Exclusive Interview: Being Flynn Director Paul Weitz
February 27, 2012
Director Paul Weitz has had a career with its share of ups and downs, especially since branching off as a director after making what some deem to be classic movies like American Pie and About a Boy with his brother Chris. As a writer, Weitz has bounced between doing adaptations and original screenplays, and his latest movie Being Flynn is the former, an adaptation of Nick Flynn's memoir "Another Bullsh*t Night in Suck City."
Flynn's book tells the story of two generations of writers, and how he reunited with his long-absent father after 18 years when his father showed up at the homeless shelter where Nick worked, looking for a place to live. Nick is played by Paul Dano, an actor who started out as a teen and has slowly been taking on more grown-up roles, while his father Jonathan is played by the one and only Robert De Niro, one of the most respective actors of the last century doing some phenomenal work.
While the film does have some humor, it's far more serious and emotionally compelling than some of Weitz's other recent films, especially after helming the 2010 comedy sequel Little Fockers. In many ways, it takes him back ten years to his work bringing Nick Hornby's About a Boy to the screen, not just because it's another adaptation with a dual narrative, but also because he went back to Damon Gough a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy to do the music, something that gives Being Flynn a nice comfort zone for fans of his earlier work.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Weitz to talk about the film last week.
ComingSoon.net: I know this has been in development and something you've been working on for a while, so was it something you had on your plate before "Fockers"?
Paul Weitz: Oh, way before. I was sent the book eight years ago and then I spent seven years doing draft upon draft. I really like writing. I love directing, but I was actually fairly content with the prospect of continuing to write draft upon draft and never making it. That sounds weird, but in the same way that people like doing crossword puzzles I like juggling around the details of a story. Also, if I didn't make it, I would never be confronted whether it was living up to what I thought it could be essentially. Then, at some point, it had gone through a couple of more mainstream studios and Focus Features called my bluff and gave me a much reduced budget number and said, "If De Niro will still do this and you can make it work, then go ahead. Go to it." So yeah, now I can't write drafts of it anymore. (laughs)
CS: Was Bob already onboard very early on, even before "Fockers"?
Weitz: Yeah, way before. It's the arthouse wing of the same studio that made "Fockers," so it was part of the bargain that I was making, at least in my head, was that I would get to do this. I was anxious on a couple of levels - one was whether I'd get to make the movie and whether someone would finance it. The second one was, once I'd agreed to make it I thought, "Oh God, I hope Bob still trusts me after this and will still believe in me enough to do this project that was clearly a passion project for both of us."
CS: Was the book just something an agent found and sent to you?
Weitz: There was a producer who was involved in it at Sony at the time who sent it to me, and it really got under my skin, I think because one of the central themes of it is the question of whether we're fated to become our father in this case, and can you create yourself? How much of the sort of baggage of whatever myth you have about your parents do you bring with you through life?
CS: It seems like that would be tough material to pitch to a studio and get financed.
Weitz: For sure. Eight years ago it was a little less out of the realm of possibility that a mainstream studio would do something like this in that I find this story to be almost like a fable and weirdly universal. But clearly there's not going to be a sequel and it's not something that screams out that it's going to do well internationally or something.
CS: You never know. It does have a very European feel to it.
Weitz: That's interesting. I would think so. On a much darker level I really like the Dardenne Brothers' films.
CS: I went into, maybe because you just came off "Fockers," but I was kind of expecting more of a comedy and it's really not a comedy at all. You have some funny moments, but it's very serious material and quite heartfelt.
Weitz: No, it is. I mean, also there are weird sort of ironies in it in that it's about writing and storytelling and as I was shooting it, I asked myself repeatedly, "What is this about?" I sort of narrowed in on storytelling as a mode of survival in that Bob's character considers himself one of the great writers that America's ever produced and is clearly delusional. (Laughs) But at the same time in real life, Jonathan who's still alive…
CS: Oh, he is still alive?
Weitz: He is still alive. He's had a book written about him and now he's had a movie made where he's being played by Robert De Niro, so to some degree, his delusions of grandeur have born true.
CS: I didn't realize that; I just assumed he had passed away.
