TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, film director Chris Weitz, is from a film family. His grandmother was a star of silent Mexican films. His grandfather was an agent who represented Billy Wilder and Marlene Dietrich, among others. His mother, Susan Kohner, co-starred in the 1959 film "Imitation of Life." Weitz and his brother Paul are both directors. They co-directed "American Pie" and "About a Boy." More recently, Chris Weitz directed "New Moon," the second film in the Twilight vampire series.
His new film, "A Better Life," is about a single father who is an illegal Mexican immigrant in Southern California working for low wages as a gardener, hoping to give his teenage son the opportunities he never had, but the son has no respect for his father or the work he's doing and is being drawn into gang life.
In the hope of trying to capture the realities of gang culture in L.A., Chris Weitz consulted with Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries, an organization dedicated to helping former gang members.
One of the paradoxes of the film is that, you know, the father is here illegally. So every second he's here, he's breaking the law, but yet he tries to live within the limits of the law and to do things as respectfully as he can. But the son is on the verge of joining a gang and falling into, you know, a life of violence and crime.
And the son has really very little respect for his father. He thinks his father's kind of a chump for working so hard as the gardener in wealthy people's homes, making very little money and just kind of scraping by.
Mr. CHRIS WEITZ (Film Director): Well, the son thinks that what his father does is undignified and servile. And he knows that the television tells him that if you don't have a big house and a fast car, you don't really matter for much. On some level, he also feels that - this is the son - that he's never going to reach that world, either, that he's stuck in the kind of turf of his neighborhood. Which is another thing that's forcing him towards gang life.
And Carlos, his father, meanwhile, is very law-abiding except for the one obvious exception. He has a tremendous kind of ethical backbone.
GROSS: When you were casting people who were former gang members, did you do regular casting calls, or did you just meet them and think oh, they'd be perfect?
Mr. WEITZ: We started casting the normal way you would do, which is to find an actor to play a gang member. And the guys who came in were generally people who were familiar with the neighborhood and were familiar with the way that gang members might act but who, you know, made their daily bread by re-presenting to casting agents and to directors what they thought that they wanted to see, which is kind of a hyper version and kind of the version that Father Boyle had an objection to.
And we decided then to do an open casting call at Homeboy Industries not knowing what we would get. Richard Cabral, who we cast as Marcelo, kind of one of the tough guys in the neighborhood, just emerged as a kind of a natural presence and a natural actor amongst that bunch of people.
And it felt eventually right just in terms of who we cast. I think they brought just - even in the way that someone sits or walks or looks, you get a sense of authenticity, even if it isn't exactly what you thought it was going to be.
GROSS: So he is a former gang member?
Mr. WEITZ: He's a former gang member, yeah.
GROSS: I thought he was great. I thought he really had a lot of charisma. I could hardly understand a word he was saying.
Mr. WEITZ: Well, I think there's sort of a reason for that, which is that in many cases, in order to portray things realistically, we had to settle for the fact that the jargon is almost like a different language and to believe that an audience unused to that world would understand what was going on largely through tone.
I mean, even when there's a scene with high-schoolers, they are using a jargon that is relatively unknown outside of that neighborhood. So when they're referring to police, they're talking about hutas(ph) and that sort of thing. And when they're talking about marijuana, they're talking about yeska(ph).
But we preferred that over sort of instant translation. And we could have had -I mean, there's Spanish spoken in this movie. It's about 30 percent in Spanish with subtitles. And we preferred that to the equivalent of what you see in World War II movies sometimes, which is actors speaking in funny German accents when they're supposed to be Nazis rather than speaking German.
But Richard Cabral has the bearing that he learns to have through years of gang-banging and brought that to the screen.
GROSS: So your grandmother was a silent film star in Mexico. I think few Americans would know who she was, but some of the actors in your new movie are people who are movie stars in Mexico. Did they know her work?
Mr. WEITZ: They did, yeah, of course, because to Mexican actors, she's something like Mary Pickford. I mean, other than Dolores Del Rio, there's probably in Mexico not a more famous old-timey movie actress.
But I should also say she was in some American films, because in the silent era, it didn't really matter. And that there's a lovely story about my grandfather wanting to keep my grandmother in America when talkies came along, and her Mexican accent obviously showed through.
And he convinced Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal at the time, that they should shoot Spanish-language versions of films shooting in English on the same sets but starting at midnight, and so there's a Spanish version of "Dracula" shot on the same sets as the Todd Browning version, but all in Spanish.
GROSS: You know, and I thought about that because I'd known that story about your grandmother, and I thought about that when you made "New Moon," the second in the "Twilight" series, which is, of course, about a vampire because...
Mr. WEITZ: The vampire connection, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, there's a vampire - now, you couldn't have had more different vampires, but nevertheless, vampires they are. Did you think about that when you decided to sign on for "New Moon"?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WEITZ: Absolutely not. It sort of didn't play a role. I mean, I would love to see a through-line saying this is sort of in some way a tribute to my grandma, but really what the case was, I had already decided to do "A Better Life."
