Helping Others to Find A Better Life
by Jay S. Jacobs
It is not often that people almost completely change course in Hollywood. However, after making two straight huge blockbuster films, Chris Weitz has downshifted into the tiny independent drama A Better Life.
However, smaller is not necessarily a bad thing. Weitz started small when he and his brother Paul directed the first American Pie movie, a small movie made on a tiny budget which became an international phenomenon. They followed it up with the hit adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel About a Boy.
Weitz has just spent the previous few years helming the special effects extravaganzas The Golden Compass and Twilight: New Moon. He was ready for a more intimate, human story.
Weitz knew that he had to film A Better Life as soon as he read the script. Weitz’s direction takes on renewed passion in telling the story of an undocumented Mexican living in LA, trying to get a little piece of the American dream for himself and his teenaged son. The film takes a poignant look at an under-explored part of Weitz’s hometown of Los Angeles. It also illustrates the lives and hardships of an entire community of people who have become a political piñata.
A Better Life opened to universally positive reviews and star Demián Bichir has just been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his lead role. The movie is now being released on video, on demand and streaming.
Mr. Weitz was kind enough to give us a call recently to discuss his career and his latest labor of love.
I’ve got to say, A Better Life is definitely a very different film than any you have done before.
After being known for bigger, more commercial and comic films, what was it about this project that appealed to you?
At first it was just that it was the best script I had read in twenty years of working here, the script by Eric Eason. So, it wasn’t really a political motivation at first. It was just self-interest. I really wanted to make a good film and it was a totally entrancing script. Gradually, the pieces started to come together. I remembered seeing Demián Bichir in Che. I was keen to make a film at home, because now I’m a family man, so it had to be made in Los Angeles. I was also keen to learn to speak Spanish, because I am the grandson of a Mexican and a son of a German, but I’ve lost a lot of those cultural roots. So, it was a chance for that. It wasn’t until later that it really became a political thing.
After doing back-to-back huge films like Twilight: New Moon and The Golden Compass, was it a bit of a culture shock going back to do a tiny, personal story like A Better Life? Was it a refreshing change for you to work on a film like this?
Well, it was refreshing. It really wasn’t a shock, in as much as one still does the same kind of stuff. You’re still trying to convince people that what you are doing is real. It’s harder than you’d think in this case, because I didn’t really know the world that I was going into. I didn’t know the world of East LA. I didn’t know the world of undocumented immigrants. And gang members. I had to learn a lot about that, so there’s a heavy research component. What there wasn’t – which was great in this regard – was all of the work that you have to do to do CGI on one of these major films. (Chuckles) What nobody tells you is that what you used to think of as the editing period is still the shooting period, in the sense that you’re making these effects… or you’re directing the making of these effects. So that doubles your workload. Here, we could really concentrate on the performances.
It’s interesting, because people have a tendency to see Los Angeles as this big, rather glamorous place, but when you drive around you see so much more diversity. Was it interesting to you to be able to chronicle some of the areas in LA that people don’t get to see so much?
It was interesting to me as an Angelino to get to know my city. One half of it is Hispanic. It was a tremendous benefit to me. Cesar Chavez [Avenue], which is kind of the eastern-most bit of Sunset Boulevard, is the most interesting street in the entire city. In some places it feels like a bit of Mexico. In some places it feels like some kind of hybrid of the two. It’s an incredibly lively place. There are also, of course, places that are really – in some ways, literally – under the gun. That’s not necessarily from gangs. It can also be from a police department that has kind of used social chemotherapy to get rid of the gang problem – but taking solutions that damage everybody. For instance, in Ramona Gardens, the housing project in which we shot, the government of the city had mounted these huge spotlights that shone down on every public space. That also shone into people’s houses. It’s a tremendous nuisance for everyday people just trying to get on with their lives. That’s most of what goes on in East Los Angeles, people just getting on with it.
As a director, were there special challenges to doing an English film that has a significant amount of dialogue in Spanish?
