Exclusive: A Better Life Director Chris Weitz

Chris Weitz began his directing career with the raunchy teen comedy American Pie, co-directed with his brother Paul, followed by Chris Rock’s Down to Earth and Hugh Grant’s popular favorite About a Boy. After the two decided to go off on their own to do separate projects, Chris directed the fantasy epic The Golden Compass, a movie that many claimed to have brought the demise of New Line as a separate entity, which was in turn countered with The Twilight Saga: New Moon, a movie that holds the record as the third-highest opening movie of all time.

Less than two years ago, when Weitz was doing interviews for the “Twilight” sequel, he told reporters that he was going to make a movie called “The Gardener” and that would be his last movie as a director. That movie’s been completed and been renamed A Better Life. It’s a significantly smaller film that tells the story of a Mexican gardener named Carlos Galindo, played by Demian Bichir (“Weeds”), living as an unregistered immigrant in California and trying to earn a living to support himself and his son Luis (newcomer José Julián). He saves up enough money to buy a truck to start his own gardening business but when something happens to it, Carlos is put in a position where he has to get it back without the help of the authorities.

It’s a really strong dramatic film, mostly in Spanish and with no known names or faces, which isn’t the type of movie you normally see from an established Hollywood director, making it a huge departure for Weitz as well.

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with the filmmaker earlier this week to talk about why he decided to make the film.

ComingSoon.net: I understand that this was something that Paul Witt (the producer) had wanted to do for a long time…
Chris Weitz:
Yeah, for 20 years.

CS: Did it have a script that long ago or was it just an idea he had that he was sitting on for that long?
Weitz:
Well, Paul Witt–I think it was actually over 20 years ago now–his friend’s gardener had his truck stolen, and the friend said, “We’ve got to go to the police” and he said, “You don’t understand, I can’t do it,” and Paul realized there’s this little world of people who can’t do that sort of thing. Roger Simon wrote the very first draft I think, and then it went through any number of iterations over the intervening 20 years until Eric Eason wrote the latest version, which I thought was absolutely brilliant, so somewhere in a vault in the Writer’s Guild are God knows how many copies of scripts that for one reason or another didn’t come together. I guess with independent films or smaller films, that’s what happens. It just doesn’t happen until it does. It’s really gratifying to see Paul’s movie come together.

CS: With which version of the script did you come on board and decided to do it? Did you join up after Eric wrote his draft?
Weitz:
After Eric. Christian McLaughlin, one of the producers, had been working with Eric on the script and Eric’s script was just exceptional. It was just the best thing I’d ever read I think, and that’s when I came on.

CS: It’s amazing how timely it still feels even though it had gone through so many writers. It’s a little disturbing that things haven’t changed in that amount of time and that there’s still people out there that can face something like this and not be able to get help because they’re illegal.
Weitz:
They may never change, and furthermore, this is sort of a global thing. Anytime there’s a rich country, people from a poor country will want to go to it for what it offers. It’s especially poignant in the case of America, where fairness actually does come into it. We’re supposed to be fair here, and these people are pursuing happiness for themselves, but also for their families, and in fact, it’s a much more fair system than a lot of undocumented immigrants think. There are people who do not employ public services that they could because they’re afraid they’re going to get reported when they won’t. There are people who should be measured on the census, there are people who can go to the hospital if they’re injured, but who don’t.

CS: I’m sure one of the first or second questions you’re asked is how do you go from such big movies like “Twilight” and “The Golden Compass” to a smaller movie like this. Had you been working on “New Moon” already when you found out about this? Was that a deliberate counterpoint to doing “Twilight” where you wanted to do something smaller?
Weitz:
I do try to change things up as much as possible. I don’t want to get pigeon-holed as any type of director. I’m only ruled by the next good thing that comes along, so I’d done two kind of big movies in a row. It was time to do something smaller in scale, but in a weird way, to me this is a bigger film, in terms of its emotional content and potential impact. But I had decided to do “A Better Life” and then I realized, “Oh, boy, I have an infant son and I have a mortgage” and “New Moon” came along to kind of save my bacon, which is not to say that I didn’t love working on it, because I did. So that sort of intervened and I had to ask Christian and Paul to be patient with me while I went away and did that, and it turned out to be a good decision because I think Summit was happy with how I executed “New Moon” and trusted me on this one.

