Director Paul Weitz on Grandma, starring Lily Tomlin
With nine movies under his belt in just over 15 years, Paul Weitz’s filmography has run the gamut of raunchy R-rated comedy like American Pie to beloved dramedies like About a Boy and In Good Company and even mainstream comedies like Little Fockers.
With his latest film Grandma, Weitz goes the independent route with an original movie starring Lily Tomlin as Elle Reid, a lesbian feminist whose girlfriend just left her and whose granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) has just shown up hoping to borrow the money she needs for an abortion.
The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and then played at a number of other festivals including Tribeca, Sydney, Los Angeles and Jerusalem, all the time garnering accolades for Tomlin’s majestic return to the screen in a leading role perfectly tailored for her.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Weitz last week to talk about the departure he took with his latest.
ComingSoon.net: The last time we spoke I think I gave you a hard time about the amount of adaptations you do.
Paul Weitz: (laughs) I know.
CS: So you went and wrote an original movie just so you could say, “Shut the f*ck up, Ed Douglas. Here’s an original movie.”
Weitz: No, man. I gotta tell you, it’s actually really helpful to use this part of the process to examine stuff, so actually, I should really like it when somebody gives me sh*t… sometimes.
CS: I’m not sure I give you sh*t, but I generally like your movies.
Weitz: Oh thanks, man. No, I think it’s a valid question, why ever adapt something into a film? (laughs)
CS: I was surprised that it’s a very feminine or female-centric movie, very deliberately I’d say, which is not what I would expect. Your movies haven’t been unfeminine, but this is really very specifically that.
Weitz: No question. Actually, I do think that the last film I made, “Admission,” which starred Tina Fey and had Lily as her mother in a supporting role, I think that was really helpful as a springboard for me, because I was conscious of the fact that I do plays, too, but less publicly, and I was conscious of the fact that some of the better stuff that I’ve done was very about men overcoming obstacles to being full human beings, whether it be “About a Boy” or “American Pie” or “In Good Company.” It was really kind of a relief actually to do something that was as female-driven as this. But honestly, it was mostly springing from having spent time with Lily on the set of “Admission” and realizing how interesting I thought she was, and not only how edgy she was, but how she could expand this period of women’s history in America, and how damn funny she was. Weirdly, I tell you, not necessarily as an actor, but in terms of material and what she covers, she’s most akin to Chris Rock, who I got to spend some time with early in my career, in that she pushes buttons and is not afraid to be transgressive in what she talks about.
CS: I definitely can’t imagine anyone else playing this role.
Weitz: Yeah, no question.
CS: I’m sure the role of Elle came out of working with her, but Elle is a great character who has no filter, similar to Lily, but it’s a great role because it’s not making fun of her age, which is often the case with a movie about an older person.
Weitz: Well, there’s that, and I was also very keen to do a movie where it’s not like the 70-something-year-old character is dying, because oftentimes you try to get sympathy for the character or the movie in that fashion. In this case, it was somebody who was still incredibly vital, and who’s just getting out of a relationship with a younger person, but who also is kind of figuring out how to move on from her anger, in a certain way. In the beginning of the movie, her long-term love has died, and while she’s clearly begun dating again, I think that’s also part of what her anger is stemming from. By the end of the movie, she actually does develop a little bit of a filter and kind of gets punched in the eye thanks to that, which she calls a karma boomerang without trying to give away too much. While the character is female, it is also somewhat inspired by my dad, who is somebody who was a really emotional and lovely person, but also completely full of anger and completely smart and cynical.
CS: I think I can relate to that aspect of the character, too. How about finding an actress to play Sage, because it’s really one of those two handers where it’s just the two of them in the car. How did you end up with finding Julia?
Weitz: Totally. Before making this movie, I wanted to see as many movies of this scale as I possibly could. I saw a movie called “Electrick Children,” where oddly, Julia plays a girl who’s part of a Mormon cult who has conceived through immaculate conception. She thinks that she’s pregnant and she thinks she got pregnant from hearing a song on the radio. It’s never quite explained how the heck she got pregnant in the movie, but anyway, it was completely stretching normal credulity. It was a terrific film, but Julia really pulled it off. I felt that, in this case, her strange sort of vulnerability and her look, which to me is like a cross between Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich or something like some figure from the ‘30s or ‘40s. I thought she’d be interesting enough and be emotionally present enough that even though Lily is driving the movie and is such a force of nature in the movie, that she wouldn’t get blown off the screen, essentially. That was really a trick. Then also, the big thing was that Lily met her and just thought she was a lovely person and a nice young lady and not a cynical or opportunistic person. Just the fact that Lily cared for her from the get-go was really key.
CS: Despite it being a two-hander, you have other actors popping in like Sam Elliot who was great and Elizabeth Pena, who unfortunately is no longer with us. Was it easy to get them, once you had Lily and the script? I’m assuming you need them for a day or two at most.
Weitz: Yeah, exactly. Most of them were people that I’d worked with before. So Marcia Gay Harden, I’d done a movie with her called “American Dreamz,” where she played a version of Laura Bush and we had a really good time doing it. So she was game for jumping into that. That was also additionally a coup because the only person, when I mentioned actresses who might possibly be her daughter, that was the person who Lily seemed mildly intimidated by. She so respected her as an actress. I thought that would be a great thing to work with. Her daughter in the movie is the only person who intimidates her character. Sam had worked with my brother Chris on “The Golden Compass,” so we had his number. Then Nat Wolff, who most recently starred in “Paper Towns,” but was also in “Admission,” is a friend. This was the tenth film I directed and I would not, weirdly, even though those were all studio films, I would not have been able to make this super low-budget independent film without having all of that experience, in part because I knew all these people, and then, additionally because I’d gotten to the point where I knew what I wasn’t going to use in the film, so I didn’t waste any time.
