In East LA, an undocumented Mexican gardener who wants more security for himself and his estranged teenage son invests everything to buy his own landscaping truck. What happens next is a micro-tragedy with major meaning for a country of immigrants. Chris Weitz (American Pie, The Golden Compass, The Twilight Saga: New Moon) was struck by the script for A Better Life. "It was the best thing I had read in 20 years, including anything that I'd written," says Weitz. "I knew I had to do it." Premiering at the LA Film Festival with a mid-summer release from Summit Entertainment, it's already being positioned as this year's indie awards season underdog—a good place to be when you're being handled by the studio that won seven Oscars for The Hurt Locker. Of course, as any politician knows, no good deed goes unscrutinized. So who cuts Chris Weitz's grass?
Tell me about when you first read the script.
I read it about three years ago. My friend Christian McLaughlin, who is one of the producers on it, had been doing the last stage of development with the writer, Eric Eason, who really brought it to the stage. I just found it undeniable. It was the best thing I had read in 20 years, including anything that I'd written, and I knew I had to do it. Before I could do that I had to do New Moon because I needed enough oomph and latitude. First of all, I needed to get back on my horse after Golden Compass, which had been a pretty defeating experience for me, and I knew that with the movie I wasn't going to get paid really except for DGA. So I needed to take care of my family and then I needed to make this movie. Also, there are other factors which played a part. I'm part Mexican. My grandma is Mexican. My Mom speaks perfect Spanish. My entire family except me and my brother speak Spanish and I thought this would be a good excuse to get in touch with my roots and to learn Spanish. In fact, this morning I had another Spanish lesson before I ran off to introduce the film to the heads of the biggest Twi-fan websites to try to convert them to A Better Life.
Well, you've also got a handsome, young kid with Luis (José Julián).
I know! Apparently—it's very funny-a friend of mine who is an SAT prep tutor was teaching seven young Latina girls and they broke up suddenly into Team Jacob and Team Luis, which made me really proud. [Laughs] Yeah, he's a good looking fella.
He looks just like young Madonna in '84.
I'll tell him that.
He might take it well.
He might not.
I think he'd find it funny. He's a really clever kid.
He's naturally great in this, his first real film.
Thank you—or I can't say thank you because it's him—but he's the best natural actor I've ever encountered, which is fantastic and exactly what we needed. We needed somebody who understood where the character was coming from which is exactly where Jose was coming from, at least in his early childhood. He's from a single-parent family, undocumented. He was born in the States, and he was home-schooled because the neighborhood in which he grew up was not a salubrious place.
Where's he from?
He's from LA.
Yeah. Well now he lives in the valley, but he grew up in East LA and it took him three hours to get to his auditions because he had to take three buses. He's from the bus-taking, socio-economic bracket, you know?
Which is a different world. Most people I meet have never taken the bus.
I've never been on an LA bus except filming in a fake LA bus.
You see the city in a totally different way.
I think the slower you see LA, the more interesting it is. And I think that part of the theme of the movie is that a city which is driven through is a city that you don't understand at all, and that's the way Los Angeles is constructed.
You have that one sequence when the father Carlos (Demián Bichir) is riding home from his day at work and you see Beverly Hills people, you see hipsters, you see a traditional Jewish family. You see all of LA in this two-minute drive.
That montage was constructed in order to show the distance traveled between West LA and East LA. Different worlds that you cross through, boundaries. And really to demonstrate how people don't know one another and live in a kind of internal exile, especially illegal immigrants and their kids. Even people in Boyle Heights live in areas that are demarcated by gang territory. I was talking with a friend of mine who is the second in command at Homeboy Industries [a job training program for former gang members and at-risk kids]. His name is Hector Verdugo and he was talking about some incident in his past when he had shot at a guy. I asked, "How far away was this guy from? Where was his territory?" and he was like, "A quarter of a mile away." You cross the street and you're in somebody else's kingdom, somebody else's world.
The way you portray the gangs in this film, you see that the lure is also about family—it's more complex than just wanting to prove yourself.
It's really complex and I learned a lot about it from Father Boyle [the founder of Homeboy Industries] who really accepted us and wanted to help on the movie because—he read the whole script—but there was a scene in which the little girls are singing karaoke to their gang member uncles, and to Father Boyle it's very important to show the most despised and most dehumanized are actually people with families and with lives. The key to portraying gangs here was not to have people unloading gats at each other and making cocaine deals. It was showing that these are ordinary people who are in very, very difficult circumstances and reach a kind of state of despair. That gang family is a family of people who have said "Eff this. I'm clearly not going to make it in straight society. I'm not getting what's promised to me and the cops don't care and the schools don't care so all there is for me is the gang, is the barrio."
