Chris Weitz began his career together with his brother Paul, first co-writing DreamWorks animation Antz (1998) then co-directing the hit teen comedy American Pie (1999). After another successful collaboration, the 2002 adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About A Boy, Weitz’s first solo attempt, The Golden Compass, was a disappointment, ending up as a heavily sanitized take on the challenging book by Philip Pullman. After a happier experience making New Moon, the second in the blockbusting Twilight series, Weitz has directed A Better Life, a much smaller story about a struggling Mexican immigrant and his son in contemporary LA. I sat down with Weitz to discuss the shift from blockbusters to smaller-scale filmmaking, as well as politics, producing and his thoughts on The Golden Compass debacle now.
You seem to have had a particular audience in mind with each of the films you’ve made so far. Was that also the case while you were making A Better Life?
No, I wasn’t thinking about a particular audience, as a matter of fact my sense of what the audience was going to be changed or developed as we made it. The aim was really to take this extraordinary script – which was extraordinarily written, the best I’d read in 20 years – and to do it justice. But that required a lot of research on my part; getting to know East Los Angeles, getting to know a bit about the gang life, the immigrant experience. And I started to realise that there were two audiences for the film, in America at least; one was the Anglo audience that profits from the work of illegal immigrants - in that the food they eat, the garbage that’s taken away from their homes, their cars being parked, their gardens being taken care of is really the result of very inexpensive labour. There’s been a story recently about how these fruits are rotting in Georgia because the price that the planters will pay to have them picked are so low that not even prisoners will pick them. So it’s that, and it’s also an Hispanic audience, that has never had a film that pays proper tribute to how hard the everyday working person works in order to make life better for his family. And now as I think about the international market, I suppose there’s the theme of love of family, but also the immigration question, which is actually global, between north and south, and wherever there’s a rich country and a poor country nearby, there’s going to be this problem. It’s not so much that the film takes a very liberal tack on it, as that the moment you turn a camera on somebody you humanise them, and you have to start talking about them as people instead of numbers.
So is there a particular sentiment that you’d like that first audience group, the employers of immigrant workers, to take from this film?
I think it would be interesting if they were able to understand the lives of their employees in a better way. And not just their employees, it’s really the human infrastructure of the lives they live; what makes it possible for us to lead these comfortable existences? Now, there are a lot of politicians in the United States who really think that if we could just stop the influx of any new ethnicity, everything would be hunky-dory, and there would be no white person out of work and we’d have a lovely country ‘the way that it used to be’. But there’ve always been immigrants in America from the get-go. Even the Mayflower families were a bunch of people who got told to bugger off because their religious views didn’t fit in with the prevailing ones.
The film is an interesting mix of quite indie-style cast and story, but very high production values in terms of music and cinematography – how did that come about?
I suppose that’s a bit perverse but what I wanted to do was make a film that wasn’t all about indie cred, you know? ‘Oh, we shot it in ten days with our camera phones and aren’t we great?’ I really wanted to be able to employ people like Javier Aguirressarobe (cinematographer) and Alexandre Desplat (composer) to give the story the proper amount of polish, and not to run on any received notions of how movies about poor people are supposed to be made. It’s a weird movie, but all of my movies are kind of weird in some ways! The people at Summit saw [the script] while I was making New Moon, which of course is an utterly different kind of film - so different that they almost belong in entirely different categories of medium - but they were willing to make this movie in spite of the fact that there was no quid pro quo of my making another vampire movie for them, or anything like that. And the budget they offered, which was perfectly sensible from what they knew and what their bean counters told them, wasn’t big enough for what I wanted. So we were able to get Lime Orchard, this new production company, to give us enough money so that we could shoot in 69 different locations without stressing the actors too much, and without rushing around so much that we could only have one take of every shot. The result is a weird hybrid between a film about poor people and their lives, and something with sort of a Hollywood gloss. I really wanted to make a film that people could appreciate for its aesthetics as well as for the story and the emotions within.
I hadn’t seen any of this cast before – how did you find them and decide on them as these characters?
We had two casting directors, Joseph Middleton, who my brother [Paul] and I had worked with many times before, and Carlo Hool, who’s a big Mexican casting agent who has come up to work in the States. She knew the vast reservoir of Mexican talent, and Demián Bichir is a big star in his own country – as is Delores Herdia, as is Joaquín Cosio – and the guys who played the people who came from Mexico, came from Mexico to perform in our movie. And so 35% of the movie is in Spanish with subtitles. Demián is an extraordinarily accomplished actor but he’s not known to American eyeballs, and really I suppose not known globally as much as he should be; I think it’s a role for which he deserves an Oscar nomination, and fingers crossed we’ll get one, because he has this tremendous bearing to him and delivers such a stoic and yet commanding performance. If it had been done by any of the more famous Hispanic actors who could deliver that kind of performance, like Javier Bardem or Benicio del Toro, I think there would have been a problem with audiences carrying baggage from their previous experiences of their other films, but with Demián I just had this double whammy of his appearing to be a newcomer and yet having these extraordinary talents.
