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Learning Through Failure: Paul Weitz on "Grandma"

No one can accuse filmmaker Paul Weitz of ever being stuck in a rut. His resume is nothing if not eclectic.

The 49-year-old son of actress Susan Kohner of the 1959 version of “Imitation of Life” fame and fashion designer John Weitz of sportswear acclaim has done animated family features (as a co-writer on 1998’s “Antz”)  and raunchy teen comedies (as the co-director of 1999’s “American Pie”). There’s been universally praised under-achievers (2002’s “About a Boy,” which earned an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay, shared with younger brother, Chris) and critically panned crowd-pleasers (as sole director of the 2010 sequel “Little Fockers“).

For every modest success (the 2004 workplace comedy “In Good Company”) there seems to be an equal and opposite modest flop (the 2006 over-reaching satire “American Dreamz”).

But since being slammed with the worst reviews of his career for “Little Fockers,” Weitz has done penance by sticking to smaller-budget titles with intriguing leads and varying degrees of success, culminating with “Grandma,” one of his best reviewed films that opens tomorrow.

Perhaps all he needed  was a muse to inspire him. Not just any muse but a legendary one who has been working fairly steadily since breaking out on TV’s “Laugh-In” in 1968. And that’s the truth.

Lily Tomlin, who at 75 is hotter—and hipper—than ever with an Emmy nomination for her work on the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie,” has gathered Oscar buzz for her performance as Elle. She’s a fierce foul-mouthed lesbian poet who is not above throwing public fits and who treats most fellow human beings with unabashed disdain. The only one mostly spared is her flaxen-haired teen granddaughter (Julie Garner of TV’s “The Americans”), who she joins in a daylong sojourn to gather enough money for an abortion.

Weitz helped to get the current Tomlin re-appreciation ball rolling by affording her the chance to be one of the saving graces of 2013’s “Admission” in the supporting role of Tina Fey’s radical feminist mother, Bella Abzug tattoo and all.

The slim, silver-haired director-writer-producer has been steadfastly beating the drum for the low-budget “Grandma” since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was warmly received. In a candid interview during a whistle stop in Washington, D.C., he sings the praises of Tomlin, discusses his first film with a female lead and reveals what his “Fockers” failure taught him.

For someone who made “About a Boy,” “Grandma” is about a whole lot of women: Marcia Gay Harden as Elle’s corporate lawyer daughter, Judy Greer as her distraught former girlfriend, the late Elizabeth Pena as bookstore owner and trans actress Laverne Cox of “Orange Is the New Black.”

And, strangely, nonetheless about mentorship in some way.  I was conscious that I had made a couple films about male mentorship, “About a Boy” and “In Good Company.” It occurred to me late how interesting it would be to do something on female mentorship. Clearly, Julie Garner’s character, Sage, has so much to learn from this woman who has had decades of experience.

And, eventually, she is willing to learn, which not every young person is.

At first, she is completely unaware of this woman’s history, as illustrated by her not knowing that “The Feminine Mystique” is a book as opposed to a comic-book character.

The line gets a big laugh.

A moment that’s important to me in the movie is where Lily has had a very erudite insult fest with Judy Greer  and Julie says, “My friends just call each other bitch, ho and slut.” And Lily says to her, “What kind of friends are these?  I don’t want to hear you use these words anymore.” I do feel like clearly Marcia Gay Harden’s character is some form of feminist, because she is thriving in a male-dominated world.

What is her job exactly?

She’s supposed to be a corporate lawyer.

I was so fascinated by that treadmill desk that she uses, I think I might have missed that detail.

It’s a job that requires a lot of espresso. That treadmill just happened to be in my brother’s office. We shot that in our offices along with the scene where the woman is examining Lily in the doctor’s office. Chris has had this treadmill desk and I called Marcia up and said, “How would you feel about walking on a treadmill desk? And she said, “Oh, great.”

From what I read, having Lily attached to the movie helped you pull the script together.

Hearing her voice made it work for me. She made an incredibly strong impression on me when we worked together on “Admission.” She is such a trouper, she is so tough in a great way. There is a point where her character is supposed to run after Tina Fey’s character.. I was watching the monitor. Tina ran out of the room. Then Lilly ran. And the next thing I know, I see her fall out of the frame and hear a loud clunk. There was a sound rug that hadn’t been taped down and she fell. But she hopped back up and said, “Oh, let’s keep on going.” Only later I learned she had hurt her hand. That and the fact she had a lot of juggling in that movie, she had to make sausage with raw meat and she had to fix a bicycle in that movie.  She actually kind of learned how to do both those things at the time. We were doing a take and I said, “Lily, we are actually above the part where your hands are fixing the bicycle.” But she wanted to keep doing it. That is when it struck me what kind of actress she is. She is also that thing that you hope, which is someone who is really cynical about human nature and, at the same time, is incredibly kind.

When do you recall first seeing Lily?

I can sort of remember seeing “Laugh-In” as a kid. And certainly “Nashville.” I’ve seen that movie at least 10 or 15 times. I have a friend who was an actor in New York before Lily got “Laugh-In.”  He auditioned for the same television commercial as her. They did the audition together. He distinctly recalls seeing these men in suits who were judging whether they were going to hire  this young women for a shampoo ad or whatever kind of ad it was, and how judgmental they were of her. And they didn’t know how to put her into a box. It’s almost too good to be true, but he says soon afterwards, she told him, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this anymore. I am going to do one more audition and I am going back to Detroit or whatever.” And it was for “Laugh-In.”

