GRANDMA is the wonderful new film from writer-director Paul Weitz (AMERICAN PIE, ABOUT A BOY, AMERICAN DREAMZ, ADMISSION), starring Lily Tomlin as Elle, an older woman who must take her granddaughter (Julia Garner) on a driving trip not only around town to borrow money from someone for Garner’s character to get an abortion. But the trip ends up become an unwelcome stroll through Grandma’s long and often-painful history, which includes a dalliance with Karl (Sam Elliott) when the now-lesbian Elle was a bit less sure of who she was.
Even forgetting Elliott’s near-iconic status as a character actor, beginning with a small role in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and continuing in such films as THE LEGACY, MASK, ROAD HOUSE, RUSH, TOMBSTONE, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, WE WERE SOLDIERS, HULK, GHOST RIDER, and DRAFT DAY, the man has had a hell of a 2015. Like the indie darling that he is, he had three films at Sundance in January (GRANDMA, DIGGING FOR FIRE, and I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS); he had a fantastic final appearance on “Parks and Recreation” as Ron Swanson’s mustache guru Ron Dunn; and he absolutely killed it as big bad Avery Markham (with no mustache) on the final season of “Justified.” There are actors half his age probably asking him how he keeps up the pace.
The sequence in GRANDMA with Tomlin’s Elle and Elliott’s Karl is easily the film’s most painful and dramatically perfect, due in large part to Elliott’s heartbroken account of their original relationship decades earlier. I had a chance to sit down with Elliott and Weitz in Chicago recently, and they were great to chat with, especially about Elliott’s legendary mustache. Please enjoy my talk with Sam Elliott and Paul Weitz…
Capone: I was at a film festival in Montreal last month, and at the same time that was going on, the Just for Laughs comedy festival was happening, and Jason Reitman, who you’ve worked with a couple of times [in THANK YOU FOR SMOKING and UP IN THE AIR], was doing one of his live script readings.
Sam Elliott: I did one of those one time [Elliott actually reprised his role as The Stranger in Reitman’s original reading of THE BIG LEBOWSKI].
Capone: Which I remember. I actually have never seen one of these before, because I don’t live in Los Angeles, so I thought I’d better go to this. Mike Judge did your character, and he did it in your voice. It was eerie how dead on he was.
SE: I don't know him, I’m sorry to say.
Capone: Well, he knows you.
SE: I bet it was pretty incredible.
Capone: It was a great experience, but it shook the room a little bit when he did your voice.
GRANDMA the most unconventional biography of a person that I think I’ve ever seen, because we do, over the course of this very short film, learn a great deal about this woman and the most important events of her life. Was that your idea, to not spoon feed every bit of information about this character to the audience? Talk about structuring a biography of a fictional person in such a way.
Paul Weitz: First off, thank you. In terms of my learning curve, I finally learned all of the things I didn’t need to put into a movie, such as exposition. My audience for the film was really the actors. This is the tenth film I’ve done, and it’s the first do-it-yourself film I’ve done, and my audience for the film was really the actors. So now it’s exciting that people are seeing it and responding to it, but I’m trying not to forget that if Lily hadn’t liked some part of this and thought it was fake, or if Sam hadn’t liked some part of this and thought it was fake, I would have taken it out.
And to be hyper-specific, in the scene with Sam, Lily’s written this poem called “The Ogre Seed,” which Sam believes is about his character, but there were a couple of lines about that which were comedic and seem funny, but there was a point where Sam said, “This is sticking out for some reason. I don't think this is right,” and I just yanked it out. The great thing about directing one’s own writing is you don't have to feel guilty about the writer [laughs]. When you do a research screening, which we certainly didn’t do anything like that for this, one of the questions is “Did everything make sense?” And that’s a really tricky question, and it has yet be shown to me why that makes something more interesting for an audience. So you end up saying a lot of crap—unfortunately characters say crap often, and that’s probably more about my flaw.
Capone: Well, lets talk about that scene; it sticks out in this film. It’s not like the other scenes. It spools out out like a two-person play. And in that very short little bit of time, we learn so much about Elle, and there’s a lot of tricky information there. Talk about structuring that scene, talk about being in that scene. If you had told me you just set a camera down and let them go for 30 minutes, I would believe you, because that’s how it feels.
PW: Good! It was that, except everybody had done their homework, including me, and as a director what you want is for the actors to take it away from you and be the first audience of something exciting and new. That’s completely what had happened. In terms of the writing of it, it began a little bit like a Pinter play, whereas this guy was very charming and menacing and says this thing about “When you smile, that’s the only part of you that looks the same when you’re dead—your teeth.” That was one of the first things I wrote. I didn’t know where it was going, and then everything just started to make sense about the whole movie through the scene and the sequence. But for me, I didn’t know exactly how they were going to do it.
