Chris Weitz – A Better Life (DVD)

November 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

Filmmaker Chris Weitz admits his most recent film “A Better Life” has been a lot harder to let go than any of the other films he’s directed over the last 12 years, which include “About a Boy,” “The Golden Compass,” and “New Moon.”

Part of the reason Weitz has held the film so close to his heart is because he comes from a Latino background himself. His grandmother, Mexican actress Lupita Tovar, starred in the Spanish version of “Dracula” in 1931.

“It’s part of the reason I did the film and why it sticks with me,” Weitz told me during an exclusive interview for the DVD release of “A Better Life.”

“A Better Life” stars Demián Bichir (TV’s “Weeds”) as Carlos Galindo, an undocumented day laborer working to provide for his son Luis (José Julian) while living in Los Angeles.

I caught up with Weitz, 41, who was on his way to Bakersfield, California to accept an award from United Farm Workers of America co-founder Dolores Huerta.

What is it going to mean to receive an award from someone like Dolores Huerta for your work on “A Better Life?”

For this movie to make an impact on someone like her is extraordinary. She was fighting the good fight when it was dangerous and unfashionable to take on that kind of political cause. It’s an amazing seal of approval for the film. I am beyond honored to be receiving it.

HB56, a new immigration law making it legal for police officers to ask people for their immigration status, just passed in Alabama. What are your initial thoughts on the bill?

I think it’s disgusting. I think it’s a national shame. I think it shows how little understanding politicians have of the immigration issue. They’re acting like the 11 million undocumented people who are living in the shadows right now are taking jobs away from people. What they’re actually doing are taking the jobs nobody else is willing to do. What’s going to happen is that the fruits are going to rot in the field. Anytime these jobs are opened up to the average American, they don’t want to do it. These jobs are vital to our economy and generally done by immigrants from Mexico or Central America. The affect of this act is to tear apart families, frighten people who for the most part are good, church-going, hard-working people, and to enact federal policy as state law. There is no question the immigration system is broken. I don’t think anybody on either side of the aisle thinks everything hunky dory. The answer is actually something more like what President Regan did in ’86, which was to provide a path towards naturalization. The plan was never fully carried through. When this recession ends, we’re going to realize a lot of people we’ve been kicking out would be really helpful to us. These people are working in our healthcare industry and our agriculture industry.

What do you think is going to happen when fear overtakes these undocumented people inAlabama? I mean, parents are already pulling their kids from school. People aren’t showing up for work.

I think what’s going to happen is they’ll move on to another state. Rather than have the opportunity to integrate people into society, Alabama is pushing more people into the shadows, making them more desperate and exploited. In 1986, when people got a path toward citizenship, they had more incentive to invest in their schools, to buy houses, and to start their own businesses. The Center for American Progress has estimated that if these undocumented immigrants were naturalized, they could pump $1.5 trillion into the economy. It’s really important to acknowledge that you’re not going to remove all these people from this country. The estimated cost to do this is $200 billion. There’s never been a round up like that before. The only thing to compare it to would be the internment of Japanese Americans (in 1942) and that was on a much smaller scale. It can’t be done.

President Obama recently called immigration reform an “economic imperative.” However, three years since he took office we’re still waiting for a concrete plan. Do we need new leadership or can the Obama administration do something to finally get things moving forward?

I don’t think we need a change of administration. It’s obvious the Republicans aren’t going to do anything for immigrants. Two things can happen: Either the Obama campaign can decide to get tough now and put its money where its mouth is or they can do what it seems like their doing, which is play it softly hoping that a second term will allow them to enact reform later. Now, the question is whether Obama will be able to get the same voter base he did in 2008. We’ll have to see. There was something like a six million person shift in votes for Obama in the Latino community. How many of those people are going to come a vote again, who knows?

Were you prepared to answer questions about immigration reform when you decided to direct “A Better Life?”

I wasn’t really ready to take on questions in a political fashion. At the beginning, I just thought it was a great script. Then, I started going to conferences like the NCLR (National Council of La Raza) and the CHCI (Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute) and realized I had to start to learn my stuff. The more I learned, the more I realized the film – although it’s not political at all in its content – was timely with the issues at hand, whether its something about the Dream Act or dividing families or the faulty immigration processing system. I’ve been unable to depart from this movie in the way I’ve been able to with any other film. This one has really stuck with me. It’s good because I really wanted my career to turn a corner in some way, but I really didn’t know how. This movie provided that.

Not many people know you come from a Latino background yourself. Did that help connect you to this story in some way?

Yeah, it did. I was part of the first generation of my family not to speak Spanish, which is very much like the kid (Luis) in the movie. He lost touch with his roots and so had I. The movie was an excuse to learn Spanish. I felt the right way to make the movie was to have a bilingual set, crew and cast. It’s been a really invigorating experience. It’s made me understand Los Angeles better. It’s made me feel like a better citizen. I’m still learning Spanish. My grandma came to America when she was 17. She still lives here. She is 101 years old. She still has her Mexican citizenship. She’s been a resident alien for 84 years because she was proud of where she came from.

