The New York filmmaker discusses the universal power of parental love for his new film A Better Life.
Chris Weitz, director of New Moon and The Golden Compass, returns to more intimate drama in A Better Life, the story of a father and son living in the Hispanic community of East Los Angeles. He told LWLies recently about the appeal of human stories and why the theme of parental love is universal.
LWLies: A Better Life has a very specific sense of place, the East LA neighbourhoods where gardener Carlos (Demian Bichir) and his teenage son Luis (Jose Julian) try to make ends meet. Do you think it will appeal to audiences elsewhere too?
Weitz: I think it will travel. Sometimes the more specific you get with a story, the more universal it actually becomes. The film is about the love of a father for his son and the sacrifices he makes, and tangentially it's also about the immigration questions which always arise when a richer nation and a poorer nation sit within striking distance of each other. Both of those themes are actually true globally, no matter where you are.
Did you initiate the project as a response to your bigger-budget films, or did it come to you?
This story come to me, and it hit home. A first version of this movie was put together 20 years ago and then went through various incarnations, but could never get made. Then three years ago writer Eric Eason did a version that I read and was very moved by. I thought it was the best piece of writing I had seen in 20 years, and it was very hard to not want to do that.
Does being a part of the Twilight franchise give you more freedom to make smaller films like A Better Life?
In this case it wasn't really a quid pro quo. Summit Entertainment, who are behind the Twilight films, agreed to be involved in A Better Life despite a guarantee from me that I was not going to be doing another vampire film. But Patrick Wachsberger, one of the heads of Summit, started out working in foreign film distribution and is someone who loves film, and he took this project up. To some extent the company found themselves suddenly pregnant with this accidental baby, but my hat is off to them for doing it.
Did you learn more about the immigrant experience in East LA through making this film?
I certainly got to know a part of my city, and as a result my country, that I had not known before. America is a lot less homogeneous than outsiders think, and there are worlds within worlds within worlds. Many US cities have well-defined immigrant communities, but the difference about Los Angeles is that the city was constructed for the automobile and there is no actual requirement for any interaction between individuals. So people in LA are very alienated from one another, and in many cases happy to be so. They don't actually want to think about the life of the guy who takes away their dishes at a restaurant, because if they do it might make them feel bad, or think twice about the things they say in church.
Your main character is played by Mexican actor Demian Bichir, who is not only terrific but also looks quite unlike he did when playing Fidel Castro in Che.
He is brilliant, and a huge star in his home country. He brought a tremendous gravity to the role while also being a less recognisable face to a mainstream American audience, so they could discover his life and character for themselves and not deal with baggage brought in from having seen him before. And he is also a chameleon, putting on 20 or 30 pounds in weight for A Better Life to make himself look older and give the impression of having been through a rough life. If you were to meet him today, you would find that in fact he is very svelte and suave.
Although it is an urban story, the film features some beautiful cinematography and a lush orchestral score. Why did you take this approach to the film?
Our interest was in making a beautiful film, rather than a gritty one with close-ups of rats crawling along alleyways or that kind of thing. Both the director of photography and the composer are Europeans taking a foreigner's view of the story. Javier Aguirresarobe is a wonderful cinematographer, completely free of the standard cultural overtones that stick with an audience after years of exposure to Los Angeles on TV and in other films. And Alexandre Desplat is simply one of the great film composers. This story is actually an epic story but told in very small details, and the music brings the universality of what happens to Carlos and Luis and the love between parent and child to the fore. By the time you get to the final shot of the film, the composer has really taken over.