SE: I never thought about being menacing at all.
PW: That’s the good thing. He’s charming, but the stuff he’s saying…
SE: It was just on the page. It was the words. That’s always been the deciding factor for me, whether to get involved or not get involved is what’s on the page. It’s certainly an opportunity to work with Paul, who I’ve been a fan of, and Lily who I’ve loved forever. It was an opportunity that hasn’t come my way. I’ve been very fortunate in my career to work with people who they don’t come around that often.
Capone: Maybe just having seen you in “Justified,” where you really are menacing, maybe this guy seemed like a pussy cat compared to him. I feel like in the last year—
SE: The last year and a half has been really crazy for me.
Capone: You’re everywhere. You’re the busiest man in show business.
SE: The “Parks and Rec" thing, “Justified,” the movie with Blythe Danner, I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS. It was a great year last year.
Capone: What did you do differently in the last year an a half?
SE: I think I just got lucky over the last year and a half. I didn’t do anything. I just got fortunate. It’s really strange, because it started with a thing called “Robot Chicken” on Adult Swim. That’s actually the night I met Lily. I got nominated for that voice work, and Lily was nominated at the same time, and we both went to the Emmys. She won. We were nominated in the same category. I had the briefest of encounters with Lilly. A year and a half later, we worked together. It’s very strange.
Capone: This is her first leading role in decades, meaning not part of an ensemble, and part of that is by design. She’s done a lot of theater, one-woman shows.
PW: In terms of an example of her energy, which is one thing I was tapping into in the movie, we wrapped the movie at 3am on a Saturday, and the same day, she did her one-woman show for two and a half hours. I went and sat through it, and I was like, oh my god. I didn’t even understand how she could do it.
Capone: Is it true that you write your screenplays in longhand?
PW: It was true with this one. I don’t always. The thing about writing longhand is you’re less tempted to go back and revise while you’re doing the first draft. And also there’s something that brings you back to some element of whatever drew you to writing in the first place. The cafe I particularly like to write, there are probably a couple other people writing screenplays there. But also, there are a lot of marginal people there. The reason I say that , I remember I went in once when my brother and I were writing something that was a commission for Spielberg, and I went in there, and there was a woman talking to herself, saying “Goddamn, Steven Spielberg. That son of a bitch.” It was just somebody who had come in off a street, but there was a weird synchronicity; it was impossible that she knew what I was doing.
SE: That’s incredible that you can write in that hubbub.
PW: I think there’s something really embarrassing about writing if you think too much about it, and so I’ve grown to enjoy that environment.
Capone: In the past couple of years, I have found it is easier to write with a lot of….
SE: …stuff going on?
Capone: Yeah. Random noise that is weirdly not distancing, because it’s not directed at you; it’s not people coming at you with questions and requests. And it also makes you work a little faster because you want to get out of there. It’s a little disconcerting when you get there too long and start to feel like one of those marginal people. So you wrote this for Lily, but she didn’t know you were writing it for her. What was it that made you could get away with it, but what was it about her that you wanted to tap into?
PW: It was this perception that she embodied some element of the fact that people in their 70s nowadays are much more progressive in their thinking, I would say, than people in their late teens. The idea of her as a mentor and all the ball of wax that that would come with in terms of her accurate cynicism about human nature, but then eventually the thing about Lily is she’s really kind. You don’t get any sense that she’s seeing everybody’s foolishness and her own. But at the same time, she’s come to the conclusion that she loves other people, and that is really what one wants from a person. Also, as it happened, Lily has spanned over 50 years of women's history and gay history and American history, and in having this relatively simple plot that I was trying to adhere to, I can be talking about all sorts of things at the same time.
Capone: This film will be one of the last things we’re going to see Elisabeth Peña in; I didn’t even know she was in it until she popped up. I was very happy to see her get to kick a little ass.
PW: I know, right? That was her idea to jump across the counter and try to confront Lily. She got a big kick out of it. She probably hadn’t played exactly that character before.
Capone: I know people have tried to lump this in with OBVIOUS CHILD, because they both have themes of abortion in them. OBVIOUS CHILD is very much about building up to that moment. In this film, it’s just a vehicle to get us to drive around and go through this woman’s life. At the same time, it could have been something else. You could have brought Elle and her granddaughter together over another issue, but it might not have had the urgency. Why did you select that as the thing that drives this?
