Writer-director Paul Weitz is often remarkably frank about his disappointment with his own work, which runs a wide gamut of styles and genres. He started out in Hollywood in partnership with his brother Chris Weitz; the two of them co-wrote and co-directed the first American Pie, then collaborated on scripts like Nutty Professor II and Shanghai Noon. After they co-scripted and co-directed the Oscar-nominated About A Boy in 2002, they went their separate ways: Chris directed The Golden Compass, the Twilight movie New Moon, and A Better Life, whose star Demián Bichir was up for a Best Actor Academy Award this year. Meanwhile, Paul Weitz veered between directing smaller, more personal, wryly satirical projects (In Good Company, American Dreamz) and larger studio fare (Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, Little Fockers), while producing a range of projects, sometimes still in collaboration with Chris.
Weitz’s latest, Being Flynn, has been in planning through seven years and 30 script drafts, as he struggled to adapt Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night In Suck City to the screen. The finished film version is Weitz’s most personal and most nuanced film since About A Boy; it stars Paul Dano as Nick Flynn, and an unusually committed Robert De Niro as Nick’s father Jonathan Flynn, a delusional, self-aggrandizing alcoholic and self-styled genius author who winds up homeless and living in the shelter where Nick is working. The day after Weitz presented Being Flynn to a Chicago audience, The A.V. Club sat down to talk with him about his checkered career, his soundtrack collaborations with Badly Drawn Boy, and why he feels being a respectful director is ultimately more important than making a good film.
The A.V. Club: Your filmography is really eclectic—
Paul Weitz: Yeah. That’s a kind way of putting it.
AVC: We try to be kind. Is there a better word?
PW: Motley? [Laughs.]
AVC: That’s refreshingly self-deprecating.
PW: I think, as I might’ve said last night, I like to learn from my successes as well as my failures.
AVC: Do you see a through-line in your motley filmography?
PW: One apparent through-line is in—and I think I’m now ready to dispense with this, after having made Being Flynn—the question of identity, in terms of what it takes to become a man, and whether you dehumanize yourself in order to do that. And this movie, to me, thematically boils down to whether you’re fated to become your parents. This is almost like a survival-level fable about that, and I think that’s kind of what hooked me into the book and kept me writing draft after draft over the seven years I was doing that. I think some manifestation of that theme has been running through a lot of the films I’ve done.
AVC: Is that something personal coming out of your past?
PW: It is. My dad—and my brother’s dad, Chris also being a filmmaker who I admire—was a fashion designer, and quite successful, but he always dreamed of being a writer. So he would come home from work and then write until late at night. He always told us that he thought fashion design was a fairly silly way to make a living. He, to some degree, modeled himself on Ernest Hemingway, and given his choice, would’ve just been a writer. And also, he was of a generation that was a) very articulate, and b) would occasionally start drinking Chivas Regal fairly early in the day. He had demons, which were coming from a very tangible thing, which was his experiences during World War II. And he was somebody who, by the time he married my mom, was a present dad for my brother and I, and he was able to express love on a level that I think was the primary thing I took from him. But at the same time, in some ways, he didn’t have the makings of a good dad. And I think that is something that I contend with now that I’m a dad myself.
Also, my mother was an actress who was nominated for an Academy Award for the film Imitation Of Life, and then at a certain point, decided she didn’t want to be an actress anymore, and she had my brother and me. But remarkably, there was never a moment of her blaming us for some decision that she’d made. She always seemed content with the decisions she’d made in life, and that took a great deal of humility. So there’s an aspect of the story which is about the destructive nature of ego as it applies to creativity, and I think from both of my parents, I learned some lesson in that.
AVC: That theme does crop up equally in Little Fockers and About A Boy. But is it any more satisfying or gratifying addressing it in Being Flynn in a serious, nuanced way, vs. in Little Fockers in a broad comic way?
