Director sounds off on 'A Better Life'

Chris Weitz’s body of work as producer and director is nothing if not eclectic, encompassing such diverse work as “American Pie,” “About a Boy,” “The Golden Compass” and “New Moon.” With “A Better Life,” now out in limited release, he’s taken yet another direction, helming a low-budget ($10 million) father-son drama set in the shadowy world of L.A.’s community of illegal immigrants.

The pic languished in various script forms for 20 years. It was only after Weitz read the script as he was coming off the hugely successful “New Moon” that he was able to persuade Summit Entertainment to back the project. “They originally had a smaller notion of the budget than I or the rest of our producers did,” said Weitz. But the issues were eventually resolved and the film was greenlit.

“I have a lot of dumb luck as far as these things go,” said Weitz.”Once we finished our financing, the film started rolling.” He spoke to Variety’s Inside Production editor Peter Caranicas.

Peter Caranicas: What attracted you to such a different project?

Chris Weitz: I try to stay a moving target and be something different each time. I’ve done comedy, CGI movies, stuff adapted from novels, but for this I wanted to do something at home (in L.A.) with a Hispanic theme. My mom speaks fluent Spanish, my grandmother is Mexican, my wife speaks Spanish. Also, my dad was an immigrant and refugee.

PC: Talk about the shoot and the style.

CW: We worked with a bilingual crew at 69 different locations in the L.A. area, shooting on 35mm film. We wanted a more classical, composed look, not a video, handheld feel. But we used a 1:85 aspect ratio rather than the most widescreen format because the film is on a more human scale. It’s not so much about the landscape as about the people.

PC: How did you find all the locations?

CW: I worked with (production designer) Melissa Stewart and with location manager Fermin Davalos. He’s Hispanic, speaks Spanish, and brought a lot of love to it. He was able to deal with local people not used to filming in their neighborhoods. He used finesse and diplomacy. The important triangle for a location-heavy movie like this one is the director, the production designer and the location manager. Melissa’s purview is the entire look and the physical structure of the film. I think we came up with an extraordinarily authentic portrait of Los Angeles. In finding locations, it wasn’t about settling for the perceived notions, the first options; it was about looking and looking till things felt right.

PC: Did you work with local organizations?

CW: We were guided by Homeboy Industries, an East L.A. gang intervention program led by father Greg Boyle. They helped us find what we were looking for.

PC: So you used local neighborhood people as extras?

CW: All but one of the gang members you see in the detention center were ex-gang members we met by doing an open casting call at Homeboy Industries.

PC: How easy is it to cast local people?

CW: It’s hard in a place like East L.A. because some of the people don’t have papers. It’s also hard to cast children. A kid who would love to be in the movie might say, “I wanna ride my bike around,” and it’s hard to explain that labor laws prevents them from doing that.

PC: How did you find your cast?

CW: Demián Bichir, the lead actor, is a big star in Mexico. In the U.S. he’s been seen on “Weeds” and elsewhere. He has a tremendous presence and dramatic chops. José Julián, who plays his son, is a 16-year-old kid who was recommended by one of our casting agents. He grew up in East L.A. and knows that life.

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