Ethical Backbone: An Interview with ‘A Better Life’ Director Chris Weitz

Chris Weitz’s new film, A Better Life, examines the strained relationship between Carlos (Demián Bechir), an undocumented worker and single father, and his son Luis (José Julián). While their story is fraught with anxieties, both personal and social, the director keeps his focus on the former. PopMatters sat down with Weitz — who has also made American Pie with his brother Paul and Twilight Saga: New Moon — to discuss how his new film reflects on community and immigration, as well as on men, how they define themselves, and what it costs to tell their stories.

Demián Bechir as Carlos is perfect. He creates an immediate connection with the audience, though he says very little during the opening sequence that details his day from sun up to sundown.

He’s brilliant, isn’t he? He really captures a tremendous amount of pathos. I think the mark of a really great screen actor is to be able to hold the camera when you’re not doing anything. For me, Carlos’ role was the crucial piece of casting, because one would be tempted to cast someone who is more familiar in the States — Benicio Del Toro or Javier Bardem — but I felt as though, with an actor whose face is maybe more familiar, there would be a lot of baggage from other movies that people had seen. This is fine for some films and some parts, but for this part, a guy who is essentially invisible and wants to remain that way, there was a good chance that most people would be seeing Demián’s face for the first time. Obviously, he was on Weeds and he played the title character in Che, but he’s a really interesting case of somebody who is a huge star in his own country, but is rarely seen here. And he’s getting just the kind of reception I thought he would and that I wanted him to.

In Gregory Nava’s El Norte, Arturo (Ernesto Gómez Cruz) says, “To the rich, a peasant is just a pair of arms.” I thought about that line many times when I was watching A Better Life. It’s been 28 years since Nava made his film. It’s disheartening to think that not much has changed since then.

The interesting thing is that there are also now people who want those arms to go away. It is yet to be determined whether undocumented workers from Mexico are undermining the economy or propping it up. And there’s reasonable argument for saying they’re propping it up: $25 billion in taxes paid and very little in terms of social services going out, because people are afraid to go to government authorities, not necessarily because the authorities here are corrupt or brutal or unfair, but because in their home countries, that’s the case.

Part of the reason that you could look at a person as a pair of arms is because you’ve never had a conversation with them. In a place like Los Angeles, that’s especially easy because of the way the city is built, the great distances involved in getting from one person’s home to another person’s home, the way you can use freeways to get around neighborhoods that you don’t want to see, the way others are insulated.

I feel this is the way American is going. We build gated communities. We don’t want to know about how our food gets to the table. We don’t want to know the story of the person who is taking care of our kids if it means we find out we shouldn’t be employing them. It’s a much more complicated issue than it seems on the surface. At first it seems like, the people on the left are in favor of illegal immigrants and the people on the right are not. But the last immigrant naturalization act was under Reagan, and Bush tried to do it too.

You have said your film doesn’t have a specific political agenda. But do you really think that’s a possibility?

No, it’s not really possible. I think you can set out with the intent that your main job is to tell the story of a father and a son… and you can tell the story of how hard parents work to make life easier for their children. But the moment that you turn a camera on to a situation that is politically charged at all, your film is going to be politicized in the minds of the people who watch it. And that’s okay. I’m not trying to be cute when I say the film isn’t trying to be political. It’s just that that wasn’t my first job. We made extra efforts to, for instance, not have the police officers, the immigration officers become mustache-twirling villains. They are just people doing their jobs and they are even people who have moments of grace themselves.

The film’s title seems straightforward, but it raises complex questions. Better than what? Better for whom? It strikes me that even if Carlos is able to move Luis to a better neighborhood and school, nothing will have changed for Carlos. He will still be just as much at risk and Luis will be in no less danger of having his father taken away from him.

Sure, when are they going to get a better life? That’s the phrase you hear again and again when you talk to people with undocumented immigrants in the family or who have been through that situation, people explaining why they came to this country. It’s because they feel that in America they can get a better life. And they believe that whole-heartedly. It’s also a question of whether Carlos’ life is inherently less valuable than that of a natural born citizen. So, the title is meant to be at once sort of evocative of the reason people come here and also to put some questions into play.

Carlos is incredibly hardworking and he wants to provide for Luis, but he works to the point of completely neglecting his son emotionally. He tends his own garden at home, but isn’t aware of whether his son is going to school or not. How might the movie be about men, generally?

I think Carlos is an extreme example, because he’s a traditional man from a traditional society, and he doesn’t have the equipment emotionally to communicate with his son. But, yes, I have a four-year-old myself… and I do find myself often coming up short in terms of having the kind of time that he needs from me. And, in a way, the movies that my brother and I have made, always — even when they started from sort of a misogynistic premise, like, say, American Pie — we always aimed to skew female, which is how American Pie succeeded. That’s why About a Boy works even though, theoretically, it’s just about masculinity. Yes, a lot of the stuff I’ve worked on has been about how males don’t have a way of expressing themselves emotionally. And so, this falls in line with those movies.

