After collaborating on screenplays for Antz, Madeline, A Very Brady Sequel, and more, Paul and Chris Weitz were given the opportunity to direct the teen comedy American Pie, which turned out to be one of 1999's biggest hits. As they continued working on other scripts, both credited (Nutty Professor II: The Klumps) and uncredited (Shanghai Noon), the Weitz brothers directed their second film, Down To Earth, a race-themed twist on 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan and its 1978 Warren Beatty remake Heaven Can Wait. Based on the novel by High Fidelity's Nick Hornby, their new About A Boy stars Hugh Grant as an aging London layabout living off the royalties of his father's novelty Christmas song. After he discovers the secret advantages of dating single mothers, he invents an imaginary son in order to find available women at a single-parents' group. But Grant's scheme backfires when a young misfit (Nicholas Hoult) with a suicidal mother (Toni Collette) begins looking to him as a father figure. The Weitz brothers recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about focus groups, writing credits, synergistic soundtracks, financial pressures, and other perils (and advantages) of working within the studio system.
The Onion: Considering your family pedigree, was it inevitable that you would wind up doing something in the film industry?
Chris Weitz: Absolutely not. We totally managed to squander any film pedigree we had. It's interesting, because our grandfather [Paul Kohner] was Billy Wilder's agent, and William Wyler's agent, and John Huston's agent, and we used to go and visit our grandparents in the summer. But [those directors] were just old guys walking around, and they didn't want to talk to us about movies. [Laughs.] We didn't even know who they were. Our mom [Susan Kohner] was nominated for an Academy Award [for 1959's Imitation Of Life] and went to the Golden Globes and stuff, but she's so modest that she never really mentioned it. So going to Hollywood didn't seem like the obvious thing to do. We were both flunking out at our various choices of career before we joined up. I was a freelance journalist doing really badly, and I was going to join the State Department. And Paul was a playwright working at this ridiculous bookstore.
Paul Weitz: Yeah, I was working at a theater bookshop that every week would have fewer and fewer books on the shelves, because they couldn't pay their bills. So, like, people would come in and ask, "Do you have Death Of A Salesman?" I'd have to go, "No, come back next week. I'm pretty sure we'll have it then." It was like the Scotch Tape Store on Saturday Night Live. [Laughs.]
O: When did you start writing together?
PW: Right around that time, I got dumped by my then-girlfriend and I realized that I had to get a real job. I wasn't sure what to do, so I wrote a couple of scripts, one on my own and one with Chris. The one I wrote with Chris was really funny, and the one I wrote by myself was really schlocky.
CW: We wrote this thing called Legit, which was about a porn director making an art film. [Laughs.] It was actually pretty funny, probably the funniest thing we've written. It didn't get made, but it was sent around and got us some notice, which led to some meetings. That was about 12 years ago, and we've been writing together ever since.
O: Have you always been compatible as a writing team? What's the writing process like?
CW: We break it down into scenes and sections. We're big index-card guys.
PW: Actually, we're sponsored by Archer index cards, so we have to say that.
CW: They're much better index cards than any of the other competing brands. [Laughs.] Anyway, we break the script down into scenes and write them separately, then swap scenes and edit each other. Things can get pretty ugly. First of all, being funny, or attempting to be funny, is a pretty sad pursuit. But second of all, there's this weird kind of comic machismo involved, where you protect your joke and knock down some other guy's joke. It can get a little bloody.
PW: But we're not like that too much with each other. When I'm writing, I'm always looking forward to a few hours from then, when Chris brings me his stuff and maybe there's something good in that.
O: Do you feel you have individual strengths and weaknesses?
PW: Personally, I think Chris is a bit sharper with an ironic joke, possibly because he spent so much time in England, where irony is the national language.
CW: And Paul knows what human beings are like, having spent more time with them. [Laughs.]
PW: Yes. I've seen human beings and I've tasted their blood, so I know how they behave. [Laughs.]
O: How strong of an influence has Hollywood studio filmmaking had on your work?
CW: In a sense, we're taking the studio route, so we've made a deal with what could be the devil. But I think we've managed to do pretty much what we've wanted to do within the system. Of course, there's huge financial pressure. Studios are basically banks, and they want their money back, so that's where all the pressure is coming from. They think they know how to make money: according to formulas. Given that, I think we've managed to make things relatively non-formulaic, but part of that is keeping our budgets really low. We actually had a lower budget this time than the last time we made a movie. I saw [director Kinka Usher] at the première of Mystery Men, and he came in front and gave a speech, in which he said, "Thanks to the studio for giving me the extra 20 million bucks to really make the movie I wanted to." And I thought, "Man, you poor sap. You've gotten yourself 20 million bucks deeper in the shit."
