In Like Flynn

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Robert De Niro and Paul Weitz David LeeActor Robert De Niro (L) and director/screenwriter Paul Weitz (R) on the set of BEING FLYNN, a Focus Features release.

Nick Flynn began writing a memoir in 1997. It took him seven years before it was ready to be published as Another Bulls—t Night in Suck City.

Paul Weitz began writing a screenplay adaptation of Nick’s memoir in 2004. It took him seven years before it was ready to be filmed as Being Flynn.

Both Weitz and Nick were compelled to tell Nick’s story, as well as that of another man – Jonathan Flynn, Nick’s father.

Nick’s memoir chronicles his life growing up in suburban Massachusetts in the 1970s and his work at a Boston homeless shelter in the 1980s. He reflects, “I hadn’t grown up with my father; I didn’t know him well. It had been 18 years since I last saw him. Then he ended up a guest, a resident in the shelter where I worked.

“Our lives intersected, and we got to know each other a little.” While facing down a painful family history in the form of his long-estranged father, Nick also faced up to his own drug and alcohol addiction.

Weitz read the book upon its 2004 publication, and immediately felt that it should be a movie. Corduroy Films’ Michael Costigan introduced Nick to Weitz, who lobbied the author for a chance to make the movie.

Nick was so encouraged by their first meeting that he soon gave his blessing for the feature film adaptation. Nick reflects, “Paul really had a cogent vision of the material from the beginning.  Once we decided to move forward and work together, he wrote a first draft of the script that was quite spectacular.”

Paul Weitz’s work as writer and director had consistently gravitated to family dynamics, most often exploring father/son relationships or their equivalents. But Being Flynn would situate him in a new dramatic context, requiring the articulation of a compelling point of view on an emotional real-life narrative.

At the heart of Weitz’s approach to writing the screenplay adaptation was maintaining respect for Nick’s life experiences while also exploring the universal theme of family. The specifics would be of a child reconciling his own path with his parents’ lives, respective flaws and all. Over the course of the 30 drafts Weitz wrote before filming began, elements of the story would be augmented and characters would be written as amalgams of true-life people. Through each draft, the mordantly amusing and powerful moments that resonated with the book’s readers were retained.

Nick notes, “With my years spent on the book, I know from experience how so much of what you write doesn’t end up in the final product.

“But there were people at various studios that would give ill-founded advice on a beautiful draft that Paul had written, that would have made it bad. Take one beat out of it, and you realize – or should have realized – that you can’t do that, because it makes another one happen. One line hinges on another; Paul’s script was like a poem in that way.”

Producer Andrew Miano, partnered with brothers Paul and Chris Weitz in Depth of Field, states that he “still has all the drafts, in case anyone doubts that there were in fact 30. There was never one with a ‘Hollywood ending,’ though some versions of the script were darker than others. This is a story about real people going through real experiences. It’s Nick’s story, but it’s also Jonathan’s; Paul was able to visualize the back-and-forth, including when it came time to incorporate voiceover.

“We all fell in love with the book, and like many good projects it has been a long road to getting it made. But when we find material that matters to us, we stick with it.”

Nick reflects, “We had hit it off right away, but my respect for Paul and his process has only grown over the years of knowing him – and of his struggling to get this movie made.”

“Paul Weitz had reached out to Nick from the very beginning,” comments Nick’s wife, actress Lili Taylor. “I loved watching them work together and do research together. I admire Paul’s tenacity and passion.”

The conversations between Nick and Weitz about the movie never stopped, even when the writer/director was otherwise engaged directing three feature films – and getting a fourth released – over the seven years.

The duo’s extensive rounds of research would take them to Boston several times. They met with counselors on duty at the shelter where Nick had worked and where his father had stayed. Nick remembers, “Paul and I were there for dinner. We were there for the showers, for bedtime – which, for most, is 9:00 PM. I still know many people who work there – and there are still people there who were guests when I was working at the shelter.”