PW: Well, Little Fockers is an anomaly, because it wasn’t my script and it wasn’t my project. I felt like I was doing something akin to what studio directors in the ’30s or ’40s would do, which is get assigned to a movie. It was an opportunity to meet some idols of mine, ’cause it was populated with massive figures from cinema history, but it is the one film where I didn’t have ownership of it, nor should I have. But if you look at, say, American Pie, which is really a flat-out comedy, when Chris and I were making that, we were very much keeping in touch with this idea that there was an essential sadness at the core of it. These guys had been best friends through high school, and were now no longer gonna get to spend time with each other. That was what was driving them toward the extreme acts. For me, when I’m working properly, there’s always some equation of comedy and sadness. And in this one, the only reason I felt I could make Being Flynn was because there are inherent ironies in it, and Nick Flynn, whose memoir it is, has a good sense of humor and doesn’t have a moment of self-pity in talking about these extreme events of his life. So oddly, I don’t see a break in the through-line between doing flat-out comedies and doing something like this, which is clearly more dramatic in its events.
AVC: Did Robert De Niro’s involvement in Being Flynn come out of you meeting him with Little Fockers?
PW: Actually, I met him first because he was a producer of About A Boy. In particular, he was helpful to my brother and me on that movie because when we cast an unknown kid, Nicholas Hoult, who’s now becoming an excellent adult actor, but when we cast him, he hadn’t done anything. The first scenes that we shot involved that kid being very, very sad. So when the studio saw it, they thought we’d cast a clinically depressed little boy who wasn’t gonna be able to emote. We thought he was quite good. We sent the footage to De Niro and said, “Would you please, if you agree with us, give the studio a ring?” And he got the studio off our back, in terms of the decisions we made. So that was a very nice introduction to working with him.
I was terrified when I was shooting with him [on Little Fockers] that he was no longer gonna wanna work with me on this movie. This is the arthouse wing of the major studio [Universal’s Focus Features], so also, a part of the equation was that I had been with this for so long and I was desperate to make it, and I thought [directing Little Fockers] would put me in a better position to make it. Luckily, De Niro has a great deal of compassion. [Laughs.] And he was really kind throughout the shooting that I’d done with him, and was utterly dedicated to Being Flynn, even to the extent that we went out with no permits, a month before we were supposed to start shooting. I needed a sequence where De Niro’s character is out in the freezing cold, in the snow, and you never know when it’s gonna snow in New York nowadays. And so I got a weather report that it was gonna blizzard the next day, when we were in preproduction. I called De Niro up, and luckily, he was in New York, and he just got into a car with whatever costume he had, and we jumped to different parts of the city during a blizzard, and shot as if we were doing a student film. And he brought that attitude to the whole shoot. He just really was dedicated to it—which was, of course, quite touching for me, being somebody who loves cinema history.
AVC: He’s taken a lot of flak for the past decade-plus for not really being committed to the roles he takes, and not taking roles that are worthy of him. But his dedication in this film is palpable; several scenes feature the old fire that made him famous. Does that come out of the material? Is there a trick to working with him?
PW: It does come out of the material, and in this case, the character itself, which is based on the character who’s portrayed in the memoir and on the real person, [who] is so complicated, in that he’s a real anti-hero and has some despicable aspects to his personality. But at the same time, he’s a survivor, and he teaches a lesson in survival to his kid. And when one thinks of the greatest portrayals De Niro’s done—for instance, in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull—they’re characters who you should not, in any way, be able to identify with, because they’re so marginal and so problematic. But he is able to be so specific that you are right there in the room with him. I think that’s what kept him bonded to this movie over the course of the years I was writing drafts and being unable to get it made, and also through its budget being lowered and lowered: It simply meant that much to him. He felt it was an opportunity to express something complicated, which I really feel he was uniquely capable of expressing. I just think there’s not that many films that get made with complicated characters. That’s just the nature of the beast right now.
AVC: Do you think he approached this markedly differently from his work in Little Fockers?
PW: Well, I think that in this case, Bob is devoted to the idea of reality, and he’s playing a real character. Like any great actor, he’s not doing an imitation, but he’s extremely keen to not have something be false. So it was interesting, certainly, to go down to the homeless shelter where Nick worked with De Niro and have him blend into the woodwork rather effectively, and to see what observations he was taking from it that he told me, and what observations he was taking personally. One thing he noticed was that the body language of the people in the shelter was not downtrodden; they actually carried themselves with a degree of pride, ’cause they didn’t want to appear to be marks. And De Niro’s father was a painter and an artist. I don’t really know what his relationship was with his dad, but he’s surrounded in his life by his dad’s paintings, and I have to believe there’s some statement about art that’s taking place in this movie that means something to De Niro. I think he tries to work hard on anything; it’s just that—possibly also because we had planned this together for six years—he attacked it. I would hear from people who had worked with him for the last 20 years just how hard he was working. Not just things that I saw, but things that they were observing. So I really don’t think he ever phones in anything, but I think this particular character brought something out in him.