This film is an updated take on the 1948 neo-realist film The Bicycle Thief, and when I watch that movie, I see it through the perspective of a broke, desperate Italy rebuilding from World War II. But this is 2011 America and people are still living one step away from disaster.
I read this thing that William Gibson [author of Neuromancer] said: that the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed. But I think that the past and barbarity are here, but it's unevenly distributed. It's very easy for people who live on the west side of LA to not realize just how savage the life situation can be for some kids growing up in East LA. Also, the world of the undocumented immigrant, which is a world invisible to us partly because it's convenient for us not to look at it and partly because they don't want to be singled out. The reason I think that the lead character Carlos finds it so difficult to make what we think is an obvious no-brainer decision to buy the truck, to say "Here's your chance at the American Dream," is he's not only taking a financial risk but he's afraid of sticking his head out and being seen. And I've spoken to people who have come up to me after screenings and they say, "I was illegal for 13 years, I'm legalized now. I just want to tell you that that sense of fear is genuine." We're not amping up the sense of living under the constant pressure of being discovered.
Like that isolation Carlos feels when his truck is stolen and though he sees a cop car, he knows he can't go get help. People who don't grow up in that tension would say, "Why wouldn't you go get police help?" That's when you really get it: that little pause when he stares at the cop car and he can't walk forward.
There is nothing he can do. The inception of the whole movie idea was Paul Witt, one of our producers, 20 years ago a friend of his, the gardener had his truck stolen and the friend said, "Well you have to go to the police." And the gardener said, "You don't understand, I can't do this." Consider also that these are guys who come from a culture where you can't trust the police for anything. In fact in Los Angeles—I think it's Special Order 40 of the LADP—it means, in theory, that if you get police to help you on one thing, they can't necessarily report your information to the I.N.S. But that's not a risk that you really want to take. Actually, there's no I.N.S. anymore, it's the I.C.E.
I've never heard of that rule, so I wouldn't be surprised if people probably don't even know it.
Right, and people see it as a trick. Undocumented immigrants pay something like $25 billion in taxes, but don't generally utilize social services for the same reason: that they don't want to get caught.
Your grandmother immigrated from Mexico. How different is immigrating here today?
I think that the same pressures are in effect from poor to rich. The poor try to migrate to the wealthier countries, and anybody would do it to try to help their family. I think the big difference is something changed very significantly after 9/11. Border security became a big marquee issue and as a result the increased vigilance at the border hasn't led to there being fewer immigrants—it's led to more people dying in the desert. So I think it has become harder, if anything. The difference is it's more difficult.
People are making psychic predictions interpreting the numerology of Summit Entertainment releasing A Better Life at the same time they released The Hurt Locker. You're entering awards season before you've even had your premiere. Does that make you nervous?
That we've had that kind of response is fantastic because we're a movie about a Mexican gardener with no stars, so to get that kind of consideration is fantastic and exciting. At the same time, one has to ignore that because the movie has to make its money back and it's much more important that it do its job of opening up a window on to some people's lives-which amounts to the same thing as box office in a funny sort of way. We've got a rough road ahead. On June 24 we open on four screens so like a tiny little house plant, we're going to have to grow bigger and bigger. We don't have a hype machine other than word-of-mouth critical reception, and in a way that's nice because it's completely fitting with the spirit of the movie. It's kind of like the little guy that gains strength from support. It's really cool to get any kind of awards buzz, but I've been to that dance before and it's a long, long road.
Your last film, New Moon, people were obsessed with any leaks they could get. And now you're like, "Hey, guys over here!"
Completely. [Laughs] Well it's funny, it's funny. When we did our European press tour for New Moon, the final place on the tour was at the Munich Olympic stadium with 25,000 screaming fans. I felt like, not even Ringo Starr, but the Beatles' manager. I was along for this crazy ride of super enthusiasm, and this is entirely different. Yeah, I would love it if there were that same degree of fanaticism, but I'm still a realist. In a funny way, this is the biggest story I've ever told, but it's told very simply. I actually kind of like going out on the stump for it. I feel very proud of the movie and I feel very proud of the work the crew and cast did, so although these circumstances are entirely different and we don't have things handed to us on a plate, still it's fun to show it to people and let them discover it. They don't feel like they've been force-fed anything. People see a movie with a guy that they probably haven't seen before and they come to care about him by the end of it.
When I look over your resume—American Pie, About a Boy, Golden Compass, New Moon—
I can barely see a through line. Can you see one?