In About a Boy, Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) teaches Will (Hugh Grant) how to be a grown-up. In A Better Life , Luis thinks he’s got all the answers. But it turns out, in most instances here, father really does know best — something of a rarity anymore.

I do consider there to be a void in popular culture of good fathers. They’re often the butt of fun and you see it especially in TV and comedies. They’re buffoons. It’s almost as if they’re from a different social class or country than their wives and I’ve always kind of bristled at that representation. There’s usually the wisecracking kid stereotype as well.

In this case, the son knows a lot about a very limited stretch of terrain. He knows a lot about the gangs; he knows a lot about how they interact with his neighborhood; he knows a lot about the dilemma in which he finds himself, which his father doesn’t understand. Luis is seeing things on the television, he’s being promised things, and he knows he’s never going to get it. So, he has a different motivation than his father, though his father, too, still has dreams. He still has a sort of childish, as far as his son is concerned, dream about being able to make it in America.

But the interesting thing about Carlos, because he comes from a traditional background, because of who he is and partly because of his religiosity — even though that’s kind of understated — he has tremendous ethical backbone. He’s not always able to put it in an accurate context. He can’t make big speeches about it. But he is someone who really is trying to do the correct thing. When he finally gets to say what he has to say — in very simple sentences — he gets to plead his case and it’s heartbreaking.

Let’s talk a little bit about the absence of Luis’ mother. Not much is said about her except that she wanted more, a better life for herself, and so she cut and run. As glad I was to see what is ultimately a positive father, I was troubled that it seemed like there needed to be a “bad mother” to highlight his goodness. And Luis sees his aunt, stern as she tries to be supportive, as someone who also abandoned him for something better.

Here’s the backstory as far as Demián and I were concerned: Carlos married his sweetheart who was the prettiest girl in the village, they came up to America, and she suddenly saw a world full of opportunities. He was probably abusive, frankly, and she took off. Part of the sadness that Carlos carries around with him, I think, is guilt. In terms of her decision, I don’t blame her. Luis clearly does. I think Carlos blames himself. Anita left because she needed her papers. She didn’t want to live as an invisible, but in so doing, she was Luis’s last maternal influence. Part of her sternness is that she feels guilty. But also, Luis is a dangerous example for her child. She doesn’t want that around. So, there are a lot of caustic emotions around this kid’s upbringing.

The vast majority of single parent families in East L.A. are mothers and children, so this [the single father household] is not statistically accurate. It’s usually women who are left holding the bag. When you hear the stories about kids who have grown up and end up joining gangs, frankly, it’s often both parents who have gone off the rails and there’s a tremendous amount of bad parenting. So, that’s a fair critique. I’m just giving you what my personal take on it was.

In About a Boy, Toni Collette’s character was a mess. And Marcus needed Will as much as Will needed Marcus. When we look at the two films next to each other, is there an idea that mothers/women — in our tendency to mediate, interpret, and even instruct when it comes to relationships — can get in the way of the opportunity for a father and son to connect emotionally?

That’s a valid interpretation. It’s not what I meant. At least, it’s not what I think I meant! I think Freud said that an outright denial is the same as an affirmation, so I’m not going to say, “No, absolutely not” [laughing].

I think that boys need father figures at some point or another, and they will find them where they can. They will find them in a gang if they can’t find them in their home. But if you look at the journeys of the father figures in these movies, they’re becoming more open and much more emotional and feminine. Will in About a Boy sort of exposes himself to ridicule and is able to make a sacrifice for the kid and let people into his life. And Carlos cries, which for a Mexican man is not kosher. I think of the fathers in the movies that my brother and I have worked on eventually becoming these sort of maternal figures.

With the father figures so often maligned or pushed aside in popular culture, maybe this is an example of the pendulum swinging back the other way?

Okay, yes. And then one can pursue it further and say the mother in The Golden Compass, Nicole Kidman’s character, is a disaster (and so is the father, actually). I suppose then I could fall back on some sort of defense and say, “Well, that was the book,” but then one could say, “Well, you chose those books!” [laughing]

Other films, like El Norte and Babel, include horrific backstories and brutal border crossings. You did not include these in your film, in fact, Carlos says he came North because that’s just what everyone did. Are you asking us to connect with him not in spite of our differences (which such horrors would only highlight), but because of our similarities?

Yeah, I didn’t really want to engage in poverty porn, especially exotic poverty porn. That phrase, “We just came North because that’s what everyone did,” came straight from a source I read of certain accounts from the middle of Mexico, certain small towns where, that’s what you did: you left. I preferred that to “Things were so hard there that I left to make my way to the shining land of plenty…” I wanted to avoid all of those formulations for why they would have gone.

And there’s also the fact that, before 9/11, if they were making some money, people could go back and see their families for Christmas and then come back to the U.S. again. It was kind of easy. I mean, obviously, it wasn’t a walk in the park, but when Blasco talked about 9/11 and how that has changed things, well, it has: it’s made it exponentially more dangerous.