Weitz: Well, no, he's an incredible survivor. I went up with De Niro and Nick to meet him, and it was a very funny meeting because we sat down and he looked at De Niro and said, "So, do you think you can pull this off?" Nick said, "Dad, this is a very famous actor. He was in 'The Godfather,' etc." Jonathan said, "Yeah, I hear you're good, but are you going to be able to play me?" He's a guy who has such a strong sense of ego. Another thing he said there was, he turned to Nick and he said, "For God's sake, you're going to win the Nobel before I do."
CS: So you also had Nick involved fairly early on. Is that very common when you do an adaptation to have the author involved? They don't always want to be involved.
Weitz: No, Nick Hornby didn't want to be involved as we were making the film, probably because he was writing his own stuff and didn't want to torture himself. I think Nick (Flynn) has a warped sense of humor, so I think it might've amused him that I was writing draft upon draft of this thing. (Laughs) The weirdest thing I did was I made an index for the book because the book has no index, but I wanted to be able to access at any point when I was writing the screenplay what were Nick's first jobs? Where did he live at such and such a time? What color were Jody's eyes? So, I literally wrote an index for the book, which I then sent to Nick (laughs) and which is the only one in existence. I think you sort of have this feeling as you go on in life that you're not going to make new friends, deep friendship is some province of childhood. I really do have this - I know one of the things I'm going to take from this film is my relationship with Nick.
CS: What about Paul Dano? He's a great actor who does a lot of smaller movies as well as studio flicks, but this is the first time we really see him doing a grownup role in some ways.
Weitz: I know. I was a big fan of his, and I think he's distinct from any other actor of his age group. He always acts with a chip on his shoulder, but when the camera's not rolling, he's a good guy and thoughtful and smart and respectful. He played opposite Daniel Day Lewis in a couple of movies, and I know Daniel Day Lewis is supposed to be really intimidating, so I felt like he was not going to be intimidated and would actually challenge Bob while the camera was rolling. At the same time, he wouldn't be so stupid as to be a jerk to him off-camera, so I was very happy that the studio was up for making it with him.
CS: The film's dual narrative is interesting.
Weitz: Similar to "About a Boy," yeah.
CS: How did you figure out the logistics of filming that? Did you try to shoot all the stuff with the two of them together earlier or later in the shoot?
Weitz: No, you're kind of at the mercy of your schedule, in that especially with a lower budget film, you have to shoot everything that's in a particular location all together because you can't really afford to move your company. With this one, I had so much time ahead that I wrote and rewrote all the shots and transitions well before shooting, so I had the script and then I had a big, thick book of shots. It was a book about storytelling, so I felt like I really had to have everything be crafted. In terms of the dual narrative thing, it was probably easier to think that one could pull it off given that "About a Boy" had been a dual narrative. In this case, it's two characters, both of whom want ownership over the story. They're kind of pulling it back and forth between them.
CS: Did you have Bob for the entire shoot?
Weitz: It was a 35-day shoot, and I had Bob for five weeks of it or something.
CS: If you had to do some stuff with them together and you had a good location, you had some play on where those scenes could play out?
Weitz: Yeah, definitely. I usually have rehearsed a lot before shooting, but I didn't in this case because there's supposed to be two characters who hadn't met each other before and who are having this very dramatic reunion after not having seen each other for 18 years. I didn't want them to be comfortable with each other. I was able to do scenes where they were meeting for the first time very early on in the shoot.
CS: I also wanted to ask about shooting at the homeless shelter which plays a huge part of the movie and really changes both their lives very much. Did you use real homeless people in those scenes?
Weitz: Yeah, we did. We had a mixture of actors and nontraditional actors. There was an AIDS resource center, which sent various people to audition who had been homeless at some point in their lives. One of the key things for me was that while I don't feel particularly capable of discussing homelessness as an issue or with a capital H, I have now spent some time with people who have been homeless at some point in their lives. Each of them has their own story and each of them is utterly unique and individual, and also the people working the shelters. Nick and I spent time at Pine Street in Boston, which is where he worked when he was younger. You think that people who work in a homeless shelter must be kind of saints, and you'll get some people who will just be, and you'll also get people who are in their early 20's who have found a way to make a few bucks that's kind of exciting. You find people who were formerly homeless themselves who've got on their feet and they're working there. It's really a wide range of people. While it's people going through very difficult circumstances, their body language is generally not downtrodden. When we went there to the shelter with Bob, one of the things that he observed was that people were carrying themselves with a degree of self confidence, probably because they didn't want to be marks. But it's not what you would necessarily think of in terms of what a homeless shelter is like. Also, you'll see people who look more traditionally what you think of a homeless person is looking like, and you'll see people who look like they're coming home from their job at Google and they're just going to sack out there for the night.
