Queer Brooklyn, Really
BY GARY M. KRAMER | Turtle Hill, Brooklyn,” a film that addresses issues of trust and fidelity between two partners, is an outstanding example of what independent queer cinema can be. Smart and savvy, it introduces two-dozen-plus characters that viewers will come to know — and care about — as the film unfolds over the course of a single day.
The creation of real-life partners Ricardo Valdez and Brian W. Seibert, the film was shot in eight days in the apartment they have shared for the past three years. It tells the story of Will’s (Seibert) 30th birthday party. His partner, Mateo (Valdez), invites their friends over to celebrate, but surprise guests, including Will’s sister, arrive and tensions ensue.
In a recent interview in their Brooklyn home, Seibert and Valdez talked about “Turtle Hill, Brooklyn.” The couple have been together for more than six years and in addition to starring in the film, they also wrote and produced it.
Gay life partners take an authentic look inside
Valdez explained they made it “out of necessity. We’ve been so frustrated with the acting business and the rejection level. We had seen enough gay films that were stereotypical. This was a good opportunity to do something that is pertinent to us. It’s a slice of life of a couple that has a conflict.”
Seibert said that the film developed organically, but it is not autobiographical.
“A lot of what happens in the film did happen, but more of the stuff is created for dramatic purposes,” he explained. “The issues Will and Mateo have are not issues that Ricardo and I have ever had.”
Valdez added, “A lot of the characters are a combination of our own imagination, but also other friends. One character represents three friends of ours.”
What makes “Turtle Hill, Brooklyn” so absorbing is that the characters all come alive in relatable ways. Even folks who get just a few lines of dialogue leave impressions as fully fleshed-out individuals. A woman who married a gay man so he can get a green card remains faithful to him, even though he lives in San Francisco. A gay Republican character defends his political beliefs, arguing he is more than just his sexuality. Other characters reveal they are able to stay in New York because they won political asylum in the US.
“This is our reality,” said Seibert, who like his partner is in his 30s. “We wrote this film because we wanted to reflect our experience of being gay and living in New York, being political and activist-y, and being these ages. We wanted to write about that. The film is representative of our gay life, which includes other gay people, but not only gay people.”
The film’s story follows from their time together in Brooklyn.
“I think hard to talk about life or write a movie without including any and/ or all of these topics,” Seibert said. “They affect everyone’s lives. I am obsessed with them, which is why they pop up in most if not every conversation my friends and I have. They are completely interrelated to our lives.”
Valdez concurred, explaining that their life — and the film that captures its essence, if not its particulars — represents a specific sort of New York story.
“We are picky about our friends,” he said. “They have to be smart, cultured, and challenge us. We’re always talking about books. ‘I just read this book. You need to read it…’ We wanted to give a little bit of what someone in the ideology of our socioeconomic level in New York — Brooklyn — what they talk about.”
The couple’s “pickiness,” Valdez argued, does not get in the way of a rich diversity in their lives.
“One of the beautiful things about living in New York is the awareness of the racial and political cultures — it’s such a clash of cultures,” he said. “When I came here from Mexico, I came to understand those differences and eventually accept them and form my own opinion about them. We tried to put that in the movie.”
The film also provides an excellent showcase for the two men’s friends, many of whom are actors and appear in “Turtle Hill, Brooklyn.” To be sure, shoehorning a couple of dozen people into the couple’s four-room apartment was tricky —it measures less than 1,000 square feet — but their home looks inviting on the big screen. The bedroom windows overlook the street, and lights were placed outside to shoot day for night and sun for rain. The hallway of their apartment now has a candy-shaped piñata Valdez is making for his goddaughter’s birthday (she plays Will’s niece in the film). He also made a piñata for “Turtle Hill, Brooklyn” that is the centerpiece of a fun sequence in the story.
Valdez and Seibert’s patio and back garden, where much of the film’s action — including the piñata-bashing — occurs, still has Christmas lights strung on the walls, a gnome with a rainbow flag, and a street sign, all of which were incorporated into the set.
Sitting amidst the set’s remnants, the couple — who fight in the film — insisted they didn’t do too much of that while making “Turtle Hill, Brooklyn.”
“We worked really well together,” Seibert said. “We went to bed together every night. We got up together and made breakfast for the crew and the actors.”
Valdez interjected, “We were producers, and it was our home. There was no time to [fight]. We had to be in this together because if we failed, the film would fail as well, and that would not serve our purpose.”
Still, relaxing in their domestic surroundings, the men acknowledged that disputes do come up between them — whether about their cat Emilio (who appears as himself in the film) sitting on the kitchen table or decorating their apartment when they first moved in together. Their fights, to hear them tell it, last about as long at it took for Valdez to clean up a floor sticky from Seibert’s recent impromptu cocktail party.
“I am not a maid!” Valdez reminded his partner, with equal parts jest and seriousness at the recollection of that spat.
But on screen, the issues are considerably weightier, with the couple’s future hinging on questions of commitment, trust, and communication.
“That was the idea,” Valdez explained. “Why do you do what you do to hurt the other person — accidentally or purposely? It’s out of need of something that you’re missing in your relationship. Mateo is frustrated and unsatisfied. He has this relationship he values, but he’s so conflicted with himself he creates all these problems.”
“Turtle Hill, Brooklyn” responds to those issues artfully, but one question remains: What’s the film’s title all about?
Seibert couldn’t suppress a big grin when asked.
“So the neighborhood is technically Green-Wood Heights, which is named after Green-Wood Cemetery, which is a block away,” he explained. “No one knows it as that. They call it either South Slope or Sunset Park. It’s sort of somewhere in the middle of both of those. People will argue about what this area is. Real Brooklynites will say that’s Sunset Park, not South Slope.”
But Seibert and Valdez had a story to tell and they needed a title.
“So one night, we were having a party in the garden, and we were all very happy,” Seibert continued. “And so we decided to come up with the name Turtle Hill. Six of us coined the term. But we’ve limited Turtle Hill to just our house and the house next door. If you don’t know Brooklyn, you wouldn’t know it’s a made-up place.”
“We were hoping it would catch on,” Ricardo said optimistically.
The couple would certainly settle for their film catching on with audiences instead. It should. It’s a very impressive debut of two bright talents.
TURTLE HILL, BROOKLYN | Directed by Ryan Gielen | Quadflix and the Orchard | Opens May 3 | Quad Cinema | 34 W. 13th St. | quadcinema.com