By Jennice Fuentes
Ahhhh…first impressions can be so much fun. If Superman was among us but, instead of earning a living as a “mild mannered reporter” he was earning a living as a movie director who dabbled in acting he would look and come across just like the tall, smart, elegant and slightly mysterious Chris Weitz. This is a compliment and the truest first impression this writer got when she had the chance to sit down with Weitz recently to talk about his latest movie, A Better Life.
When he is not channeling Clark Kent, Weitz is a Writer/Director who specializes in challenging convention: he last directed The Twilight Saga: New Moon and previously adapted and directed, the Oscar®-winning epic fantasy adventure The Golden Compass. With his brother Paul Weitz he also co-directed the award-winning hit film About a Boy and not long before that he confirmed he could do comedy by directing American Pie, the phenomenally successful first installment of the PIE franchise. After swinging his pendulum far and wide, Weitz has now decided to swing away in the entirely opposite direction with A Better Life, his newest film.
A Better Life is a small budget, independent production that tells a poignant, multi-generational story about Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir) an undocumented immigrant who is willing to make every kind of sacrifice to build a better life for his child (Jose Julian). The movie, which opened this weekend to strong reviews, even carries a bit of an Oscar buzz with its leading man, the Mexican actor Demian Bichir, being rumored as a possible Oscar contender. Not bad for a small, unassuming and modest film.
And how does this new independent venture compare to those studio wonders he has directed in the past? Weitz lets out a huge smile before he responds, “It was an amazing experience. It’s still moving for me to watch it with an audience. To see the way it affects audiences it’s really gratifying.” In fact, Weitz expresses surprise when anything comes out the way it’s supposed to. ”When all the cylinders are firing and when the audience is involved that is a great experience for me.”
And this movie about an undocumented mixed-status family, where the single dad does not have papers but the son is a U.S. citizen, speaks to him on a personal level. Although his name may fool you, Weitz is the grandson of Mexican actress Lupita Tovar and being married to a Latina, makes him pretty much a Latino by blood and marriage. But his identification with the immigrant experience is hardly only anchored in his Hispanic heritage. “My dad was a refugee from Nazi Germany. This country meant everything to him…restoring his status as a first class citizen”.
But in spite of Weitz’ immigrant family history, he still describes having had a “sort of awakening” when he first read the script (by Eric Eason based on a story by Roger Simon). While he understands that the immigration issue has a lot of complexities and involves a question of fairness, he still admits that “there has been various stages of understanding” on the issue. For instance, half way through the making of this film the Arizona law (SB1070, signed by Governor Jan Brewer on 2010) came into effect and this affected his bilingual crew in ways that surprised him. ”A lot of people with undocumented people in their family were affected by this and to see the situation was pretty extraordinary.” On the other hand, he also has Jan Brewer to thank for when he realized that while he could not afford to stage a protest he needed to shoot for a montage piece, there were plenty of anti-Arizona protests going on in downtown L.A. so his production values did not have to be compromised. By shooting a real protest prompted by the Arizona law, he got the shot he needed for the movie basically for free. For a movie with a slender $10 million budget shot on 69 different locations (including Ramona Gardens and East L.A.) in 39 days, this protest was a true gift.
And since everything in life is pretty much about timing, Weitz honestly believes that his younger self, the guy who was busy directing American Pie and acting in Chuck and Buck may have not been all that interested in the immigration issue 10 years ago. “I have a 4 year-old son now and once that happens you start to realize that it’s not just about yourself and there are people for whom you have a responsibility and given the same circumstances you would do exactly the same thing that people do across the border. Send money back to their family or raise their family in a free country with such opportunities”
Weitz admits that his preparation for the movie did involved many challenges, which mostly centered on education. Self-education. He started learning Spanish, which this writer tested and can vouch for. He also did research on gang members and life in East Los Angeles. ”I was fortunate to meet Father Gregory Boyle (and Homeboy Industries), which opened the world of East L.A. for me.” Father G and his close connection to the production left a lasting impact on Weitz and impacted his portrayal of gang members. “You never see a gun brandished, drugs being sold…we happen to show the family side of their lives…the times when they are human beings.”
Now that he has all this new knowledge, does it surprise him that our immigration system is so screwed up? ”What’s surprising to me is how unwilling people are to take an honest look at things. For me, there is a reason why the last big immigration reform was done under a Republican government and that is because business wants people to work for low wages”. Weitz is also not willing to believe haters and naysayers who accuse immigrants of taking jobs away from American workers. ”The fact of the matter is that these people prop up the economy”. Clearly, he has done his homework.
So is a career as an activist in the present and future for this Cambridge educated Writer/Actor/Producer? In a very firm voice Weitz addresses this issue head on, “I had a turning point two days ago, actually. I was getting very worried about this weekend’s box office but I decided that there is only so much I can do in that regard and if I am really going to stay true to what I’m saying I need to take this film around to people who may not be able to afford to see it… If you make a film about an issue and you expect people to respond strongly you actually have a responsibility to pursue the issues you are setting forth”.
Now, if only elected officials had that kind of conviction, laws would be passed, budgets would be approved, the immigration issue would be resolved and the country would run much better. Heck if the Terminator can become the Governator… Chris Weitz for office, anyone?