CS: I remember there's a guy who looked like a business man at the shelter in the movie.
Weitz: Yeah, and that exists. It was hard actually to be true to that aspect of what I'd observed in homeless shelters because it looks like you've made a mistake.
CS: Yeah, it reminded me of the Will Smith movie "The Pursuit of Happyness," which his character was trying to give off the illusion that he was just a guy in a suit and not someone who didn't have a place to live. Jonathan must be a fairly smart guy, being a writer, but when he becomes homeless, his mental health starts deteriorating as he seems to be suffering from mental illness Is that stuff which you were comfortable talking with Nick about?
Weitz: I was comfortable talking with Nick about anything because Nick gave me license to, so no matter whether it was a tragic aspect of his life or not, I would be polite and ask him, "May we please talk about this thing?" Like I'd say, "I need to talk to you about the night your mom died. Can you do that with me?" He was very generous with his time, and I think that the key thing is that not only does he look at his life as his experience, but he's a storyteller, and he looks at it as something other than, and I really think more than what he experienced in his life. It was very lucky that that was the memoir that I was adapting.
CS: I'm curious about the title change. I'm sure you've been asked about it before. Was that something that you were forced to come up with much later on?
Weitz: The title change was deeply upsetting to me, and the reason that we changed the title was that the MPAA wouldn't allow us to call a movie "Another Bullsh*t Night in Suck City." They don't allow you to use asterisks, they don't allow you to imply a curse word. From the get-go it was going to be watered down. I knew it. I was bummed out about it. It's actually the only sort of splinter that I have in me from the whole process. Given that, as a consolation prize, I liked the idea of having a title that included Nick's name, particularly because Nick had told me that he always had a strange feeling about being named "Flynn," because it's such a part of you, your last name, but in this case, he didn't know his dad growing up, so he didn't really know where he inherited that from.
CS: So basically you just found a way to settle on a title that kind of works.
Weitz: Nick and I were talking about titles for about a year and a half, and the studio as well, so it was really hard. (laughs)
(SPOILER WARNING!!!! The next two paragraphs deal with something that's actually been mentioned above but in a very specific way that ruins a dramatic aspect of the last act, so if you haven't read the book, you may want to skip ahead a bit.)
CS: Dealing with the death of his mother, it could have been very graphic and disturbing, but you mostly handled it off-screen. Was that something very deliberate or did you shoot more and cut it back?
Weitz: Everything was deliberate. I think it's very hard to process the thought that there is a woman who has a good sense of humor, who has been a terrific single mother, and who then succumbs to her depression. In this case, it attaches to Nick's feelings about being a writer because on the night she died, earlier in the day she read a short story he wrote about her, and he blames himself. At first, I think that guilt is a control mechanism, and as I'm making this movie about these two characters, one of the things I need to think about is, "What does Paul Dano's character need from Bob's character?" I figure it's not love because it's too late for that, but he hasn't told anybody really about his feelings of guilt. And at some point, he reveals it to his Dad who says to him, "You can't kill someone with writing. Nobody's that good a writer."
CS: That's a great line, yeah.
Weitz: It's a cool lesson, you know? It's an egotist telling somebody, "Don't be so egotistical." But it's part of what he gives to his kid, is he frees him from something that he's clinging to.
CS: I liked the fact the ads say, "By the director of 'About a Boy,'" and you've actually reunited with Badly Drawn Boy. How did that come about that you decided to do that?
Weitz: Well, it's kinda scary asking one person to do all the score and music for something.
CS: Let alone twice.
