University of Virginia graduate, Paul Junger Witt, 68, is in the fifth decade of his career. He executed some of the most successful television from the ‘70s to the ‘90s, including Soap, Benson, The Golden Girls and Brian’s Song, perhaps the most successful made for television movie of all time. Feature Films he’s produced include Dead Poet’s Society, Insomnia and Three Kings. Witt was at the Virginia Film Festival in November 2011 promoting his latest, A Better Life, a film about heartbreak and hope that strikes an emotional chord reminiscent of Roberto Begnini’s Life is Beautiful. What’s surprising is that despite Witt’s clout and track record, it still took over 20 years to get the picture made.
The poignant, honest and heartfelt depiction of an undocumented Mexican gardener living in East Los Angeles is inspired by a story Witt heard in the mid 1980’s about a neighbor’s gardener who refused to go to the police after being stolen from. Witt was struck by the shadow of fear that plagues the undocumented and their resulting inability to seek justice lest they be discovered. Witt hired writer Roger Simon who worked tirelessly on the script and in 1989 they submitted their draft to Sony with whom they had a deal. That deal fell apart and then another one did. Despite the repeated disappointment, it was a story that Witt felt passionate about and he never gave up on it. Finally, the planets aligned, Witt teamed with producer Christian McLaughlin, who knew director Chris Weitz, they hired award-winning writer/director Eric Eason to tackle a fresh draft, two other producers raised additional funds and Summit Entertainment (distributor of the Twilight films) signed on.
A Better Life centers on Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir), who labors tirelessly and without complaint in attempt to keep his less-than-grateful, American-born son Luis (played by José Julián) in school and out of gang life, amidst the economic and legal challenges facing him. He dreams, as most in his boots do, of providing a life for his son ripe with opportunity. His dream shatters when his work truck is stolen his livelihood with it. It isn’t until that moment, however, that Luis really begins to see his father, and faced with life-changing choices of his own, begins to emerge as a man in the making. Bichir, best known stateside for playing Fidel Castro in Soderbergh’s Che, and as Esteban Reyes in Weeds, is sublime in the role. The chemistry between Bichir and Julián imbues with rich nuance, a father-son relationship strung taut with unspoken fears. Bichir has already been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and everyone involved is pushing to see him get the recognition he deserves.
Weitz (About a Boy, Twilight: New Moon) is said to have felt an instant affinity for the material, as his grandmother Lupita Tovar was plucked from Oaxaca, Mexico by Hollywood during the silent film era, and signed to a contract with 20th Century Fox at age 17. According to Weitz in The Guardian, not only was his (still living) grandmother a great beauty, she could cry on cue. As a nation we’ve vacillated between wanting immigrant workers when/how it suits us, and condemning them when it doesn’t. Witt said, “One of the most rewarding things was making a film that could comment in an important way about the society we live in and to put a face on a primarily invisible population. We took a very apolitical approach to a very political topic. People will see this film and make their own decisions. It’s a very realistic portrayal about how people live and we’re very, very proud of it.”
Witt has never shied away from pushing the envelope however. In 1977, Soap was the first program with an openly gay character (Billy Crystal). Witt stated that he and his partners Tony Thomas and Susan Harris (the writer/creator whom he later married) “were determined to do things on network television that hadn’t been done before.” When asked whether they got pushback or if the ratings took care of themselves, he replied, “Jerry Falwell thought we were an instrument of the devil. The moral majority condemned us, as did the Catholic Church, as did the National Board of Rabbis. This is before anyone had seen it by the way. People were upset on a number of levels, but we were looking at people we knew; we were looking at society as we experienced it and we had creatively an incredible amount of fun.” In the end, the ratings (and awards) did take care of themselves and Billy Crystal never looked back. Benson, The Golden Girls and many others followed. At the height of their success, Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions had as many as 5 to 6 shows on the air, across different networks.
Witt’s success with Brian’s Song proved he had an eye for story and a knack for working with writers. William Blinn adapted and wrote the script, and won an Emmy for his efforts, as did Witt at the age of 28. In 1989, Dead Poets Society hit an emotional and box-office home run and earned Tom Schulman an Oscar for penning the film. In 1999, Witt produced Three Kings and writer/director David O. Russell won the PEN literary award and was nominated by the Writers Guild for his screenplay.
Witt began his career in the mailroom of Columbia Pictures and spent only six months there. Within four years he was producing and directing. There’s much to be said about his talent, vision and work ethic and about the mentorship he received at the hands of the studio that facilitated his swift ascent. He’s worked with the best in television. He’s worked with the best in film. His projects have won Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys and more, and he has won and been nominated right alongside them. Still, he remains humble and grateful about the caliber of the talent he’s worked with and been able to attract.
A Better Life premiered at The LA Film Festival and enjoyed a theatrical release in June 2011. It’s gaining momentum on DVD and is sure to be abuzz this award season. Regarding the years it took to bring the film to the screen he stated, “the irony, if there is one, is that after waiting so long and after all those years of frustration, the subject is considerably more important today then it would have been had we gotten it made in 1989.” You can credit Witt’s hard work, dignity and determination. Not so ironically those are the very same qualities the picture is peddling.