Roger L. Simon

A Better Life: Hangin' with the Homeboys

Saturday night I was at the JW Marriott at LA Live for the annual Lo Maximo Awards Dinner of Homeboys Industries. Homeboys, according to their mission statement, “assists at-risk, formerly gang-involved youth and the recently incarcerated to become contributing members of our community through a variety of services in response to their multiple needs.”

Actually, they’re kind of a small business, employing a number of (hopefully permanent) ex-gang members in what are largely the food trades — cafes, bakeries, etc. The business has had its ups and downs — reacting, as have many, to the current economic conditions — but appears to have righted itself now. And the food they produce is quite good. They’re exporting their own salsa to the supermarkets; Homegirl Cafe gets some nice notices for their tacos on Yelp.

The slogan of the Homeboys is “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” They are the largest such organization in the country, helping gang members enter or reenter society.

All this is put together by an extraordinary man named Father Greg Boyle, author of Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.

So I was there on Saturday night, watching a succession of Homeboys and girls tell their life stories. One was more moving than the next, but all of them had childhoods that could only be described as ghastly (parents addicted or murdered, often both — one young guy had been shot ten times before he was eighteen).

My presence was in support of my friend, producer Paul Junger Witt, who — with director Chris Weitz and producer/actress Jami Gertz — was winning the Lo Maximo Award for making a film called A Better Life, which will be opening nationwide on June 24.

I had my own involvement with the film, since I was its first writer back in 1989. (It was then called The Gardener. The title was only recently changed to avoid confusion with The Constant Gardener.) A Better Life tells the story of the an illegal alien gardener in L.A. battling to stay above water while keeping his teenage son (his wife is gone) from going over to the gangs.

When Paul Witt originally turned my script in to the studio that commissioned it (Columbia), they passed, but the two of us stayed with the hoped-for film for many years. It was what’s called in Hollywood “a passion project.” I wrote several versions and, in the late nineties, Andy Garcia became attached to play the gardener with me directing. We never got the money and, with some reluctance, I went on to the other things.

Some years later another writer, Eric Eason, came aboard and modernized my script. (He did a very good job, I think.) Chris Weitz (About a Boy) was brought on to direct and — more than twenty years after I first started on it — the movie got made. (The writing credits now read “screenplay by Eric Eason, story by Roger L. Simon.”)

It was Weitz who had the intelligence and the humility to bring on the Homeboys as advisers to add authenticity to the project. And in his acceptance speech at the Marriott, Weitz showed that humility, acknowledging how ironic it was that the Homeboys were giving the filmmakers an award, not the other way around.

When I first went to see the finished film myself a few weeks ago, I did so, naturally, with some trepidation. What had happened to my child? Well, I am more than pleased to report that I liked it a lot. Weisz did a far better job than I would have done. Damien Bechir, a well-known Mexican actor who plays the gardener, is quite moving. But then you will all be able to see for yourselves at the end of June and make up your own minds. Some people appear to have liked it. I am proud to be associated with it.

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