A Strange Balancing Act; Q&A with Writer/Director Paul Weitz
Q: When you began preparing Being Flynn in 2004, you had already been writer/director on one surrogate father/son story, About a Boy; and were in post-production on a second, In Good Company. So was this actual father/son story then that much more of a draw for you?
Paul Weitz: Not in a particularly conscious way. I read Nick’s book, and the core story stuck with me. This idea of the disparity between a powerful father figure and how you see them functioning in the world is, I think, central to a lot of people’s lives.
First off, although my dad [the late John Weitz] was a successful fashion designer, he also would have preferred to have been known as a writer. He wrote a couple of a nonfiction biographies and novels which were published. He was, I think, both driven and haunted by his ideal of being a writer. I myself have wondered about how much of what drives you towards work is egotism, and how much of it is something purer than that.
This story’s situation is of a young guy with a father who fancies himself a great writer but who has never actually been able to finish anything. The idea that Nick had this father with a destructive, egotistical relationship to writing and that Nick ended up being a successful writer and doing all the mundane, boring things that it takes to actually write, really spoke to me.
Especially, I think, when one works in Hollywood; even more so than when writing just pure literature, you’re constantly having to question why you’re doing what you’re doing. Is it for success? Is it because you want to be critically lauded? Or is it because there’s something simpler and more important than that, in terms of bringing something into being?
Q: Were there other overlapping points of interest beyond family history and creativity?
PW: The aspects of both drug abuse and alcoholism in the story spoke to me as well. My dad was of the generation where one might occasionally have a Chivas Regal at 11 in the morning, and I – when I was younger – had to face the thought that I was drawn to obliterating my own personality with alcohol and drugs. The aspect of self-obliteration tying into ego and also tying into creativity was a strong element of this; for me, it wasn’t just a father/son story, but a story about the joys and pitfalls of creativity.
Nick is a poet, and the book happened to be utterly beautiful; it was one of the rare books that I read where, the more often I read it the more patterns I would see in it. That would have been daunting were it not for the fact that Nick himself is such an encouraging person; he gave me license to create a version of his story that is extremely personal to me.
Q: What do you feel was the deciding factor of getting Nick Flynn to trust you, back in 2004 when you first met?
PW: A strange balancing act; I was able to personalize certain things about the story, although I never put someone else’s experiences as directly akin to mine. But I was able to express why I felt deeply about it.
We became friends during the course of the whole experience, and I was glad that it turned out I was not bulls—ting Nick about eventually making the film. I think Nick read almost all of those 30 drafts [laughs], even the ones that didn’t live up to what I hoped the film would be. Like a lot of intelligent people who have gone through trying things, Nick is a relativist; he gets the joke on an essential level. He felt that I was always honoring the core of what he’d done by writing the book. He’s a friggin’ nice guy, and I managed to get him to largely put his life on hold and stick around during shooting, to make sure that Bob De Niro, Paul Dano, and I felt that there was somebody who could tell us if something was BS or not.
When I was first meeting with Nick, I said, “I need to ask you a favor; I’d like to be talking about a character named Nick Flynn. So I’m not going to say, ‘You do this’ or ‘You do that.’ It’s going to be ‘Nick does this’ or ‘Nick does that.’ Is that OK with you?” And Nick was fine with it, although I think he is writing a memoir about the experience of having a film made…
He is into detaching from things, and keeping his ego at bay so that he can see more clearly what is going on in the world. The moment he bought into the idea that Nick Flynn in the movie was a character, it gave me license to have the character doing and saying things that Nick never did or said.
Just by the act of writing a memoir, you’re taking a step away from what one would think of as reality; Nick understands that, even in the act of writing a memoir, you’re creating a character. This distinguishes him from people he would be on the reading circuit with, people who, it later turned out, were lying about their personal history.
A common ground for us was a feeling that we were each in our own way burning inside about how much of oneself is inherited and how much of oneself one can create. We both aspire to be unpretentious – [laughs] I aspire to that, but I think Nick achieves it.
You get the feeling, as you grow older, that you don’t really make new friends in life. But this feels like a friendship of value, that Nick is a friend to have for the distance.
Q: You went a distance with him in terms of working on the script for years.
PW: When you work on so many drafts, for seven years, it occurs to you that you might go on and on doing endless rewrites – and never make the movie, which sounds like it might be a bad thing. But it is, in fact, quite reassuring; because if you never make it, you’ll never have to contend with a particular version of it which might not live up to what you see as the potential.