Empathy for the perverse. [Laughs] I generally do things because I'm taken by some kind of aspect, personally. First of all, we did American Pie because they let us do it. It was an amazing experience to be able to direct our first film. About A Boy fits into another part of my life. I had grown up in England part of the time and understood the kind of slang and state of mind, and it was also about gloominess and depression which seemed to preoccupy me. With Golden Compass, it wasn't that I wanted to make a big-ass film it was just that I love Phillip Pullman [author of the original novel], I love his guts. So About A Boy and Golden Compass were both about my reading habits and then New Moon, I really liked Kristen Stewart. I think she's amazing and I thought it was like a blank slate for me to work on. I knew people would go see it and that was fantastic and that we could do all kinds of lovely artistic things to it, which is where I met Javier Aguirresarobe [cinematographer of New Moon, Eclipse and A Better Life] and I was able to work with composer Alexandre Desplat again and that was great. You know, I try to zig and zag as much as possible which is kind of problematic if you're trying to become a marquee director. No one really knows what the hell you're doing and why, but that's okay.
I feel like your first couple of films after American Pie, you were saying, "Yes, I directed American Pie—now look what else I can do." But now, it almost seems like American Pie is the oddball.
I know, it's funny. After all this time, now it's like, "You did what?" Which is what we always intended. I think my brother and I both, the last thing we wanted to do was another teen comedy or sex comedy. I think we both just tried to stay moving targets and have acquired a skill set in the meanwhile. That's a horrible phrase, "skill set." I've learned how to do some things. I know about directing CGI. Actually, it's probably changing very quickly right now.
Golden Compass must seem like Claymation already.
Completely! I'm now Ray Harryhausen! But I can do that kind of thing which is sort of like making two movies at once. It's heavily logistic-oriented, and this film was really logistical as well in a different way because we shot 69 locations throughout Los Angeles in 38 days. And we're breaking an unknown in his first movie and we're working in two different languages.
How good is your Spanish now, by the way?
Um, "Poco un poco, mejorando." [Laughs] It's getting better. I had hopes I could actually conduct an interview in Spanish when the Mexican release is going to be and I'm trying my best. I have two lessons a week and I try to get better. I can bitch about movies in Spanish because you hang around a Spanish-speaking crew, you learn what people complain about like, "Why is this taking so long? You're killing me. What time is lunch?" The kinds of things that you say, I can now say them in Spanish. But it's getting better and it's gotten to a point where there's a stickiness to it. Now that I'm 41, my brain is not as nice and spongy as it used to be when I was a kid.
Are you annoyed at your parents for not teaching you Spanish? Do they have a good excuse?
They have the excuse of this society at the time of the late '60s, early '70s when two languages was considered confusing to a child's mental processes. Actually, I was just reading a few days ago that it helps stave off the onset of Alzheimer's and it's great for your brain in any number of ways. It was all Dr. Spock. You were not supposed to have a child who is socially ostracized or confused in their mind as to what something is called.
Your own son is a lot younger than the son in this film, but were there any moments in the script and during the shooting that really hit home for you as someone with a son that will someday be a teenager?
Absolutely. I think it's the question of "Why did you have me?" How are you going to justify bringing someone in this world. Once you do, you have a responsibility to express to them that the world can be a really good place and that you think you would do anything for them. It's why the name of the movie was changed from The Gardener to A Better Life. That's the phrase you hear again and again from immigrants and from the children of immigrants. And also, I fed in some stuff from my childhood. That song they sing, the little nonsense song, was a song that my father-in-law used to sing to my son.
Like Carlos in A Better Life who works all the time, directors have a reputation for not being home a lot. How do you wrestle with that?
I can wrestle with it by taking a long break. And of course I have writing to fall back on. And the great thing about this movie was that it was shot in LA so that Sebastian and my wife were on-set quite a bit and I was able to go home every day, so it really wasn't that sort of jarring experience that you usually have. Our son was born during the post-production of The Golden Compass and he was in Vancouver while we were shooting New Moon so he's kind of grown up on movie sets. That's been my answer to it: for him to come with us. But I think that now is the time to really reconsider carefully whether to shoot a film in Bulgaria. It's not worth it from an emotional point of view.
So, who cuts your grass, anyway?
Who cuts my grass? Our employee, Alex, cuts our grass and he has a guy called Lako who is the equivalent of Carlos in this movie. The guy who you don't talk to, but the gardener talks to. Lako did not speak Spanish when he came to Los Angeles. He spoke Nahuatl, which is one of the indigenous dialects. People are coming here from Honduras, El Salvador—there are so many indigenous languages being spoken. In the Central American flophouse that we go to in the movie, people are speaking K'iche, which sounds like something out of the Star Wars cantina. Alex has taken his revenge on us for exploiting him by giving us two chickens who've consumed a large amount of our worldly wealth in maintaining them. Adeedeedee and Bididedoe, named by my son. They're Bantam chickens and I think the price per egg is getting into the hundreds just because they've have veterinarian visits and they poop in the house.