CS: It’s interesting for you to go in this direction because with your last three movies, you’ve gotten smaller, more personal, intimate and confined. Is that a response to your foray into studio movies and just feeling like you want to do smaller movies now?
Weitz: I think that even if you’re working with the best studio, if you have any guilt mechanism, you feel concerned about spending a lot of money on a movie and worried about it, if you’re going to make the studio back their money. You start to worry about things other than purely whether the movie is as good as possible. For me, this was definitely one of the progressions. In this case, it was just a story that I thought was really interesting, and then, when I started writing it with Lily’s voice in my head, I knew it was going to be funny. I feel like humor is the one thing that’s relatively irreducible. It doesn’t matter what budget you have, as far as whether the thing’s funny or not or whether the acting’s good or not. In this case, I was able to be really pure about it, but also though, I grew up in sort of the periphery. My grandfather was an agent and a producer in the golden era of Hollywood and was friends with people like Billy Wilder. In terms of Wilder, during the last say 20 years of his life, he still was trying to get movies going, but trying to get them going through the studio system. I always wondered, “Okay, what if he actually had the capacity to make a truly independent film? What if he’d just gone and taken Jack Lemmon and whoever, Walter Matthau, and gone and made a low-budget film?” That would’ve been a really interesting film and probably a really good one. So that stuck in my head, that that was an option. I was a little anxious about it. I remember right before I did it, I did get someone to invest in it, and I said, “We’d better do this fast before I change my mind or get cold feet.” So yeah, I was a bit anxious about it, but it was really an incredible experience making it.
CS: You’re being a responsible filmmaker, which is a rarity unfortunately, but you’ve produced movies as well, it’s something you’ve kept in mind. I was curious about the chapters you used in the movie, which is very much a literary thing. Were you ever thinking of this as a possible book?
Weitz: No, I mean, that central theme with Sam and Lily in a certain way could be on stage or something, because it’s really just resting the movie on those two actors’ shoulders for a sizable chunk. But my agents initially were wondering what the heck I was thinking with this, but it really did feel to me like I needed it to be a film. With the chapters, I do want it to feel a little bit literary, and then also I wanted to be able to even just put a spin on things, and also to take a breath, because the movie is meant to be something of a sprint in the end. It’s not that long a movie, they’re racing towards a goal, and I wanted to be able to take a breath here and there.
CS: Your movies have always had an interesting use of music such as the movies you did with Badly Drawn Boy, so how did you approach music in this one?
Weitz: My approach to everything in this movie was to not try to do what I’d done before, so all the crew people were people who I’d seen films or work that they’d done and I was interested in working with new people. In this case, Joel West, who does have a band, but he had done the music for “Short Term 12.” I felt like that really helped that movie emotionally, without popping one out of it. So I just called and got a hold of him and kind of talked him into doing it, but yeah, it’s really tricky with music. It’s one of those things where as you go along, it’s so easy to manipulate an audience, and I have very mixed feelings about it.
CS: I haven’t seen “Mozart in the Jungle,” but I knew about it because of the posters, but I actually met Lola Kirke recently and she was quite delightful.
Weitz: Cool. She’s lovely, yeah.
CS: But I remember we spoke a couple years ago about you adapting “Bel Canto” and this seems like it could have branched out from or been related to that.
Weitz: Well, it is not actually, although it’s somewhat in the same terrain. I’m still working on that adaptation and that might be the next thing I do. Look, in terms of that, I got to talk with Renee Fleming, who’s sort of the prime American diva of her era. The great thing with “Mozart in the Jungle,” well first off, the filmmaking itself is sort of a throwback to Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch, at least the ones that I’m directing and writing. Actually, even the collaboration between me, Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, it feels kind of like old Hollywood. We weirdly came up with the outline for this current season, which we’re shooting right now, in Jason’s mom’s house. We’d meet there, and it’s completely steeped in Hollywood history and stuff. But the other great thing is that we had so much access to the classical music world because it’s so underserved in terms of being represented, so we got to shoot at the Hollywood Bowl and Gael Garcia Bernal got to conduct four and a half minutes in front of 12,000 people. It’s been a trip.
CS: Before I let you go, are you and Chris still thinking of doing something with Elric? I talked to Chris recently and I forgot to ask him.
Weitz: Yeah, that’s a wee bit of a sore spot, because we still think it would make a fantastic movie. We did a couple of drafts, which were very true to the book in terms of there’s of him being a royal torturer and stuff and I can see why as we were thinking of doing it at the time, which was basically at a mainstream studio, it may have been a hard pill to swallow at the time. It’s still a great seminal work of fantasy for sure, and “Game of Thrones” is incredible, but I think there’s still space for an Elric movie.
CS: I guess “Game of Thrones” is a good precursor, but maybe wait until next year when “Warcraft” comes out. If that does really well, there’ll be looking for other fantasy properties I’m sure.
Weitz: Oh, that’s interesting.
Grandma opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, August 21.