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Screenwriters Talk A Better Life: From Capracorn and Social Realism to Weitz and Bichir

by Anne Thompson
June 25, 2011 2:08 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood


Indie dramas are the toughest movies to make. 'Twas ever thus. And so it took 22 years for A Better Life to hit screens--and Twilight: New Moon. Off that hit, director Chris Weitz was able to parlay some good will at Summit into backing a modest low key $10 million L.A. drama about a laconic, hard-working single father (Demian Bichir), an illegal immigrant gardener who wants the best for his son (Jose Julian). Sounds like Capracorn? Well, that's how Manito screenwriter Eric Eason described Roger Simon's original screenplay at our Landmark Cinema Q & A Thursday Night. The writer of Enemies, a Love Story was given the germ of an idea--a gardener's truck is stolen--and inspired a bit by Italian classic The Bicycle Thief, the story was born.

Years later. producer Paul Junger Witt gave Simon's script--after it hadn't gotten made by the likes of Luis Valdez (La Bamba) and Andy Garcia--to Eason for an update. He took it in a more neorealist direction, he says.

Thompson on Hollywood


AT: It all started with the real story of a gardener whose truck is stolen?
RS: That was how it began. I stayed with this project for ten or twelve years, many many versions of it. In The Bicycle Thief, the boy was five and the guy was still living with his wife. So there are two central dramas in this story: will he get his truck back? And the other is his relationship with his son -- will it get resolved? Of course in the original Bicycle Thief, he was just a five year old and he idolizes his father, as opposed to an Americanized teenager in East Los Angeles who is flirting with the gangs. So there was that totally different dynamic added to the story. At the same time, I removed the wife altogether. In Eric's version they sort of broke up, in mine I made it simple; she was just dead. That was easy. It put more weight of course on that central relationship. It made it more key to the story.

AT: Several people wanted to make this movie. Who were some of the key creative people involved?
RS: Luis Valdez was going to direct it at one point, I was going to direct it at one point, when Andy Garcia wanted to play the role, but we never raised the money. We were very close, or we thought we were. We had locations scouted, we had a kid to play the part of Luis then..the kid we had then is probably 25 now.

AT: What were the key differences between the two versions of the script?
RS: He took a lot of my stuff out of there, actually, I think it was good.

EE: The basic premise of the film is exactly the same as Roger's, it's a father-son story. It's a Mexican gardener and his son and they go on a journey to find the truck. Roger's screenplay, I think, was very ambitious, it had a lot of different elements and characters going on, it was Crapra-esque. The tone of it was a little bit different. He was trying to tell many different stories of LA. There was an Anglo character that factored into the narrative. The way they got the truck was different; he actually borrowed money from a loan shark. He had a dog in the film that was very important to the protagonist. So I tried to push my draft more towards social realism. I pared everything down and tried to focus everything on the father-son story. I took somewhat of a chance -- and I don't know if it works for everybody -- but almost tried to cut out any kind of B-plot. Roger had the son character much more active. I tried to have him here and there, sort of in between the gangs and on the precipice of making that decision. So I think it was a much more straightforward, simplified version than Roger's. And then Chris Weitz, the director, came in, and I think he breathed a lot of the warmth into the film. My draft, I think, was a lot colder. And I think he made the film a much more emotional experience. I don't think my script would have moved people the way this film does.

RS: I thought it was very good.
EE: Thanks.

RS: It's interesting because I've been an old dog in this business for awhile, and I think it's quite bizarre, happy-bizarre, and good luck, that something in 1989 ended up as as close to what it was in 2011, I mean, it's almost miraculous. It's like that game we play at birthday parties, "telephone," where you whisper something, like 'telephone' in someone's ear and it ends up as 'Tallahassee' by the sixth kid. It could have been like that, it could have been totally different, and it's not.

AT: Was the intense emotion between the father and son the same?
EE: I think in Roger's case the goals were kind of different, I think that was one of the things I discussed when I sat down with the producers, Paul Witt and Christian McLaughlin, in trying to take Roger's script in a different direction. In Roger's script there's a penultimate scene in a courtroom where a judge actually gives the hero an opportunity to leave and he doesn't take it, because he would have to lie and sort of go against his own code. He allows himself, effectively, to be deported. And I remember it worked in Roger's version but it just didn't gel in my conception of it because I said that the hero doesn't really care about the truck, he only cares about his son. The truck is just the means to do that, he would never allow himself to be deported. So there was a lot of examining the motivation and the goals of the characters in Roger's version and changing them to fit this really simplified version of just a father trying to save his son and all this other stuff is just in service of that.

AT: You also had that emotional line with the aunt/sister at the end.
EE: I thought that there could be more of an impact if, instead of going to a loan shark, he went to his sister and she furthermore couldn't even tell her husband about it; there was an increased tension if that's where he got the money for it. Because not only is he facing his own ruination, but he brought his sister into it.

