Taking a seat in one of the Caledonian Hotel’s function rooms, Edinburgh, Chris Weitz patiently awaits his double espresso with milk on the side. Faced with a whole morning of interviews, this is but the beginning of the director’s promotional campaign for new film A Better Life.
Due in London the next day, Weitz is well aware of the work which lies ahead. Opening in the same slot held by Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker two years previously, Summit are once again faced with a bumpy road ahead – even if Weitz is eager to point out that he’s not presuming to be on the same trajectory.
“It’s going to be the kind of movie that takes tender love and care throughout its lifespan. When you release a film about Mexicans with an unknown cast you have to stay in front of it as much as possible”.
A promise the director is more than happy to make. Despite a few frustrations at not having the time to sample the festival’s offerings (“I love movies but the more I make of them the less I get to see”), Weitz – who went to both Sixth Form and University in the United Kingdom – believes the story to be more than worth the effort. Attached to make A Better Life even before he agreed to helm The Twilight Saga: New Moon, it was the film’s script that initially won his heart.
“In 20 years of working on movies it was the best-written script I’ve ever read. Eric Eason is an exceptional writer – I think he deserves to be nominated. He had done so much research that he ended up with a document that was about 300 pages long, detailing the lives of the people we were portraying.”
“Also, my parentage is in part Mexican. That happens in America; it’s part German and Czech and Mexican. My grandmother came to this country when she was 17 years old and still lives here now – she’s one hundred. It was a chance to learn Spanish and get in touch with a part of L.A. I don’t know very well.”
It seems that being faithful to the subject matter was incredibly important to everyone involved, with the research often surprising Weitz as much as it might audiences even less familiar with the gang culture of East L.A. Fascinated by a part of the city that is supposed to be dangerous and is quite often avoided altogether, the director hoped to shed some light on the people largely responsible for the comforts enjoyed by those from the west of the city. The director even went so far as to hire ex-convicts, if convict is the right word, in the gang member roles.
“Oh no, they’re convicts. They’re ex-convicts. Any guy whose a gang member by the time he’s 25 has been in jail for drugs or violent crime or something like that. We’d interviewed all these actors looking to get the parts and they pretty much presented what they’d seen on TV and in movies which is actually a faked up version of what gang-members actually act like. The gang members in the movie are actually very warm; they are scary but not in a very boisterous, kinetic way. They’re not constantly brandishing guns and making drug deals, they also have home lives and stop to eat dinner and other things you don’t really think about.”
Shot across Los Angeles in 69 separate locations – incorporating detention centres, Hollywood villas and a bull ring which many don’t even know exists – the film certainly convinces entirely. Although you may not be massively familiar with the setting (I for one have never been deported), there is much to be said for Weitz’s belief that it is important to get such details right. Using the example of Andrea Arnold’s Red Road and its use of CCTV footage, the director describes a realistic texture which somehow transcends familiarity. Above all else, however, it is perhaps the strength of the relationship between father and son which ultimately sells the film, a drug crime drama which is far more uplifting than the genre usually dictates.
“There have been plenty of those movies made – and more power to them, I suppose – but the fact of life for most poor areas of America, as for most poor areas of the world, is not that it’s all about violence and pain but essentially about the love that still manage to exist in the face of that.”
Having now made movies set in Britain and America, from the blockbusting second instalment of the Twilight saga to About A Boy with Cambridge peer Rachel Weisz, it appears Weitz is eager to film elsewhere, unperturbed by the stress inherent in making a big budget film.
“I’ll tell you where I’d really like to make is a movie is Japan. I’m really fascinated by the culture and also with their classical films; what I’d really like to make is Chanbara – a Samurai film. I know some filmmakers and distributors in Japan and I occasionally tell them that. They kind of nod and stroke their chins but then I never hear back about it sadly.”
“I’m quite happy to go [to big budget filmmaking] for the next thing I feel like I have to do. Making films sort of drives you insane; it always leads me to the point of mental breakdown but that’s the only way I know how to do it. I give everything I have to it so it has to be something that’s so good I know I’ll regret it for the rest of my life if I don’t make it. So my next feature will be whatever that is.”
We can at least rule out the sequel to the director’s 2007 effort, The Golden Compass. Disappointed that he couldn’t do complete justice to Philip Pullman’s source novel (Weitz at last got to faithfully reproduce a fan’s experience of a book with Stephanie Meyer’s New Moon) Weitz rules out the chance that there might ever be a second movie in the series he started.
“No, there’s no way there’ll ever be a sequel and I’ll tell you why. First of all, it was recut so I can’t really claim full responsibility for the final product. I think that visually it was very beautiful and that the casting was right in many ways, but as far as the narrative is concerned I wasn’t able to fulfill Philip Pullman’s particular theological vision. And that kills me.
“We didn’t do very well in America, where we are often very puritanical and church groups came out against us, but we did very well abroad. However, all of the deals for the movie came from selling off the foreign rights so there’s no interest for an American studio to make another movie. What it would take would be something like a massive explosion in the British film industry – I mean, in a good way – that created a great amount of money and then maybe you could make a remake.”
Having taken much from his movies – a friendship with Weisz from About A Boy (he had found her unapproachable at university where he was occasionally misdelivered her mail, not because she was mean but because she was so beautiful people generally couldn’t put two words together in her presence) and a number of crew members from New Moon (though he will not be making anything similar any time soon, Catherine Hardwicke style) – it is impossible not to wonder what he might have taken from the American Pie franchise which started it all, the most recent instalment for which he returns as producer.
“I’ve been incredibly uninvolved actually, and it’s a shame because it’s kind of coincided with getting A Better Life out. I’ve seen some dailies and they actually look really funny. I think it’s going to be a really good one, which makes me happy because I really care about those kids and I haven’t seen them together for 12 years. [American Pie] was the first movie my brother and I ever did so it’ll always have a warm place in my heart.”
A Better Life is due for U.K. release on the 29th of July and you can find our review here.