About a Boy
Different as they may be, and they are, Chris and Paul Weitz appreciate the specific weirdness that each brings to their relationship, as brothers and filmmakers. Raised "in" the profession -- their dad is fashion designer/writer John Weitz and their mother is Susan Kohner, who played Sarah Jane in Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959) -- Chris and Paul share a healthy perspective on the business and the art of movies. Far less mainstream high-jinksy than their most famous film, American Pie, might suggest, they do cultivate a certain sense of the absurd and "perversity," as Chris calls it. While you would hardly call the Weitzes "sober," they are plainly serious about what they do, and understand their chosen profession in all its layers.
Partly, this understanding is revealed in their varied career choices. After making dissimilar early career choices -- Chris has a degree in English lit from Cambridge University, worked as a journalist, and passed his foreign service exams with the idea of going to work for the State Department, while Paul got a film degree from Wesleyan University and produced off-Broadway plays -- they broke into the mainstream as screenwriters. Their first script was for Antz, then they wrote Madeline (based on the popular children's book). At last, they somehow convinced Universal Studios to let them -- first-timers -- direct American Pie. The rest, you might say, is history: they then grappled with the Chris Rock Team while directing the less-than-successful Down To Earth. In between directing jobs, the Weitzes acted in Miguel Arteta and Mike White's indie DV project, Chuck & Buck.
Today we're talking about their new film, About A Boy, based on the Nick Hornby novel and starring Hugh Grant as Will, Nicholas Hoult as Marcus, Toni Collette as Marcus' mother, and Rachel Weisz as Will's eventual love interest, Rachel.
Cynthia Fuchs: How have your different educational backgrounds helped you to collaborate on films?
Paul Weitz: I think that one thing that film students should immediately do is to take a literature class. The idea that film exists in this technical vacuum outside of the history of storytelling misleads people.
Chris Weitz: When I went to Cambridge, there was no film department; it's a very canonical, rigid literature curriculum, and films just didn't exist, basically.
PW: I did go to film school, but it was really with this film [About A Boy] that I started to understand what people meant when they talked about the "language of film." It was through watching certain films over and over, and trying to deconstruct that experience, trusting that that wouldn't ruin the experience of film.
CF: I've read repeatedly that you got this gig, because you demonstrated a "passion" for the book and a "passion" for the film, a passion for Antz...
CW: It seems like we're kind of sweating with lust for our projects. That's a word overused by studio executives, especially about very cold, unpassionate people. But you know, strangely, making a film can wreck your enjoyment of films, because you can start to think, "Oh whoops, I just saw the zoom," which is supposed to be hidden. And that can be a bit of a shame.
PW: But at its best, the essence of art is getting an audience to suspend their disbelief. Actually, to some extent, the more knowledge you have about the technical processes of film, the more fulfilling it can be when you forget about those things while watching a film, or when you perceive this other language going on beneath the surface.
CW: The question of disbelief is more complicated when you have a movie star in your picture. That's where the willing suspension of disbelief comes in. But I wonder at what degree that really operates. With American Pie we had the advantage that nobody had seen these actors before. And so they only identified them as these characters, which may be a problem for some of them now. But when you see Hugh Grant, you see Hugh Grant play Hugh Grant play someone like Hugh Grant.
PW: There's almost something ancient and mythological about it. Like there are all these legends about the same character...
CW: Yeah, like the trickster.
CW: Especially with Hugh, because he has such a particular persona that follows him and occasionally hounds him.
PW: But I think he's being incredibly smart right now. The film, when we made it, was coming up against the writers and actors' strike, which eventually didn't happen, but everybody thought there was going to be a cut-off point. And Hugh was turning down all sorts of roles in hopes that we would get this film, together. I think that it's something that he can do incredibly well, that is sort of "natural" to him, but it is sort of a step away from the bumbling, foppish guy so many people associate him with.
CF: The Will and Marcus story is such a strong center for the film, I was almost disappointed when the more usual romance between Will and Rachel popped up.
PW: Well, the most conventional way would have been to have him end up with Marcus's mother, whom he meets first. But in terms of Rachel, we were trying to posit that it's only because he's met Marcus and has sort of inadvertently been opened up that he's able to have this relationship with her, that he could have met the same person a year before and only been able to have a one-night stand with her, rather than something more substantial. And in fact, we cut some stuff that was hedging our bets and was more of a romantic comedy.
