Chris Weitz: From ‘New Moon’ To ‘A Better Life’
Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 22, 2011
In Chris Weitz’s new indie drama, A Better Life, an immigrant living illegally in Los Angeles desperately tries to evade immigration officials and keep his teenage son away from the pervasive gang violence on the streets.
To make the film, Weitz — whose previous film credits include directing the not-so-indie films New Moon and The Golden Compass — his production team did extensive research on the of culture illegal immigration in Los Angeles.
Weitz read as much as he could, spoke to illegal immigrants and their lawyers and, along with his production designer, visited an ICE Detention Center, where people suspected of visa violations are held before possible deportation.
“Our excuse for going there was to meet someone who had been detained and to talk with her about her situation,” he says Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “Research marked a lot of how this movie was done — not just in the area of the world of the immigrant — but [also] the world of the gang member [and] the world of young people in Los Angeles.”
Weitz also spent a considerable amount of time with Father Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang-intervention program in the country.
“He gave us access to the world of the gangbanger because his second-in-command, Hector Verdugo, had been a gangbanger in the Romano Gardens, where we were going to shoot,” Weitz says. “And we even ended up casting ex-gang members to play essentially themselves when it came to portraying that life.”
An open casting call took place at Homeboy Industries, where former gang members learn job skills, get gang tattoos removed and attend therapy sessions on everything from alcohol abuse to anger management.
“We weren’t sure what we would get,” Weitz says, of the open casting call, which resulted in several roles being filled. “It eventually felt right, in terms of who we cast. Even in the way that someone sits or walks or looks, you get a sense of authenticity, even if it’s not exactly what you thought it would be.”
Getting In Touch With His Heritage
Weitz says he wanted to direct A Better Life because he wanted to get back in touch with his heritage. His grandmother Lupita Tovar was a silent film star in Mexico, akin to Mary Pickford in the early 20th century.
“There’s probably in Mexico not a more famous old-timey movie actress,” says Weitz “She’s [now] 100 years old and lives in Los Angeles. [But] she was in Mexico’s first talking picture and is a very proud Mexican to this day.”
In the 1930s, Weitz’s grandfather convinced the head of Universal Pictures to shoot Spanish language films on the same sets as their English-language counterparts. The Spanish language version of Dracula starred Weitz’s grandmother and was filmed at night, after the English-speaking cast had gone home for the evening.
Directing ‘New Moon’
Weitz says his grandmother’s vampire film role was not on his mind when he was approached to direct New Moon, the second film in the Twilight saga.
“It didn’t play a role,” he says laughing. “… I had already decided to do A Better Life. I knew that doing that would be a one-year to two-year process in which I was making an independent film and not paying the mortgage. And I thought well, I’m going to have to make a big movie. … And New Moon was offered to me and I thought ‘Well this is going to be an interesting exercise in style because I know I wanted to deliver a faithful rendition of the book, but I [wanted] to take it to a very romantic, wide-screen, old-fashioned place.”
Weitz says he was approached to direct New Moon because he had previously directed The Golden Compass, where he adapted a novelist’s work, directed young actors, and worked with more than 2,000 special effects.
“It was a very special-effects intensive film,” he says. “And though I’m not satisfied with the way that the film turned out, it did mark the second time that I had worked with a novelist [the first was with Nick Hornby and About A Boy] and [had] good relations with them. In the case of Golden Compass, that was re-edited so I can’t really speak for the result, but it was clear to some that I could handle the logistical load of doing a special effects movie.”
Making New Moon involved creating CGI animals and fight scenes and working with teen stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. It also involved learning something about himself, says Weitz.
“I realized that I’m a bit of a teenage girl myself,” he says. “I think I spent most of my late teens and 20s pining after people who were never going to come back. I remember explaining this to Stephanie Meyer and, maybe she didn’t believe me, … but I’d read too many 19th century English novels and I was very, very romantic so having the book — and having Kristen who’s an exceptional actor — and then having that melancholic tendency in myself, I think we were all okay.” [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]