On a white couch in their airy and still very new-looking Beverly Hills offices, actress Jami Gertz and former agent Stacey Lubliner recounted how they came together to form Lime Orchard productions, whose first feature, “A Better Life,” will premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 21 before hitting theaters June 24. The Summit Entertainment drama—about an illegal alien gardener struggling to keep his son out of gangs – is already receiving awards buzz and will be released in the same slot as Summit’s Oscar-winner “The Hurt Locker.” The Chris Weitz-helmed film, starring Demian Bichir (“Weeds”) and Jose Julian, is also produced by Weitz, Paul Junger Witt and Christian McLaughlin.
Several years ago, Gertz, who starred in 1980s films such as “The Lost Boys” and “Less Than Zero,” found work offers dwindling, as they typically do for actresses around 40. “It’s a bit more forgiving for men, age-wise,” said Gertz, who on HBO’s “Entourage” recently played the wife, of an adulterous agent, who sets hubby’s Aaron Sorkin notes afire. This came at a time when Gertz’s three sons were growing older and more independent, leaving the actress with time on her hands and the desire to reinvent herself creatively.
Lubliner, meanwhile, had left her own career as an agent after eight years of representing writers and directors such as Nancy Meyers. “The culture of agenting had become so much more competitive; there was much less time to be creative with your clients,” she said. “It seemed like everyone was on the defensive, so the staff meetings and the daily calls were a lot of damage control for clients and other people’s clients. There was less and less time to do what I really enjoyed.”
Then, in 2008, Lubliner received a call from one of her old colleagues at ICM, Toni Howard—who also happens to be Gertz’s longtime agent. Howard thought the actress and the ex-agent should meet. “Toni knew I wanted to start a production company,” Gertz said. “While I knew a lot about acting and scripts, I knew so little about how the business worked. Toni told me she knew this great woman, Stacey, who had just had a baby and didn’t want to be an agent anymore.” Soon after Lubliner and Gertz met over lunch in 2008, Lime Orchard was born.
The partners clicked not only over their desire to create character-driven work but also on a Jewish level. While growing up in Chicago, Gertz had attended weekly Conservative services and United Synagogue Youth. She began her career at 16—after winning a nationwide talent contest—by playing a Jewish preppie on CBS’ “Square Pegs.”
Lubliner attended Camp Hess Kramer and Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, where she learned to love movies courtesy of her grandfather, Frank Rosenfelt, a legendary CEO of MGM.
As for her own relationship with her producing partner, Lubliner said, “We call it the macro and the micro.” Added Gertz: “Once I came in with a David Ives play about Baruch Spinoza [the 17th-century Jewish philosopher] and Stacey was like, ‘I can’t really see the poster.’”
They discovered “A Better Life” (originally titled, “The Gardener”) in 2009. Lubliner knew about the script because her husband, agent David Lubliner, represents Chris Weitz, who was attached to direct the movie. “Chris could have done whatever he wanted after his film, ‘The Twilight Saga: New Moon,’ became a huge hit,” Stacey Lubliner said. “He was getting offers on a lot of big movies, but he was passing because he really wanted to do this film.”
Lubliner was strongly moved by “The Gardener” and so was Gertz, who cried while reading it at the hairdresser, drawing stares from other patrons. “We had read so many scripts by that time, because when we announced we were in business, we said we are unique in that we actually have money to spend on development and possibly production,” Gertz recalled. “So as you can imagine, we had received numerous submissions. But from the moment I started reading [The Gardener], it was so beautifully written that I cared about this father and son and wanted to know what happened to them. I wanted to know how this boy would grow up, and wanted him to have a good life, a better life than his father.”
Gertz and Lubliner were on the set every day of the entire 38-day shoot in 70 locations around Boyle Heights and South Central Los Angeles; they and Weitz kept things authentic with the help of Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries, an anti-gang organization. Gertz also helped by seeking imput from attorneys who work pro bono for illegal aliens detained by the authorities.
“In a jail sequence, one of the homeboys was wearing an ankle bracelet, the kind for monitoring by the police,” Lubliner recalled. “I asked our wardrobe person how she had managed to get one, and she said the bracelet was real. In fact, the actor was nervous and embarrassed by it, so we assured him that we would not see it in the film.”
The movie isn’t intended to be political: “We never set out to make a movie about immigration, although immigration is part of the story,” Gertz said. “It’s really a father and son tale that is beautifully told. But if you come away from it [realizing] that there is a face to your gardener, to your busboy—if it makes you sit up and think about those around you, all the better.”
The themes of the movie resonate for the producers, as parents and as Jews. “It’s in that sense of family, of one’s responsibilities as a parent, and the social awareness of what is going on around you,” Lubliner said.
“It’s in the teachings of Judaism, and tikkun olam, to make the world a better place—and that’s certainly a part of our lives,” added Gertz, who with her husband, financier Tony Ressler, has been described as one of the top charitable celebrities in Hollywood. “In my own philanthropic life, we’re involved with 18 charter schools, mostly in low-income areas; we are graduating 98 percent going to a four-year college, many of them Latino and African-American. We go into very difficult neighborhoods and we graduate kids. We begin in middle schools specifically because that’s when gangs start to heavily recruit.
“So when you ask what kind of movies Stacey and I want to make, I imagine there are going to a lot of films like ‘A Better Life,’ because it’s the kind of film we are attracted to doing.”