Chris Weitz, the man behind American Pie and the Twilight saga, is the first to admit that he isn’t the obvious choice to direct A Better Life, about an illegal immigrant in Los Angeles struggling to provide for his teenage son in East L.A. But thanks to immense research, a genuine love for the material and lots of help from his Homeboy Industries youth- and gang-outreach program, Weitz has created a moving, authentic film. He spoke with Metro about some of the struggles he faced bringing the story to the screen.
Did you face resistance taking on this story, since you’re not from that community?
My grandmother is Mexican, my mother speaks fluent Spanish, so it was an opportunity to regain some part of my heritage that I had lost. On websites, in the comment section, there’s occasionally a snarky comment about me being lily-white. But in some ways it’s true. I mean, I did grow up kind of as an anglo. It gives me an outsider’s eye to some degree, which makes me all the more keen on representing things fairly.
Did you get any flack from the locals while filming in East L.A.?
Everyone was incredibly welcoming and excited, especially the kids. But there was one lady who was just not happy that we were there because she had seen one of our extras — who was a guy from Homeboy Industries, an ex-gang member — and he had one of those tracker bracelets. And she immediately assumed — and I can’t say that I blame her — that we were shooting some kind of episode of CSI or something where we were going to portray the barrio as this kind of terrible place where drug deals went down all the time, and she really didn’t like it. I tried to talk to her, and she said, “Well, I’ll wait until it comes out.”
How was the response from the East L.A. community after seeing the film?
It felt incredible. I had a little experience like that before when we test-screened About a Boy in front of an audience in London and they said it’s a good little British film. And I thought, “Fantastic, we fooled them.” In this case, when we showed it to an Hispanic audience in South Gate for a test-screening, it scored as high as I’ve ever scored. More than that, the discussion afterwards was very, very touching. People are kind of astonished that this story has been told, because why would anyone do that? Where’s the money in it? It’s a question I ask myself sometimes — where’s the money in it?