AVC: Were there jokes made on the set about the fact that he was playing a taxi driver?
PW: [Laughs.] You know, I was quite terrified when I realized this movie was gonna open with Robert De Niro walking into a cab depot and driving a yellow cab. But it’s based on a true story, and that was Jonathan [Flynn]’s job before he hit the skids. After the fact, I do see some connections between those two characters, in that Travis Bickle is extreme and delusional, but somehow ends up surviving and coming out on top. He sort of becomes a hero at the end of Taxi Driver; we’ve seen all of his mania and flaws and scariness. Similarly, in this movie, the character considers himself one of the great writers America’s ever produced, but never gets a novel published. But now, in real life, Jonathan has been portrayed by Robert De Niro in a film about him. I had the odd experience of sitting in on a meeting between Bob and Jonathan, in which Jonathan was not at all intimidated by this great actor, but said to him, “So, do you think you can pull this off?” So the area in which delusion and reality overlap is one that’s shared by both those films.
AVC: At the Q&A last night, you talked about Paul Dano as always acting as though he has a chip on his shoulder. Can you elaborate on that?
PW: Yeah, there’s a level of unrest in Paul which I assume is related to his intelligence, ’cause he’s quite smart. I became interested in him as an actor from early portrayals in L.I.E. and The Ballad Of Jack And Rose. I just hadn’t seen anybody else like that onscreen. The way he looks and the way he sort of holds himself onscreen was so edgy. And I knew he had stood up to the challenge of acting with Daniel Day-Lewis [in There Will Be Blood], who I gather is quite imposing to act with, so I felt he would feel comfortable challenging De Niro. At the same time, having met him, I know Paul is smart and respectful, so it wasn’t gonna make my life hell in terms of him bringing that off-screen. I knew that he would not be idiotic enough to be giving Bob a hard time outside of when the camera was rolling.
AVC: How did Dano get involved with the production?
PW: I was so delighted that when I brought the name up with the studio that they would make the film with De Niro and Dano. Immediately, I feel it also lends a level of realism, because he feels so different from other actors of his age. He actually reminds more of one of Ingmar Bergman’s early troupe, like Max von Sydow as a young man. There’s something rough-cut and expressionistic about his face. So he read it and had some questions and sort of challenged me, on a level that I really respected, about the story. And then we worked through it to the degree that he could understand what was going on—particularly important, because I didn’t rehearse with him before shooting. Because while I usually like to rehearse a lot, these were two characters who were meeting each other for the first time in this extreme circumstance, and I wanted that feeling of these two guys acting with each other for the first time to be happening in front of the camera. So, I really felt like Paul was an ally in storytelling terms, and somebody utterly without vanity.
AVC: Damon Gough, who performs as Badly Drawn Boy, did the soundtrack for Being Flynn; you worked together previously on About A Boy. In our 2002 interview with you and your brother Chris, you talked about his unusual process, how he came down to the set to watch daily footage and write music for it. How was your collaboration this time? How has it changed?
PW: We’re both older, and it was really meaningful to me. First and foremost, I’m a fan of his, and I’ve listened to the albums that he’s done in the intervening years. And I was listening to an album that he did called It’s What I’m Thinking Pt. 1—Photographing Snowflakes, which is not a huge-selling album, but which helped get me in the mood to shoot the film while I was shooting it. So I asked him to do the music, and he actually told me that he was in a little bit of a dry period, in that he always wrote in his kitchen at home, but they’d renovated his house. [Laughs.] They renovated the kitchen, and suddenly he didn’t have the place where he’d come up with his ideas, so he was kind of bereft for a while. And so this was good timing for him, because it forced him to come up with a raft of new songs.
The temp music I used while I was editing was Badly Drawn Boy songs, but also some Bach pieces, which I’d play under Bob’s character, ’cause Bob’s character considers himself a classic writer, and I’d play Badly Drawn Boy stuff under Paul’s character. And I liked the music, but it felt like two different movies. So what I asked Damon was to do Bach-esque versions of the melodies that then would become songs in the movie. So for me, it helped answer the question of how to do a movie about two characters without it feeling like two movies, which was to have the same artist doing all the music.
