Chris Weitz on Twilight Nods, Oscar Hopes, and the Politics of A Better Life

weitz_better_life630.jpgAbout three years ago, in the same year he landed the gig directing the second film in the Twilight film franchise, Chris Weitz fell in love with a script about a poor illegal immigrant and single father chasing the American dream in East Los Angeles. Entitled The Gardener, the project would feature no stars, shoot on location in gang-affiliated L.A., and would never in a million years enjoy a hundred million dollar opening weekend. Weitz had to do it.

There were plenty of reasons not to make The Gardener (retitled A Better Life), which opens in limited release this Friday and may be an early awards-season contender, but Weitz had just as many reasons to do it, thus adding another surprise turn to his eclectic career. One was the story itself: A Better Life follows hard-working undocumented gardener Carlos (played beautifully and with tremendous grace and feeling by Mexican actor Demián Bichir, pictured above with Weitz) whose life savings and only hope for a future are lost in an instant when his truck is stolen. Desperate but clinging to hope, Carlos traverses the intimidating terrain of Los Angeles with his teenage son, Luis (José Julián), who only then discovers how much his father has sacrificed to give him the chance to succeed.

Movieline spoke with Weitz prior to his well-received debut at the L.A. Film Fest about how his Twilight stint made A Better Life possible, the isolation of living in Los Angeles, why he considers A Better Life to be an apolitical film that simply sits "near" the hot button issue of immigration in California, and which of his stars he thinks deserves a nomination at next year's Academy Awards.

Back while you were working on New Moon word came out that you wanted to next do a smaller film called The Gardener, which was renamed A Better Life. When did your passion to film this begin?

I was shown the script, which was then called The Gardener, and I immediately wanted to make it. It was the best thing that I'd read in 20 years of working here. It's written by Eric Eason, it's an amazing script. However, at one point I realized I needed to pay my mortgage, and so it was going to have to wait for a little while because I was going to have to live without really getting paid very much while making this movie for a year and a half. And also, to be honest, I was intrigued by the idea of making New Moon; I really liked the actors, I thought it'd be an interesting way to get back on the horse after Golden Compass had kind of thrown me.

Was that really the feeling you had after Golden Compass?

It was, because I felt that the movie that I wanted to make and the movie that the studio wanted were two different things. I wanted a film that was very faithful to Phillip Pullman's book, and the studio -- and it's in their right because it's their movie -- wanted a summer blockbuster, or a Christmas blockbuster, I suppose. And it ended up getting re-cut, and that was really devastating to me. So New Moon was kind of me doing what I thought was a very faithful book [adaptation] and getting back on track. But then the next thing to do was The Gardener, which I had to do; I sort of had to get it out of my system because it's kind of a hauntingly good script.

Your career has been a fascinating one to watch, since the beginning. For example, I first saw you in Chuck & Buck.

[Laughs] Wow! One of the few, the proud. Well, it was very strange; I read this article where my career was described as "schizophrenic," and I always like to do something different than the one that came before. The first thing that my brother and I did before directing American Pie, before it had come out, was to act in Chuck & Buck. We were like, "Let's do something really weird and uncompromising." I always like to do something different from the last time, but also I've never been a gigging director. I've never had something waiting in the hopper -- this is the first time that's actually happened -- and I don't develop a bunch of projects at once and choose whichever one seems to be working best. So it's a very inefficient way I have of making decisions and making movies, but what works for me in the end is making the movie that I feel I must make.

Many directors might see a Twilight gig as a stepping stone to getting bigger and bigger films, but you sort of did the opposite following New Moon, which was interesting, and it's your second film in a row at Summit. What's the secret of the relationship you have here?

I didn't have the Inception kind of thing in my mind, that Dark Knight was going to allow me to do. I had A Better Life, that New Moon was going to allow me to do -- not so much because it was a quid pro quo, because Summit didn't see the script for The Gardener until we were halfway through New Moon. They just liked it. I said, "You do understand that I'm not going to do anymore vampire movies?" And they said, "Yeah, we get it, it's OK -- we love this script, let's do it!" I think there was just this degree of trust established between me and Summit, whom I've known for a long time. I've known the people there for a long time, Patrick Wachsberger and Rob Friedman and Eric Feig, and they trust that I can deliver what I say I'm going to when I show them a script that they like, and I trust them in terms of keeping their promises and what they want, and also how avidly they're going to try to market something.

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