us to create a web series and some want to see the second part of this film - what happens with Will and Mateo. For the moment we haven't decided anything; we are just beginning the enjoyment of our film. I am working on a new screenplay and got into some writers block. But I am hopeful we will create more together.

Since this film is so much about relationship, friends and family of choice...I'm wondering how yours have responded to the film?

Ricardo: My parents saw it. I guess they like it. The venue where they saw the film wasn't an ideal one. There were sound problems and the projection wasn't as clear. Over all, they were curious about the situations in the party. 

Brian: They loved it.  Our Turtle Hill family couldn't be happier for us and want to see us do more.

Finally, and I can't help myself...but tell me "something new"...something you haven't mentioned in other interviews.

Brian: Though I've said I would never shoot in my own house again, I definitely would.  And plan to within the next year.

Ricardo:We changed the ending the day of the shooting. What was it? I can't tell; it would ruin the story that is now created.

Turtle Hill, Brooklyn picked up the Audience Award for Narrative Feature at NewFest and has screened at Philly's QFest, ImageOut, Seattle LGBT Film Festival and Palm Springs' Cinema Diverse among other festivals. The film opens in New York City on May 3rd with distrib QuadFlix and should enjoy a long life on home video once it's released. For more information on the film, check out the Turtle Hill, Brooklyn Facebook page.

Interview by Richard Propes
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