AT: That scene where he's cinched high in the palm tree watching the guy steal his truck, completely freaked me out. That was a great idea.

EE: Chris did a great job with it too, because it was actually one of my favorite parts of my version of the script. He introduced this very cinematic sort of classical style, he mixes a lot of styles, when he's in the truck, with those POV shots, and the street, it could almost be, not a dogma film, but very documentary and very realistic. You kind of feel like you're in the hands of an Orson Welles. It's kind of spelled out with the crane shot and the sweeping moves, and the musical score. It's funny because the other night we went to the [LAFF] premiere in downtown LA and the town car picked us up in Sherman Oaks and we're driving through, going by all these gardeners, loading up their trucks and when we got to the theater, I just thought it was weird to see those, I literally saw fifteen people parked there, and then we got to the theater, all these people were crying around me at the end of the film. The only part I got emotional about was the truck theft. It's interesting because you start to think of the emotionality of camera moves and how effective something like a crane shot can be. And you can't write that in a script. I didn't say anything about that in the screenplay. It's all Weitz and the DP, Javier Aguirresarobe.

AT: Weitz also brought his own background and relationship to Mexico.
EE: Yeah, Chris has had a really interesting life. His father was an illegal alien. His father is much older than Chris, if he were alive today he'd be 90 years old. His father was an illegal alien in Nazi Germany. If he had been caught, he would have been killed. So he has that background, where his grandfather emigrates to the US from Czechoslovakia, his father immigrated from Germany, his grandmother is a Mexican silent film star who immigrated to the US, she's still alive now, she's 100 years old and never took US citizenship. So he's got a strong background in terms of the immigration aspect of the story.

AT: Roger, the old you wrote this screenplay, not the post-9/11 you, who became more conservative. And this movie has some political immigration issues. Are you comfortable with them?
RS: Yeah, the old Roger was in favor of open borders, in 1989 when I wrote this. Even until 2000 I was in favor of an open border for emotional reasons. I mean now, when you have a situation of drug cartels and Hezbollah training manuals…open borders aren't such an easy thing as before. But even now I would have given this character amnesty; he's a good man and he came here under an economic culture that we all live in. A guy like that was allowed here to do our gardening because no one else wanted to do it. Denying a man like that citizenship is just not fair. So I haven't changed my views about that.

AT: Was there a lot of discussion about how political the movie would be? Or how you would step away from an overt agenda?
EE: Yeah, no one wanted to make it didactic. I read Manohla Dargis' review in the New York Times earlier today and she said something kind of funny about how we've said in our press kit and in interviews how we don't really have a political agenda and she said, "Well, come on! You're certainly on the side of that." We didn't want to have anyone railing against the system or making speeches against the policy, we just wanted to represent somebody we felt an audience would see as a human being and maybe open their eyes to the problem and look at it possibly in a different light. There was never any desire to go beyond that. I think it makes a statement fairly clearly that you don't need to go much further than that.

AT: The Mexican actor, Demian Bichir, really delivers an authentic performance, beyond what any recognizable movie star would be able to do. He is a movie star, but we don't know him.
EE: Have you all seen him in [Steven] Soderbergh's Che? I saw him in that and I just thought he was amazing. It's funny, because when I was writing the screenplay I knew we'd never even go out to him, but I was always hearing Benicio Del Toro's voice in Traffic, this very dry delivery and thousand-yard stare through the whole thing. And when I gave the screenplay to the producers, I said 'Look, we'll never get him or Javier Bardem but it would be really cool if we could find someone who was just really understated and wasn't a known star but somebody who's kind of in touch with that,' and Demian, he really went the whole nine yards with his preparation. He bought a gardening truck and drove it every day to set, he put on thirty pounds for the role. He and the actor that played his son, José Julián, worked together and stayed in character for several days, calling each other by their character names. He did loads of other things, including working as a gardener, to get in a 'method' place to prepare for the role. He's not actually from this class in Mexico. He's a really famous actor from a theater family. He couldn't be any farther from this type of person.

AT: Was part of the difference between the types of movies the two of you wanted to make about the budget? Why was this movie so difficult? Is Twilight the reason it got made?

EE: It's Chris Weitz, 100%. No one would have financed this film if I had brought it to them. Independent film is pretty much dead unless you know a hedge fund manager. But it's the fact that Chris was willing to do this after Twilight, which made like $600 million worldwide.

RS: Independent film is like that game where you have balls and you're trying to juggle them and you want them to go into the holes at the same time but there's always one falling out over here and there. And this time, after 22 years, here we are. And we'll find out in a week or two if the public wants to go.

Paul Mazursky (from the audience): Did he actually climb up that tree?
EE: Yeah, he did.

PM: I'd like to hire him to do my house.

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