Director Paul Weitz began his career (along with his brother Chris) knowing how to direct vulgar. The result was the massively successful AMERICAN PIE (he still has an executive producer credit on the upcoming AMERICAN REUNION), and ever since then Paul (and Chris, alone and together) have been refining their act. Together, they made two more films--the HEAVEN CAN WAIT remake with Chris Rock, DOWN TO EARTH; and the lovely adaptation of Nick Hornby's book ABOUT A BOY. Paul went on to write and direct the underrated IN GOOD COMPANY, the reality show satire AMERICAN DREAMZ, and the misfires CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT and abysmal LITTLE FOCKERS, which in all likelihood Weitz did as a favor to star and his ABOUT A BOY producer Robert De Niro.
Coming out this week, Paul Weitz has another adaptation, BEING FLYNN, based on the memoir "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City" by Nick Flynn, centering on the tumultuous relationship between Flynn (played by Paul Dano) and his self-aggrandizing father Jonathan (De Niro), who ends up taking up residence in the same homeless shelter where Nick works. Whatever you think of the film, there's no denying that it's some of the best work De Niro has done in a very long time, and it's great to see him truly sink his claws into a character like this. He even drives a taxi for employment and narrates a portion of the film. Julianne Moore, Olivia Thurlby, and Flynn's real-life wife Lili Taylor also star.
I had the chance to sit down with Weitz to discuss his passion project BEING FLYNN, directing De Niro, and the play he's beginning production on featuring Topher Grace reprising the character he played in IN GOOD COMPANY in a new story. Enjoy Paul Weitz…
Capone: Hi. It’s good to meet you, Paul.
Paul Weitz: Hi, how are you? It’s nice to meet you. Ain’t It Cool was so integral to AMERICAN PIE getting out there in the way that it did.
Capone: The first one, really?
PW: I think it was a relatively new thing, Ain’t It Cool, at the time. Yeah, the first one.
Capone: What year was that?
PW: It was 1999.
Capone: Yeah, we were still pretty new, just a couple years old.
Capone: I think this year, we're 16 years old.
PW: Oh my God, wow.
Capone: I know. I haven’t been there quite that long. I know they just dropped another trailer for AMERICAN REUNION. Are you involved with that at all? I know you’re listed as executive producer.
PW: I read screenplays and gave them some notes, most of which were not of any use [laughs], but a couple of things probably just reconfirmed some stuff that they were thinking. I was encouraging of the studio to make it, because I thought the scripts were good and that the directors had their hearts in the right place. I think it’s a good amount of time in between AMERICAN PIE movies, because there is that high school reunion effect of truly wondering what on earth these people are like now.
I’ve seen it. I had the weird experience of being in London working on the soundtrack for BEING FLYNN with Badly Drawn Boy, who had done the music for ABOUT A BOY, and AMERICAN PIE happened to be on TV and I watched it, because I had said to the guys, “Look, you have all of these references with the first movie and nobody is going to understand this, because I don’t understand it and I made the movie. Then two days later I was in LA at a screening of AMERICAN REUNION, and I really enjoyed it and the audience seemed to really enjoy it.
Capone: Great. I’m looking forward to it.
Capone: With BEING FLYNN, first of all let's talk about the title change. Obviously you had to change it, but I’m curious how you came up with this. I like that it has that double meaning where it could be about one or the other or more than likely both.
PW: That was torture. [Laughs] I have to say that doing this film for a much lower budget than I had originally been given at a studio that was giving me the strange note of “You don’t have to redeem Robert De Niro’s character” was incredibly beneficial to being able to make the version of this that meant the most to me. The title change was torture, and I knew it was coming the whole time. I had become very good friends with Nick Flynn and I would just say to him “Why? You bastard! I can’t believe you’d give me a title that I won’t be able to use.” And the MPAA was having none of it. They wouldn’t let you replace words with asterisks, so it was an immediate case of having to water down something.
Then in terms of a consolation prize, Nick had told me that he always had a very strange relationship to his name, Flynn, in that it's such a part of you, but he didn’t grow up with his father, so he had no real sense of where he was getting that name from. Also in the book, which is something that I only picked up on having read it a few times, the name Flynn, while Jonathan Flynn claimed to Nick that he had come from a long line of Irish kings, the name Flynn means “ruddy,” which Nick says refers to being a peasant. So outside of the film, there are some references that took some of the curse off for me.
Capone: So ultimately you came up with this title? Was it a committee choice?
PW: Well, now I can’t remember, because all of us were just freaking out, because we didn’t have a title for the movie, and I was very worried that people were going to feel like I had done some watered-down version of it, because the title had to be watered down. I really feel that in terms of my intent and perception, it’s the only thing that’s watered down about the movie. That’s my hope at least, but it’s certainly a prominent thing.
