Sueño Americano: Chris Weitz guides drama of father struggling to make 'A Better Life'
Chris Weitz is having one of those “mind the baby” days, he explains at the outset of this phone interview. “My wife went off to yoga, and I’ve got Sebastian,” the filmmaker says. Sebastian is three-and-a-half, and “he doesn’t understand about deadlines.”
Thrown together, like it or not, for this particular occasion, Weitz pere et fils are a real-life reflection of a bigger picture—A Better Life—which the 41-year-old director just finished and which Summit Entertainment will release on June 24 in essentially the same slot it gave to its Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker, two years ago.
The reason for this prestige positioning is the film’s sleeper potential, which could bloom from strong reviews and word of mouth into hit status. In essence, it is a Mexican update of The Bicycle Thief, Vittorio De Sica’s 1947 neo-realism classic about an estranged father and son united in an effort to find the thief who robbed the father of his livelihood. Back then, it was a bicycle; now, it is a truck which Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir)—an illegal immigrant—uses to carry his gardening equipment to the manicured and pampered lawns of Los Angeles’ wealthy elite.
The film is the first produced by Jami Gertz, the actress (“Entourage”), and Stacey Lubliner, the ex-agent, and it is, says Weitz, “a real triumph” for their senior producer, Paul Junger Witt, “to see this movie finally realized after 20 years of trying to get it made. Twenty years ago or so, the gardener of a friend of his had his truck stolen, and the man said, ‘Well, you have to go straight to the police,’ and the gardener said, ‘I can’t go to the police. You don’t understand.’ This was the first time that the man had realized that his gardener was undocumented, that he didn’t trust the police, that he was afraid, that he was living his life in a parallel universe to him.”
Basically, that’s the plot—something TV Guide used to handle in a single sentence—but, for the gardener, so much is riding on that stolen truck in terms of survival and human dignity and his son’s respect, which is already on the wane from a miserable track record and is now drifting dangerously toward gang culture to find a hero.
“The seriousness of certain things which we take for granted—when I say ‘we,’ I guess I mean people who are the fortunate inheritors of citizenship or a good way of life—are unimaginable but incredibly crucial for the lives that are lived invisibly.
“Even though the story has a really classic simplicity to it, it’s actually quite true to life,” insists Weitz. “You’d be amazed the number of times where we would be in the neighborhood and people would ask us, ‘What are you doing? What’s this movie about?’ and we’d tell them, ‘This guy buys a truck, and the truck gets stolen,’ and they’d say, ‘Yeah, that happened to my uncle.’ The number of times people at tech screenings or word-of-mouth screenings came to us and said, ‘This is the story of my father,’ or ‘This is the story of me and my dad,’ or ‘This is the story of my mother.’”
True to its neo-realism antecedent, A Better Life is steeped in authentic locations. “It had tremendous logistical challenges because we were showing so many parts of Los Angeles. We shot in 69 different locations in 38 days, so that meant that there was a company move—or sometimes two—per day, and, of course, that causes a lot of logistical friction. You have to be very efficient in the way you’re shooting things.
“I hope that people will recognize the degree of detail and authenticity in the film. That’s the result of having paired up with people who had contact in the community. I have to keep thanking Homeboy Industries, which is a Los Angeles youth program started by Father Gregory Boyle. Early on in the process, I gave him a copy of the script, and I said, ‘What do you think?’ And he thought it really humanized the situation and got access to these neighborhoods. We might have gotten access anyway, but it would have been a question of it being a big Hollywood movie coming in and paying people off and leaving—and that’s not really the way that we wanted to do it. We wanted it to be a very sympathetic approach. It didn’t feel right to make a movie about people living in Los Angeles without somehow meshing with the fabric of Los Angeles. We gave the script to ex-gang members and kids who were growing up in East L.A. to double-check all of the language. We even altered some of the things that happened in the movie to be more realistic to the situation that people found themselves in, and what results is the kind of a movie which—for the most part, I think—is free of perceived notions of how people live.”
Given Arizona’s harsh stand against immigration, a wide distribution of the film in the state might seem unlikely, but, as Weitz notes with a shrug, “You never know. There are still Mexican-Americans in Arizona, and there are still enclaves in Arizona where I think that people would be interested in seeing the other side of things.”
The raging Arizona controversy did make a contribution to the film—albeit unwittingly, according to Weitz: “The script called for a montage in which there was a massive street protest, and there was no way that we would be able to afford to stage one, but it just so happened that the Arizona law came into effect while we were shooting, and a demonstration was called in Los Angeles. Suddenly, we had the opportunity to shoot a live demonstration in downtown, just kind of off-the-cuff, so on a Saturday we were able to get out a camera crew. I was in that demonstration. I was inside of it while our very small second unit was outside shooting it.”
Weitz’s mom might call the situation above an Imitation of Life, she being Susan Kohner, who was Oscar-nominated for that Douglas Sirk weeper, playing the light-skinned mulatto who passes for white. She is the daughter of Austrian-born Paul Kohner, the agent of Garbo, Dietrich, Bergman and Turner. Her mother was actress Lupita Tovar, who starred in Mexico’s first talkie, Santa (1932) and the Spanish-language Dracula, shot at night on the same Universal sets Bela Lugosi used by day.
