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Oscar-nominated drama ‘A Better Life’ addresses the illusions of the ‘American dream’ from the point of view of the hardworking immigrant Carlos and his teenage son.
In 2008, the United States Census listed the percentage of “persons of Hispanic or Latino origins” in Los Angeles as 47.7%. That figure doesn’t include the many undocumented people, usually seen congregating at corners near construction sites, doing odd jobs each day, including tending to gardens all over the Southland, just to make ends meet. As contemporary as A Better Life seems, however, producer Paul Junger Witt has spent 25 years bringing this story to the screen.
“We have this invisible population in Los Angeles, that because we’re so geographically separated in Los Angeles that we really don’t know who we live with in the way that people in cities that have a smaller geographic area or have a public transportation system come to know one another. I started thinking about it as a film,” Witt says.
Witt began working with Roger L. Simon to draft a script based around this concept. “It was a pleasure to work for several years on what became A Better Life. Rarely do you get a chance in Hollywood to devote your talents to such a socially and emotionally meaningful project,” Simon conveys.
As luck would have it, about 25 years later, Witt shared office space with producer Christian McLaughlin. “I gave him one of the drafts to read and Christian responded as I had,” Witt explains.
The office neighbors became friends and McLaughlin was eager to work with the famed producer of films such as Three Kings and Dead Poets Society. “I really like Paul as a person and as a filmmaker. He has an incredible track record and is a total gentleman,” said McLaughlin. “I felt Roger Simon’s script provided a rich starting point for a movie. Not only did the immigrant backdrop of the story have a strong pull, the father-son relationship resonated for me on a personal level that transcended culture.”
Eventually, McLaughlin would bring screenwriter Eric Eason into the process. He and Witt made the risky bet of paying him themselves, in order to retain creative control of the story. “When I started developing the film, I thought of Eric, whom I previously hired for another project.
He also wrote and directed Manito, and in that film, he authentically depicted the way New York teenagers talk and behave. I thought he would understand and embrace the story, which he did,” remembers McLaughlin. “Eric has a gift for writing characters in an artful, compelling way that make you feel like you’re watching real people you’d pass on the street. I knew he was the writer who would make this story come alive.”
Manito, set in the vibrant Spanish-speaking neighborhood of Washington Heights, follows two brothers who grapple with the community’s crack cocaine legacy, and in many ways, is a cousin to A Better Life which, at its core, is also a family drama. “This project was a chance to work on something with a true heart and soul, with themes that had the potential to resonate across cultures,” Eason says.
Witt concurs, adding that although the movie would dovetail with current controversial immigration issues, at its heart, A Better Life is a human film. “The film has no political agenda. It puts a face on a population that until now, especially in Los Angeles, has been invisible. Los Angeles is unique in some respects but the story could happen anywhere.
And the times have changed since we started. Sometimes stories take a while to reach their most simple and elegant form. The fact that the timing now works so well for the film, the story we’re telling, is purely accidental,” he says.
Says Eason, “Audiences don’t want to be preached to. They want to be entertained and have an emotional experience. If there’s any agenda in my screenplay–it’s a desire to bring to life characters living in the margins of society, whose stories virtually never appear in studio films.”
Adds McLaughlin, “In the film, when we first meet the Galindos, it’s clear Carlos desperately needs to reconnect with his son. Luis is an impressionable kid, a teenager at a critical juncture in his life where the choices he makes will have irrevocable consequences into adulthood.
“Eric’s script raised the stakes for both father and son. He captured that sense of urgency, and in the process created a story so riveting, you could see – even on the page — that it would be a fantastic movie,” says McLaughlin.
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