Capone: Working with De Niro again, I know you just worked with him on FOCKERS, and he also produced ABOUT A BOY for you. I’m always in favor of someone who can actually get him to give us a genuine performance, which he doesn’t always do. That being said, was there any discussion about A) him narrating a portion of the film combined with B) putting him behind the wheel of a cab?
PW: I was backed into a corner on that, because it is the case that it’s based on a true story, and Jonathan Flynn worked in a cab. So I never really had any temptation to have him wheeling a hot dog cart. [Laughs] But I was in the situation where the movie opens with Robert De Niro walking into a cab depot and driving a yellow cab out onto the street. There is some odd connection between the two characters, in that they're both obviously anti-heroes and they both are delusional.
Travis Bickle actually ends up being a hero in the narrative of TAXI DRIVER. He goes through all of this stuff and then weirdly is lauded, and at the end of the movie, you’re not quite sure whether you’re seeing his skewed version of reality or whether you’re seeing some objective reality. In this case, Jonathan Flynn in the movie and in real life is pretty much an egomaniac who considers himself one of the three great writers that America has produced and has never had his manuscript that he’s been working on for decades published. But he has now not only had a book written about him, but is being played in a movie by Robert De Niro, so who’s to say whether his delusions are based on fact?
Capone: Real life caught up with his delusions.
Capone: Di He and De Niro get a chance to meet.
PW: Yeah, I went up with De Niro and Nick Flynn to meet him, and there was this very funny moment where when we sat down. As opposed to being intimidated by Robert De Niro, Jonathan looked at him and said, “So, do you think you can pull this off?” And Nick said, “Dad, he’s a well respected actter. He did THE GODFATHER [PART II],” and Jonathan said, “Yeah, I heard you were pretty good, but are you going to be able to play me?”
There was never a moment of doubt that of course this actor would be aspiring to do justice to the real person. I think my entrée into the film was this idea of whether you’re fated to become your parents, but it’s also an example of a parent who is outstripped by his kid, but somehow claims ownership of the kid’s accomplishments. Another thing he said while we were sitting there with De Niro was he turned to Nick and said, “You’re going to win the Nobel Prize before I do, you bastard!”
PW: He still thinks there’s a shot, I think.
Capone: What was it about Jonathan’s character that you wanted De Niro to latch onto? Or did you let him find it?
PW: I let him find it. He stayed attached to this over the course of six years and through the course of the budget being lowered and lowered, because it meant something to him. I think the key thing is that we never think of ourselves as the villain and we never think of ourselves as delusional, so he’s really playing an artist. He’s playing a guy who is writing on the back of envelopes and on napkins and always constructing this masterpiece, and that’s what he is thinking when he loses his place to live, when he loses his cab license and can’t sleep in his cab and when he shows up at this homeless shelter where his son is working. He’s using all of this for material, and that was De Niro’s approach to it.
There’s not a moment of self pity in it, there are just moments of utter delusion and difficulty. He’s an extremely difficult person who is kind of attacking his son on a certain level. One of the things I felt Bob would bring to it in a positive way was we do associate him with these iconic performances, and it’s a movie about a guy who mythologizes his father, because he doesn’t know his father. His father would just send him letters from prison along the lines of “Never fear. I’m going to win the Nobel Prize within two years.” So as opposed to something else where one might worry about being knocked out of a performance by somebody’s historic resonance, I felt in this case it was a good thing.
Capone: You’re saying like the baggage that De Niro brought to it was actually useful?
PW: Yeah, I feel that, because in seeing him perform you're always conscious of these iconic performances that he’s done.
Capone: This is not your first adaptation, but when you are working from a book by a living author, do you consult him, or do you pass drafts by him? Do you have him on the set?
PW: Well in this case, I wouldn’t have been able to do it especially because in real life Nick is a very generous, spirited person and he has a wicked sense of humor and he read almost all the 30 drafts I wrote and clearly there was some aspect that was sort of self torture that he was amused by, and then he really put his life on hold while we were shooting so that it was very comforting for De Niro and me to be able to look at him and say “Is this or that detail fake?” He’s married to the actress Lili Taylor who's in the film.
Capone: I was going to ask you about that, because I wondered if that helped in a way that he understood that things were going to be sacrificed.
PW: Absolutely. It absolutely helped, because I think Lili was able to tell him that sometimes things take a really long time to happen and to reconfirm to him that I was really dedicated to it. To be frank, I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to get to make it. I was pretty certain I was going to keep writing drafts. I would have almost happily written another 30 drafts just because there was some appeal to the endless permutations of this relatively poetic book. But yeah, Lili being in the film felt like a blessing. And while certain parts of the shooting were quite intense, I think for Nick it was another step away from the details of his life, and he’s now written a book about the experience of making the movie, which is going to come out in January 2013.
Capone: John Irving did the same thing. I don’t think it was about a specific book, but it was about his history with Hollywood.
PW: Yeah, and occasionally people will write their Hollywood exposes about "everyone is a moron," and I’m hoping that’s not the only substance of his book.