There was also a ride-along for Nick and Paul, on the nightly “van scout” encouraging people to come off the streets and into the shelter. Nick reports, “Paul and I were both wearing very thin jackets in 5-degree Boston weather. We had to be lent puffy coats from the van. We got out around 2:00 AM and walked around, going to this one area where I had remembered things taking place. By the time we came back to the van, it was gone – the call had come in that someone was in trouble. Standing out there waiting – hoping – for the van to come, we had it conveyed to us what that would feel like.

“Paul wanted to absorb it all. Once we were back in the van, we were told about what happened to a man who hadn’t come in from the cold the week before; he had been beaten to death by some young adults. Paul made sure that story made it into the movie; that night, he became starkly aware that the homeless – often seen as a threat – are so vulnerable, whether because of the cold or because of danger from other people.”

On several occasions, Weitz accompanied Nick to meet with Jonathan Flynn, who had maintained contact with his son and was living in Massachusetts. Nick reveals, “The first time that Paul and I met with my father, we sat in this tiny apartment for seven hours. There were books everywhere, his writings everywhere, piles of things everywhere. I introduced Paul to him, saying ‘He’s going to be making a movie of the book that I wrote,’ which my father had read.

“My father was somewhat impressed, but he doesn’t get impressed too much – except with himself.”

Nick feels that the journeys back, especially the meetings with the elder Flynn, made an indelible impression on Weitz, positively impacting the script. Nick says, “There are several moments from our visits with my father that ended up in the movie. Reading the book is one thing, but I’m not sure that Paul would’ve gotten the intensity of my father – how he can say things that line up with a higher truth, how he shows he’s a tough guy by wielding weapons – if they hadn’t met, face to face. These things were very familiar to me from my times with him, but for Paul I think they were invaluable to his making the picture.”

As the father/son relationship has evolved, “we’ve had many years of knowing each other,” Nick points out. “Since Paul has met my father several times, he’s witnessed many things between us. Knowing the relationship that my father and I now have, he wanted to transfer some of that energy into specific scenes.”

After years of rewrites and polishes, Weitz would ultimately rework the script to be closer to the first draft that he had initially showed Nick when the process began. There had been, all concerned realized, a solid foundation which should be reaffirmed. 

After that epiphany, the response to the final draft of Being Flynn was overwhelming. “The essence of what’s in the book was in every draft, but with this particular draft everything just clicked into place for both script and cast,” notes Miano.

Four-time Academy Award nominee Julianne Moore joined the cast as Nick’s mother, Jody Flynn. She comments, “I’d been wanting to work with Paul for a while. He sent me this script and said, ‘This is a teeny part for you, but it’s lovely.’ I found it to be a quite touching piece, since Paul’s writing has literary sense and there is a lightness to the movies he makes.

“Paul’s screenplay of Nick’s story is a journey that takes you from childhood to adulthood. Nick experienced hardship and difficulty, and almost succumbed to it. Through Paul, we see how Nick found a way out of that by writing about it, and by talking about it, eloquently.”

Olivia Thirlby, cast as Denise, a worker at the shelter who is emotionally direct with Nick, marvels, “Paul Weitz captured the essence of the book so beautifully. He was able to distill a nonlinear 300-page memoir, an amazing life story, into a great screenplay. Reading it – before I had read the book – I could tell that Paul was passionate about the material and had a deep connection to the subject matter.

“A child making sense of what their parents made is a universal theme; we all have to see our parents as not just our parents but as individuals, and come to terms with that.”

Two-time Academy Award winner Robert De Niro had come aboard the project ahead of the other actors, with his Tribeca Productions producing. Weitz and De Niro had first collaborated on the acclaimed 2002 film About a Boy, which De Niro produced and which Weitz adapted and directed with his brother; and had teamed as director and star of the hit 2010 movie Little Fockers.

Miano offers, “Paul and Bob have now known each other for a long time, and their relationship has solidified. There is a trust between them. When it came time to finally make this movie, they had a ready shorthand. Their already being on the same page strengthened the creative process for everyone newly joining the project.”