What do you think about Demián Bichir’s chances of earning an Academy Award nomination for his role?

It would be hard for me to handicap it, but I just know it’s rare for a movie to be carried on the shoulders of one actor like Demián. It is a wonderful thing when the Academy recognizes someone who is relatively little known in this country. I know we’re in the hunt, but we’re going to have to work hard to get ourselves a spot. If he gets a nomination, I think it would be a really wonderful thing for the Hispanic community and people who really care about this pressing issue.

A Better Life

July 8, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Demián Bichir, José Julián, Joaquín Cosio
Directed by: Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”)
Written by: Eric Eason (“Manito”)

It might be a Mexican-American version of the classic 1948 Italian neorealist film “Bicycle Thieves,” but “A Better Life” could not have come at a more appropriate time, as immigration policy advocates continue to plead with the feds to rule on the constitutionality of a raft of new immigration laws being implemented in a variety of states. The film also comes on the heels of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist José Antonio Vargas’s startling and nervy revelation of his undocumented status in an essay he wrote for the The New York Times.

No matter where you stand on the subject, “A Better Life” offers an honest and deeply moving depiction of a Mexican immigrant’s struggle to provide for his son and raise him well enough to never have to follow the same difficult path he chose. While the themes have been confronted before (it’s comparable to, but less melodramatic than, “Under the Same Moon,” and isn’t paced as gradually as the locally produced 2007 drama “August Evening”), “A Better Life” has its own distinct voice and a tender stroke of humanity that keeps it from being lumped together with any overstated political message.

In a nuanced and award-worthy performance reminiscent of Independent Spirit nominee Pedro Castañeda in “August Evening” and Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor,” Mexican actor Demián Bichir (“Che”) embodies a father not only desperate to find a lifeline as a day laborer (his truck and landscaping tools have been stolen), but to also reach his teenage son on a level of emotional understanding and mutual respect.

The stakes are high in “A Better Life” and Bichir matches the film’s tormented tone with a portrayal of a man overcome by both fear and faith. It’s the latter, however, that encourages him to fight for the things that are most important to him no matter what may stand in the way.

Demián Bichir – A Better Life

July 8, 2011 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

Mexico City-born actor Demián Bichir laughs a bit as he gives his analysis on the current state of U.S. immigration legislation and the suggestion by some people that the government should find a way to send 11 million undocumented Mexicans back across the border.

“Realistically, I don’t know how that could ever happen,” Bichir, 47, told me via phone during an exclusive interview about his new immigrant-inspired drama “A Better Life.” “Immigrants are here. They exist. They have houses. They work. It’s something you can’t ignore. They are here to make their lives happier. Maybe it’s time we start accepting them as part of this country.”

It’s a message Bichir, best known by mainstream American audiences for his recurring role in the Showtime series “Weeds,” says is the pulse of “A Better Life.” The film follows the story of Mexican gardener Carlos Galindo (Bichir) and his teenage son Luis (José Julián) as they try to stay afloat in East L.A. amid unpredictable work circumstances and toxic neighborhood influences.

During our interview, Bichir talked about taking to the streets of L.A. during pre-production to talk to real immigrants about their experiences pursing the American Dream and if he thinks a film like “A Better Life” can change peoples’ minds on immigration issues.

What resonated with you about this story when you read the script?

The first thing that struck me when I read the script was how real everything was – the characters, situations, locations, and the father-son relationship. There weren’t any gimmicks or tricks. It was a straightforward role. Chris wanted to be sure we were going to take a natural approach to everything.

I thought the realism of the characters and scenarios were the most powerful parts of the film.

Yeah, Chris is a really precise director. He wanted to be sure that we were going to have a natural delivery and a real approach to the whole story. You need a good director in order to help you deliver your best. That’s what Chris Weitz is.

Immigration is an issue we see a lot in films. What makes “A Better Life” stand out from the rest?

I think one of the great things about this story is that we talk about the real problem that immigration issue – the separation of the families. This is a story of father and a son. This is a universal story. A father would do anything in his power to overcome any obstacles in order to give his son a better life. We also talk about this community of workers that are undocumented and work really hard in this country. They all have a house. They all exist. It’s something you can’t ignore. They are here to make their lives easier and better and happier.

Part of your research on this film was to go out into L.A. and talk to real day laborers. What did you learn about them?

All of them have a heart. The fact is that these immigrants are good people. What we need now is to give them a face and a name. We need to know who they are. They’re the people who are taking care of our babies, cooking our food, parking our cars, and working in our gardens. That is part of the debate that is going on every day.

Do you think a film like “A Better Life” can help change the way people think about immigration issues?

As an actor you are always looking for this type of script and character. You don’t find these kinds of scripts very often. If we’re lucky enough, this story is going to change a lot of things in our society. I believe in the power of cinema and moviemaking and that a single film can open minds and touch hearts. I hope we can have more of these human powerful stories so everyone can get a different view about the problems. People are going to look at this film and see things that are going on every day. If that change someone’s view, all the better.