I knew that doing that would be a sort of a year-and-a-half to two-year process in which I would be making an independent film and not really paying the mortgage. And I thought, well, I'm going to have to make a big movie.
And then "New Moon" was offered to me, and I am a tremendous fan of Kristen Stewart and of the kids who are in that film. And I thought, well, this is going to be an interesting exercise in style, because I already know that I want to sort of deliver a very faithful rendition of the book, but I'm going to take it to a very romantic, wide-screen, old-fashioned place.
And that's how I met Javier Aguirresarobe, the amazing Spanish DP, to sort of compose things the way that I wanted to, and that's how Javier ended up working on this film. And part of, I think, the strengths of "A Better Life" is the outsider's eye that he brings to Los Angeles. He's not conditioned by any preconceived notions about the city.
GROSS: So I want to play a clip from "New Moon," and this kind of showcases something I find really kind of interesting about the film. You know, the film is from the point of view of a teenage girl in high school who's in love with this vampire, played by Robert Pattinson. And so you have this kind of teenage version of very, like, hyperemotional things about, you know, being in love and saying goodbye and like one soul and all that.
But it's kind of set in this, like, slightly mumbly teenage way, and at the same time, you have this, like, soaring, old-fashioned Hollywood movie music behind you. Kind of like you'd hear, maybe, in a Douglas Sirk film. And so this is a scene where Edward, played by Robert Pattinson, has just told Bella, played by Kristen Stewart, that he's ending their relationship and leaving her after she was nearly killed by one of his brother vampires. And she wants to go with him, but he won't let her.
So what I want our listeners to listen to here is the contrast between, lie, the dialogue and that - that really contemporary kind of dialogue and that really soaring, old-fashioned movie music behind it. Here we go.
(Soundbite of film, "Twilight: New Moon")
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. ROBERT PATTINSON (Actor): (As Edward) Can you just promise me something? Don't do anything reckless, for Charlie's sake. And I'll promise something to you in return: This is the last time you'll ever see me. I won't come back. And you can go on with your life without any interference from me. It'll be like I never existed, I promise.
Ms. KRISTEN STEWART (Actor): (As Bella) If this is about my soul, take it. I don't want it without you.
Mr. PATTINSON: (As Edward) It's not about your soul. You're just not good for me.
Ms. STEWART: (As Bella) Not good enough for you.
Mr. PATTINSON: (As Edward) I'm just sorry I let this go on for so long.
Ms. STEWART: (As Bella) Please. Don't.
GROSS: And the music is by Alexandre Desplat, who also did "Fantastic Mr. Fox." He's a really, really good composer. Did you intentionally want that kind of contrast between, you know, that old-school kind of music and the contemporary teenagers?
Mr. WEITZ: Well, it hadn't - it didn't occur to me from the beginning, but that was kind of the set of conditions that I had, which is actors who were deadly intent upon making these characters as realistic as possible in terms of the cadences of their speech and how they behaved, but I also wanted to make a film that encapsulated, I think, the feeling the fans had about the books, which was that they were these great romances.
And being a fan of wide-screen romantic filmmaking, when it came time to working with Alexandre, who I'd worked with before and who also did the score for "A Better Life," I unleashed - I told him to unleash his Romantic French tendencies. And I don't just mean that in a cutesy way. I meant in terms of the French, you know, Romantic musical movement.
GROSS: And he's French, yeah.
Mr. WEITZ: And he's French to boot. So there is a kind of a really interesting contrast going on, where there's a weird setting. Javier Aguirresarobe's cinematography is deeply lush and beautiful, and within that, there are people experiencing, speaking like normal teens except for the fact that they're talking about being vampires and about their souls.
But I think that the experience of being a teenager and being broken up with is, you know, often these very kind of mumbly declarations of what seem at the time to be life-and-death feelings.
GROSS: Right. You know, as I was thinking, wow, this is the kind of music you'd hear in a Douglas Sirk film, I was thinking, well, your mother was in a Douglas Sirk film. She was in "Imitation of Life," Susan Kohner. Is it Ko-ner or Kon-ner? How do you pronounce it?
Mr. WEITZ: Ko-ner.
GROSS: Kohner, thank you.
Mr. WEITZ: Susan Kohner. My mother played Sarah Jane, who's the daughter of an African-American housemaid who can pass as white. Half of "Imitation of Life" is concerned with that family story. Yeah, and my mom, although very modest, was nominated for an Academy Award for that role. And I suppose part of the reason that I have this deep fondness and reverence for classical films, not just speaking about Sirk, but going back even further, is that my family has been involved in movies for a long, long time.
My grandfather was Ingmar Bergman's agent. He was Billy Wilder's agent, William Wilder's agent, and so to me these films are very much present.
GROSS: So when you made "New Moon," did you have to get into the mind of a teenage girl and figure out what is a teenage girl's romantic fantasies like?