You told me how dedicated she is, but is she naturally funny?

She is naturally funny, but not in the way you think of most comedians as being funny. Often times, you will be with a comedian and they will tell you something really funny. But then five minutes later, you hear them say the same thing to somebody else with a slight alteration in the delivery at the point where you didn’t laugh. She is sort of like Chris Rock. She isn’t afraid to talk about cultural things that divide people or upset people. I think I have only seen the tip of the iceberg with Lily. I think she has that thing that most of the great actors I’ve worked with who have been doing it for decades have, which is they are still anxious about whether they are going to be good. They are really self-critical. One of the marvelous things about her  is how much she cares about Jane Wagner (Tomlin’s spouse since 2013 and partner for nearly 40 years). One little thing that she helped with, which ended up not being so minor, is when I first wrote about the relationship between her and Violet (Elle’s longtime partner who died), it was all glowing terms. Lily said, “Look. this is fake. If they are really together, they would have been crabbing at each other and been on the outs at various periods.” So I layered that in.

There is talk that, 40 years after Lily got her first Oscar nomination for “Nashville,” she just might get her second one for “Grandma.”  It sort of reminds how your brother directed a small summer movie, “A Better Life,” which earned Damian Bichir an Oscar nomination in 2011. But there are probably other, more personal reasons why you made “Grandma.”

Doing this film is really more about survival for me. You mentioned earlier “American Pie,” which was lovely, and “Little Fockers,” which I blew. Partly because I didn’t have the political wherewithal. I overestimated the degree to which I could sell people on things. When I went into it, I thought I could do some meditation on mortality and aging. I learned a lot. I remember learning what if feels like when you have a mental collapse. It seemed like it was something that shouldn’t be causing that, the stress around the job. I hadn’t admitted to myself that the reason to do that movie was money. But, at this point, I’m glad I did it because I don’t think it’s bullshit to learn through failure. But, in this case, I realized I had to do something for no other reason than that the story had written itself and that this person was perfect to play it. There was nothing tactical. There was no thought that “If Lily could play this role that is really close to her, she could get recognized for it.

I get the feeling when your mom was still acting that women weren’t as marginalized in Hollywood. Their power to attract an audience was valued. That is why it is wonderful how you were able to portray this multi-generational array of women. You even hired a transgender actress to play a trans woman. Plus, you manage to touch upon such topics as abortion, the lack of women’s health clinics, sperm-donor children and feminism without being preachy.

When I made “Admission,” I did notice with a great deal of chagrin that I hadn’t made a movie with a female protagonist before. There were a few like Toni Collette in “About a Boy.” They were substantial roles, but they weren’t the lead.

One thing that people forget about “American Pie,” probably because they focused on the sight of Jason Biggs deflowering a dessert, is that the female characters played by Alyson Hannigan, Tara Reid, Mena Suvari and Natasha Lyonne are far more self-aware and enlightened than the guys.

Thank you. That was done when there were women executives at Universal. Stacey Snider was chairman. We went in and said, “We want to aim this at women.” And we were very conscious that we wanted the women to have control at every point. To me, there is a scene where Natasha is telling Tara that she deserves to have an orgasm. Which is something that you don’t see much, probably because the MPAA freaks out about it.

You have a daughter?

Yes, I have an 11-year-old daughter and two sons, 4 and 8. I’m looking forward to my daughter seeing this maybe in a couple years. Actually, every part of the political aspect of this I’ve talked about to her and my wife has as well. She knows what abortion is, she knows what gay rights are and how important it is, she is a feminist. There is a lot of swearing in “Grandma” but we swear sometimes.

But it’s funny swearing.

I will say a lot of it is Lily’s improv. When she first read the script, she said, “She’s a literate character. Does she have to swear so much?” I said, OK, we can cut it out. But then, on set, she was coming up with the most colorful language.

Did your mom ever warn you and your brother to not go into show business?

To the contrary, actually. I wrote a play at school and she sent it to this Young Playwrights Festival, which I think still exists. Through that, I didn’t win it but I got a one-day performance at Circle Rep in New York. I was 16 and I kind of got it in my head that I might be able to try to do this. Later on, I found out my dad was freaking out a lot more about me trying to do this. Not Chris. I think we were 21 and 25 when we got our first job. But for me it was long enough that my dad was worried. But my mom told him to chill out.

But you weren’t considering the fashion business at all?

That they would have dissuaded me from. My dad was constantly at war with John Fairchild, the head of “Women’s Wear Daily.” My dad also thought it was a silly thing to do. He was kind of addicted from the money he made from it.

He wrote novels, too, though.

He did. He did some really good biographies of World War II German figures.

Have you known anyone like Elle who made wind chimes out of her cut-up credit cards?

No, but I needed a good reason why she couldn’t give the money to her granddaughter for the abortion. To me, the idea that an academic doesn’t have 600 bucks handy seems completely normal.

What are you doing next? I read it is something with your brother.

We are writing something together. It is an adaptation of a really beautiful Japanese film, “Like Father, Like Son.” We are doing it potentially for Spielberg to look at, along with the however many other things he has to look at. And I’m doing innumerable drafts of an adaptation of a novel, “Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett. There was a hostage situation in Peru in the ‘90s where people were held for weeks and weeks. It’s based on that. It is an ill-starred romance.

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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