It’s a shame that Chris Weitz may call it quits on directing this early. While he says below that he may not be done yet, there was something sad about him saying directing just isn’t that “fun” for him anymore. As Weitz pointed out, the news of his possible retirement didn’t quite rank up there with all the crying old ladies Steven Soderbergh got when he announced his a few-years-off retirement, but after Twilight: New Moon, could you blame some people for not protesting?
Had the news come out after his latest film was released, A Better Life, there would have been much more disappointment to the idea. If anything good came out of us having to sit through New Moon, Weitz got to make a modest character drama that we don’t see too often. After The Golden Compass (a film he’s publicly called a failure multiple times) and New Moon, it seemed like the director had turned to big-budgeted commerce driven projects, rather than continuing in making great dramas, like About a Boy. But, as he says below, unless you don’t carry enough clout from doing films like Twilight, getting a studio drama like this off the ground wouldn’t be easy.
Here’s what director Chris Weitz had to say about leaving filmmaking behind, finding emotional authenticity, and whether or not making A Better Life gave him a brighter outlook on directing.
Since we don’t see that many modestly budgeted studio dramas nowadays, did the success of New Moon help you get A Better Life made?
Well, probably quite a bit, especially since we’re doing it with the same studio. It’s not so much that I promised to do another Twilight movie, which I didn’t. I was very clear with them that it wouldn’t mean that I would do another Twilight picture. In fact, it would take me out of doing a big blockbuster for quite a long time. But there was a degree of trust established between Summit and I, which allowed them to conceive of me doing this movie.
Knowing that we were going to make this movie without a big American star meant that I was supposed to be a star, and that’s pretty sad. At least it means that I have enough of a body of work that people would be curious as to why I would go ahead and make this next.
Do you think you need a hit to get a studio drama like this off the ground?
No, I don’t think so. I think that people make good movies like this all the time. To make a film like this knowing you don’t have distribution is the tough thing. I can’t really accomplish an independent film. To me, by definition an independent film is made without the presumption that there will be a distribution outlet at the end of it, and that takes real guts. However, people are doing it. Look at last year, for instance. These things do happen. Our industry is big enough to allow it. I do wish there were more of these kinds of films being made, but as long as blockbusters are taking up the oxygen and screens, we just have squirrel our way into the marketplace.
When making a film like this, is there a lot of questioning about commercial possibilities or whether or not there is a big audience out there for films like this?
Well, there’s no point in questioning it. If you’re going to make it, one has to do it; that’s all. I’ll tell you what I do question, which is important, that studios think Hispanics… Well, they know Hispanics go to see more movies than any other demographic category, but they don’t believe they will go to see a movie about themselves. It’s kind of weird. African-American audiences do it. We need to prove the studios wrong in that regard.
We also need to throw down a challenge to Hispanic leaders to rally people to our cause. If this movie does well, there will be more films made on Hispanic subjects with Hispanic stars and Hispanic directors. It’s not for someone Hispanic to make this movie instead of me. It’s an open question now.
When approaching the subject matter, did you see yourself as an outsider? Or did you just consider this to be a universal story with the father-son relationship?
To me, the father-son part is quite understandable, although I haven’t gone through the experience of having an ungrateful teenage son quite yet [Laughs]. I also have a little Latino cred because my grandmother is Mexican and my wife is half-Cuban and half-Mexican-American. I do feel a strong sense of connection. With that said, there was a lot that I had to learn to even get the right to make this movie; I had to start studying Spanish, I had to learn more about the immigration issue and immigration laws, and gang culture in East L.A.. To do that was to surrender the usual director’s attitude of, “I know everything that needs to be done for this movie. I am right and everybody has to do as I say. Nobody can contradict me.”
