The summer movie season is largely seen as the premier scheduling zone for surefire blockbusters, big-deal sequels, and other expensive films with serious box-office potential. For those who prefer character development over CGI robots and wisecracking superheroes, it’s a soul-crushing stretch of months at their local theaters, which is why it’s important to acknowledge the little flicks that sneak into cinemas as monsters like Transformers: Dark Of The Moon prepare for financial assault.
This year, one such anti-blockbuster worthy of attention is the East Los Angeles-set, father/son drama A Better Life (out in limited release today). Held down by Mexican star Demián Bichir's revelatory performance, it’s about an illegal Mexican immigrant (Bichir) who works as a pay-for-hire gardener hoping to provide his teenage son (first-time actor José Julián) with the guidance and resources necessary for the youngster to avoid gang life.
An actor’s showcase for Bichir, as well as an intimate look at East L.A.’s Mexican culture strictly through non-white-dude eyes, A Better Life explores themes of lower-class oppression, gangbangers’ influences over kids, immigration woes, and familial closeness, all with a palpable energy that never feels preachy. That’s largely to the credit of director Chris Weitz, one of the guys behind 1999’s American Pie, whose best film prior to A Better Life was the 2002 father/son dramedy About A Boy. Here, Weitz taps back into that film’s tone, scaling things back immensely after years within Hollywood’s studio system directing two huge pics, The Golden Compass (2007) and The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009).
Complex got with Weitz to discuss the affecting A Better Life, shifting gears from Twilight to the anti-Twilight, the importance of authenticity, asking for gangbangers’ feedback, and steering clear of Nickelodeon-type kid actors.
Having been bombarded with CGI-heavy comic book movies and other summer blockbusters, it was quite refreshing to decompress and watch a quieter, more intimate film like A Better Life.
Chris Weitz: Yeah, we’re definitely different. [Laughs.] It’s funny, because we’re opening against Cars 2, and my son is four years old and just mad about Cars 2. I know everything there is to know about Cars. So it’s very funny to have ended up opposite that movie, and to know where my son’s entertainment dollar is going.
Well, considering that your son is only four, A Better Life doesn’t seem like his kind of movie, anyway.
Very true. [Laughs.] We’re not hoping for big money from the parents of toddlers. But, yeah, it is good counter-programming. I believe that there was a barrage of movies that are a certain size and aiming toward a certain quality last year around this time, so hopefully we’ll have our own little niche this year.
Were you involved in the film’s scheduling, or is a summer release, alongside much bigger projects, something that the studio had complete control over?
It’s somewhat out of my control, because the studio has its own kinds of films and is positioning movies in certain ways. Also, it’s a matter of how quickly we can get the movie done without compromising on quality. I’m very happy with this slot, personally; it’s a good luck for Summit, our distribution company. It’s the same slot where The Hurt Locker opened, and we had enough time to finish the movie. So I’m glad we didn’t rush it out last year, actually.
Was it a long shoot?
It was a 38-day shoot, which is actually quite a lot of time, as far as I’m concerned. But we had 69 locations, so every time we had to up and move locations it’d cost us time. It was really great that we had Lime Orchard [the production company behind A Better Life] to fill out a budget big enough to give the actors enough time to do their thing, no matter where we were going.
With a film like this, location seems so key, too.
Yeah, definitely. So many films nowadays are shot in one location that’s supposed to be another—it’s ridiculous. My brother [Paul Weitz] just shot a movie in New York to look like Boston. [Laughs.] It was obvious that A Better Life could only be shot in Los Angeles; there’s a certain quality to the light, to the locations, so it just would have been wrong in so many ways if we’d shot it anywhere else. As it happened, we got a lot of support from the state of California, which gave us a rebate for shooting there. There’s also this tremendous upside to having the crew and most of the cast be able to go home after a long day of shooting, which is really great for morale.
So how’d you first get involved with this project? Was this a script that came across your desk one day, or did you actively pursue it?
A friend of mine showed me the script about three years ago, and I fell in love with it; it’s the best thing I’ve read the whole time I’ve been working in movies, and I include films I’ve written myself. Eric Eason wrote the script, and it’s kind of a marvel. Once you turn it into a movie, it seems like less of a script because it kind of dissolves into the film itself. It’s very quiet, and very measured. I knew I had to make it.
I also kind of knew I had to make a film before this one that would allow me to be underemployed, in terms of finances while I was making this one, which is what led me to making Twilight: New Moon. This one has now taken a year and a half to get into theaters, and that’s a long period of time that I’ve been more than happy to put into the movie. But, needless to say, like many, many people who were working on it, I was taking less money than I usually do.
Was this a difficult film to get made in the first place?
No, actually. I’ve been through really painful green-light processes, where you’re slashing and slashing budgets; in this case, Summit had a certain number that they wanted to make the movie for, that they felt was safe, but we wanted more, in order to have a longer schedule. Fortunately, the folks at Lime Orchard were willing to step up and help us round it out. So, in that regard, it was actually easy.
It was actually a bunch of people agreeing to do it, whereas it’s usually some giant corporate plans, like a pre-set release date, and how it’s all going to be synergistically made to be a part of something bigger. This was a movie where Summit didn’t know exactly when they were going to release it, but they knew that they loved the script. They knew it could make a good movie, but they were going to have us make the movie and then see what to do with it.
Which seems like the polar opposite of what you must’ve went through to make The Golden Compass and New Moon.
Here, we had the tremendous luxury of knowing what we shot was exactly what we were going to be looking at. The actors weren’t acting opposite green pillows. [Laughs.] They were acting opposite other human beings, and that can really help a performance.
In terms of the script, what’d you connect with specifically?