PW: Back to commercials. [Laughs.]
CW: You don't want your creditors knocking at the door every day that you're making the fucking movie. Studios think about movies in a certain way, and a lot of the trick is to fool them for their own good.
PW: A lot of the people who work in the studios are just geeks who didn't go into banking or something. I think that's a good thing. If it would make the same amount of money, they would actually rather make a good film than a bad film. So you can't really go in there and say, "Here, I'm going to make some real schlock. You've seen this before. How 'bout it? Give me 40 million bucks." [Laughs.] But I actually think we've lucked out from being in a couple of specific situations. Antz was the first movie we wrote that had our names on it, and Jeffrey Katzenberg kept telling us to make it more adult and not dumb it down. At the time, he felt he was not competing with Disney on children's films, so he had to do something that was really distinct. That was the reverse of what you might expect. We'd hand in stuff, and he'd go, "Nah, this is too mainstream, too lowest-common-denominator. Give me something smarter." That was a really great situation. And then with American Pie, it was such a small film, and Universal had its hands full with the Reign Of Death that followed Babe: Pig In The City and Meet Joe Black.
CW: Which were two tremendous bombs that had everyone screaming and running for cover, so we were allowed to do pretty much whatever we wanted.
PW: Also, we set out to make American Pie as non-misogynist as possible and as sweet as possible. There are a lot of women in power at Universal, so it was an open audience for us to try to take that tack with the movie. I ultimately think that's why we got to direct it.
O: How do you feel screenwriters are treated in Hollywood?
CW: Well, they're treated like pampered children, right down to the uniform. A screenwriter can't wear a tie and jacket to a meeting, because the suits like to be the suits, and they want the screenwriters to be these slightly pudgy guys in sneakers and blue jeans. They're happier that way, because they like to think of screenwriters as commodities they can push around. As much as the Writer's Guild tries to fight for the power of a screenwriter to be on the set and look at every cut, the Director's Guild is never going to let that happen, because directors still have leverage over screenwriters. And in some ways, that's correct, because screenwriters have no fucking idea how hard it is to make a movie. They don't want to wake up at 5:30 in the morning and come down to the set and make the bajillion decisions that have to be made in order to manufacture it. When I was just a screenwriter, I used to have a screenwriter's attitude toward directors, which is like, "Who is this fucking asshole who gets to call it 'A Joe Schlobotnik Movie,' when I wrote the screenplay?" [Laughs.] But really, the director makes the movie. Of course, the screenwriter writes the screenplay, but that's just the beginning. The work of actually making the movie is such a larger issue.
O: Have you had problems with getting credited for bad material you didn't write, or not getting credited for good material you did write?
CW: [Laughs.] Wow, you've read our minds.
PW: We've definitely had the occasional movie…
CW: Let's take Nutty Professor II as an example.
PW: Let me go into my whining-screenwriter mode here. Screenwriters are constantly getting credited for stuff they had absolutely nothing to do with. It's such a weird thing. That's the screenwriter's lot in life. When you go to see a movie you wrote and your name is up there on the screen, you're really revved up. But then, it's like some really weird dream where everything's distorted. Still, I think screenwriters' problems are really brought on themselves.
CW: Yeah, nobody is forcing you to accept shitloads of money for making up a bunch of people. There's actually a big monetary incentive to get a screen credit, because you get an extra payment, and you're in for residuals and stuff. So "your people," your lawyers or whatever, always fight for you to have a credit, even if it's stuff you don't necessarily want to be associated with for the rest of your life.
PW: Absolutely. As screenwriters, we've definitely been in situations where we're done writing a movie, and suddenly some dude—who might be a terrific writer—is being credited for the work. But maybe it all evens out eventually. Maybe that same person did great work on something else.
CW: In a previous life. [Laughs.]
O: So what about the Nutty Professor II experience?
