A Better Life  

by director Chris Weitz

Most of us are here—even those of us who can trace our line back to the Mayflower—because our ancestors at some point sought a better life in this country. And their stories, if we were not so preoccupied with transforming robots and superpowered beings, could fill many multiplexes.

A Better Life is the phrase that you hear again and again when one speaks to immigrants and the children of immigrants. And, now that I am a father myself, I know how much I would do to improve my son’s life if I could. While it’s inevitable that A Better Life will be viewed through a political lens, it’s really a film about love—the love between father and son and the determination that keeps families together.

We had a strong enough theme and a strong enough script (by Eric Eason) that we were able to attract all sorts of talent from around the globe, people used to working on "bigger" movies. We recruited the great Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (The Others, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Road) and my good friend Alexandre Desplat (Birth, Girl with the Pearl Earring, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The King’s Speech) to compose our score and record it with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios in London.

At every level, we were able to find talented people attracted to the project because of the way that the story moved them. The set was genuinely bilingual, as it needed to be; I can now bitch and moan in English AND Spanish (for instance: "Why is this taking so long?" translates into the colorful "Que falta? Es lente como el caballo del malo," or, "What’s going on? This is going as slow as the bad guy’s horse").

For the man at the heart of the picture, there was only one man for me, the wonderful Mexican actor Demian Bichir. In the U.S., he is probably best known for playing Esteban, the roguish Mexican politician from Weeds, or as Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s Che. In Mexico, he is the country’s answer to George Clooney. And I think after this movie comes out, we will be seeing a lot more of him here.

José Julian, a complete unknown (as they say, but this is, in a way, a film about complete unknowns), plays his son, a boy perilously teetering on the edge of "jumping into the barrio," or joining the local gang (the terminology changes from block to block and month to month). He may be in his first movie but he knows whereof he acts; it took him three hours and three buses to get to his auditions, and as he once told me, he knows guys who are "uncannily" like his character (he’s also whip-smart).

Trying to maintain an "uncanny" accuracy in this picture required some unconventional practices. The script passed through the B.S. meters of the kids at Legacy LA, a wonderful afterschool program in East Los Angeles, and the people at Homeboy Industries.

Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, started "Homeboys" as a way to provide jobs for people who wanted to leave the gangs of L.A. and live a more healthy life. Father G. was good enough to see me and read the script and said it was "The Real Deal." Next thing I knew I had Hector Verdugo, his right-hand man, as my own personal guide to the world of East L.A.

Hector was my entrée into Ramona Gardens, the housing project around which we shot many scenes. To be technical, this is also the home ground of Big Hazard, the local gang.

There’s a misperception about East L.A., which is that it is dangerous to the random visitor. That is an idea born out of decades of bad TV shows and exploitative movies. Hector wasn’t with us so much to protect us, as to act as our guarantee to the people in the neighborhood that we weren’t there to make a lengthy episode of CSI, full of "vatos," "eses" and "orales"…

Instead, what it’s full of is life, led sometimes in secret and sometimes joyously in the open. Los Angeles is a city of social microclimates, parallel universes, next door to us but unknown. We shot A Better Life in 38 days, in at least two languages, in nearly 70 different locations—housing projects, a school, a Malibu mansion, a Mexican bullring, Los Feliz Boulevard where the flaneurs drink cappuccinos, and the high desert.

One of these worlds is the world of the gardener and his child. It is, in many ways, a confined world, invisible to us; in other ways it is just like ours. Although I’ve been fortunate to work on many "big" movies, I feel that this is the biggest one of all for me.

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