Nick Flynn had quickly warmed to the idea of an iconic actor portraying his father. Nick muses, “My father possesses levels of self-confidence, lunacy, and menace while also evincing compassion and a certain nobility. The idea of Mr. De Niro playing the part was the best possible news, since all those qualities are evident in his movie work.”

Lili Taylor adds, “When I heard that he was going to play Nick’s father, I breathed a sigh of relief because I know Jonathan and he is complicated. He’s also someone very easy for an actor to not play well; there are a lot of pitfalls and traps. If you go for the too-muchness, poignancy is lost.

“With Robert De Niro, you knew there was going to be an honesty; the role would come first, not the actor.”

De Niro met extensively with the author. The actor also visited Boston and retraced many of the same steps that Weitz had made with Nick. He was able to walk through the shelter where Nick worked in anonymity, observing guests and staff alike.

Nick remarks, “Bob noticed many things, and saw something that I hadn’t; guests of the shelter walking about confidently. When he pointed it out to me, it rang true. Part of it is, they don’t want to look vulnerable and be a mark – maybe not inside the shelter but outside – and also, this shelter is a home for them, where they can be safe and equal and be themselves.”

What Miano identifies as “a key theme in the film, that of a young man in his late 20s grappling with life and trying to figure out where he belongs,” drew several notable young actors to the role of Nick Flynn. Paul Dano found himself “moved by the script” and landed the part. Dano was keen to meet with the real-life Nick, and vice versa.

Once a meeting was scheduled, Dano made tracks to get ahold of the memoir. He explains, “I went to my local bookstore to buy it, and the people at the bookstore said, ‘Oh, no, we have a different copy for you.’ They brought me out a copy – with a note written in it to me from Nick. I was spooked; how did he know what bookstore I’d visit to buy the book? Turns out he lives in my neighborhood.

“I loved Nick’s book. It’s a beautiful memoir. I feel that he’s a survivor, given what he went through with his parents. My story is not his, but I could relate and empathize with his.”

Before the in-person meeting with Dano, Nick asked his wife for advice. With her actor’s perspective, Taylor – who has an on-screen supporting role as drug-addict-turned-shelter worker Joy – recommended Nick honestly answer questions Dano asked.

Nick says, “What Lili told me turned out to be the way to go; I followed Dano’s lead that day he and I first met at a café. He is the age I was while I worked in the shelter, which was appropriate. But, you know, it’s a strange experience to sit across from someone who’s going to play me.”

Even if it was a bit unsettling at first, the real Nick and the reel Nick soon found their conversation to be surprisingly fluid. Dano and Nick also reasoned that since they lived within a few blocks of each other, they could meet up often, which they proceeded to do.

Dano elaborates, “When I first met Nick, I was a bit taken aback because he was much different than my initial impression from the script, or even the book. First of all, he’s older and at a different place in his life, having conquered some demons. But in the screenplay, he’s more terse, and here I was with this gregarious guy. Yet he’s also a no-BS kind of guy. I have to say that I enjoyed filming scenes where you see the anger Nick had in him.

“As an actor, you want to be faithful to the material, but also to personalize it, so as we talked a lot and spent more time together, I was able to take what I could from both the script – into which Paul had put so many pieces of Nick – and Nick himself, and then make my own contributions to the characterization. I wasn’t trying to do an impression.”

Taylor remarks, “We have to go into this story through Nick, and Paul’s openness as an actor invites us in.”

Part of Dano’s process entailed “listening to music that Nick listened to at the time, which I learned about from either asking him or from reading the memoir. For me, music is an art form that I feel slips into your bloodstream. Hearing it on-set helps me stay focused. I would also listen to music that I found relevant in some way to Nick or his story; I think that Nick has a little bit of a punk rock spirit in him.

“The lyrics of songs were useful to me as well, since Nick is also a poet – which I’d guess is even harder than being a novelist or a screenwriter.”

