Weitz Recruits Ex-Gang Members For 'A Better Life'

Director Chris Weitz is out with a movie about an illegal immigrant from Mexico who's working as a gardener in Los Angeles, and trying to keep his son out of gang life. Weitz tells Renee Montagne that the people playing gang members in the movie used to belong to gangs.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Spend time driving around Los Angeles and you sure to spot an old pickup truck loaded down with the rakes, tools and a lawnmower. In the early mornings here, a fleet of those trucks, owned by mostly Latino gardeners, spreads out across the city to tend yards from Malibu to the Hollywood Hills.

A new movie imagines the life of one of these men, Carlos Galindo. He's an illegal immigrant from Mexico, raising his American-born teenager by himself in East L.A. neighborhood dominated by gangs.

In this scene, Carlos proudly shows his son, Luis, the truck he just bought from his old boss.

(Soundbite of movie, "A Better Life")

Mr. DEMIAN BICHIR (Actor): (as Carlos Galindo) So, what do you think?

Mr. JOSE JULIAN (Actor): (as Luis Galindo) Blasco's truck? Yeah, it's all right. I've seen it before.

Mr. BICHIR: (as Carlos Galindo) It's not Blasco's truck anymore. It's ours.

Mr. JULIAN: (as Luis Galindo) You ain't got a license.

Mr. BICHIR: (as Carlos Galindo) Dont say that too loud, okay? This trucks my only chance to make this grow into something big, so we can move out of here and get you in a better school.

MONTAGNE: The movie is called "A Better Life." It's directed by Chris Weitz. His last film was "New Moon" of the "Twilight" series. And now he's moved from fantasy to a gritty realism. Plus, he's connected with a piece of his own history: His grandmother was a famous actress in Mexico who moved to Hollywood.

For Carlos, the father in "A Better Life," that move has meant a life of quiet struggle.

Mr. CHRIS WEITZ (Director, A Better Life): Like a lot of undocumented immigrants here, he wants to remain invisible. He wants to keep his head down, and his life is dominated by anxiety about whether he will be found out. And his aim is to work hard enough to support his son. But that also defines their relationship because he's working so hard seven days a week that he is not really there to spend time with his son.

MONTAGNE: Let's play another clip from early in the film, when Luis asked his father for money - he says he needs it for school. And then the father is pretty skeptical.

(Soundbite of movie, "A Better Life")

Mr. BICHIR: (as Carlos Galindo) Since when do you go to school?

Mr. JULIAN: (as Luis Galindo) Every day.

Mr. BICHIR: (as Carlos Galindo) Hmm, right. How many days have you missed this year?

Mr. JULIAN: (as Luis Galindo) I don't know - 18, 19.

Mr. BICHIR: (as Carlos Galindo) Thats so much time, Luis. I don't want you to miss school no more. Schools important. It's everything.

Mr. JULIAN: (as Luis Galindo) Oh si, Professor?

Mr. BICHIR: (as Carlos Galindo) Si, Professor? You want to end up like me?

Mr. JULIAN: (as Luis Galindo) No.

MONTAGNE: Small exchange but really quite fraught.

Mr. WEITZ: It's very fraught. You know, one thing that's worth remarking is that this exchange is in English, because the son - although he can probably understand Spanish pretty well - prefers to speak the language of the dominant culture. And later in this scene, Luis jokingly says he's going to mug somebody for the money. But the joke isnt too, too far from what could happen to Luis if he is kind of sucked into the gravitational well of the gang life.

MONTAGNE: You have characters in this movie who are heavily tattooed.

Mr. WEITZ: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: And they seem so much like they are real, its hard true imagine that their actors.

Mr. WEITZ: They are all former gang members. You know, we had first tried to cast the gang members from the ranks of professional actors, and so you get a guy who'd been in "Training Day" and this episode of "CSI." And something just didn't seem right and we decided to do an open casting call at Homeboy Industries.

MONTAGNE: And Homeboy Industries for people, it's an organization in East L.A., largely Latino, that over many years has provided jobs and support to guys and now also young women getting out of the gang life.

Mr. WEITZ: Exactly. And so when you see a gang member in the film, it's a guy who's been in the gang. I mean there is one case where one of our extras was going to have to recharge his ankle bracelet, or a SWAT team was going to show up in an hour and a half.

The only gang member who is actually an actor was somebody who's playing a gang member from Central America, towards the end of the film. And the reason is that I wanted no part of Mara Savatrucha. Those guys are...

MONTAGNE: The Salvadoran gangs...

Mr. WEITZ: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...very tough, very vicious gangs.

Mr. WEITZ: Really, really dangerous.

MONTAGNE: In contrast to that is the hard-working father, Carlos. When he gets this truck it's a doorway to a whole other world.

Mr. WEITZ: Uh-huh.

MONTAGNE: The big change happens when this truck that is so precious to him is almost instantly taken away. It's stolen.

Mr. WEITZ: Yeah. Yeah.

MONTAGNE: And then that takes you through the rest of the movie, as he and his son tried and chase down this truck.

Mr. WEITZ: Yes.

MONTAGNE: And his son begins to see things that he's never seen before and, he, though he's Latino, never really understood. He sees people in an apartment, sharing a room - terrible conditions.

Mr. WEITZ: He sees people who are sleeping in shifts in bunk beds that have been set up in kitchens and living rooms, and the lengths to which people are willing to go to survive.

MONTAGNE: While he also sees - Luis, the son - also sees some real beauty in his culture that he didn't know existed. They end up going to a Mexican rodeo.

Mr. WEITZ: It's extraordinary. There is a Mexican rodeo ring in Pico Rivera, 30 miles from where we sit right now in Los Angeles. And the people who perform in them are charros; they're the Mexican equivalent of cowboys. And they show their skills in these absolutely gorgeous costumes; beautiful brocaded outfits with sombreros. And the women ride in sidesaddle in these beautiful, poofy skirts in kind of these coordinated equestrian ballets. And it is really something quite extraordinary.

And in the course of their kind of odyssey to find this truck, Luis sees the culture of his father's part of Mexico. And the father sees everything that he's left behind, kind of boils down to a quintessence. And it's both very beautiful and somewhat melancholy.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. It's a lovely moment in the film.

Chris Weitz, I just wonder, Carlos is in the U.S. illegally.

Mr. WEITZ: Thats true.

MONTAGNE: And given what an issue that is here, how much did you think about that when you were making this film? How much was this film something you wanted people to know?

Mr. WEITZ: A lot. I mean I wanted people to know a lot. But I hoped that when people go and see this film, they think it's not a tub-thumping movie. We don't really have a political agenda. It's simply that when you turn a camera on somebody, it's hard not to sympathize with them.

I doubt it's going to change the mind of anyone who is particularly hard-core about immigration reform. But what it does show, I think, is a not unrealistic portrait of a man who's working very hard to do what any of us would do to stay in this country.

MONTAGNE: Chris Weitz, thank you for joining us.

Mr. WEITZ: Thank you very much for the chance to talk about the movie.

(Soundbite of a music)

MONTAGNE: Director Chris Weitz. His new film, "A Better Life," opens this week.

And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

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