Director Chris Weitz talks 'A Better Life,' immigration issues

Filmmaker Chris Weitz admits his most recent film A Better Life has been a lot harder to let go than any of the other films he’s directed over the last 12 years, which include About a Boy, The Golden Compass, and New Moon.

Part of the reason Weitz has held the film so close to his heart is because he comes from a Latino background himself. His grandmother, Mexican actress Lupita Tovar, starred in the Spanish version of Dracula in 1931.

“It’s part of the reason I did the film and why it sticks with me,” Weitz told me during an exclusive interview for the DVD release of A Better Life.

A Better Life stars Demián Bichir (TV’s Weeds) as Carlos Galindo, an undocumented day laborer working to provide for his son Luis (José Julian) while living in Los Angeles.

I caught up with Weitz, 41, who was on his way to Bakersfield, California to accept an award from United Farm Workers of America co-founder Dolores Huerta.

What is it going to mean to receive an award from someone like Dolores Huerta for your work on A Better Life?

For this movie to make an impact on someone like her is extraordinary. She was fighting the good fight when it was dangerous and unfashionable to take on that kind of political cause. It’s an amazing seal of approval for the film. I am beyond honored to be receiving it.

HB56, a new immigration law making it legal for police officers to ask people for their immigration status, just passed in Alabama. What are your initial thoughts on the bill?

I think it’s disgusting. I think it’s a national shame. I think it shows how little understanding politicians have of the immigration issue. They’re acting like the 11 million undocumented people who are living in the shadows right now are taking jobs away from people. What they’re actually doing are taking the jobs nobody else is willing to do. What’s going to happen is that the fruits are going to rot in the field. Anytime these jobs are opened up to the average American, they don’t want to do it. These jobs are vital to our economy and generally done by immigrants from Mexico or Central America. The affect of this act is to tear apart families, frighten people who for the most part are good, church-going, hard-working people, and to enact federal policy as state law. There is no question the immigration system is broken. I don’t think anybody on either side of the aisle thinks everything hunky dory. The answer is actually something more like what President Regan did in ’86, which was to provide a path towards naturalization. The plan was never fully carried through. When this recession ends, we’re going to realize a lot of people we’ve been kicking out would be really helpful to us. These people are working in our healthcare industry and our agriculture industry.

What do you think is going to happen when fear overtakes these undocumented people in Alabama? I mean, parents are already pulling their kids from school. People aren’t showing up for work.

I think what’s going to happen is they’ll move on to another state. Rather than have the opportunity to integrate people into society, Alabama is pushing more people into the shadows, making them more desperate and exploited. In 1986, when people got a path toward citizenship, they had more incentive to invest in their schools, to buy houses, and to start their own businesses. The Center for American Progress has estimated that if these undocumented immigrants were naturalized, they could pump $1.5 trillion into the economy. It’s really important to acknowledge that you’re not going to remove all these people from this country. The estimated cost to do this is $200 billion. There’s never been a round up like that before. The only thing to compare it to would be the internment of Japanese Americans (in 1942) and that was on a much smaller scale. It can’t be done.

President Obama recently called immigration reform an “economic imperative.” However, three years since he took office we’re still waiting for a concrete plan. Do we need new leadership or can the Obama administration do something to finally get things moving forward?

I don’t think we need a change of administration. It’s obvious the Republicans aren’t going to do anything for immigrants. Two things can happen: Either the Obama campaign can decide to get tough now and put its money where its mouth is or they can do what it seems like their doing, which is play it softly hoping that a second term will allow them to enact reform later. Now, the question is whether Obama will be able to get the same voter base he did in 2008. We’ll have to see. There was something like a six million person shift in votes for Obama in the Latino community. How many of those people are going to come a vote again, who knows?

Were you prepared to answer questions about immigration reform when you decided to direct A Better Life?

I wasn’t really ready to take on questions in a political fashion. At the beginning, I just thought it was a great script. Then, I started going to conferences like the NCLR (National Council of La Raza) and the CHCI (Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute) and realized I had to start to learn my stuff. The more I learned, the more I realized the film – although it’s not political at all in its content – was timely with the issues at hand, whether its something about the Dream Act or dividing families or the faulty immigration processing system. I’ve been unable to depart from this movie in the way I’ve been able to with any other film. This one has really stuck with me. It’s good because I really wanted my career to turn a corner in some way, but I really didn’t know how. This movie provided that.

Not many people know you come from a Latino background yourself. Did that help connect you to this story in some way?

Yeah, it did. I was part of the first generation of my family not to speak Spanish, which is very much like the kid (Luis) in the movie. He lost touch with his roots and so had I. The movie was an excuse to learn Spanish. I felt the right way to make the movie was to have a bilingual set, crew and cast. It’s been a really invigorating experience. It’s made me understand Los Angeles better. It’s made me feel like a better citizen. I’m still learning Spanish. My grandma (Lupita Tovar) came to America when she was 17. She still lives here. She is 101 years old. She still has her Mexican citizenship. She’s been a resident alien for 84 years because she was proud of where she came from.

What do you think about Demián Bichir’s chances of earning an Academy Award nomination for his role?

It would be hard for me to handicap it, but I just know it’s rare for a movie to be carried on the shoulders of one actor like Demián. It is a wonderful thing when the Academy recognizes someone who is relatively little known in this country. I know we’re in the hunt, but we’re going to have to work hard to get ourselves a spot. If he gets a nomination, I think it would be a really wonderful thing for the Hispanic community and people who really care about this pressing issue.