Very luckily, I didn’t get to make it four years in, because that would have been at a studio with more of a mandate to try to make mainstream films – and that would have been fairly fatal for this. There are filmmakers who work at their craft in a marvelous vacuum and don’t sully themselves with commercial thoughts; I have not been in that vacuum. [laughs] I’ve learned a lot from mistakes that I’ve made – as well as from things that I’ve done properly. As I was making Being Flynn, I felt that I was using every iota of what I’ve learned over the last 10 years of making films, putting it towards making this as much what it needed to be as possible.
By the time it did get made, I was firm in my decision-making process, aesthetically, which allowed me to film Being Flynn quickly, on a tight schedule.
Q: In terms of the adaptation – the final draft that was filmed – what was the single biggest change, or telescoping, that you had to make?
PW: Admitting that because the budget was low I was not going to be able to shoot a lot that wouldn’t end up in the film; I wasn’t going to be able to experiment with certain things. I had to boil the film down to its essence, get to the bones of it.
That essence, as I see it, includes – something in the memoir that Nick would not necessarily refer to – the logic of self-hatred, and how one deals with it. I don’t think Nick was consciously dwelling on that but in a memoir about self-destructiveness it’s going to be part of the discussion.
Q: You have to impose perspective; otherwise, you can’t make a movie.
PW: No question, but I also wanted to honor the poetical structure of the book. There are some metaphors from the book which fell by the wayside in favor of other ones from the book.
There was a section in the book where Nick finds out that his grandfather was the inventor of a particular lifeboat, and another where Nick is living on and restoring a yacht. I had that in a few drafts before realizing that I needed to focus on this other section of time, when he’s living in the “Combat Zone” neighborhood in Boston.
Q: And is landlocked.
PW: [laughs] Yeah…I’m sure there were sweeping cuts that I made, but they don’t come to mind. Not that I didn’t love the parts that went, but you only get so much time in a film.
Q: You mentioned Boston; what was it like doing research there with Nick? Did it strengthen your resolve to do the movie, or were you at all intimidated by what you found?
PW: There is a temptation to look at it as, The Homeless. My approach was that this was not a movie about homeless people, but about individuals. Nick is interested in pretty much everybody he comes across, and that’s something I try to be as well. Everyone is contending with their own demons.
Our visits back there allayed anxieties, because I was able to keep Nick in on the process and I started to fill in the blank spots at the corners of my vision. We were going back years after Nick had been there, working at the shelter full-time, and using a different name for the shelter in the film gave us leeway. In terms of spending time with people on the street, I had done a bit of that before, so that made it less intimidating.
Q: Speaking of intimidating – how much did you build up Jonathan Flynn in your mind before finally sitting down with him?
PW: Well, he lives up to his billing. [laughs] The first time I met with him, we were sitting in his apartment. We were talking, and then at some point he pulled out a large – I don’t know if it was a kitchen knife, but it was about two-thirds of the way to a machete…it was a big knife, and he brandished it in my face, I think to see how I was going to react. [laughs] I didn’t make any sudden moves.
I had a fine time talking with him. The primary thing that struck me, and which was very similar to my dad, was his articulateness; he spoke in a way that people don’t speak nowadays.
He is a raconteur, and the film to some degree is about storytelling as a survival mechanism; Jonathan in real life, and the character in the film, have a sense of themselves as storytellers, processing whatever they’re going through and eventually – some day – turning it into art. It allows him to separate himself from the rest of the people around him, in the homeless shelter or living on the street. He has a destiny; he is a bemused observer. What to somebody else looked like tragic circumstances, he turned into King Lear; he’s not only Lear himself, he’s writing King Lear.
Q: You had worked with Robert De Niro before and he had been attached to this project for some time, so you were comfortable with him – but what was it like finally directing him as Jonathan Flynn?
PW: I was delighted, and delighted by how much he cared. I was moved by how hard he worked and how respectful he was to everybody, especially towards Nick and what Nick achieved artistically. He is also respectful towards his craft, as much as he ever has been; I got the sense from him that he doesn’t want to belittle his craft by talking about it too much. Before a take, I would see him go off and collect himself in order to get into the moment and get into the character. I would try to pick up any cues as to when he wanted to be left alone, and not get in his way.
The character of Jonathan has lengthy monologues that are fairly non-sequitur; as written, they were longer than what would eventually appear in the film. Having longer monologues provided certain points for Bob to get in and out of; sometimes I would say to him, “Would you like to just do the section of this that I most feel is going to be in [the final edit]?” But he would already have had it all memorized word for word, these nonlinear soliloquies. He wanted to stay in character, which was terrific.