We put ourselves into positions where I would hand the script to a bunch of High Schoolers in East L.A. and say, “Okay, tell me everything in this that’s bullshit. Please don’t spare us,” and that’s why the jargon in the film is spot on. We had ex-gang members playing gang members in the movie. We had them talk the way that they talk and walk the way that they walk. Importantly, it isn’t about gang members constantly popping off caps at each other and calling each other “ese,” and all that kind of bullshit. It shows that gang members have families, they have loved ones, and that they go to dinner. They don’t spend all their time being “gang-y”; they’re human beings.
Was it a constant discussion on the set trying to find that authenticity?
Yeah. First of all, we had to be ready in pre-production and listen to our advisors who ranged in age from 14 to 60. For me to be able to trust Damián Bechir and Joaquín Cosio to speak in very idiomatic Mexican…No matter how good my Spanish is, it’s far beyond what I can understand from moment to moment basis. It’s very quick, idiomatic, and jargon filled. It takes a great degree of trust and it takes risking time, which also means risking money to get that type of stuff right.
A film like The Golden Compass was a big technical feat, but this was more of a tonal challenge. As a director, do you find one more trickier than the other?
They both have equal challenges. The logistical challenge for The Golden Compass seemed to be the greatest challenge from early on, but when it came down to it, it was actually how to get across the more controversial elements of Philip Pullman’s book to come out, and I failed. By the end of it the studio, in their minds, risked too much money to run the risk of being rejected by a very religious country, like ours. In the case of A Better Life, the challenge was giving the actors as much time as they need. We were shooting in 69 different locations in 38 days, which is actually a fair-sized schedule, so I’m not complaining about that. But to deal with the number of company moves that we dealt with was pretty exceptional, and all credit goes to my crew.
Was it refreshing on A Better Life not having to worry about those great commercial risks? Do you think about commerce on a film like A Better Life?
No. Well, yes and no [Laughs]. How can I answer this? Obviously, I wanted the ending to have a degree of hope, but not for it to be a Hollywood ending. I didn’t want to try to do an ending that was so dismal that it’d become an art-house darling because everyone ends up feeling miserable. [Spoiler Alert] At the same time, it’s strangely poised between knowing whether Carlos is going to live or not. Everything about the music, for instance, is about leading you to that point. You don’t quite know what’s going to happen at that point. [Spoiler Alert]
I suppose, in some way, one thinks about commercialism. The film is constructed like a thriller, which kind of zigs where you expect it to zag, but that’s how we keep audiences going. There’s no question that I wanted to pull on the audiences’ heartstrings, and that seems to work. While staying as authentic as possible, we wanted to stay as crowd pleasing as possible.
You’ve already discussed the idea of retirement, but I’m curious, what changed your outlook on filmmaking? I’m guessing at one time you were an excited film school student, what happened?
Well, I never went to film school [Laughs]. I studied English. My film education was on the set of American Pie. I was taught by Richard Crudo and J.B. Rogers, our cinematographer and our AD. What changed my mind? Well, I thought I was going to retire, but then nobody was terribly interested in that [Laughs]. That stunt didn’t really work. I think that the logistical element had come to outweigh the fun so much.
I guess the better or the more experienced I’ve become at filmmaking, the more I know things can go wrong. When we made American Pie, we just didn’t know any better. We didn’t know how lucky we were or what we should have been worried about. That’s just the way that it went. Making films is not as much fun as it used to be, because now if something doesn’t blowup good, you’ve just got less of a chance of making something meaningful.
I’m 41 now. I’ve spent 20-years of my life making movies, and that’s been a lot of movies and a lot of work. Now I have a four-year-old son, and children are more important than movies. That would be a reason to be more cautious about what movie I go into next.
Would you say making A Better Life gave you a brighter outlook continuing?
In many ways, it does. Although, I’ll have to see how well it does [Laughs]. If this movie gets the snide at the box-office, then I’ll think it’s a pity and a fucking drag. We made this movie in where everyone involved really left it out on the floor and wore their hearts on their sleeves. We’ll see.
A Better Life is now in limited release and expanding soon.