Weitz: Well, yeah. I mean, less scary in that I loved the music for "About a Boy." I'd been listening to Damon's albums over the years, and while I was shooting it, I was listening to his most recent album, "It's What I'm Thinking Of." It's pretty funny 'cause I called him up and I said, "How'd you feel about doing another movie with me?" Then I sent him the film and I'd copped some of his songs in there, and also some piano pieces by Bach that would play under De Niro, because De Niro thinks of himself as a classic writer. Damon called me and said, "Well, it seems like very different music from what I write," so I said, "Well, how would you feel about trying to do Bach-ess versions of the themes of the songs that you're going to write for this?" He did it, and even if I'm the only one who feels it, there's some connection between the whole story. When it's following the two characters' stories equally, I think it's a great benefit to have one artist doing all the music. It was a joy, and also I'm just a fan of his.
CS: I know a lot of people who are fans of his just due to "About a Boy." As I was watching the movie and saw the flashback of Nick throwing the ball to his substitute fathers, I thought the song was so beautiful and it took a while before it dawned on me it was him. There have been interesting parallels between you and your brother Chris since you two started directing your own movies. You both were doing big movies and now you're both doing smaller, more personal films.
Weitz: I know. Yeah, we do have a weird sort of mirror exercise going on. (laughs) I'm really, really proud of him for "A Better Life." Chris has a lot of guts and I admire him for that.
CS: And you and Chris are still working as producers and doing stuff together?
Weitz: Yeah, we do some stuff together. I mean, it's more like we see each other and give each other a hug at the office. (Laughs) But, yeah, we still have a company together.
CS: You've discovered quite a bit of talent collectively between "American Pie" and "About a Boy." Nicholas Hoult is everywhere right now. He's doing a lot of stuff. Do you ever keep in touch with any of the people you've worked with?
Weitz: I do. Whenever Nick's in Los Angeles, we hang out. I saw him a couple of weeks ago, and that's really great because whenever you cast a child actor--and he was 11 when he did "About a Boy"-- you wonder if you're going to mess their lives up. I can't tell you what a relief it is, aside from being a pleasure to see what a good guy he is and what a good sense of humor he has, I think he's really, really talented as an actor.
CS: Have you been very involved with "American Reunion?" Or is that just giving notes and stuff like that?
Weitz: Yeah, I gave notes on the script, most of which were useless, a couple which were useful. I weighed in with the studio saying it was a good idea and that the script was going to make a good movie. I think it's a really good amount of time to have passed in between those movies because now there's a real reunion type effect of seeing somebody you haven't seen for seven years and wondering what they're going to be like, if it's going to be fun being around them. I like what the directors did with the movie a lot.
CS: It's really interesting since those guys were so influenced by "American Pie" when making their own "Harold & Kumar" movies, so it's weird to see it coming full circle with them directing the new movie.
Weitz: Well, they were very sort of referential to that first movie in this movie. I said to them, "No one's going to understand what you're talking about because I made the movie and I don't know what you're talking about." But having seen it at a screening, I do think that they pulled it off.
(At this point, we talked to Weitz about the adaptation of "The Elric Chronicles" he was doing with his brother Chris and his next project Admission with Tina Fey, which you can read here.)
CS: You really like adaptations?
Weitz: Gosh, I don't know.
CS: It puts a lot of pressure because the people who read the book go in having certain expectations.
Weitz: That's true. I mean, man, I've been around a while now, and I've had so many sort of like ups and downs that I have a pretty… I know how to take a punch. I feel it's inevitable I'll disappoint myself or somebody else in some part of the process (laughs) so I'm a little shameless when it comes to adaptations.
CS: I have to say that this was a great return.
Weitz: Oh, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
CS: I just went back and during my research I reread my review of "American Dreamz."
Weitz: Oh cool.
Weitz: Oh, it was a bad review? I think that's a good movie. I would say of the movies I've made that didn't do well… look, if you run across it, do see it again, because I think it's as good a film as I've done.
CS: I'll probably see it again eventually, but it was one of those movies I had such high expectations for. Maybe it's a movie that stands the test of time and you can watch it now, and it's better in hindsight now that stuff isn't in the public conscious as much.
Weitz: Yeah, I mean, it was made at a time when people still really believed in George Bush. Look man, a studio film whose main character was a Muslim who turns to terrorism? (Laughs) I think it was a lot edgier than some people might think.
CS: And it was brought to you by the studio who then released "United 93."