“She was kind of the Mary Pickford of Mexico, I guess, along with people like Dolores Del Rio,” Weitz relays. “Part of my reason for making this movie was as a tribute to her because there’s a part of my family that’s Mexican. My generation in the family is the first not to speak Spanish, and I knew that to make the film properly I would have to acquire some Spanish, so part of my prep for the movie—as well as all the other stuff you do to prepare—was to begin to learn Spanish, which I’m still doing.
“A Better Life is not just about Mexican immigrants. If you look back generations, so many people have antecedents who came to this country to get a better life.”
On the paternal side of Weitz’s genealogy chart are more immigrants. He and his four-year-older brother, Paul, both have John for their middle name, after their father—the celebrity designer, best-selling novelist and race-car driver.
Chris was groomed and poised for the diplomatic corps but grew impatient during the year it took to get him clearance, so he pitched in to help his bro write the script for the animated flick Antz. The success of that led to the huge comedy hit American Pie, which they seamlessly produced and directed, and two sequels. Other franchises he has dabbled in have included the first of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy series (The Golden Compass) and the second of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight vampire saga (New Moon). Occasionally, he turns actor, as he memorably did in Chuck & Buck, a poignant indie about two men resolving a boyhood sex encounter.
Adaptability—being one of anything that’s needed at the time—comes easily for Weitz. “A lot of new directors have three or four projects in development, and they see which one comes to the boil, and that’s the one that they do, but basically, I just wait till something appeals to me, and then I hope people still remember who I am.
“I’ve been very, very lucky that way. Working, for instance, on A Single Man [as producer] was a tremendous honor because I knew that Tom [Ford] was going to do an amazing job. He had all the experience necessary from the rest of his career to do this, and I thought he did a beautiful job on the script. So to be a part of that was kind of a fringe benefit of directing. I think now I’ll go back to writing a bit and producing.”
For the present, “I don’t have a job right now other than talking about this movie. To be honest, I’m spending all of my time on this movie because I think it needs a lot of tender loving care to get in front of people’s eyes. When they see it, they tend to like it. We face an uphill challenge because we don’t have the Hollywood insurance of a very familiar star or a high-energy thing that tends to excite people so right now.
“You rarely, in America, are allowed to make a film about relatively unknown people with actors who are relatively unknown or, sometimes, completely unknown. Fortunately, Summit liked the script as much as I did. We’d done New Moon together—a totally different sort of film—but they didn’t do it on any promise of my doing another of the Twilight movies. I told them upfront that it wasn’t going to be a quid pro quo situation, and they took a risk on it. Now, having finished the film, is the time we are figuring out how to make that gamble pan out. We’re hoping that audiences will have a place in their minds for movies that aren’t animated or about superheroes and robots. We need good word of mouth—and the fourth estate.”
A Better Life is almost achingly no-frills, star-free and life-size, and that was precisely the way Weitz wanted it. “Obviously, we could have tried to get a more familiar star, but I think when you’ve got someone as familiar to audiences as Javier Bardem or Benicio Del Toro, there’s a feeling in the back of the audience’s minds that they are going to make it, no matter what, so they have certain presuppositions.
“Demián Bichir is a big star in his own country. He’s really Mexico’s biggest male star, but he’s not seen here much—the only place Americans would have seen him would have been in Soderbergh’s Che, playing Fidel. That’s to our advantage, I think.”
Dramatically, yes. Unanchored by any box-office force, the character spins his wheels meaninglessly in menial labor, and audiences grow as impatient with his flubs and failures as his disenchanted teenage son, played by a new find, José Julián.
“José just walked into an open casting call,” remembers Weitz all too well. “He’s from a single-parent family. He was born and raised in a neighborhood like the one we’re describing. In fact, it took him about three hours to get to our auditions because he had to take so many buses. The kid was the real deal from the beginning, as well as being one of the best natural actors that I’ve ever encountered.”
Father-and-son conflicts, while not a constant in Weitz movies, do come up a lot. One of the more amusing flourishes in the American Pie series came from the interplay between the sex-obsessed Jason Biggs and his skittish dad, Eugene Levy. The moving flip side of that was Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult in About a Boy.
“I haven’t pursued it purposely, but there are these strong father-child relationships in a lot of the movies that I’ve done,” Weitz concedes. “I suppose the film this most closely resembles, in a strange way, is About a Boy, because it’s about a romance between a father figure and a son figure who begin completely at cross purposes. The father and the son in A Better Life don’t understand one another at all. In this case, it’s because the TV culture—the dominant culture—has told the kid that the life his father leads isn’t worth anything. At the same time, the father is working so hard to provide for himself and his son that he never had time to parent him.
“Demián was amazing. At the beginning of the movie, the father doesn’t have the emotional equipment to speak to his son. It’s beyond a question even of fluency. When his son asks him, ‘Why was I born?’, he doesn’t know how to answer that. It takes everything they go through for him to acquire the emotional language to do it.”
Weitz confesses that he does have a certain favoritism for this film over the others he has made. “Now that I have a son, the film becomes more and more relevant as he grows and as I think about everything that a parent would do to keep a family together… You know, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’
“And also being an Angelino now, to have realized through the course of shooting the movie actually how separate we are from the people who are coming over to cut our lawns, the people who are working on the side of the road—the day laborers. It’s heartbreaking the degree to which we don’t make contact with one another.”