CW: We actually always saw it that the subtext of the movie was a romantic comedy between him and the boy, not in any sort of perverted way, but in the sense that, in a romantic comedy, you have the audience rooting for these two ill-matched characters to get together. The film follows that kind of rhythm, in that boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy [laughs].
CF: How was it to make a high profile, sort of prestigey movie like this one?
PW: It's funny, we actually took a step down in budget from the last film [Down to Earth]. It's high profile in the sense that there's a movie star and it's based on a somewhat beloved book. But I think we were just so desperate to do a comedy of this type, in that it's sort of hearkening back to Billy Wilder's The Apartment , which is a comedy, but Shirley MacLaine's character tries to commit suicide partway through the movie, and there are a lot of dark aspects to it. I think also when you make a film you're hoping that it is inadvertently, A) of the time, and B) telling some story that will have all sorts of meanings attached to it. And I do think that Nick Hornby's novels, and in particular, this novel, do manage to achieve that. I'm possibly about to get extremely obtuse...
CW: [laugh] About the means of production? The service industry? Paul has developed an interesting economic theory...
PW: It's about a guy who does nothing and in modern economics, the Western world has moved away from being manufacturing into being a service economy, where we basically do nothing. And lots of people I know, not just those who literally don't have jobs, but even those who do, for example in the financial industry, appear to me to do absolutely nothing. And so, in some ways, I think that Hugh's character is of the time.
CW: Ironically, in film, we're manufacturing this image on celluloid, in an actually archaic mode. Pretty soon you'll just be making digital information, which gets beamed around. With film, you're working in this practically medieval art form.
PW: Yeah, it goes along with dentistry, in that you can't believe they're still doing it in the same way they did at the beginning of the science. There must be some easier way to do it.
CW: If not easier, there is a more efficient and more economical way, which is a bit of a shame, because you're going to put a lot of great tradesmen out of work.
PW: The wonderful thing about film is that you're trying to capture something very ephemeral and make it permanent. We get to see Cary Grant living, instead of some digital analysis of Cary Grant.
CF: Or, you get to see Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner.
CW: I think that's one of the most mortifying moments in recent culture. It's literally defiling the dead, exhuming his corpse and attaching strings to it, as far as I'm concerned. Leave him alone!
CF: On some level, About A Boy is, as you suggest, about class anxiety and lack of activity, doing nothing: Will has no aspirations and no reason to have them that he can imagine.
CW: I think he's got this particular English thing, that if you can't do something well, don't do anything at all. He's a kind of desperate, hopeless character who's decided to abandon all pretense of trying to do anything. In that way, he's more of a literary type than a movie type. There's a book called Against Nature, by Joris-Karl Huysmans, it's about this wealthy guy who essentially spends his time calculating how to do nothing. Although most people aren't in that position, in that they don't have an independent income, people nowadays are often in the position of finding ways to waste their time, kind of on the way to oblivion [laughs].
CF: But isn't that a goal, in capitalism, anyway, to have time to waste?
CW: Yes. I also think that we're in danger of being entertained from the cradle to the grave, with entertainment being this abstract concept... Not to say that this isn't an entertaining movie! [laughs]
PW: [laughs] Having said that, you will be entertained!
CF: Well, that's interesting too, as a lot of your work has been mainstream-industry entertaining, with American Pie or the Chris Rock movie. But you also did the strange and cool Chuck & Buck. What possessed you to take that kind of risk?
PW: Well, he asked us, was the first thing.
CW: And it was a chance to act, which I don't think is going to recur.
CF: Are you kidding? You didn't get good notices?
CW: I was mostly ignored.
PW: You're being Hugh Grantish. Entertainment Weekly said...
CW: Owen Gleiberman, yeah, he must have been on crack! He actually said I deserved an Academy Award nomination, which I think is the exception that proved the rule. Actually, after we'd finished doing American Pie but before it came out, we knew we'd done something which had a chance of striking a chord in a kind of a mainstream way, and Chuck & Buck was a chance to maintain some street cred.
PW: I think that the hidden thing about Chuck & Buck is that it's an entertaining film.
CW: It has a happy ending, too.
PW: But I do think that there are some films that are treated better in a low-budget, digital video format, like Chuck & Buck, but there are others that can stand a bigger budget.