CW: Oh, boy, I hope Pete Segal, the director, doesn't read this, because he's such a lovely guy. We worked really hard on making the characters work, and then the guys who had written the draft before us came in and put in a shitload of fart jokes. Of course, after American Pie, we were credited with those. My greatest fear was that we would be associated with all these fart jokes. So then I read a review in The New Yorker of Nutty Professor II and the guy said, "And checking through the credits, I noticed that the Weitz brothers were writers on it. The Weitz brothers, who lately charmed us with American Pie." I thought, "Fuck, we've been nailed." This was exactly what I'd feared. Then my father called up and said, "Have you guys noticed that you're called 'charming' in The New Yorker?" [Laughs.] I said, "Dad, I think they're being sarcastic."
O: Did you have to audition pretty hard to get the job for About A Boy?
CW: Not really. I don't think we were aware of the undercurrents of discontent when we were getting the job. For the studios, they think that if you've had a movie that's made a lot of money, you have some weird voodoo power over the American public. I think Hugh Grant was pretty nervous, because we were most famous for pie-fucking, and this was kind of a different tone. I think Nick Hornby was pretty nervous, too. He hadn't seen American Pie, but he didn't like the whole idea of it. [Laughs.] But once we started talking to him about wanting Badly Drawn Boy to do the soundtrack, I think that hit his cool-o-meter. And also, Nick is an incredibly gracious guy, and he was willing to give us our day in court. With Hugh, we just went out and got shit-faced with him, so those roadblocks were pretty quickly crossed.
PW: The lucky thing was, we ended up taking the film to Universal, because three days after we handed in our draft to New Line Cinema, they fired everybody at the studio. We took it to Stacey Snider, the chairman at Universal, and she said, "I don't get this. I don't get the tone of this movie." So we told her that we were going to try to make it like Billy Wilder's The Apartment, really edgy and scathing, but it's still a really funny comedy with a lot of heart. She said, "Okay, I get it. Go ahead and make it." It was really good to take it to people we'd had success with before, and who trusted us.
O: How did the Badly Drawn Boy soundtrack come about? What role did you want the music to serve?
PW: We were listening to The Hour Of Bewilderbeast again and again while we were writing the screenplay. And we started to think, "Man, wouldn't it be amazing if we could get some songs from this guy?"
CW: What usually happens when you put together a soundtrack is you make a deal with some record company that has some sort of back-door deal with the studio. And they've got a couple of songs you might want and a bunch of shit that they're just trying to jam into the movie.
PW: A bunch of shit by guys you've never heard of, or never will hear of, that they're claiming are gonna be huge.
CW: And then these weird music people are all over you, telling you that a song has gotten 40 hits on the adult… some kind of ridiculous jargon. And I have no idea what they're talking about.
PW: These music supervisors will pop in some song that sucks, and they'll sit there nodding and bobbing their heads and tapping their feet… [Laughs.]
CW: In a vain attempt to convince you that it's really cool.
PW: Actually, the music supervisor on American Pie [Gary Jones] was pretty cool.
O: But it was still a little synergistic, wasn't it?
CW: Yeah, you end up with songs you don't really want. For About A Boy, we really loved The Graduate, and we wanted something like that, where one act did the entire soundtrack for the movie, all the songs and incidental music. We think Badly Drawn Boy is a genius, so we went to his people and finally got to talk to him about it. He's really interesting, because he seems like a total flake, but he's incredibly hard-working and a really lovely guy. And he was up for it. He thought it would be an interesting, perverse thing to do. It was really perverse on everybody's part, but it worked out better than any of us could have imagined. He came up with eight fantastic songs. And they were often written during the making of the movie, so he'd come down to the set and watch cut footage, so he could custom-tailor the songs to suit it.
PW: He actually did way more material than Simon & Garfunkel.
O: In what ways do you think Hornby's book and your film have escaped the long shadow of High Fidelity? Because it seems like a common complaint with the Hornby book was that he was repeating himself.
PW: I think High Fidelity really focuses on the aspect of Nick Hornby's writing that's about pop culture and the obsession with pop culture. In a certain way, it changed a bit, because High Fidelity the book was about a British guy obsessed with American culture, and High Fidelity the movie was about an American guy obsessed with American culture. I think there is a slight difference. In this case, there's an aspect of pop-culture obsession, but it's really about so much more, and the character is much older. The character in High Fidelity ends up in the same place that he was in the beginning, in terms of his emotional growth, at least as far as I can tell. And I think that's quite realistic. But this guy, played by Hugh Grant, is 38 years old, and he can't really get away with doing things the same way. He's either going to become a self-parody or grow up.
