Chris Weitz is the director of “A Better Life,” which will have its world premiere June 21 as a gala in the Los Angeles Film Festival, which starts tomorrow. He also directed “Twilight” franchise entry “New Moon,” “The Golden Compass” and “About a Boy,” among others. “A Better Life” will be released through Summit Entertainment June 24.
The last two movies I directed, “The Golden Compass” and “New Moon,” had the combined budgets and box office of the GDP of a small country in the Caucasus. This is something you’re meant to feel sheepish about, as though you were a dealer in, say, ground-to-air missiles rather than cinema. In fact, the experience of making these films was emotionally grueling rather than glitzy.
When I turned in my director’s cut for “The Golden Compass,” the studio concluded that I was trying to turn a popcorn movie into the world’s most expensive art film; they fired my editor and took the cut from me.
“New Moon” was all about getting back on the horse for me and working with some very talented people – Kristen Stewart, Alexandre DesPlat, the great Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. I wanted to make a lush widescreen romance out of a ‘tweener phenomenon and I knew the audience would come. I would say, “They’re expecting a cheeseburger, but I’m going to give them foie gras.”
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This Isn’t About Atonement
Such is the naiveté of late-early-middle age. The restaurant critics were not supportive. Nonetheless, I was able to compose hybrid real-action and CGI sequences on a grand scale, create sheer cliffs and raging seas from pixels, and transform people into horse-sized wolves at the side of the legendary Phil Tippett.
We built it and they came. Our release day remains the biggest day in box-office history, a testimony to the wizardry of Summit’s marketing department more than anything else. Now, with the kung-fu of CGI at my disposal and a big old blockbuster puffing wind into my sails, it was time to find the biggest movie, with the biggest robots, the muscliest superheroes, the starriest stars…
…Except it wasn’t. My brain was shot. My home was distant. My family was unfamiliar. I had been inducted into the high mysteries of CG, but the secret inside the box was a little scrap of paper that read, “You are now making two movies at a time, not one.” I grumbled about quitting. Then, when no one tried to stop me, I returned my thoughts to a script that was then called “The Gardener.”
I found it through my friend Christian McLaughlin, one of the producers. Written by Eric Eason, the writer-director of “Manito,” it was the story of an undocumented Mexican gardener in LA. Not the guy you talk to about trimming your hedges; the much quieter guy who he tells to trim the hedges, and his son. They lived in a one-bedroom house in east LA’s Boyle Heights. The kid is in trouble at school and has no respect for his dad because the TV says people who do real work and aren’t living large are worthless. He’s on the verge of falling into gang life. Then the father gets a chance to take over his boss’ route, his equipment, his truck. Struggle, heartbreak and moral complications follow.
We’ve all seen this before, when a “big-budget” director decides to atone by making a “meaningful” film. That wasn’t quite the case here, for a number of personal reasons.
From “Twilight” to Goldilocks
First, my background. My grandmother moved here from Mexico when she was 17. My mom speaks fluent Spanish. My wife is half Cuban/half Mexican (mitad mitad, or micha micha, if you want to get into a real Mexican modismo). I, however, was a member of the first generation in my family not to speak the language – deracinated, if you will, like the boy from “A Better Life,” who can only laugh when he sees real Mexican cowboys – charros.
Second, I was an Angeleno. I emigrated here from New York 20 years ago, with the intention of returning to the old country as soon as I could. But LA was the land of opportunity. Still, there was something missing. There was a sense that parallel universes – Thaitown, Koreatown, Boyle Heights – functioned independently with little sense of what was going on in the other. There was a daily exodus of labor from east to west; there were the people standing on corners near home improvement stores. Places like South Central and East L.A. were meant to summon up dread, but what were they really like? What, if anything, united us all?
Third, I was a father. It is difficult and perhaps pointless to explain the effect this has because those who know, know and those who don’t can find it easy to dismiss as a load of self-aggrandizing piffle. Suffice to say that I had begun to learn how much one would and could do to try to make a better life for their child.
Even better, we would shoot at home. There is a thin window of budget (a Goldilocks zone, not too big and not too small) that allows you to shoot in LA as opposed to one of the tax-incentive states. This was a film that clearly had no visual cognates anywhere else. We qualified for a rebate from the state of California if (IF!) we went not a penny over our stated budget and ended up shooting in 69 locations which, believe me, is a lot of hauling your ass around.
Balanced against this was the fact that we could offer crew members the opportunity to shoot in their home city and return to their families at the end of the day. And, as it was our intention to leave a small footprint, most of our cast was worked within their own cultural backgrounds. We were a bilingual bunch, from Mexico, Spain, Puerto Rico. I caught up as quickly as I could and by the end I could bitch and moan at my heads of department with the best of them. (Helpful hints: “Que falta?” is good all-purpose Spanish for “What’s going on? Why aren’t we shooting?” The more florid “Es lente como el caballo del mal,” or, “This is as slow as the bad guy’s horse,” is a Castilian way of complaining when your crew is moving slowly.)