CW: We also thought it was going to be a bit of a laugh and was never going to get picked up. It was a bunch of friends making this twisted little movie. And when it got picked up, it was like a weird dream.
CF: There's a weirdness to your other choices as well.
PW: I really hope so. Certainly to the path that our career is talking, there's a strangeness. But I think what we try to do is forget about the genre of the piece that we're making. So for instance, with American Pie, we were not aficionados of the teen sex genre. And we greatly disliked the aspect of, say, Porky's that tends toward misogyny. Or, with Antz, we sort of forgot that we were writing a children's film; there's so much stuff in there that's obscure, even too obscure for adults, much less children! I remember the horror with which I came up to a theater on the first day when I saw a little 4-year-old boy jumping up and down in front of the poster going, "Antz! Antz!" I thought, "Oh man, we have not provided this kid with what he wants!" And in this case too, although it's a romantic comedy, it's not really in the vein of Notting Hill. It's much less sort of picturesque and filled with lovable, quirky characters. It's trying to be more edgy than that.
CF: Although they are promoting it by comparing it to Bridget Jones.
CW: It's understandable from the box office point of view, because it's hard to high-concept-ize the story; it's hard to market it as precisely what it is within the allotted time. The film is the best advertisement for itself. So, they wanna get butts in seats so you can actually get word of mouth going. I think we're perverse before all things. And it was odd for us to do a film abroad, to do an adaptation of a novel. It seemed like a good change.
CF: At the same time, those people who do greenlighting, whoever they are, seem willing to give you chances.
CW: We've gotten people to take some interesting gambles. I think that for this film it was the looming actors' strike and writers' strike, and the studios were desperate to get films into production. I think this one could have bounced around in development hell for quite a while, and it just fell into place.
PW: Actually, we had to convince the same woman to let us do this film as we had convinced to let us do American Pie, and in this case, we said we wanted to make a movie like The Apartment, and luckily she knew what The Apartment was [laughs], as opposed to a lot of people in Hollywood.
CW: There's absolutely no institutional memory in Hollywood. And the last thing you ever want to do in a meeting is cite a movie that didn't make money at the box office, no matter how good it was. They'll nod their heads and say, "Yeah, that was a fantastic film," and call somebody else.
CF: Speaking of that, I was surprised to read in your bios that the only people who knew your mom's work, in particularly in [Douglas Sirk's] Imitation of Life, are gay men.
CW: It is the gay litmus test.
PW: I would say, gay men and cinephiles. I thin what Chris is referring to is that there's a female impersonator named Lipsynka who does an imitation of certain lines from Imitation of Life.
CF: It's an amazing movie, and that beat-down scene with your mom [Susan Kohner] is just incredible, the music and the window, and oh...
PW: With Troy Donahue, yeah!
CW: Wasn't it Tab Hunter? Isn't there a guy named Troy Donahue playing for the Magic? A shooting guard? [laughs]
CF: There should be if there's not.
CW: Well, Douglas Sirk was clearly mad, or at least that's what it sounds like, talking to our mother. Fantastic names for movies: Written on the Wind, All that Heaven Allows. They're like Bond titles, all that meaningless grandiosity.
CF: It seems like you have a very easy and productive rhythm between you: how are you liking being the brothers-team?
PW: We try not to have yawning conversations in our conversations, and when one of has a chasm, the other one leaps in, when you're talking to cinematographers or actors. I get a particular vacant look where Chris knows is the key for him to say something that makes sense.
CW: When you're on the set, from the moment the day starts, money is burning, so you have to develop some kind of fluency to the way we work together, or we'd be in big trouble.
CF: So you practice this in front of the mirror.
CW: [laughs] Yeah, sentence finishing. No, it just seems to have worked out, because we grew up together and have always gotten along. People are disappointed because it's more interesting to see people fight than to see them agree.
PW: The only people we let see us fight are our editors. When we're editing, we beat the hell out of each other.
CW: It is productive, but it can be ugly for a while. We had a big fight over the opening of this movie. I was for a slower opening. I was afraid to lose track of the kid in the beginning.
PW: It was originally a lengthier introduction to Will, and another to Marcus. But I felt like it was important to get the audience to very quickly get used to the idea that this was about two characters, and that they were somehow bonded together. I wanted them to be visible faster, so it was a definite choice to have them both have a voice-over.