PW: It kind of selected me. The initial germ of this idea was this girl showed up and that was the situation. She was pregnant, she had scheduled an abortion for today, she didn’t want to go one more day, because she didn’t want to be any more pregnant. I just didn’t want to be fake, but the main thing for me is now looking at it as a perspective of the time right now in this moment where there’s a lot of added controversy and attention on the issue, it’s so clear to me that people get dehumanized when society focuses on certain issues that are divisive. The primary thing in this movie is not to dehumanize or limit the characters. That’s why it’s a comedy. That’s why eventually, hopefully it doesn't underestimate the intelligence of the audience.
If I look back at a film like FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, which I can’t remember having garnered any particular controversy at the time while Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character gets an abortion in that movie. That’s a comedy. This is one as well. And there are so many things going on in the film, but what I feel like I’m most excited to do is a story that is about our culture that is completely personal.
Capone: Sam, you mentioned the “Parks and Rec" appearance that you did, and that was very much a product of Nick Offerman loving your facial hair, and then in “Justified” you went without. Is that something that you decide, or the people that you work with decide for you?
SE: No, I decided it.
Capone: What goes into that decision?
SE: It had been so long since I’d done that. And the character was so different than any that I had played. I wanted to do something different. The slicked-back hair, I’ve never worn my hair slicked back like that. It just seemed shaving the mustache was the right thing to do. The thing with Offerman, I think that was the reason I was on “Parks and Rec.” I think that came from Nick. It was that doppelgänger thing. That was the first episode, and I’m sure they went to Nick, or he went to them and said I want Elliot to come and do my doppelgänger.
Capone: Didn’t he write about your mostache in his book, too?
SE: In the latest book, “Gumption”?
Capone: No, the first one, “Paddle Your Own Canoe.”
SE: Maybe there was mention of the mustache. Yeah, I think there was.
Capone: I almost thought you shaved it because people payed so much attention to it.
SE: I get a kick out of doing that, actually. It’s fucking unbelievable sometimes. People are fucking heartbroken when I show up without a mustache.“Why did you shave your mustache?” It always amazes me. There was someone in New York who wanted me to do some interview about care for my mustache, caring for my mustache. There was some other show that wanted to put me in the hall of fame of mustaches. It was between Walter Cronkite and Geraldo Rivera. It was strange. I’m blessed. I’ve had my hair in many number of different incarnations over the years. I’ve been blessed with good hair. But it’s hair; that’s all it is. It has a way of growing back.
Capone: One of the key elements of this film the idea of looking back at your life and at the mistakes that you made that you maybe would never admit out loud. That’s one of the most beautiful things that Lily goes through here: you see she regrets certain things she’s done in her life, but she won’t say that. She won’t apologize for it in most cases, even to your character.
PW: Sure. Probably the genesis of me getting my butt in the seat in that cafe to write it was my feeling of maybe I hadn't made the most of a couple of opportunities I had creatively. Specifically, there were a couple of times I was trying to tell too many things in a story, in a plot. And so consequently, if I was to be accurate with myself, I think those films made more sense to me than they did to other people sometimes.
Sometimes on occasion if I’m at a school or something, someone will say, “What advice do you have in terms of getting into creativity or a career?” But to me, I feel like one of the only things that I can personally feel like I can react to is when I think I’ve blown something. What do you use that? Do you use that as a prod to get you to do something else, and that was very much the feeling with this film. But also, I really like characters who are not particularly suited for helping other people or to being emotionally open, but who nonetheless get put into circumstances where that’s what they’re called upon to do, like Lily’s character in this.
The reason that centerpiece in the film with Lily and Sam is so key is that it is the moment where big splinters are coming out, and you see somebody who hasn’t been particularly productive with their regrets in Sam’s character. That chapter heading into that sequence is called “The Ogre,” because this poem she wrote called “The Ogre’s Seed,” but also there’s this sense that he’s this ogre who’s cherishing and has this treasure of the life he’s having and also resentment.
Capone: His broken heart is his treasure.
PW: Yeah exactly. He has a little picture of Lily at age 21 hidden away with his cash. But also he’s got the detritus of his grandchildren, with all these children’s toys lying around—tuff that he doesn’t pick up. Yeah, that’s a theme that I think about.
Capone: I realize you’re not going to stick around past today, Sam, but another film you’re in that just came out today, DIGGING FOR FIRE, which I’m doing a Q&A with Joe and Jake tomorrow night at the theater.
SE: Give them my best. That was a nice piece. I enjoyed working on that.
Capone: That was a fun little movie. All right, thank you both so much.
SE: Thank you, Steve. That was incredible; good interview.