It was a few things, actually. My grandma is Mexican, and I’m the first generation of my family not to speak Spanish, so it was a way for me to get in touch with my roots. I’m a new father, so the father/son story was really gripping for me. And as a screenwriter myself, I was really very stunned by how well it was written.
Having randomly seen Demián Bichir’s performance in Che, like, a year before I saw this script, I already knew that I had the guy to play the lead part, if he was willing to do it. So, it just worked out in that sense, as well. The biggest piece of casting was already done in my head, so it was just a matter of Demián agreeing to do it; once he signed on, everything really fell into place.
And he really gives a tremendous performance. I didn’t even realize that he was in Che.
Yeah, and if you see him in Weeds, or if you saw him today, he would not be recognizable for the character he plays in A Better Life. He’s an actor of the first rank, and he’s actually a big star in Mexico. He hasn’t been seen much here, though. I figure it’s not my job to try and get him nominated for some major awards, because that’s what he deserves.
It must feel pretty good to work on a movie that you can mention “awards” around, having come off of a couple huge blockbusters films that the uptight movie pundits tend to scoff at. Did you apply any lessons learned from working on bigger movies to the making of A Better Life?
The weird thing is, I always say that you’re always making an indie film. No matter what you’re working on, there’s just always something a little more that you want, if you could only just have a little more money to get it. [Laughs.]
So, the logistical problems become different. How the hell am I going to get these three locations shot in one day? Whereas, in The Golden Compass, I was bitching about things like, “Why can’t we get these extra CGI polar bear shot?” You can change the different amounts of money, and what you’re talking about, but you’re still always kind of anxious all the time to get what you need to get to make it a complete movie. Here, it was like, “Wouldn’t it have been great to get an extra helicopter shot at the end of the movie?” But I’m happy. I’m fine. Eventually, you learn to love the work that you’ve done, and the people you’ve done it with, and you wouldn’t want to change it. It’s your kid—you might want them to have a better three-point shot, but would you really change them?
We talked about how location was key. Prior to shooting the film, did you spend a lot of time in East L.A., or were you already familiar with the area?
At the beginning of this whole process, I wasn’t familiar with it at all; I knew it was something that I knew nothing about, and that was exciting for me. I did as much reading as I could about East L.A., and gangs, and Mexican immigration. In the acknowledgement section of one of these books, I found this guy, Father Gregory Boyle, who started a gang intervention program called Homeboy Industries, and they give jobs to men and women who want to leave gangs, in East L.A. and South Central L.A. They have a bakery, two restaurants, and a soap screen business.
I went to Father Boyle, showed him the script, and asked him if he could give us any advice, and, more than advice, he gave us access to these neighborhoods that otherwise might have viewed us with a lot more suspicion. We had people from his program working with us in front of and behind the camera, which was crucially important. It was just the right thing to do; we probably could have done something similar with money and escaped. It wasn’t like we were ever under any kind of danger, or any kind of threat, but it was the right thing to do because it gave us access to all kinds of knowledge bases.
There were at least two or three bullshit filters that the script went through, in terms of jargon or how things would happen before we ever went into shooting. So there’s really very little in the movie that happens that couldn’t happen any day in real life.
Nice term: “bullshit filter.”
[Laughs.] That was my term for it. When you show the script to a bunch of ex-gangbangers, or you show it to an immigration lawyer, or a bunch of kids from a high school in East L.A., they’re going to call bullshit when somebody says something that isn’t right. We did those readings so we could understand, and we were willing to make changes in order to make things more accurate.
The movie is unique in the way it sticks to the point-of-view of the Mexican immigrants, and Mexican youths. It doesn’t have the usual, hokey Caucasian teacher or whomever come in and save the day.
Right, definitely, and I loved that about the script. Often, there’s some white guy who comes in and saves one of the characters, and that is the entrée for the audience—it’s kind of the Dangerous Minds syndrome. That’s fine, but that wasn’t the story here—the story is about a gardener, and he’s Mexican. He doesn’t say very much at the beginning of the movie, and you don’t necessarily understand him, in terms of the choices he makes or why he makes them, but by the end of the movie you’re definitely going to understand the situation he’s in, and you’ll feel for him, and you’ll also understand why his kid is being such a pain-in-the-ass, as well.
Which brings me to my next point: The movie wisely keeps the focus on the father/son dynamic, rather than having the son join the gang and going into that tired, cliché territory of “father saves his kid from the gang life,” which we’ve seen time and time again. Was that something that appealed to you from day one?
Yeah, the gang stuff is exciting, and that’s why TV shows and movies have exploited it so much, but it’s so easy to get wrong from the moment you start. It would have been realistic for somebody to shoot the place up midway through the movie—that could have happened. But that wasn’t what we were going for; the key relationship, for us, was the father and son. The gang life is a hole that’s waiting for the son if the father isn’t able to deliver what he promises. If the gang had played a more active role, though, it would have led us into some really cliché territory.
How did you go about casting the son and the younger gang members? They’re not the usual, pasty, familiar faces that audiences typically see in movies.
José [Julián] was the real deal. It took him three buses and two-and-a-half hours to get to our auditions, and the same to get back home. He’d grown up in East L.A., with a single parent family, and he’s just a natural talent—a natural actor. With his role, as well as the other kids, you’ve got a choice of going with all singing, all dancing, Disney/Nickelodeon shiny people, or people who really feel like the kids you run into while doing research for the movie, and that’s what we decided to go with. I’m really happy with that choice.
So you’re saying it would have been lame to cast some kids from High School Musical? Surely you jest.
[Laughs.] Uh, yeah. Maybe it would have had longer life on TV, though. I guess we’ll never know.