Well, in a funny way, I didn’t have to learn Spanish, because of course you go to East LA and everyone is used to the dominant culture and can communicate in that way. To speak some Spanish was a sign of respect to what is the main language there. The times it was most useful were in communicating with my DP, Javier Aguirresarobe, who is a great Spanish cinematographer. Also, we had three actors who came up from Mexico in order to be in this film. Demián speaks wonderful English, but to communicate with Joaquín Cosio and with Dolores Heredia, who played Demián’s boss and his sister, it was important to me to be able to speak to them a bit in their own language. Now, you can’t learn a language that quickly. No matter what people say about how easy Spanish is, in fact it’s a very difficult language to acquire because there are so many variations of it. But it was mostly useful in terms of showing that we as a crew cared about what we were doing enough to get the details right.
Demián Bichir was nominated for an Academy Award the day before yesterday for his role in the film. When he was cast in the film, did you realize that you had found something really special?
I knew he was really special from his performances in Che, [Steven] Soderbergh’s film, and from his films in Mexico. I knew that the role was one that was Oscar-worthy and I had a feeling that this day was going to come. Of course, there’s a big difference between that and campaigning for this result in such a way that you can compete with the studios with tremendous advertising budgets for the Oscars and with tremendous stars who are household names. So, this is a big victory, not just for Demián, but for acting quality in general, as being recognized by the Academy. Also, this extra element of the fact that he’s playing an undocumented immigrant – the Republican debates have been so involved in slandering immigrants. We have a chance to give a voice to eleven million people who work really hard in this country to make everyone’s life easier.
Obviously, illegal aliens are a bit of a political hot potato these days, was it important to you to show a different side of the debate?
It’s really important, because these guys have been a punching bag, politically. They can’t answer back, because to answer back is to expose oneself to the possibility of deportation. What these people want is to work hard. To do jobs that we are not willing to do ourselves. And to have a chance to become Americans. A lot of people say, “Well, if they just went through the steps to be legal, it’d be fine. They could stay.” But, when these people try they are often robbed by lawyers and denied by the system. We need to recognize that these are people that we need here. Because there’s been higher unemployment in this country, it’s been easy for politicians to say that the undocumented are somehow involved in this problem. It’s not the case. When you look at Alabama HB 56, the most restrictive immigration law in the country: that is doing economic damage to the state, because the agriculture businesses that depend upon this labor are suffering. People won’t pick those fruits and vegetables.
Your career has encompassed all sorts of genres – romantic comedies, fantasy blockbusters and now small independent dramas. Do you enjoy being able to stretch in all sorts of varied directions as a director? Are there types of films you feel more or less comfortable with?
I feel equally uncomfortable in all genres. (laughs) I mean, my attitude is, if I do a film, I’m going to spend one to two years… sometimes three years… of my life on it. I will probably put myself through – because of the person that I am – real physical and mental rigors in order to do that. I will neglect my wife and child (laughs again) and lose contact with my friends. So, I don’t want to do the same movie twice. Now, I think about it as like being a character actor. They get to do all kinds of roles. I’d like to be able to do that too, as a director. I keep learning. One of the great things about this movie was getting to learn more about the world. More about politics. More about Hispanics. More about Spanish.
You did some acting in Chuck and Buck, as well as doing a few other small performances in other projects like Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Do you enjoy acting and would you like doing more? How did the experience of acting help you as a director?
It certainly helps me as a director, because I understand it is not an easy thing to do. When you’ve got 70 people and a big camera looking at you, it’s rather difficult to impersonate another human being. I don’t think I’m a very good actor. (chuckles) And I don’t think I’m very comfortable doing it. But, it was important for me to do that. A couple of days ago, I had a manager for about two hours. He said he was interested in representing me and my vanity took me over for about 120 minutes. Then I called him and said I don’t think this is a good idea. I’m just going to end up wasting your time. (laughs) Because, to be honest, the offers haven’t been rolling in. That’s okay. That’s okay, because I got a couple of nice notices for Chuck and Buck because the character I was playing was deeply uncomfortable in his own skin. Well, that’s kind of how I felt in front of the camera, so it was an easy role to play. I think anything else would be a stretch.