Ultimately, Nick sensed that “Dano is a fine actor who was able to find levels of complexity in the story that I probably couldn’t find when I lived it the first time. I was startled sometimes by his acting; he got to different levels of emotional resonance.”

To that end, Dano joined other members of the cast in spending time at New York shelters in order to get acclimated to the milieu. He remembers, “I found there were people who made a choice, or felt forced to make a choice – and there were certainly people who had no choice.

“The theme of homelessness is not just Jonathan’s being homeless and people in the shelter being homeless; Nick no longer has a mother and never knew his father.”

Thirlby volunteered for several days and reveals, “After being in the shelter all day, I’d walk out into the night with a very different perspective. My eyes were opened to people on the street.

“The experience influenced my portrayal of Denise; to be at work full-time in a shelter speaks volumes about a person’s character, their tendency to help others – and themselves.”

Weitz encouraged a wholly collaborative approach with his actors so they could all learn more in concert. Dano remarks, “From the first time we talked, when I didn’t yet have the part, Paul was receptive to any input or ideas. He had an answer for every question, and at the same time would be really open, which is something that I always look for in a director. He let me play around, but he also knew what he specifically wanted.”

“I would ask for direction on every single take, because he works so viscerally,” adds Thirlby, who welcomed the opportunity to create a character since “Denise doesn’t exist in the book; unlike the other characters, she’s a mostly fictitious one created for the screenplay, so I was able to color things in on my own and work with Paul Weitz to figure her out. She has an unchecked directness that can result in some awkwardly funny exchanges with people; she has been through past trauma and is now on the healing path.”

Nick notes, “Denise protects herself and is tough on the Nick character, not putting up with his bulls--t, but is also warm and comforting.”

On the set, Thirlby would find her regular scene partner Dano “never false; there’s always truth in what he does. There are so many avenues that you can take at any given moment in any given scene, and it seems like he’s always choosing a different one. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with him.”

Nick says, “Olivia Thirlby and Paul Dano do have a natural chemistry between them, but Denise doesn’t stand in for a specific girlfriend I had.”

Lili Taylor’s character of Joy, by contrast, is “based on someone I knew at the shelter,” admits Nick. “Lili was one of my favorite actresses even before she became my wife; she can show just a little glimmer of the depth that’s in Joy, and it all comes across.”

Taylor muses, “One of the themes of this story is that the lack of self-pity is a virtue. You see that with Joy.”

Even though Being Flynn focuses on Nick’s life as it intersects with Jonathan’s, his relationship with his mother while growing up was kept central to the film by Weitz; as in Nick’s memoir, Jody epitomizes the goodness in an otherwise tumultuous life. Yet the mother/son relationship is not without its own emotional land mines, as Jody was gone too soon and by her own hand.

Nearly all of Julianne Moore’s scenes pair her with actor Liam Broggy, who portrays Nick as a pre-teen. She comments, “The bond between a child and a single mother is a tight one. Paul Weitz captures the intimacy of that, getting a dynamic between Liam and I for our scenes together.”

Nick says, “My relationship with my mother is the central wound of the film, and of my life. The most difficult part of the movie for me was watching the scenes with Julianne and Liam in a re-creation of my childhood home.

“I view my mother as a good person who suffered. On the set I couldn’t even look at Julianne at first, except on a monitor. Finally, around noon, I was able to speak to Julianne, who was happy to talk with me. Then the next day, I went through it all again and so I left the set early. But I had to try to normalize that for myself so I would be able to watch the movie.”

As Moore sees it, “My character in the film is often in her scenes as just a memory. It’s all very much a young person’s memory of what happened, or what might have happened.

“Nick’s primary memories of Jody are how she was present as a parent, whereas his father was not. Jody was the one who was always there, the one he would talk to, the one who cared for him and who encouraged him. He worries sometimes that he might have triggered something in his mother which led to her act.”

Taylor feels that “Nick’s story is very inspiring, because it’s about how you come through things, with curiosity and generosity. You fall apart but then you become whole.”