It’s interesting that you’re very forward in mentioning an Oscar nomination – will you be campaigning for that?
Well he’s my guy! It’s forward, but inasmuch as it’s for my friend and for someone who carries the entire movie, I feel pretty good about that. Every year there is someone who is discovered in America – America suddenly realises that people in other countries make movies and that they’re actually good actors, and so the scenario opens up for them. I would like for this to be Demián’s year.
The film is, as you’ve mentioned, very different to your previous films – was there a personal connection to the material for you?
Yes. My grandmother is a Mexican immigrant; she came her when she was 17. She came under totally different circumstances; she was signed to a contract to be in silent films for Fox Studios. She still lives in America, and she’s now a hundred years old, but she’s still a Mexican national. She’s very proud; Mexicans are very nationalistic and proud. And my father was a refugee from Nazi Germany, so the immigrant connection is very close to me, closer than many people in America. So I felt some affinity for that, as well as for the fact that my wife is Hispanic, and most of my family speak Spanish except for me. So I thought this would be a good excuse to finally learn Spanish, which was in my list of New Year’s resolutions, as well as losing some weight. It was just a handy way to do some of my New Year’s resolutions really!
What was your experience of the immigrant community in LA before the film, and now?
There are so many immigrant communities in LA, and even when you’re talking about Hispanic LA, there’s Salvadoran LA, Honduran LA, Guatemalan LA, Mexican LA, and my experience is that there are these worlds within worlds, tiny bits of other people’s countries within our country. And they are fascinating and full of interest and life. I mean, there are restaurants in Los Angeles where you can get a cricket taco, if you want to! And even gang LA is surprising in its own way; these are not guys who live for violence and drug dealing; they’ve been pushed into these circumstances by a growing sense of nihilism and despair. But the moment you think you understand them, you realise that you don’t. I got into this state of mind where I was talking to all these guys in gangs and they were very friendly, and everything’s kind of cool, and then I was talking to my friend Hector who works in a gang intervention programme and is very much on the straight side of things. He started talking about what got him into jail, saying ‘one day, when I was firing my AK47 at somebody’, and I realised ‘wow, I’m dealing with people who’ve had quite different experiences from me! This is exceptional.’ But it’s all been to the betterment of my understanding of human nature, I think.
Something the film captures very well is the idea of learned behaviour among the gangs, with the younger boys awkwardly ‘trying on’ gang attitudes.
Yeah, I think that they’re not that way by nature; they’re on a sliding scale between the kid who is going to make it out of the neighbourhood and into college, and the gang members, and they are code-switching between these different systems of values and ethics. They know that to join a gang is a dead end in more ways than one, and yet they’re making a calculation in their minds about belonging, and there is a point at which they feel so down that that’s the way that they’re gonna go. And that’s actually contrary to gang life as it’s presented in gangster rap, where it’s something to aspire to and glamorous and all that kind of stuff. That’s not really the case.
A Better Life touches on many hot-button issues – gangs, immigration, education. Is it a political film?
I guess it is, despite the fact that I keep on trying to say that it’s not, because the moment that you a turn a camera on somebody a degree of sympathy is shown. The story that we’re telling is a bit of a thriller and an adventure in some ways, and the heroes are an illegal immigrant and his son, so in that way it’s political, inasmuch as people will hate it in some parts of America, because of that sympathetic eye on an illegal immigrant. But it’s not an overtly political movie in the way that, say, a Ken Loach film would be, or maybe the occasional Mike Leigh film, because there are no bad guys. Nobody’s wrong, not even the people who work at the immigration detention centres, they’re just doing their jobs. Everybody’s really just doing what they feel they have to do, and in that regard it’s apolitical. But it’s impossible, in America these days, to make a film which is sympathetic to an immigrant without it seeming to be making a political statement. Ironically, this was made with the aid of a Catholic priest, and some of the attitudes expressed towards immigration are shockingly un-Christian, and expressed by Christians.
You’ve experienced negative criticisms from Christians previously, with the issues around The Golden Compass, haven’t you?
Well The Golden Compass was fucked because of the Christian reaction in America. The studio had invested too much money to run afoul of the kind of Christian blacklisting that we suffered. Now I told them that it was going to happen no matter what, so we may as well have done an honest version of the film; I think the version of the film that came out was obviously not accurate to Philip Pullman’s vision, which is a particular pity. In Europe people didn’t care, because you guys have had your wars of religion, you’ve gotten over all that stuff, and people believe what they believe. But in America, we are still grappling with these issues; as recently as May this year, many people thought they were about to be raptured. It’s kind of mad!
So was the book’s original ending actually shot? And was there an intention to continue the series?
