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In the Oscar-nominated Drama ‘A Better Life’, the practical details involved in filming the Galindos’ quest for the stolen vehicle took the cast and crew on an eye-opening road trip through Los Angeles.
“The movie had almost 70 locations which are more than in any film I have ever done,” says director Chris Weitz. “We spent very little time on the ground in any given place. The film shows you the city of Los Angeles – and not the easy-to-shoot Los Angeles! This is a Los Angeles that not many people see, places that have never gone through a location scout process.
Our location manager, Fermin Davalos, and his team did an incredible job of dealing with people who have not experienced Hollywood films in their backyard. In part, it was good since we got these places relatively inexpensively because people were enthusiastic about us shooting there, showing their neighborhoods and their lives.
In part, it was difficult because we grappled with real traffic noise, and places like the very small apartment in the script which was actually shot in a real location – a very small South Central L.A. apartment.” Perhaps the most exotic and favorite location was in southeastern Los Angeles, where Weitz took advantage of a real Mexican rodeo.
“There are some extraordinary places in Los Angeles that I had never seen before and the town of Pico Rivera was a perfect example of that. In Pico Rivera Stadium, they hold Mexican rodeo competitions. There’s a whole culture of people who keep this aspect of Northern Mexico’s ‘charro’ culture alive, which is extraordinary and beautiful and has its own system of meanings and expressions and costumes,” Weitz says.
In order to authentically capture this unique tradition, Weitz incorporated the movie scenes into the actual rodeo as it occurred one Saturday afternoon. The production reached out to the community, and people showed up in full charro garb – the men and boys wearing broad brimmed sombreros, ornately brocaded, fitted, short jackets and matching pants, expertly twirling fancy lariats – the women and girls in colorful, long, broad skirts with elaborate ruffles and petticoats performing daring feats while riding their horses side-saddle.
“When Carlos takes Luis to the rodeo, it’s ostensibly as part of their hunt for the truck. At first the son resists being there – he’s a typical American teen and he doesn’t have tremendous respect for his father. But in terms of his cultural background, Luis is completely cut loose from his moorings. And in this lovely sequence in the Pico Rivera stadium, he sees it for the first time as we see it for the first time. It was very special,” Weitz describes.
Locations such as the Pico Rivera rodeo, coupled with the characters who inhabited them, served as inspirations for production designer Melissa Stewart. “Chris and I both felt a commitment to the naturalism of the story and keeping it very real, especially to people and places we were depicting. It was a bit of an emotional and geographic road trip and we wanted to make sure the settings reflected that,” says Stewart.
“For me, the design work always starts with the characters. And the characters in this script that Eric Eason wrote are just so well-wrought, they are a gift. So I was really excited about the challenges of putting them in a world that wasn’t familiar to me, but to imbue in them a sort of lyricism and truth, without embellishing them,” Stewart says.
“There were a lot of truths in Eric Eason’s storytelling that we tried to honor. Costume Designer Elaine Montalvo and I talked at length about the colors and textures – we tried to make them warm and almost tangible, very approachable, but not overly colorful. We didn’t want anything too obvious. Chris and Javier, our cinematographer, had very specific ideas and it was a wonderful collaboration,” Stewart says.
Weitz and Spanish-born cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe took great care to highlight the beauty and dignity in these singular settings. Thus, a seemingly ordinary shot of a car pulling away from a modest East LA neighborhood reveals the glimmering skyline of downtown Los Angeles at dusk, the setting sun leaving a trace of purple cloud across the horizon.
“I think that the people who live in the barrio don’t have the feeling about their home that people think they do. That is to say they don’t think they are living in a TV show about living in the slums. They are living their lives and those lives have joy and beauty and happiness, as well as ugliness and occasional violence and heartbreak.
Having said that, neither did we want an overindulgent and overly sentimentalized portrayal of our characters. It was really important that the film be very well designed, for that someone like Melissa Stewart, to lavish affection on it, and for someone like Javier to bring an unjaded, outsider’s perspective to the landscapes we show of Los Angeles,” Weitz says.
To accomplish this, Weitz and Aguirresrobe eschewed the documentary, hand-held approach and instead relied on shots framed very deliberately but without extraneous camera movement that Weitz describes as “fussy or hectic.” “In fact, the camera is essentially occupied in telling the emotional story of the characters, but there is a great deal of faith put in the value of the story and the abilities of the actors, without using emphatic camera moves to ‘juice up’ the emotions,” says Aguirresarobe.
Some of that definition, he adds, comes from the distinction between where Carlos Galindo lives and the more rarefied places he works. “I thought it would be interesting photographically to depict the difference between these worlds, the exquisite and wonderful neighborhoods and gardens he works in West Los Angeles as compared to where he lives in East Los Angeles.
The initial proposition was that the tones would be much colder where he works and much warmer and denser and familiar where he lives,” Aguirresarobe says.
Although A Better Life is Aguirresarobe’s second collaboration with Weitz—they first worked together on New Moon—it was, in fact, Aguirresarobe’s first film in Los Angeles. It was not exactly a typical American experience for him, however, as the filmmakers deliberately hired Spanish speakers, in front of and behind the camera. Aguirresarobe rarely had to switch from his native language to English.
“All of the characters who were supposed to have been born in Mexico are Mexican actors; the characters who are Mexican American are Mexican American. So that means that often entire scenes are spoken in Spanish,” Weitz says.
“We were a very polyglot film from all around the world – Anglos, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Spaniards – our set was pretty much bilingual. In preparation for the film, I took an intensive Spanish course. I can’t say I was fluent but I was much better and the set itself was like a full-on immersion course,” Weitz says.