Mr. WEITZ: Well, I had the book to guide me, but also I think I'm a bit of a teenage girl myself, actually.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: In what ways exactly?
Mr. WEITZ: I think I spent most of my late teens and 20s pining after people who were never going to come back. So I felt - you know, I remember explaining this to Stephenie Meyer, and maybe she didn't believe me. And everybody thinks that men are nothing but dogs and philanderers, but I was - you know, I had read too many 19th-century English novels, and I was very, very romantic.
So having the book, having Kristen, who's an exceptional, exceptional actor, and then having that melancholic tendency in myself, I think we were okay.
GROSS: And one more thing about "New Moon." There are werewolves in it. The main werewolf is played by Taylor Lautner, but then there's, like, when they're actually the wolves, are those, like special-effect wolves? Are those, like, computer-generated graphic wolves or...?
Mr. WEITZ: Oh yeah. Yes.
GROSS: So you didn't have to worry about directing large, unusual animals?
Mr. WEITZ: No, it's - we - it's best not to deal with animals because they never do what you want them to do. I had a few live...
GROSS: Especially the part where they have to - one of them has to look, like, longingly at Kristen Stewart.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: The way that a wolf is very unlikely to.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WEITZ: We could have held out a piece of bacon or something where Kristen was supposed to be. In "The Golden Compass," we had mostly CGI animals, but I thought it would be very clever of me if the people who had gone through the sort of process to separate themselves from their spirit demons, with those people, we used actual animals.
And then I learned the joy of working with actual animals, especially multiple animals, which is that half of the time, they're looking for food or copulating.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WEITZ: And that wasted a lot of takes. So no, it was all CGI wolves on this one. That was one of the things I insisted upon, as well as the fact that they're supposed to be the size of horses. But they had to be photo-realistic.
GROSS: So did you grow up thinking of the movies as the family business?
Mr. WEITZ: Not really. The family business was what my father was doing, which was design. You know, my father was a designer and also, strangely, a biographer of prominent Nazis because he had fought in the Second World War. He had been in the OSS, which was the precursor to the CIA. So his knowledge of the inner workings of the Nazi Party was kind of unparalleled.
And that - actually I think that's what my father loved the most, and that would have been the family business for me would be history or writing.
GROSS: I grew up in the '50s and '60s and watched so many World War II movies on television. And so, like, the Nazis were very present in my life when I was growing up because they were always on television, and so I grew up, like, really living in fear of the Nazis, even though that was over.
So with your father focusing so much on Nazi history, and I think - did his father flee Nazi Germany?
Mr. WEITZ: He did eventually, almost too late. His father had fought on the Eastern front in World War I, for the Germans, and been awarded an Iron Cross, and was one of the very assimilated Jews who almost left too late.
GROSS: So did you grow up, like, afraid of the Nazis and everything that they represented? Did it seem very present to you, as opposed to something safely in the past?
Mr. WEITZ: It was very present but strangely familiar, because my dad was so steeped in that culture. I mean, if you can imagine growing up in - my father's office had a signature of Adolf Hitler in it, which is, you know, in some ways creepy, but in some ways he knew his enemy so well.
And, you know, I was the guy who organized his library when he was doing his research. So there were all of these books, in both English and German, about the Nazi Party. And he was so familiar with the workings of it and so constantly, I suppose, trying to work out how to still love Germany in spite of what had happened, that it was a constant presence.
GROSS: Yeah, I understand what you're saying. And I want say, so it doesn't sound too weird or insensitive what I was just talking about, Nazis in terms of movies on television.
Mr. WEITZ: Not in the least.
GROSS: I mean, my parents were also of the generation where family who stayed behind in Europe never...
Mr. WEITZ: Lost their lives.
GROSS: Yeah, never survived. So whether it was talked about or not, you always, like, you always knew about that.
Mr. WEITZ: Right, well, actually it was funny when you mention watching these movies on television. It was actually difficult and amusing to watch World War II movies with my father because he would always spot mistakes in the German order of battle and uniform errors. And he'd constantly be scoffing at the work that the historical advisor and costumer had done.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WEITZ: So it made it a little less scary.
GROSS: Do you think you'll ever do a Nazi Germany movie?
Mr. WEITZ: I think that for me and for my brother, it would be fascinating to do a movie of my father's story because it's really extraordinary. He left Berlin when he was 10 to go to school in England. When he moved to America, which is when he was, I think 19, he joined the Army immediately and was recruited into the OSS because of his German language skills.
And he looked Aryan. So he did work towards the end of the war, when Germany was already essentially beaten, posing as an SS officer who was missing from his unit. That's why he knew his order of battle so well, in case - lest he be caught out. And he broke a cell of Nazi resistance to the Allied occupation at the end of the war.
So his story is pretty extraordinary, and to tell that would be amazing.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. WEITZ: Thank you so much for having me. It was a delight.
GROSS: Chris Weitz directed the new film "A Better Life." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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