Capone: Is there any difference to you between adapting a nonfiction story like this versus some of the other things you have done?
PW: Yeah. I think it all boils down to the writer. You’re always afraid about whether the writer is going to hate you if you are adapting their book. I actually don’t think there’s any particular reason to adapt a really good book. The artifact exists in and of itself, so it’s only a selfish reason in that I felt this was weirdly capturing something that was more personal to me than anything I had worked on before in film.
You know with ABOUT A BOY, my brother and I wrote that screenplay and the whole last third of the movie are events that don’t take place in the book. First off, because we couldn’t afford to get Kurt Cobain’s songs for the movie. [Laughs] And second, because the movie is much more centered on those two characters than the end of the book, and in this case, the Catch 22 of an adaptation regardless is that you don’t have enough time to put in all of the things that you care about in a book, so you have to kill things. You have to exclude things, and then in order for the film to have cohesion, you generally have to create new details.
And in this case, I did a very artificial thing with Nick Flynn, which is when I first sat down with him I said, “I need to talk about a character named Nick, so I’m not going to say 'You,' and if possible can you please say 'Nick' as opposed to I?” It sounds very awkward and it was, but eventually that was the attitude--we were working on something that was this new thing, which was as much about my own early dabbling in self destructiveness as it is on some level about his life.
Capone: Was that the appeal? That you saw some of what you went through in his story?”
PW: Yes, in that I had a dad who was really a wonderful dad, but who also had demons. He was a successful fashion designer, but he always dreamed of being a writer and he would come home from work and then write until late at night and occasionally he’d start drinking Chivus Regal fairly early in the morning, which was a less stigmatized thing in his generation. So I did identify with the story in a really personal way.
Capone: What is the key to directing Robert De Niro?
PW: You know, the only advice I’d give to a director who is directing him is be polite and don’t be full of BS. It’s a joy honestly directing him, because he works so hard, and I would hear form people that have worked with him over the course of 20 years just how dedicated he was to it. He has a really dry, ironic sense of humor, and it took me three years to understand when he was joking with me, and now I realize that he’s pulling one’s leg a good three-quarters of the time.
I like to 'fess up with an actor that I’m aware that a proportion of the notes I’m going to give are going to be helpful and then some of them are going to make no sense to them and are helpful in that they can reject them. I don’t want to tread on when an actor is working on something personal. For instance, there’s a scene where De Niro sort of loses his shit when he’s living in the shelter, and he grabs a counselor and throws him up against the wall and has this rant. While we were shooting that, I would see Bob in between takes go off into a corner and lean over and think about something, and boy was I curious to know what he was thinking about, but I didn’t ask him. [Laughs] Because I don’t want to throw him out of what he is doing and make him conscious or have to express something that is personal to him in that moment.
And I like the fact that Bob would occasionally make fun of me, and I’d make fun of myself when I was giving him a note. I remember there was a sequence where I used a metaphor. It’s towards the end of the movie with an intense scene with Paul Dano, and I came up to Bob and I said, “So you’re like a fisherman in this scene and you don’t want to let there be any slack on the line,” and he sort of stopped me and said “Okay, so wait a second, so the fishing pole is the words? Is Paul a fish? What kind of fish is he? Is he a marlin?” We both laughed about it. I’m very happy that he gives me license to be myself when I’m directing him.
Capone: Do you know yet what you are going to be doing next? I’ve heard a couple of things, but what do you think is going to be the next thing?
PW: There’s a play that I have written that’s going to be in New York called LONELY I’M NOT, which is based… There’s a movie I made with Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace called IN GOOD COMPANY, and the play has Topher’s character form IN GOOD COMPANY as a businessman, who at this point when you’re picking him up is four years since he’s had a job and he’s had a break down and he’s slowly emerging back into the world, because he’s now spent all of his money. [Laughs] He needs to finance his coffee addiction. It’s about that character interacting with a young businesswoman who's blind who is going to be played by Olivia Thirlby, who's in this movie BEING FLYNN. Essentially it’s taken the metaphor of how blind people orient themselves in space and using that on emotional terms--how we invest certain relationships with meaning.
Capone: She’s playing it on stage? Is Topher reviving his character?
PW: Topher, yeah. I mean they are sort of finalizing it right now, but it looks like Topher is going to be doing it. He’s never particularly wanted to do a play, but it’s his character.
Capone: What about ADMISSION? Is that still coming about?
PW: In the next two weeks, I’ll find out whether I’m going to shoot that, and I think I will. Yeah, that’s an adaptation I’ve been working on for a while, and it looks like it’d be a lot of fun to do it with Tina Fey who is going to be playing in it.
Capone: Cool. When does the play go up?
PW: The play goes up in the middle of April through the middle of June.
Capone: Okay, cool. So you just wrote it, and somebody else is directing it?
PW: Exactly, yeah. It’s different than film; they actually have to talk to you if they are going to change the script. [Laughs]
Capone: It looks like there might be a little overlap between the play and the movie.