Q: Unlike Robert De Niro, Paul Dano hadn’t been attached to the project for years. How did you impress upon Dano the vision that you had refined for the script?
PW: I had met Paul years ago; I liked his work so much in The Ballad of Jack and Rose and L.I.E. that I took this kid out to lunch. [laughs] It was in hopes that we would one day work together, and we actually did!
As an actor, Paul is eager not to back down from anybody; certainly, one can feel that in his work in There Will Be Blood. At the same time, he’s polite and smart – and able to analyze story; with Paul, I went through the script almost on a line-by-line basis. We talked about what we thought was going on. If there was a section that he didn’t understand or didn’t think was good, I would either argue with him or agree with him – often agreeing with him.
Nick was a more amorphous character to me than Jonathan. Probably because Nick is a contemporary of mine. There was the danger of the character becoming an inactive observer, because the Jonathan character is so active and creates mayhem. Paul is a very specific actor and he has a tremendous edge. I felt that was extremely beneficial, and one way I lucked out.
Q: You were motivated to put real-life people, not actors, into the shelter and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) scenes. How did that work out?
PW: It worked out great. Non-actors contend with some of the same issues as actors, in that it’s hard to keep something fresh; they’re less used to the idea that you might act the scene 10 times with the camera facing away from you, and then have to act it with the camera on you. If I had to make one generalization, it would be that they knew whether something was false or not.
Q: Working with cinematographer Declan Quinn, who has shot so many independent movies, did you find yourself intentionally cultivating a different shooting style on Being Flynn?
PW: Well, we mapped everything out ahead of time. Some of what we were doing felt ambitious, given the schedule. When I first met with Declan, we talked about the aesthetic of The 400 Blows, which has a vérité feel and at the same time is incredibly, beautifully planned – and concise in its filmmaking, editing without cutting.
I liked the way that Declan had composed handheld shots in In America. Being Flynn needed to have a handheld feel for a certain amount of it, but handheld is something of a cliché now because it’s used constantly on television. So I wanted a combination of everything mapped out and also visceral.
Q: Do you feel that you might carry over some of the filmmaking learnings from this movie into your next one – that they might take hold?
PW: I think so. There are so many ways to deaden the experience of filmmaking; if they mean anything, the victories inevitably have to be private ones. If you’re thinking about how someone is going to perceive something, the battle is already lost. I hope that I’ll operate with less fear than I have sometimes in the past.
Writing for theater – as I have over the last 10 years – is also a nice perspective to put into filmmaking; the audience is by nature so much smaller, and the demands of the form are so different. I generally don’t direct the plays that I write; as the playwright, you’re your own boss and have as much creative input as you want – with wonderful directors.
Q: What were some of the rewarding moments for you on the shoot?
PW: The first day filming with Bob, I gave him a note. The scene was when Jonathan’s coming down the courthouse steps after losing his hack license, and he’s wondering where he’s going to live since he’d been sleeping in his cab. I was encouraging Bob to do something theatrical, since Jonathan had a theatrical personality. So I asked him to raise his arms over his head in mock triumph. Bob said, “It’s my first day. I’m worried about going over the top.” We backed off of it and moved on to other shots – and through the rest of the day I kept facetiously directing him to raise his arms over his head. [laughs]
And realizing how committed Paul was, in what he was doing as an actor, was great – the way in which he threw himself into it. It’s one thing to talk about a role with somebody; it’s another to see them be utterly vanity-less in finding the truth of it.
On pretty much every day I had something that was a privilege.
Q: In post-production, you were working with Badly Drawn Boy, with whom you’ve collaborated before, on the score.
PW: I’d had a great time working with him on About a Boy, and I had listened to his intervening albums – his most recent one, repeatedly, while I was shooting Being Flynn. In some ways, his music is darker now. I think both he and I were excited, but a bit worried, about what we were going to come up with. But he was inspired by the story; to have songs be created that would not have happened without the movie is thrilling. Damon was able to write score melodies that, later in the film, become full-blown songs.
Q: After all the years and drafts, and then a tightened shooting schedule and budget, how did things go in the editing room?
PW: I’m happy with how the film ended up looking. I suppose that I was surprised at how close it was to what I hoped that it would be, that I had a pocket of privacy where I could do something that I was setting out to do. I feel I didn’t compromise. You can’t ask for anything beyond that; how it’s received is extraneous. I was surprised at how little I had to remove, and that the other shoe didn’t fall.