Chris Weitz, the hotshot producer, director and/or writer of, among others, the American Pie films, About a Boy and Twilight: New Moon, wasn't aiming to be provocative in releasing his latest drama, A Better Life, right now. (It opened in select Canadian cities on Friday.)
Though it's the story of an illegal immigrant from Mexico, a gardener named Carlos (the excellent Demien Bichir) who just wants what the title says for his teenage son, Weitz did not direct it as a response to the virulent anti-immigration movement that is churning through the United States. "This script has been around for 20 years," he said in a phone interview last week.
Yet when real-life events occurred that made for some juicy scenes against which to film, Weitz took advantage of them. In the middle of the shoot, in April, 2010, Arizona's governor signed into law the broadest, strictest immigration measure in recent U.S. history. It made the failure to carry immigration documents a crime, and gave police wide-ranging power to detain suspects. President Barack Obama denounced it, and a number of lawsuits immediately challenged it, calling it an invitation to discrimination.
"A protest was called for the next weekend in Los Angeles," Weitz said, "and we had a protest scene in our script that we'd been concerned about, because it would have been too expensive to stage. So we were able to put together a second unit to capture the real one."
Since then, several other states have passed controversial immigration laws, and as recently as July 8, civil-rights groups filed a class action suit challenging a similar law in Alabama. But Weitz isn't eager to connect his film to current events. "The Rush Limbaughs and Lou Dobbses haven't taken a shot at us yet, and we haven't really wanted them to," Weitz said.
"I know that would be a cheap way to get publicity, but it was never what we were going for. We just wanted to tell a simple story about a father's love for his son. I'm certainly no adequate spokesman about immigration, because I've lived my entire life benefiting from it."
Weitz, 41, is part Latino on one side (his maternal grandmother immigrated from Mexico when she was 17) and a first-generation American on the other (his father was a refugee from Nazi Germany). His wife, Mercedes Martinez, and his mother speak Spanish. "So I feel like I've got some immigrant cred, even if I look and sound like the whitest of white people you've ever met," he said. (He really does - over the phone, his voice has the deep, silky timbre and elegant vowels of a 1950s public-television announcer.)
But his film has been criticized - "mostly by anonymous cowards on comment sites, so I don't give it much credence," he said - for being disingenuous, an exercise in "rich white bleeding heart tries to get real about Hispanic L.A."
This hostile reaction to a mid-budget family drama is evidence of just how difficult and discomfiting it is to talk about race or class in American films. Two other summer movies take a stab at it: the current comedy Horrible Bosses, in which one of the white, middle-class protagonist's bumbling attempts to be cool offends every black person he meets; and the upcoming drama The Help, about black maids and their racist employers in Jackson, Miss., during the summer of 1963. (The assassination of the civil-rights activist Medgar Evers, which occurred that year in Jackson, factors into the plot.)
But as much as you support these films' ironic or tear-jerking attempts to address the subject, you also squirm in your seat, because all the black characters in them (played by the talented likes of Viola Davis, Cicely Tyson and Jamie Foxx) still are either maids, criminals or cops. Who says there are no roles for people of colour in Hollywood, right?
For a number of reasons, Weitz was ready for the challenge of making a realistic, intimate film that addresses race, without having the main character be a white person who acts as a guide. Along with his older brother Paul, his films have raked in enough dough that he's achieved a status in Hollywood that lets him pick and choose.
But after making two big-budget epics - The Golden Compass, "which didn't work out, as far as I was concerned," Weitz said; and New Moon, which did - he was "a little tired of supervising visual-effects projects. I was all CGI-ed out."
He'd had enough, he said, of "explaining to an actor, 'For the next few hours you're going to be acting opposite a green pillow dangling from a fishing pole.' It's tough for actors to do that. It takes extra time, extra effort. Humans talking to humans is a much more straightforward proposition."
So, not only was the script for A Better Life "the best thing I'd read in 20 years," Weitz said, with issues that are "life and death to the people they concern, and a plot that operates like a thriller." It also addressed his latest obsession, fatherhood. Since having his son, who's now 4, "I've become really absorbed with the parent-child relationship," Weitz said. "And with the sacrifices one would be willing to make, to make life easier for them. Fatherhood is nothing what I thought it would be. I don't think anybody can imagine what it's like. It's full of surprises. It stretches you, it tests your sanity, it enlarges your heart, in ways that cannot be contemplated beforehand."
So the fact that this film was set in L.A., which meant Weitz could go home every night, only sweetened the deal. "Movies are damaging to families," he said. "And I think that families are more important than movies. So I'll have to figure that out [in upcoming projects] I'm much more cautious now."
Still, shooting A Better Life "wasn't like making Chuck & Buck" - the 2000 indie in which Weitz co-starred as Chuck - "where we were using digital cameras and being catered by a chicken joint, and shooting in my house," he said. He was able to hire the same composer, cinematographer and editor from his bigger films, because they were willing to work for substantially less than their normal rate.
In other words, he made this film because at the moment, he's one of the only people who could. "The more people [of other cultures]are able to break into the charmed circle of directing and producing, the more we will see different and interesting films," Weitz said. "Hispanic L.A. is not only a world unto itself, but several worlds. It's multifaceted. They think that they're living in the 'real' L.A., and they don't know much about Anglo L.A. We live in these parallel worlds - in L.A., and in America in general. We don't know our neighbours any more." And these days, it seems too many of us don't want to.