After a 20-year journey, A Better Life, the father-son story of an immigrant gardener whose truck is stolen, finally makes it to the big screen with a screenplay by Eric Eason, story by Roger L.Simon and a nod to Vittorio De Sica.
Written by Rob Feld
Screenplays can live long, multifaceted lives in Hollywood yet never get born. Roger L. Simon had been the father of one such child until it was adopted by Eric Eason twentysomething years later and turned into a contemporary drama, directed by Chris Weitz.
A Better Life began when television and film producer Paul Junger Witt was told a story about a friend’s illegal immigrant gardener in L.A. whose truck had been stolen and was unable to go to the police for fear of being deported. It was 1989, and Simon was carrying around a newly minted Oscar nomination for Enemies: A Love Story, with all the popularity that brings when Witt called him in.
“Do you think there’s a movie in that or not?” Witt queried.
Simon did and by his own account jumped at it. He was a fan of Italian Neorealism and drew a great deal from Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. and Bicycle Thieves as he set about telling the story of a Los Angeles illegal immigrant and his son, whose chance to build a better life for them and keep his son from crime is dashed when the heart of his gardening business, his truck, is stolen.
“It was always a father-son story, with the son being older than the son in Bicycle Thieves so that he would have a choice in life,” says Simon, who has a Story By credit on the final movie. “In the Bicycle Thieves, the son is lovely but more of a prop, whereas the initial conception here was to derive tension from two things: Would the hero get arrested and sent back to Mexico? And, obviously, getting his truck back while not a citizen, which is harder because you can’t call the police. Also, making the son older and prey to the gangs was my original conception to provide the emotional tension between father and son, which Eric’s script preserved.”
Photo: ©2011 Summit Entertainment LLC
Demián Bichir and José Julián in A Better Life.
Columbia sat on Simon’s script, and he continued to write for Witt on spec, with the agreement that he would direct. Andy Garcia got involved and Simon started scouting locations in the late, ‘90s but the money never came through.
“I stayed with the project until the early 2000s,” says Simon. “I just burned out on it after a while. Not that I didn’t love it, I did, it was sort of heartbreaking. Fade out, fade in, the new team came in and got it made, and I’m completely pleased with the result.”
By the time Paul Witt finally brought on Eason (Journey to the End of the Night), Witt had carried it as a passion project for over 20 years.
“Eric was chosen based upon our reading of his entire body of work,” says Witt. “His great compassion for his characters, his understanding of their specific culture and their sense of family made him ideal for A Better Life.”
Eason’s treatment cut a dog named Flag in homage to Umberto D. and a screenwriter character Simon loosely based on himself. “What Eric and Chris Weitz did was completely isolate the gardener in the world of illegals and not have him interact with the outside,” says Simon. “I like what they did. The heart of the movie is the same, the structural differences are different choices, and I understand why they made them, though the character is the same; I call him the Zen Gardener – he was very into himself and very moral.”
Eason, who grew up in New York and moved with his wife to Buenos Aires for a change of pace, comes from a filmmaking background; his aunt was an actress in the ‘50s, and he has both an uncle and a cousin with Oscars. He made some short films and his first feature, Manito, about two brothers in Latino Washington Heights, won a string of festival and nominations and awards in 2002.
A Better Life is the first screenplay you’ve written that you didn’t direct, as well. Can you tell me how the project came to you?
Eric Eason: I’d previously worked on a different writing assignment for Paul Witt and Christian McLaughlin. That project never came to fruition, alas, but a few years later Paul and Christian contacted me about rewriting A Better Life, and I jumped at the chance to work with them again. Roger Simon’s basic story and general setting held a strong attraction for me for a number of reasons, the least of which was that the national immigration debate seems to be an insoluble issue. But here was a chance to write something timely and relevant that might open some minds.
How did you decide to focus the story, then?
Eric Eason: I proposed a page-one re-conception of the screenplay; retaining its basic premise while greatly enhancing the father-son relationship, predicating everything around its dramatic outcome. In Roger’s draft, there was a lot going on; lots of subplots, supporting characters –
Russian loan sharks, Samoan criminals – robbery scenes. It was Capra-esque in ambition and tone. For example, the hero’s dog shows up in a penultimate courtroom scene and barks at the judge (neither the dog nor the courtroom are in my version). This isn’t a knock on Roger. Simply, his draft read more like a fable and tackled many stories. My approach was to root everything in realism and focus only on the father and son story.
Tell me more about that sense of veracity and the efforts you made to create it.
Eric Eason: I should start by saying that I’m not Latino but my first feature film, Manito, was set in the Latino world. And one of the things I’m most proud of is that audiences and critics felt it was an honest and realistic portrayal. I wanted to bring the same sense of veracity to the writing of A Better Life. I did a lot of conventional research visiting East L.A., interviewing people face to face and over the phone. And then, before I sat down to begin the actual writing of the script, I went on LEXIS-NEXUS and culled hundreds of articles about my key subjects; stories about single parents getting deported, the failed L.A. school system, gang culture, East L.A. projects, etc. From these articles I would cut out memorable passages and paste them around my office on index cards. Then, before starting work each day, I would read through each passage so as to keep all the themes fresh in my head. I also did some unconventional research utilizing YouTube. I would pull up hours and hours of videos posted by people from East Los Angeles: teenage kids who filmed themselves in school yards, family weddings, parties, gang initiation footage, music videos by Chicano Rappers. I literally must have viewed 700 different videos which helped my picking up cadences of speech and slang use, not to mention more subtle things like hairstyles, wardrobes, humor, etc. To be clear, I’m not advocating that a writer should solely do his or her research using YouTube, but as a compliment to more conventional means, it can be a treasure trove.
You speak Spanish, yes?
Eric Eason: I’ve lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina for the last five years so I can get around in Spanish, but I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable writing in it. One of the great things Chris Weitz did as director was to lean heavily on his actors, many of whom were born and raised in East L.A. If one of my slang lines rang false, Chris would ask the actors to offer a “truer,” more current version. And that kind of input adds another layer of veracity to the story.
What are your hopes for the film?
Eric Eason: My hope is that the film moves people so that they open their hearts and minds about immigration reform. To be clear, the film shies away from coming down on any side of the issue. But on a personal note, I have three family members who happen to be married to undocumented immigrants from Central America (Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras). I've seen how much strain and fear they live with because of their pariah-like status. And I also have seen how much they’ve contributed to this country. It would be a fine thing if A Better Life helped to jump-start the debate and steer the country to a compassionate solution.