It’s impossible to watch Chris Weitz’s transcendent new film, “A Better Life,” without wondering about the struggles of every immigrant laborer in Los Angeles. The drama — which will premiere this month at the Los Angeles Film Festival before hitting theaters June 24 — spotlights the heroic, if quiet, travails of a Mexican illegal immigrant gardener to eke out a living and to keep his teenage son out of the gang culture. Entertainment Weekly has already suggested that the film, which Summit Entertainment will release essentially in the same slot as its Oscar-winner “The Hurt Locker,” could be the first awards movie of 2011.
The lengths to which gardener Carlos Galindo (Mexican star Demián Bichir of “Che” and “Weeds”) will go to achieve that goal is evident from the beginning of the film, which depicts his exhausting days toiling for clients in affluent suburbs, only to return to his one-bedroom home in Boyle Heights so drained that he falls asleep, fully clothed, on the couch.
His son Luis (José Julián), who gets the bedroom, scorns his father’s dronelike existence and looks up to the gang leaders who appear to promise their own version of a better life. All this creates a palpable desperation in Carlos, which is greatly exacerbated when his gardening truck, in which he has invested his life savings, is stolen. Father and son embark upon a dangerous journey to recover the vehicle, which brings them together in unexpected ways — a story reminiscent of Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist classic “The Bicycle Thief.”
“The movie, in a sense, is about both of the characters finding a way to talk to one another,” Weitz, 41, said recently during an interview in a Venice cafe. “Carlos sees his life as work, and he is not evolved in an Oprahesque way. And while Luis is streetwise, he is also rather ignorant. He doesn’t understand what his father has done for him until the scene in which they go to what is essentially a flophouse, where 15 people sleep in shifts — a sequence we filmed in a two-bedroom apartment with bunk beds set up in the kitchen and everywhere else. That’s the point when Luis realizes this was probably the life his father led when he first came to this country, and begins to understand the sacrifices he made.”
The film turns a lens on Angelenos who are often devalued, Weitz said; the cafe’s Latino busboy, as if on cue, poured him another glass of Pellegrino. “Actually, the story isn’t even about your gardener — it’s about the guy who works for your gardener, the one who is genuinely invisible.”
Bichir, who is best known in this country for playing Fidel Castro in “Che” and a Tijuana gangster on “Weeds,” worked with real gardeners around Los Angeles in order to physically and emotionally prepare for the role. “My previous characters were powerful and larger-than life,” Bichir said in a phone interview. “The challenge with Carlos was going all the way to the opposite direction. All he wants is to go through life as quietly as possible, not drawing anybody’s attention.”
Weitz shot one telling scene during a real mass protest against the harsh new Arizona immigration law: “ When Luis asks what is happening, Carlos replies, ‘Nothing.’ He doesn’t have the luxury of debating the politics of his situation, because he’s too busy surviving,” Weitz said.
Not that Weitz intends the film to be a screed for “bleeding-heart liberals,” as some online critics have accused him of being. “No one is depicted as a villain, not even the guards at the detention center,” Weitz said. “I don’t see this film as chest-thumping — it’s really just a movie about human beings.”
“A Better Life,” originally titled “The Gardener,” was inspired by a true story of a gardener whose truck was stolen but was unable to call the police because he was undocumented. The script, which has gone through several screenwriters, came to Weitz several years ago, when he was a new father and somewhat reluctant to return to the director’s chair after making “The Golden Compass” in 2007. (He is also known for the 2002 “About a Boy.” His vampire saga, “Twilight: New Moon,” became a blockbuster in 2009.)
The screenplay may have appealed to Weitz ,albeit unconsciously, because of his own relationship with his late father, the legendary fashion designer John Weitz. “He was a strong personality, and his psychological influence remains strong on me,” said the filmmaker, a Cambridge University graduate whose first major success was directing “American Pie” with his older brother, Paul. “My father had a very sort of combative outlook towards life, and in reaction, I’m much more theoretically easygoing; yet I was very driven to excel as a young person, probably to impress him. And so my academic history and my ambition that fueled everything since is due to him.” Complex relationships between father figures and sons have also fueled many of Weitz’s films, from “Pie” to “About a Boy,” which earned Weitz a screenwriting Oscar nomination in 2003.
Weitz was so moved by “A Better Life” that he quickly signed on, but not without trepidations. There was some white liberal guilt — yes, he’s privileged and lives in Malibu, the location where Carlos, in the film, climbs a palm tree without proper equipment in order to trim its branches.
Concerned that his film could be perceived as exploiting an underclass he knew next to nothing about, Weitz hired a mostly Latino crew, took Spanish lessons, read myriad books on East Los Angeles and migrant laborers and, most importantly, earned the trust and assistance of Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention program based on the Eastside.
“I told him we wanted to shoot in real places, but we didn’t want to be a movie that buys itself into a location, has heavy security, shoots what it wants and then leaves without any connection to the community,” Weitz said.
Boyle’s second-in-command, Hector Verdugo, a former gang member, introduced the director to residents of the Ramona Gardens project in Boyle Heights: “You might assume Hector was there to protect me from the people who lived there, but it was kind of the opposite,” the director recalled. “It was Hector assuring people that I wasn’t some gabacho who was going to make a movie about guys selling drugs and shooting each other.”
Weitz’s own family is a testament to the American dream. His maternal grandmother, the actress Lupita Tovar, was plucked from obscurity in Oaxaca at 17 by a talent scout searching for a lovely Mexican actress to star in Hollywood silent pictures. She eventually married the famous Jewish agent Paul Kohner, an Austrian Jew who came to represent luminaries such as Dietrich and Garbo.
Weitz’s father, John Weitz, meanwhile was a son of wealthy, assimilated German Jews who fled Nazi Germany to Shanghai. Although he arrived penniless in the United States at age 17, by 19 he was an OSS spy and, after the war, reinvented himself as a pioneering designer who starred in his own ads, raced cars professionally and, in his later years, wrote best-selling books about Hitler’s Germany.
“My father loved America because he genuinely felt anything was possible here for somebody who works hard enough,” Weitz said. “And, of course, that makes me think of the characters in the film. Its title comes from the fact that if you talk with anyone from any immigrant family, the phrase that comes up time and again is that they came here searching for a better life.”
For information about “A Better Life” at the Los Angeles Film Festival, which runs June 16-26, visit lafilmfest.com. For stories about actors Bichir and Julián, as well as producers Jami Gertz and Stacey Lubliner, visit jewishjournal.com/the_ticket.