CS: I talk to so many actors who do the big movies to be able to earn enough money so they can do the smaller movies. It’s kind of interesting but you don’t really see many directors doing that. There are some who go between dramas and documentaries but not going from huge-scale movies to ones that are personal and emotional. This one is mostly in Spanish, but it feels like you had a good handle on it. If I’d seen this movie not knowing who directed it, I’d be really amazed anyway.
Weitz:
(laughs) I always like when that happens. When we showed “About a Boy” to a British audience at a test screening, somebody in the audience said, “This is a really good British film” and I felt very, very good about that, because I like to be adaptable, but for us, maybe we do the big film/little film thing less because as directors, we spend one or two years on a project, and so we can’t bounce around quite as often. When you look back on classic directors, that’s what Howard Hawks would do, that kind of thing. He moved between comedies, Westerns, all kinds of stuff, but for me, there’s this sort of attitude of “one for them and one for me.” I don’t really feel that way. I feel like it’s all for all of us. I never go into a movie with a cynical notion of what I’m doing. I’ve never been a sort of gigging director. I really wouldn’t want to be. While it seems after “New Moon” that the world is my oyster and I could just make another of them and get my Gulfstream G4, whatever, there was never a question in my mind that I was going to do what became “A Better Life.”

CS: I was really impressed with the casting because I think if you really wanted to, you could have gone with Antonio Banderas or Benicio Del Toro or Javier Bardem. There’s a lot of great Spanish actors and this was a good script and a great part, and you instead went with Demian Bichir who is just amazing. I don’t know if Oliver Stone saw your movie but I’d like to believe that he did his performance in “A Better Life” and said “I need to cast this guy in my movie.”
Weitz:
Um… you can believe that he saw the movie. I was happy to arrange for that, because I think that Demian is a fantastic actor. He’s a world-class actor. With some of the other guys you’re mentioning–Benicio Del Toro or Javier Bardem or various other choices–I think that the moment you see those people, you associate them with movies you’ve already seen, and you immediately think, “Well that guy is going to be fine” or on some level, there’s a resilience to the impact that a star has already made in your mind that makes it harder to believe that he is the guy on the street corner. Now Demian is a big star in Mexico and in Mexico, it would be a different proposition, we’d be casting a star. Here, he’s less known and I used that to my advantage.

CS: Because he’s such a big star in Mexico – I don’t know how much time he’s spent in Hollywood, but was he able to spend some time with real gardeners or immigrants? Or was he too well known amongst Mexicans to just walk up to someone on the street to ask questions for research?
Weitz:
I mean he will often get noticed, but when he was preparing for this role, he put on 20 pounds and he looked quite different, and he has an apartment here in L.A. and he would go up to gardening crews and say, “Can I work with you for the day?” and he would ask the guy in the crew who climbs the trees, “How do you do that?” He learned how to do that. He stopped a guy at a red light and bought his truck for him for I think 2,000 bucks, so he was willing to go there and do the research and not just the research, but to live in the clothes of the character, to an exemplary degree, which was really great.

CS: I was really impressed with his tree-climbing, because the way you filmed it, it was really obvious it was him and not a stuntman.
Weitz:
Yeah, that’s him. There’s a continuous shot that of course we didn’t use, we cut into it, of just him climbing the tree. That’s a kick to climb a tree like that (laughs).

CS: Did you give it a try yourself?
Weitz:
I did, on account of a low-level stunt, I want to know what it’s like for the actor to do it so I know it is that I’m asking them to get into, so that I’m not asking too much of them and so I understand what is going on in their minds while I’m asking to do this sort of performance. So that was fun. You get to wear these cool spikes that you strap to the side of your legs.

CS: What about José, because he’s kind of the new guy? Was this fairly much a mix of characters actors who had been around or did you do a lot of auditioning to find non-actors who might not be so known?
Weitz:
It was a really intriguing mix. We had three actors: there’s Demian, there’s Joaquin Cosio and Delores Heredia, all the characters who are speaking only in Spanish and are actors from Mexico who are very big in their own country. And we had a newcomer like José, who was just kind of a natural, who got to our auditions by taking three buses and three hours to get there, three hours to get home, and who had grown up in East L.A and was just a natural. We also cast ex-gang members from Homeboy Industries, which is this gang intervention program in East L.A. and Richard Cabral, the guy who plays Marcelo, the main gang member who we deal with, is an ex-gang member, and very talented to boot.

CS: I’ve always been impressed with your track record with finding young actors. Nicholas Hoult is now getting a lot of bigger leading roles…
Weitz:
I know! It’s fantastic to see that.