Like a literal white elephant gift. How did you find the locations for the film?
It was completely well researched by Eric Eason, our screenwriter, and second we had an exceptional location manager, Fermin Davalos, who we just put through the ringer in terms of finding something that hadn't been shot before and getting in with the local residents in such a way that you're not offending them—that they're onboard. Also, very important, was getting the help of the Homeboys and Hector Verdugo who grew up in Ramona Gardens. That's really why we ended up in Ramona Gardens in Boyle Heights and because we were able to know people who came to the neighborhood. People understood what we were trying to do and the local housing council was fine with us being there—and actually, Carlos' house is in real space relation to Ramona Gardens. So you see we have a shot of the distance between his house and the housing complex which is really cool. That's just a happy accident.
Are you steeled for the Rush Limbaughs to say, "Look at this overly sympathetic portrait!"
Yes. A bit. I mean, certainly we're not trying to provoke a response, although it would be one way to market the movie—to scandalize people on one side of the immigration argument.
The Machete strategy.
Right, but I think it's also fair to people who work at detention centers. We were very careful about doing our research in terms of how things are done, how people behave, what the procedures are. Really everyone in it has their own job to do. An interesting thing is that a lot of the cops and a lot of the immigration officers you meet are actually Latino. In some ways, I don't know, maybe scandal would be a benefit to us. For one reason or another, I don't really want to raise the red flag. I think it's so much about good things. It's why people want to be in America and want to be legal and that it's a good thing to be here. Carlos is an honorable, church-going, very respectable man. And if we're sympathetic to him, it's because you can't turn a camera on somebody without being sympathetic to them.
It's striking in the detention center when you make a point of showing that his fellow inmates aren't all Latino—that this isn't just a problem for one region.
No. There are Somalian immigrants, there are Chinese immigrants, there are some really dangerous guys who are were produced as children of the civil wars in Honduras and El Salvador. Actually, the only fake gangster, the only non-gangster actor is the guy who he encounters at the detention center because there is no way that we ever wanted to—or could get—an MS-13 member to play that part.
We live in an MS-13 neighborhood, but where they house their moms. It's tagged, but actually safer than you would think.
Where do you live?
By Paramount Studios, a couple of blocks away.
I was mugged there. Maybe I had the honor of being mugged by an MS-13.
They tagged our driveway a couple of months ago. If they would like to tell people, "Don't mess with this house," then that's fine. It's a surprisingly friendly neighborhood.
I think there's one level when people are at war and another level where they are just living their lives. When you see guys in the movie who are supposed to be from the neighborhood and who are all tatted up at the beginning of the film, those were guys who we cast at Homeboys because at first we did some casting for gang members using regular actors and understandably there were delivering received notions of what gang members act like. The guy who plays Ruthy's knucklehead cousin, Marcelo, is Richard Cabral who has gone through the system at Homeboy Industries and so he knows what that's kind of all about. He's got tattoos up to his jawline.
Once you're tattooed, it's like you cross that threshold and are publicly saying "I'm part of this forever."
You're giving up ownership of part of your body and the sheer territory that these guys cover in tattoos is extraordinary. So one of the things that Homeboys does is offer tattoo removal service because tattoos can prevent people from being hired—and also, a lot of people don't want their children to see them if they decide to leave the gang life, and they don't want to get shot for something that's written on their bodies.
When you were shooting New Moon, did you think about how on earth you would shoot the birth scene if you had to?
[Laughs] No, I wasn't because I knew that I wasn't going to do Eclipse and I thought, "No way can I figure this one out." I thought, "Well who could do it? David Cronenberg?" I have no idea how they've managed to get around all of that. I would imagine, you know, since I'm a coward it would be a lot of quick cutting, dissolve-y misdirection. I don't know. It's a tough one. I'm not sure how I would have figured that out.
You've gotten pretty much got the entire band back together for American Reunion: Tara Reid, Chris Klein, Seann William Scott, Alyson Hannigan, Jason Biggs, Mena Suvari. Is it different working everyone now? Are they different?
I'm just having a look at the script and I think it's really good. My brother said he went to a table reading and it was really lovely to see everyone, which is nice because you would hope that years later people are cordial and friendly and happy. I did see Natasha Lyonne, who had gone through a really rough time last year and is doing really a lot better. It was great to see her. We ran into each other at Starbucks.
That cast has had a lot of troubles.
The Curse of American Pie. I've seen that on the internet. It's kind of the curse of Hollywood more than anything.