They had started [on the second one] in happier days, when we thought it was going to be a proper franchise, and we did film the ending of the book, all the way through Lyra’s friend [Roger] being killed and the bridge to the stars opening up. But eventually the top brass at New Line felt that it was too dark. They really had [wanted] Harry Potter or something, and it was devastating. As a director, to have gotten so close; to have filmed the scenes in which someone says “dust is sin”, and Mrs Coulter speaks about Adam and Eve, and then not to be able to deliver it to the public, and then to take it on the head for having done that, because the director is ultimately responsible for it: It’s the biggest failure of my career, and it haunted me for a long time.
Will that faithful version ever see a cinema screen?
It won’t. You can find a hatched-together version on the web, and I think they’ve done a really good job at it. But I did the research, because I really wanted to do a director’s cut, and I worked on my own, ripping dailies and DVDs and putting it together in Final Cut Pro, but it would have cost about $16million to do the visual effects which had been discontinued. And you can imagine the pain for a visual effects specialist who has developed these amazing algorithms for the cracking of ice and stuff like that, and to have that suddenly cancelled – tremendously painful. I’m sure winning the Oscar for visual effects softened the blow! But all the same, there was a lot of creative pain towards the end of that process.
It’s amazing that you came back from that and jumped into another big book adaptation, with New Moon.
Well yeah, but I new that with New Moon what they wanted was a faithful adaptation of the book. They wanted what the fans wanted, which was a movie experience of the book that they loved, and so I thought ‘okay, I’m gonna get back on the horse and prove that I can do this’. And that was the redemptive experience of doing New Moon, that’s why I did it. So that’s good; that made me feel better! And to go from a movie with over 2,000 effects to a movie with 800 was, like, easy-peasy pumpkin pie for me by then.
There’s a connection between these films and A Better Life, as they’ve all been scored by Alexandre Desplat. The music plays a key role in the storytelling of A Better Life; how closely do you work with Alexandre in your films?
Closer and closer. We’ve become really good friends and I have tremendous respect for him, and our families get along really well now, just from having traded visits. But in this case we had only a month between his having finished Harry Potter whatever-part-it-was and the next thing he was going to move onto; one month for him to write the music and record it. So my family and I moved to Paris for a month so that I could go and bother him in his studio, and it was really what you imagine the ideal scenario of a director working with a composer is. We sat around in his studio and had biscuits and espresso, and he had green tea, and he would play something and we’d talk about it for a bit, then he’d play it again; he handmade it while I was able to make my rather amateurish comments on it. But that’s one of the great creative experiences of my life.
And I assume you would hope to continue that relationship in your future films?
Absolutely. I would never want to work with anybody else in that capacity. Alexandre’s very in demand, however, and you’re often dealing with people’s availability when you’re getting a film together, so we shall see.
You have a lot of credits as a producer, by yourself and with your brother – how much of your working life is producing, and what do those credits mean?
Well, I’m not the guy who can tell you how much a crane costs per day, so I’m not a nuts and bolts producer, I’m kind of a creative producer. I can sometimes help people in the growing pains of making a movie, and because I’ve made money for studios, because they believe in my abilities, I can be a buffer between a filmmaker and the studio. I’m tremendously proud with what we’ve been able to do. For instance, to go from a movie like Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, which I really adored, to A Single Man, which is a completely a different sort of movie, and is really an art film – Tom [Ford] had final cut, even though it was his first movie – and to be of some help to him in the process, in these little moments where I can intervene, was tremendously useful. I mean, he’s an auteur, so my role is strictly limited, and should be, but I try and be the kind of producer that I would want, basically.
So do you have people looking for these kinds of films?
Yeah absolutely, we try to put together films as a boutique production house. We’re not like Imagine, where they’ve got x number of blockbusters and they’ve bought all these films and are adapting the most recent video game that just came out. We find scripts that we think are really good, and then we try to find the right directors for them and put them together as a package. They’re often very idiosyncratic, and so from movie to movie we don’t know whether we’ll be allowed to produce something, but we try our best.
You and Paul began directing together. Is that something you would ever do again?
I would love to do it again, it would take a lot of the load off my shoulders! It’s also good because there’s someone to talk to about what you’ve been through, at the end of the day. It’s really just that we got out of sync; I was too tired after About A Boy to work on the next movie, and neither of us wanted to prevent the other from doing what we wanted to do, if we were less interested in that particular subject or book. But we talk about it now, now that we’ve got some time.
What’s next for you?
That’s a good question because I don’t know. I feel like I’m going to have to spend the next few months of my life supporting this film through its run, because it really is a small movie that needs tender loving care. Also I’ve never had a bunch of projects waiting in the wings, I feel that’s like dating several girls at once and not telling them about each other. So I just wait until I find the next script that I feel I can risk my sanity over, and that can take years, so…
A Better Life is on limited release from Friday 29th July. This is an extended version of an interview from The List magazine.