CS: Also, the “American Pie” kids have been very busy over the years since then. When you look at someone like José, does he just jump out as someone who is like the role you need him for or did he actually have a desire to be an actor?
Weitz:
Oh, yeah. He wants to be an actor but he’d only been in school plays and stuff until then. He, I imagine, wants to be a director eventually. He’s kind of a cineaste. He’ll text me and say, “I’ve been watching Oliver Stone movies all weekend.” He means he’s watched every Oliver Stone movie. I’m kind of blown away by his attention to detail sometimes. He’s a very, very smart kid. I could imagine him being kind of a male Hispanic Jodie Foster. He starts as a kid actor, develops a real career and ends up in directing.

CS: How do you approach a movie like this differently than some of the big epics you’ve done recently?
Weitz:
I think it took a real sense of letting go of a lot of control and humility on my part, because I knew there’d be many things that I didn’t understand and I had to listen to other people. I had to listen to Father Boyle from Homeboy Industries and Hector Verdugo, his second-in-command. I had to listen to the guys who’d come in out of the gangs to tell me about how things happened, how they talked. I listened to the kids from Legacy L.A., which is an afterschool program. We gave them the script and said, “What do you think of this? Where did we get the language wrong?” We had to approach the neighborhoods in which we were shooting with a real degree of respect, not only because it was the best way to get done what we needed to get done, which was to shoot in a fluid fashion in these neighborhoods. But also because there was no point making a movie about the lives of these people while not showing respect in how we were making it.

CS: Did you generally work with a smaller crew than normal? I mean, smaller than “Twilight” anyway.
Weitz:
No, it was a full-on Hollywood crew, but it was a mostly bilingual crew with a lot of Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans. Our DP is Spanish, and so it was a bilingual set. I had to learn Spanish as quickly as possible. I’m still learning. And it was a regular size crew and part of the reason we were able to do that was because people were happy to take less than they might be able to get elsewhere, because they could go home at night.

CS: As far as working in Spanish, I assume you had a script that had both Spanish and English next to each other, but how do you know you’re getting the performances you need without sacrificing the accuracy of the language?
Weitz:
I knew the dialogue in Spanish cold, but at the same time, I had to free up the Mexican actors in our cast to do what felt natural to them, and dialect Mexican or “modismos” is different from the standard Spanish that you would learn if you had a Spanish tutor or in school. It’s spoken much more quickly, a lot of the words are very clipped, there are all kinds of slang words and jargon that you wouldn’t necessarily know and again, I had to trust my actors that they knew where the scene was going, that they knew what the point of it was, and that they were going to maintain the proper tone. I think that actually helped, for the Mexican actors to be able to absorb it into what would be the correct pattern of speech for a given scene.

CS: And you were able to get Alexandre Desplat to do the score, who I’m sure is super-busy, probably even moreso than when you worked with him on “The Golden Compass.” How did that work out? Did he give you a discount to do it on the budget you had for this movie?
Weitz:
He did it out of love of the script, I think and out of friendship, and he did it remarkably quickly for the results that came out. Basically, it ended up with me and Alexandre at his studio in Paris kind of sitting together and getting caffeinated and Alexandre playing these beautiful themes. I was listening to it again last night to see if I wasn’t crazy, and I’m not biased. I know it’s one of my favorites of his work. I think it’s beautiful, beautiful work. And then we went to Abbey Road and had the London Symphony Orchestra record, but every single cue had to be done in a day. Now these are amazing musicians and they only needed one or two passes at it. We had an incredible opportunity there.

CS: So where do you go from here? Back when you were doing interviews for “New Moon,” I remember you saying that this would be your last movie and that’s it.
Weitz:
I was hoping to get people to go into some sort of mourning, but nobody cared. (laughs)

CS: After doing this movie, has it regenerated and rejuvenated you into trying to do more movies on this scale and some of the stuff you did back when you were first starting?
Weitz:
Well, possibly yes. Again, it all depends on what the next thing I see that I can’t not direct. That’s sort of what does it for me. I don’t have slots that are going to be filled, and I’m able to do that fortunately, because I can still write, so I can put food on the table and wait for the next thing that I can find undeniable. And right now, I’m burnt out on the directing side of it, and I also see my first obligation of delivering this movie to the public rather than thinking about what I’m going to direct next. So I got nothing, I got nothing on my plate right now.

CS: What about as a producer? You produced “A Single Man” which was amazing…
Weitz:
Thank you.

CS: Are you involved with “American Reunion” at all?
Weitz:
I’m kind of an absentee landlord on that one. They’ve got Chris Moore and they’ve got Craig Perry and they’re running it just fine. I’ve seen some dailies and they look great actually, it looks fantastic. I think it’s going to be really, really good, but as producer, we’re always looking for the same sort of thing. Whatever’s good, no matter how quirky it is. “A Single Man” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” are different movies but I like it that way.

A Better Life opens in select cities on Friday, June 24.

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