A stranger's plight lodged itself in producer Paul Junger Witt's heart, pushing him for 25 years to bring the dramatized story to life on screen.
"A Better Life," the result, is the rare Hollywood film that focuses on a Latino family in the United States and, rarer still, takes an intimate view of the price paid by illegal immigrants making their bid for the American dream.
The movie, in limited release in Los Angeles and New York and opening elsewhere starting Friday, is intended to be apolitical regarding the immigration issue, Witt said, but he wants it to spark more than ticket sales.
"I think people on both sides can politicize it and that's not unhealthy, because it will promote dialogue and discussion. This issue isn't going away," he said. "If that's one of the results of this film coming out, so be it. It needs to be talked about."
In the mid-1980s, a gardener working for Witt's neighbor in Los Angeles lost his truck to a thief. The neighbor offered to help file a police report but the gardener declined, admitting he was in the country illegally and couldn't risk contact with authorities.
"The story stayed with me for years," said Witt, the veteran producer behind "The Golden Girls" and other hit TV series along with films including "Insomnia" and "Three Kings."
He began working with a writer to fashion a script for Sony, but the studio dropped the project. After many years and repeated screenplay revisions, writer Eric Eason came in and produced what Witt calls a "beautiful script."
Director Chris Weitz ("Twilight Saga: New Moon") brought his clout to the project and Summit Entertainment, the studio behind the "Twilight" series, agreed to produce and distribute the film. Additional financing came from Lime Orchard Productions for the project, which Witt said was completed for less than $10 million.
Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who worked with Weitz on "New Moon," shot "A Better Life."
The main character is Carlos Galinda, a Mexican immigrant who labors as a gardener and is a single parent to teenager Luis. Mexican film star Demian Bichir, who appeared in Showtime's "Weeds," plays Carlos, with newcomer Jose Julian as his son.
"I got the script and I fell in love with it right away," said Bechir. "It thought it was real. I thought it was powerful."
Carlos works a long day tidying the yards of the city's affluent, crashes on the couch in his tiny East Los Angeles house so that young Luis can have the bed, then gets up and does it again. His goal is to keep his son, whose friends already are being drawn into gang life, on the path toward a diploma and a secure future.
When the older Latino man who employs him decides to retire, he talks Carlos into buying his truck and gardening equipment — despite Carlos' misgivings about the dangers of driving without a license and the threat of exposure if something goes wrong.
The theft of the truck triggers events that put his freedom and his dreams for his son in jeopardy.
"A Better Life" roams across the whole of Los Angeles, recording the palm trees and impressive homes that often make it into films and the elements that don't, including tattered neighborhoods and groups of day laborers jockeying for work on street corners.
Every effort was made to ensure authenticity and provide a strong, mostly Latino voice among the cast, crew and community advisers, Witt said.
Weitz has his own Hispanic connections: His grandmother is Mexican-born actress Lupita Tovar and his wife, Mercedes Martinez, is Cuban- and Mexican-American.
"We were really motivated to make this accurate and real as possible. We surrounded ourselves with those who knew this story, knew these people, knew these neighborhoods, to make sure what we did reflected a truth. And I think we were successful," Witt said.
He is philosophical about the film's protracted journey.
"It happens. And it happens for a good reason," Witt said, noting the growing intensity of the immigration debate. "This is a much more important film than had it been made 20 years ago."
Now he and others who share his passion wait and hope for the movie to make its mark with both the Latino and a wider audience.
"I believe in the power of moviemaking. I believe in the power of film," Bechir said. "If we're lucky, two things will happen: People's hearts are going to be touched and people's minds will be opened after they watch 'A Better Life.'"
Then the conversations should start, Witt said.
"If the film can be responsible for dialogue instead of screaming, then it's a good thing. I don't care what someone feels about immigrants coming in (to the movie), but if they come out knowing they are dealing with people, they can still feel what they do politically — but know this is about people."
AP Writer Nicole Evatt in New York contributed to this report.