CW: And I'm not sure how much of a shadow High Fidelity the movie cast. It became a little pop-culture, culty, icon fixation, and I'm not sure Hornby is really all that crazy about pop culture. I think people who are crazy about Hornby's writing put far too much importance on it. I imagine he feels that pop culture is one of the ways men have of avoiding life, basically.
O: How far were you and Hugh Grant willing to push his character toward losing the audience's sympathy?
CW: Well, it's great to have a movie star, because they have some particular quality that makes them watchable. And Hugh is capable of being likable while being the most horrible human being. He says a bunch of really callous, awful things, and does some pretty stupid, inconsiderate things, so we were willing to push it pretty far. There's a line of dialogue where he's driving behind this ambulance containing a woman who's just attempted suicide. And he says, "It was terrible, terrible. But driving fast behind the ambulance was fantastic." [Laughs.] We always loved that line, but the studio was worried that it would make him too unlikable. Then, some woman at a focus group said she really liked it. The line was just one of those terrible things we all think on occasion, and you can get away with it so long as you're entertaining the audience. And Hugh was entertaining enough to get away with seeming unlikable.
PW: He's definitely playing a character that's more like him in real life than the Four Weddings guy. [Laughs.] The other way he could seem unlikable is if the emotional scenes were a bit too cloying, and I hope the film doesn't fall into that trap.
O: You mentioned focus groups. Could you talk about that process? How has it affected your work?
PW: There's a whole Zen to working in the Hollywood system, which is that you're constantly buffeted with people's opinions, and if you reject them all out of hand, you're losing the opportunity to get good ideas. Sometimes, you go to focus groups and they have lowest-common-denominator instincts. Then other times, like the case Chris pointed out, the focus group will tell you that the line the studio thought would make a character too unlikable actually made him more likable, because it was something they'd never seen before. Sometimes they can surprise you and save your ass. Also, with the music on this, studios aren't used to having guys like Badly Drawn Boy do the soundtrack. They're used to strings and composers. It helped us out a lot to do our first focus group and have people tell us how much they liked the music.
CW: But it can also be a really scary, torturous experience, too, because your baby is in the hands of people who could give a shit that you worked your ass off for a year and a half on it. Sometimes you begin to hate yourself for even responding to focus groups. You get yourself in this weird quandary between your vision and the group, and whether you're pandering or just trying to reach a larger audience. It throws the creative process into some doubt. But it's there, and there's nothing you can do about it.
PW: And they've done this for decades. William Wyler had to do it, too. It's funny, because there's always this person leading the focus group, and they start out saying, "What did you like about the movie?" And the viewers start talking about what they liked, and you love that person leading the research group. Then they say, "What did you dislike about the movie?" and you want to run up and strangle the leader of the focus group, because it's like they're picking at this loose thread in the fabric of your film, and trying to pull on it. [Laughs.] Also, the leader goes up in front of a theater with about 20 or so people, and you and all the studio execs are sitting behind them in a semi-darkened room. So the person leading the focus group goes, "Okay, I have nothing to do with this film. There's nobody here that has anything to do with this film, so you can just be honest." And, of course, there are all these people wringing their hands and skulking around in the back. [Laughs.]
CW: It's funny, because Hugh goes to them, as well. So he'd have to listen to them say, "He looks pretty old," or "I usually hate Hugh Grant." [Laughs.]
O: Have you ever taken anything from these groups and changed your film because of it?
CW: Yeah, Down To Earth, especially. And I'm not so sure that was such a great idea. [Laughs.] We didn't have to change much on About A Boy, because the studio supported us on ideas that were on the bubble. They allowed us to be stubborn about making sure all of Badly Drawn Boy's music got to stay in the movie. They allowed us to get away with quite a cynical take on the leading character.
O: But since American Pie was extremely successful, is there a point when you can say, "We know what we're doing, so buzz off"?
CW: I think if we were doing another teen comedy, we could do that and just say, "Shut the fuck up. We know what we're doing." But since this was kind of a tough movie to get off the ground… There are only two or three movies a year that are studio comedies, but which aim to be intelligent and are about real people with real flaws. Since the studio knows that there's no formula for this one, you can't just bluster your way through it. There is a bit of politicking involved.
PW: It would be great if there wasn't this pressure, and you didn't have random people telling you what they think about the film. That would be fantastic. And we usually do it on our own: We have our own little focus group before doing the studio focus group. But I think the studio knows that if one director got away with not having them, then all the other directors would be putting it in their contracts, so the lunatics would be running the asylum eventually.