AVC: You haven’t directed a film with Chris since 2002, though you still occasionally co-produce films. Do you still have a professional relationship? Do you bounce ideas off each other?
PW: Yeah, I think we know we’re always there for each other. We directed a few films together, which was fantastic, and then I wanted to do this film, In Good Company, which was of the same size and scope of About A Boy, and Chris wanted to do an epic, and he ended up directing The Golden Compass. So it really arrived at this point where one of us was gonna be telling the other, “You can’t do this,” and we felt that would be very bad for our friendship. So luckily, we made this transition where we’re genuinely supportive of each other, and I’ll show him cuts of my films, and he’ll show me cuts of his films, and we’ll just get notes from each other. We’re always there to give each other a pat on the back and say, “The hell with everyone.” [Laughs.] So it’s great. It’s been beneficial to our friendship.
AVC: You talked last night about wanting to bring art into Little Fockers, and bringing German Expressionism to Cirque Du Freak. Do you make a distinction between high art and low art? Is combining the two a goal of yours?
PW: I don’t make a particular distinction between the two, because I think the moment that one is functioning on a meaningful level in art, and you think, “Gosh, I’m being an artist here,” you’re pretty dead. There is some degree to which—this is an awful way of putting it, but I’ll say it—you need fertilizer in order to grow flowers. [Laughs.] Eventually, really, American Pie is no less meaningful to me than a drama, because it’s an attempt at some form of honesty. On my part, there are so many things as a filmmaker that you can’t control: You can’t control how your films are received; you can’t even control your level of talent. But you can control how you conduct yourself on a day-to-day basis, and whether you cave into your own fears. So I try to really focus on those things, as opposed to anything involving results. One of the things I try to do when I’m making a film is to conduct myself on set the same way I did when I was getting to do it for the first time with About A Boy, which is to feel lucky to be on set, and to try to be respectful and polite to people. That’s one of my main tasks that I’m focusing on, much more so than whether the film’s good or not.
AVC: Little Fockers ultimately grossed more than $300 million, and you’re following it up by working with De Niro again. Did the studio want to try to get another $300 million movie out of you?
PW: No, certainly not. I ended up at a budget level and a studio that was very keen to allow me to make what I felt was the best version of the movie. One of the first notes the studio gave to me was a shocker for me, which was, “Feel free to not have Bob’s character falsely redeem himself.” Focus was really true to their word, and created the conditions in which I could make the most meaningful version of the film. And I created the conditions in which I didn’t go over budget. So it was a “Put up or shut up” moment, but it was the best way for the film to get made.
AVC: What did you want to do with Little Fockers artistically that you felt you weren’t able to do?
PW: First off, I should say that any inability to achieve something rests squarely on my shoulders, because one needs to understand what one is capable of in any given situation. I wanted to make it a meditation on mortality and the shift in generations, largely involving De Niro’s character’s sense of his own mortality. That did not necessarily sound like something with the appropriate amount of laughs. [Laughs.] Really, I learned a lesson in collaboration from it, which I believe helped me to be non-defensive in having a great partner, in this film, in Nick Flynn. It was a healthily humbling experience on my part.
AVC: So given complete freedom to work with Being Flynn, did you accomplish everything you set out to do? Are you fully satisfied with this as a piece of art?
PW: Um… It is the version of the film that I’m happiest having be the result of the process. It is meaningful for me, and I think it’s got a funhouse-mirror effect of drama and humor, and I feel like it’s a very honest expression of something that is hopefully not overly earnest. At the same time, that’s great, and that’s something I’ll take with me, but it doesn’t matter so much to me, because I just need to go on to the next film and try to be respectful to the potential of the film and the people that I’m working with.
AVC: Do you know what the next film is?
PW: I’m hoping it’s gonna be this film I’ve been working on, to star Tina Fey, called Admission. I’m gonna find out in the next couple of weeks whether she’ll be able to do it or not. But it’s a comedy-drama, and it’s not a father-son story. [Laughs.] It’s about a woman who doesn’t have kids who works in the Princeton admissions department who comes to believe that one of the applicants is a kid she gave up for adoption when she was younger.
AVC: So it’s a mother-child story.
PW: It’s a mother-child story. It is.
AVC: Is this a step up from father-child stories?
PW: I’m hoping, yes. I think it’s really important that I do something with a female lead character fairly immediately.