It was in 2008 — before he agreed to direct “New Moon,” the hugely successful sequel to “Twilight” — that Chris Weitz discovered the screenplay that would dominate his thoughts for much of the next three years. And no, it had nothing to do with angst-ridden teens and their bloodsucking boyfriends.
Not that Weitz, 41, has anything but fond memories of his time in the “Twilight” universe — which the self-professed romantic says helped him channel his “inner teenage girl.” But it was the promise of “A Better Life,” opening Friday, that truly stoked his creative fire.
The director calls “Life” his biggest movie to date, for personal reasons. But before he could make it, he needed a legitimate blockbuster that would allow him to be “underemployed” while shooting his modestly budgeted drama about a Mexican day laborer fighting to shield his son from the violent gangs of Los Angeles.
After “New Moon” became one of the 50 highest-grossing films of all time, Weitz reconnected with his Mexican roots by returning to “Life.” (His maternal grandmother, Lupita Tovar, was an early Hollywood trailblazer, starring in 1931’s Spanish-language version of “Dracula” and “Santa,” Mexico’s first talkie, the following year.)
“I’m the first generation of my family not to speak Spanish,” Weitz says. “I’ve been living in Los Angeles for years, but there is a Hispanic side of the city — East L.A., where Spanish is predominantly spoken — that I had very little contact with, and I needed to learn about it.”
To that end, he turned to a priest — the Rev. Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, an intervention program dedicated to rehabilitating former gang members and finding jobs for at-risk youths. With Boyle’s help, Weitz gained invaluable access to neighborhoods where he might otherwise have been regarded with suspicion.
Weitz never believed he or his crew were in danger, though he says three consultants on Edward James Olmos’ Mexican-Mafia drama “American Me” were murdered in the weeks following its 1992 release. On the contrary, he found Homeboy’s ex-gangbangers eager to make “Life” better, in front of the camera and behind it.
“We read through the script with professional actors, but something felt off,” Weitz says. “So we showed it to actual ex-gangbangers, with no acting experience to speak of, to put it through the [BS] filter. Not only did they help us with the language of the film, we cast them in the movie — and [we found] the authenticity the movie was missing.”
IF YOU GO
A Better Life
Starring Demian Bichir, José Julián
Written by Eric Eason, Roger L. Simon
Directed by Chris Weitz
Running time 1 hour 38 minutes