This Movie Needs a Priest
It’s straightforward (and the done thing) to roll into a location, pay off the locals and leave. You set up a security perimeter that ostensibly protects your stars, your equipment and your sense of your own relative importance. We wanted to do things a bit differently, so I went to see Father Gregory Boyle at Homeboy Industries.
Father Boyle is an L.A. legend. Once a parish priest in east L.A., he started Homeboys as a gang-intervention program, giving jobs to people who wanted to come in from the cold. G., as he is known around Homeboys HQ, is a father-confessor figure, a loving mentor and imitator of Christ. I’m of a different cut of cloth, but I knew instantly that I was talking to a bodhisattva.
I found G. in the acknowledgments section of a book about east L.A. housing projects. With the help of L.A. City Councilman Richard Alarcon, who want to prevent runaway production from further devastating the native film industry, I got a meeting.
I tried to seem as un-slick as possible and said that we wanted to make a movie about east L.A., the love between a father and a son, the danger of gangs and the quiet responsibility of millions of people who work invisibly in Los Angeles and elsewhere. I gave him a copy of the script and hoped for the best.
“I think this is the real deal,” emailed Father G. a couple of days later, cc’ing his 2nd in command, Hector Verdugo. “Hector, help these guys out.”
We were in. With Father G., Hector and the Homeboys backing our play, we were let into Ramona Gardens, the lively, tragic, beautiful neighborhood in Boyle Heights that also happens to be the territory of the Big Hazard gang. I have to say that I never felt scared for a moment except when a stern lady of a certain age, seeing a tracking bracelet on one of our extras, lectured me in pointed Spanish on what she perceived as the failings of our sociological approach. She didn’t want her neighborhood to be portrayed like something out of a bad TV show. Neither did I.
Authenticity at (Almost) Any Price
“A Better Life” is a story about a father and a son. Demian Bichir, the wonderful Mexican actor, was to play the father. I decided that before I even met him, seeing his performance as Fidel in Steven Soderbergh’s “Che.” He gave us the double whammy: He’s enormously technically proficient but not so recognizable to American audiences as to “throw” the movie.
With the son, we lucked out: José Julian walked into an open casting. José was the real deal. Raised by a single, undocumented parent, he was home-schooled to keep him out of trouble. Restlessly curious, he was a natural in front of the camera. With Demian as an acting coach, he jut got better and better and better.
This is the sad thing: Discounting extraneous factors, the number-one determinant if tough- neighborhood kids will join a gang is if there’s a parent at home to set them straight. Demian’s character works to hard to keep food on the table, but he’s not around to make sure José’s character stays on the right path. As a result of his absence, the two are estranged and live in worlds as different as Malibu and Hazard Park.
To complicate matters, Demian’s no noble savage; he doesn’t have the pithy words of wisdom often attributed to cinematic working men. He’s a quiet man who wants to keep his head down, earn money and stay out of trouble. When his son asks what it’s all about, he doesn’t have the answer. Who does?
José’s character, on the other hand, is being raised by the TV. From that, he knows there’s no place for him in the dominant culture except as a busboy or a valet. His school has given up on him; they put on a video and leave the room. And the gang is there like a black hole on the edge of the neighborhood.
I promised Father G. I would listen if he pointed out mistakes. And so, though it took us perilously close to our budgetary line in the sand, we did a re shoot when G. and Hector found something awry in a scene between Jose’s character and his best friend.
The friend seemed excited about getting jumped into the local gang; he saw it as a step up. In fact, G. explained, the usual gang-life journey is downward; a good kid starts kicking it with some knuckleheads. The phrase G. always hears when somebody talks about jumping in (and I have to say it’s fun to hear this coming from a priest) is, “Fuck it.” Fuck the future. Fuck life. We also had a swear budget of one “F” word before we lapsed into “R” territory. You can guess how we expended it.
The way these two characters begin to understand their love for each other is the story of this film. I flatter myself that it does not give any easy answers, zags when you expect it to zig and carries quite an emotional wallop. At least, that’s the idea. At the core, emotions are bigger than any special effect you can imagine — and cheaper at that.
When I hang out with Hector (I asked Homeboys for a job a while ago; we’re trying to figure something out), we don’t talk much about his past, the hard time and the gang he left. We talk about his kids — the older boy, who wants to leave the private school in Colorado that Hector managed to finagle, and his quiet, handsome Isaias, who was around a few times during the shoot.
And about my kid Sebastian, who’s about to turn four. I hope some time he’ll watch this movie by his old man, the one that he helped inspire, but we’re opening the same weekend as “Cars 2.”