You and your brother hit paydirt with your first very film. What was the experience of making American Pie like? Were you surprised by how popular it became?
It was fabulous. We had pretty free reign, because the studio was also working on some more expensive films. We couldn’t afford big movie stars at the time, so we were able to cast whomever we thought was best for the part. It was a bunch of people doing something for the first time. That was completely delightful. We didn’t expect it to do as well as it did. We hoped it would make its money back, but the fact that there is now going to be a fourth movie in the series is completely nuts. And great.
Like you said, they are making yet another American Pie movie. Obviously, you have not been a part of the franchise since the original film – which I think was by far the best one. Have you kept up on the progress of the series? They even had those straight-to-video American Pie Presents movies. Have you been shocked by how far this series has gone?
Yeah. It’s amazing how prolific [it’s become]… these characters that Adam Herz invented really seized upon people’s consciousness. People identified with them and they still do. I think it’s also a measure of this new media world that we live in that people can watch things again and again on video and streaming. So their sense of identity is even deepened by repeated viewing.
I’ve got to tell you; About A Boy is one of my favorite films.
What was the experience of adapting that novel and what was making it and working with Hugh Grant like?
It’s a terribly clever, insightful novel, so the first thing you want to do is be very careful about what you include and what you exclude. And what you synthesize in terms of bringing to the screen. You’ve got a much shorter time to get these things across. It was a wonderful challenge. It was great that Nick Hornby was so supportive in letting us take his baby and run with it. Working with Hugh was fantastic, because he is immensely clever. He was kind of like the third writer on set. Given that he makes what he does look quite easy, you’d be surprised how much work and thought goes into it.
You have not written a screenplay since About a Boy, instead focusing on the directing side. Do you ever get the urge to go back to the writing side for some of your projects?
Sure. I’m thinking of going back to writing screenplays for a while, because I can do it in my hermitic fashion. Now that I have a four and a half year old, it’s more important that I be around. I will write more. I enjoy that… when it works. (chuckles)
Just as a viewer, what type of things do you tend to watch?
Well, it’s fairly eclectic. To be honest, I don’t find much reason to go out to the movies these days. (laughs) I hope nobody from the MPAA is reading this. I think there is only so far we can go with robots as heroes. However, the last film I saw in the theater was they were showing Lawrence of Arabia from a 70mm print at the Egyptian [Theater] here in LA. That renewed my faith in film, because it’s so astounding. I am trying to catch up with Japanese filmmaking. Not just the classics, but the stuff that they are coming out with nowadays, because that is a country that fascinates me. Also, because if you look at it, and look at the results of American movies in Japan, their own domestic films are battling off these megalithic American films, because they’ve got their own thing going. I want to understand more about that.
What were some of the movies that inspired you to take up filmmaking as a career?
Well, I saw Star Wars at age seven. I think a lot of people would say this, that when they saw that – especially as a child – it expanded for them the sense of what a movie was. I really didn’t know the difference at that point between a movie and a lived experience. So there is something about the magic of that first movie that got into me. But if you look at the stuff that inspires… other things that we’ve done, I guess… screwball comedy played a big part. Preston Sturges. Billy Wilder, although he’s not screwball comedy, per se. Classic Hollywood films meant a lot to me and my brother as we were growing up, which is why we tend to try to have strong character roles.
What do you have coming up next?
Right now, I’m working on some short pieces for the Center for American Progress, which is a progressive think tank in DC. They got in touch with me about the film and have been very supportive. Part of their organization is devoted towards immigration reform. I’m doing some short pieces about Alabama HB 56, which is a catastrophically bad piece of legislation.
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Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: February 4, 2012.