Lovers On and Off the Screen :: The Boys of ’Turtle Hill’

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Oct 18, 2013

Brian Seibert and his life partner, Ricardo Valdez, are screenwriters, actors, and film producers. They've had to be all three to usher their film, "Turtle Hill, Brooklyn" to the screen.

"The way we had met and become a couple was, we had worked in a show together -- a little farcical live theater play -- and we tried for a few years to find something that both of us could do that would be mutually satisfying." But, being that they are a bi-national couple, "It's kind of hard to find something." So they decided to write their own script.

The result is a sweetly told story that unfolds in a naturalistic manner across a single day. It's Will's (Seibert) birthday, and Mateo (Valdez) is throwing him a party. All their friends are coming to celebrate -- but two well-wishers cause ripples. One is Will's sister, who appears first thing in the morning, surprising the couple. Her shocked reaction to realizing that her brother has a man for a lover clues Mateo in that Will's claim to be out to his family is a big, fat lie.

That deception is just the tip of the iceberg: The party is in full swing when an unexpected guest arrives... the handsome personal trainer with whom one of the guys has had a dalliance. "I'm in!" the trainer grins, upon hearing that his playmate is partnered and assuming that a three-way is his for the asking.

"It was interesting for us to look at the lies that are not only between people, but the lies that are within oneself," Seibert told EDGE. "That was something we wanted to explore: What are these deceptions that partners and friends tell each other, and that people don't even want to acknowledge?"

The movie's tone remains level and upbeat, these emotional depth-charges notwithstanding, and it's a credit to the script, the performances, and the direction that it all works so well. Instead of a farce, "Turtle Hill, Brooklyn" functions as a deeply compassionate, even wise, take on the kind of communication and emotional maturity it takes to survive and flourish in a long-term relationship.

Seibert let EDGE on a secret: Although the couple in the movie does not represent a depiction of the relationship he and Valdez share, they did draw on the New York scene they were familiar with. More specifically, "We have all these stories from parties we've thrown that we started putting together," Seibert said. "And then decided we wanted to tell this very modern love story about a couple. And we wanted to write a story about people we know, versus a lot of the New York stories that we see, like 'Friends' or 'Sex and the City,' where it's unattainable apartments."

They also didn't want to be Just Another Gay Film.

"A lot of gay films... we just find that we don’t have a lot in common with them," Seibert said. "There are very few relatable characters for us. So we wanted to write both a New York story for people that we know, and a story that was about, and included, a whole panoply of people -- gay, straight, lesbian -- and make them people that we recognize: Ourselves on screen. And then we played ourselves on screen!"

But they didn’t wear the third major hat in the production: That of directing. That task they entrusted to Ryan Gielen, with whom Brian had previously worked on a film titled "The Graduates."

"I’ve actually worked with Ryan prior to ’The Graduates,’ " Brian pointed out. "He hired me as an actor, I think in 2006, on a short that was never completed. Then we made another short film together that was completed. And then he wrote ’The Graduates,’ and I worked on that. By that point, we had become really good friends. I knew his working style, and in addition to the creativeness that I like so much about Brian, I knew that he’d be great about working within our time and budget constraints."

That’s not a minor point: It’s tough to finance a movie, especially if you don’t want it to look and sound cheap. "Turtle Hill, Brooklyn" is a small film, but it feels intimate rather than cheap. The sound on the film is good, for one thing, and the cinematography is well executed.

"We have a lot of really talented friends who all worked in this business in some way," Seibert noted. "Our cinematographer [Andrew Rivara], or instance, is very successful working as a cinematographer and as a gaffer on feature films. He also likes to work on independent films, like what we were doing. He cared about the story, and therefore wanted to wok with us, and he’s also become a good friend of ours as well.

"Our production designer / production manager is another good friend. We’ve worked with her for the last ten years. We amassed this group, over the years, that likes working with us, and we like working with them -- and they’re all really good at what the do!"

Filming the movie in their own real-life residence also helped keep costs down. Siebert and Valdez were of one mind that they had no worries about filming their own place and putting it up on screen for all to see.

"We just sort of jumped into it -- we decided this is what we were doing, and we full-out jumped in," Seibert said. "It didn’t really occur to me until after, or maybe during, when certain plants in the yard were being destroyed by people walking on them, and it wasn’t even so much like, ’Our plants are being destroyed’ as it was there had to be some continuity in terms of a flower being there or not. But no, it didn’t occur to me that I was putting up a big, personal part of myself."

"I didn’t have any kind of concerns in that sense," Valdez agreed. "When you are focused on creating something, you are giving one hundred percent and hoping [what you end up with] is good. I was a little concerned about my house getting destroyed, because people sometimes didn’t watch where they were putting the camera, or they put wires on up the ceiling and then ripped them down... but other than that I was more focused on the product itself. [When you are acting,] you don’t have time to worry."

But didn’t they ever say to themselves, "Oh my god I have to clean the bathroom, because so many scenes take place there?" Especially since so many of the movie’s key scenes take place in or around the bathroom -- it’s something of a running gag.

"Yes, that is true!" Valdez laughed. "And the kitchen was a mess. When you have forty people in your house..."

Yes, EDGE got the picture.

"But everybody was helping," Valdez added. "Everybody clicked. It was chaotic, but it was organized chaos."

Another reason the couple were not too worried about filming in their own residence was even though the household as shown really is theirs, the relationship -- and the characters -- are not. "There’s a big divide between us, in real life, and the characters we wrote," Seibert emphasized. "Those characters, although we are playing them, are not any part of us at all. So it never occurred to me that any part of that would actually be us, even though it was all taking place in our house. That seems really odd, now that I’m saying it..."

Maybe no more odd than the response of film festival audiences, who kept asking the couple if they have broken up over the events depicted in the film.

"Yes, we are still together," Seibert laughed, "and no, this did not happen to us. This is something we wrote. This is completely fictional. For some reason, it just never occurred to me that [people would think we were telling a story from real life]."

So - what about that piñata? At the movie’s high point, Mateo explains that the piñata he’s made for the occasion has a spiritual significance: It represents sin and temptation. The baseball bat signifies virtue. And though the idea is to nail the piñata while wearing a blindfold, it’s more than just a fun thing to do at a party: If we flail and stumble in a quest to be our best selves, it’s simply a matter of human frailty. The one thing we can do is take our best whack at living a good and decent life.

"My birthday is in August, and the piñata is something that he always makes for my birthday," Seibert disclosed. "People bring stuff to put in it; we end up with glow sticks everywhere and we’ll be cleaning up the yard two months later and find a bottle of lube or a condom stuck in the ivy somewhere. That’s a real thing that happens here, and when we realized how well it fit with what we were writing we incorporated it into the story."

"This happened just like we wanted, with the piñata," Valdez added. "Right in the middle of the movie, as the sun is going down, and all the [secrets] are out now, and we have to deal with them. We have to chase the demons away, which is what we’re doing with the piñata in the traditional sense.

"I like the cross-culture this country has created through its immigrants, how the various cultures become one eventually," Valdez continued. "I wanted to represent that. And the fact that the character Mateo made the piñata for Will’s birthday, that shows the love he has for this guy. It’s a laborious thing, depending on how elaborate you want the piñata to be -- it can take two or three weeks to make one."

Which says something in itself about thei relationship, since Seibert had just noted that Valdez makes him a piñata every year.

"Yes! Yes, I do, every year," Valdez laughed. "It’s a tradition."

Awww. That’s sweet.

"Turtle Hill, Brooklyn" is now available on DVD

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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