CW: We used several devices; one was to change the opening song from a very poppy tune to something more lyrical [Badly Drawn Boy's "Something to Talk About"]. And we used a couple of cheap wipes to link them. [laughs] We wanted the dual voice-over, and the precedent for that was the Scorsese movie where "Bob" DeNiro and Joe Pesci both have voice-overs. There's a kind of paranoia about voice-over being "telling instead of showing," but I think that's nonsense, if it's done well.
CF: It helps to have strong actors doing the reading.
CW: Yes, Hugh is brilliantly inflected. I think he was hung over [laughs], so he had that air of pain. And Nicholas was wonderful, without being hung over. He has a natural quality to him, unlike, a lot of the kids we saw for the part who were theater-trained actors and very good at that.
CF: And how was it working with someone so young?
PW: The first thing is that, when you're working with an adult actor, they've already made the decision in their life, and you're not going to ruin the rest of their lives by bringing them into the public eye. So one does hope that the kid you're working with will keep things in perspective and will not judge himself according to the success of his movies or his career. It's nerve-wracking. He still calls us up out of the blue and acts like we're just picking up a conversation we were having five minutes ago.
CW: He wasn't the kind of Haley Joel Osment type where you could go into these deep conversations about the motivation of the character. It started with us having him write words like "sad" in the margin of his script and underlining them. But he's got a lot more going on than that would seem to indicate. He is really a kid, and intuitive in that way.
CF: How do you deal with rough emotional scenes for a child to act?
PW: There was a scene where the kids had stolen Marcus' shoes and he's out in the rain and he's supposed to cry. We did the scene and we thought Nicholas did it quite well...
CW: ... but first, we're trying to give him advice, telling him [in lilting, faux-hypnotist's voice], "Think about moments that really upset you." And of course, there weren't any. [laughs]
CF: But you didn't have to tell him his dog had died.
CW: Well, we asked him if his hamster had died, and he was like, "Yeh. Got a new one." [laughs]
PW: [laughs] So, we did this scene, and before he left, he came to us and said, "Do you know what I was thinking about when I did that scene?" And we said, "What?" And he said, "Nothing." And he laughed in our faces and left. [laughs] There's something very pure about him as a person and an actor, though. He really gets that film acting is about letting the audience come to you.
CW: It's rare in adults, and especially rare when you find someone who's a kid and understands what the camera does.
PW: Toni Collette's like that, actually. I never really see her acting. We've worked with actors who, when they have an emotional scene, you can't talk to them and they need to spend all day working themselves up into a frenzy. But with her, you'll be talking with her about which band she saw last night, and two minutes later, she's doing the scene and sobbing.
CW: With Toni, she just sort of turns it on, and it's quite fresh when you get it. It's so hard to talk about acting and actors, to talk about something so intuitive.
PW: And there are so many different styles. Hugh would come to the set with his script all marked up with tons of notes. And you're trying to bring everyone into the same movie even though they're coming to it so differently.
CF: How has your acting changed the way you work with actors?
PW: I worried less about rehearsal. It's only important what happens when the film rolls.
CW: I gained a respect for just how difficult it is to imitate another human being in front of a camera. And I think we learned to let our actors know what's going on even when they're sitting around waiting to do what they're going to do. Because to keep yourself in that high pitch of emotionality for hours and then learn that you're going to break for lunch is hard to do.
CF: Do you shoot a lot of footage?
CW: I don't think we ever do more than 10 or 11 takes, and that would be the outer limit, usually. So I suppose we do shoot quite a bit, though not aimlessly. I heard that William Wyler would shoot 40 takes and just say, "Again," without giving any indication of what he wanted or when it would be over. I think the actors get kind of spooked after a while when you do that.
CF: Are you ever surprised when you go into the editing room, by what you have?
CW: I think more and more, we plan it ahead, and shot-list very carefully. In this one, we had some match cuts we had to plan out beforehand. We took a lot of inspiration for this film from The Graduate and the match cuts and other editing in that are extraordinary.
CF: How important is it for you to write what you're shooting?
PW: I don't think we'd ever shoot something that we didn't at least tinker with the script, so that we could understand it. Being a pure screenwriter is very difficult, because you're almost willfully trying to forget about the rest of the process, including actors improvising. And that's probably the most fun part, to get into an environment where there's some spontaneity. We're much bigger fans of directing than of writing.