Crime, Sex and Fire Equals a New Mission Movie

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Alternative Agenda: "My story shows another Misison, another barrio," says writer Alejandro Murguía. Photo by Christy Khoshaba.

It’s summery. It’s Friday. It’s about to get messy.

A fellow with a peppered moustache strolls into Muddy Waters café on 16th Street. He’s quick to greet me and offer a few things.

“Can I buy you a drink?” he asks. “Soda? Juice? A shot of tequila?”

Ah, he’s a jokester. I decline.

He comes back with an iced orange juice in one hand and an extra cup in another, managing to clutch two straws simultaneously. As he pours the juicy concoction into a new cup, it spills onto our table.

“I make a mess everywhere I go,” he says.

He is Alejandro Murguía, writer, poet and a professor of Raza studies at San Francisco State University. This time around, a certain mess has landed him fame. Well, maybe. One of Murguía’s short stories is being made into a film.

Local filmmaker Dante Betteo and photographer/filmmaker Lou Dematteis are taking Murguía’s Mission-centric story “The Other Barrio” into their hands. They’ll begin shooting “SFNoir” in June. Murguía’s piece was plucked from Peter Maravelis’ anthology titled “San Francisco Noir,” a collection laced with crime, tension and sex.

“The Other Barrio” follows Roberto Morales, a San Francisco housing authority investigator. He explores the truth behind a fire that killed seven at the Apache Hotel on the corner of 16th and Valencia, now Restaurant Yoyo.

Murguía’s story is based on a fire at the Gartland Hotel, which burned down in 1975. It was a time when officials suspected landlords of setting their own buildings on fire. Their goal? To get rid of the residents. “You have to understand this is part of [the Mission’s] history,” says Murguía. In fact, a mural on Harrison and 14th streets illustrates the event.

Murgia at L's Cafe in 2010.

Murguía tells me more as we stroll on Valencia, the spring heat hitting our backs. “The Mission then was like a small pueblo, a little more relaxed. Now you can’t walk down on Valencia, you gotta be on Valencia.”

As we “be” on Valencia, we find ourselves near the corner of 15th. “What is going on over there?” Murguía asks, referring to a building in the works next to the Hotel Royan, a single-room-occupancy hotel. “There’s the change — you want the change,” he said, like he had suspected it all along. He takes a closer look. “Oh shit, it’s huge, huh?”

But he needs a better look. He dashes across the street. I follow, trying not to get hit by cars. He slips his John Lennon-esque Giorgio Armani reading glasses out of his shirt. He uses the side of his face to flip them open and wiggles them in place. His left arm jumps to his waist as he tries to figure this out.

Silence. I ask what he thinks will become of the building. “Probably a highrise condominium,” he answers, his gaze fixed on the construction. “Or low-cost housing,” he declares a few seconds later. “This is quite amazing.”

We make our way back to the corner of 16th and Valencia, where Restaurant Yoyo stands. Murguía tells me that after the arson he wrote about in his story, what remained was a massive hole that endured for a long time. The crowds push us down 16th Street. Two ladies wearing spandex walk in front of us, lavender yoga mats peeking though their woven brown bags.

“Let’s go up Hoff Alley,” he says between sips of iced orange juice. As we stride past the parking lot, Murguía explains how he wrote his story. Maravelis, editor of “San Francisco Noir,” tapped him to write a tale for the anthology. Murguía, a man whose bookshelves are filled with detective fiction from writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, took the job on with glee. It was his chance to write a story he’d been thinking about for years.

“It was all brewing in my head,” he says. “I wanted to tap into my anger and transfer [my feelings] into characters.” He was angry at the arson incidents. He was angry at the human beings who were sacrificed. He was angry at the people who got away with their crimes. His characters channel those emotions while staying true to the noir genre. He’s got them all: Private eye? Check. Gangsters? Double check. Femme fatale? Triple check — the girl, Sofia Nido, is hot.

Murguía stops us in our tracks. “When I wrote the story one afternoon, it came out in one long burst — very raw.” And just the way Murguía wanted it, since it was told through the eyes of a clumsy detective.

“I wanted to have fun with it,” he says — fun in noir fashion. A steamy scene between the detective and the femme fatale captures noir style. Here’s a taste:

I slipped my hand under her back and flipped her on her stomach, pulled her hair, and hissed in her ear — “I want you to by my puta.” She didn’t hesitate in answering –– “Make me do what you want.”

Murguía says, “Somebody getting slapped around — you gotta have that in a noir story.”

Which leads me to ask how he envisions his characters, especially Sofia, on the big screen. He’s got his own ideas, and the filmmakers have theirs. “I told Lou [that Sofia] can look regular,” Murguía says. “Lou said, ‘Oh no, this is a noir movie, she has to look beautiful.’”

The casting is finished, but during the process, Murguía says, it was important to think about physical appearance and mannerisms down to the last detail. For example, the detective won’t be a sharp dresser, so if he wears a tie it will be skewed.

Expanding dialogue is also part of the deal. But it shouldn’t be an issue, since Murguía wrote the story as if it were a movie.

Is he nervous to give the filmmakers creative control? Nope, he trusts them. It’s the reading versus watching that makes Murguía a little anxious. Readers can play with their imaginations, says Murguía. Watching a film is quite the opposite.

But there will be plenty of eye candy in this movie. The filmmakers will document Chinatown and North Beach as well as the Mission, since the film will combine three stories. San Francisco — a character in its own right — will connect the three tales, according to director/producer Betteo. The film will be edited much like “Babel” or “Amores Perros.”

We roam down to Mission Street. On our way, a scruffy homeless man asks us to jump into his Safeway cart. This reminds Murguía of a wild woman he encountered on his way to meet me. A random lady in a green dress and blue wig asked him out on a date. Did he say yes and sweep her off her feet, like a character from a noir movie? “I told her I was on my way to an interview,” he says, deftly avoiding a mess.

To learn more about the film, click here. Murguía’s latest book of poems, “Native Tongue,” can be purchased at City Lights Book Store.

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One Comment

  1. Awesome article!

    Raza Studies was renamed and is now Latina/Latino Studies. :)

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