In Depth

People In Film | Paul Weitz

Paul Weitz | Familiar Themes, New Direction

For producer Kerry Kohansky-Roberts and screenwriter Karen Croner there was something in Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel Admission that seemed perfect for writer/dirctor Paul Weitz. “While Jean’s novel pulled back the curtain on the college admissions process,” Kohansky-Roberts explains, “it delved into themes of rediscovery, family, and parenthood – all of which Paul is always addressing in his films.” The story follows a Princeton admissions officer (played by Tina Fey) who finds her successful, albeit highly structured life turned upside down when the head of an alternative high school (played by Paul Rudd) introduces her to one special student. The funny and sweet comedy about different generations perfectly echoed themes that Weitz had explored in films from About a Boy to BEING FLYNN. “Thematically, I like stories of screwed-up people who think they don’t have anything to offer emotionally but who cobble together an unconventional family,” explains Weitz. But ADMISSION also marked a real departure for the writer/director. As Weitz acknowledges, “I’ve written plays with female protagonists but am embarrassed that I haven’t directed a movie whose clear lead was a woman.” For Weitz, who, as executive producer Caroline Baron points out, “loves actors as much as he loves the storytelling process,” directing ADMISSION gave him the opportunity to collaborate with several of our best comic actresses. Tina Fey recalls how “Paul has really thought through both the story and the characters; when we are shooting, he will identify little things for you to focus on, which I found to be truly helpful.” Cast as Fey’s feisty feminist mom, Lily Tomlin, who picks her directors and projects with particular care, recalls, “I had seen Paul Weitz’s work, and thought he did very interesting things with relationships – subtle work, not predictable or pat.”

Paul Weitz | A Talented Family

Director Paul Weitz grew up with talent all around him. His father, John Weitz, was a successful New York City fashion designer and German historian. His mother, Susan Kohner, was a popular film actress, perhaps best known for playing the light-skinned daughter of the African-American maid in Douglas Sirk’s 1959 Imitation of Life. His mother’s parents provided a whole new generation of talent. His grandfather, Paul Kohner, was a renowned talent agent, handling the likes of John Huston, Billy Wilder, and William Wyler, and his grandmother, Lupita Tovar, was a celebrated star of Mexican cinema, who starred in the 1931 Spanish-language version of Dracula. But as young boys in Manhattan, Paul and his brother, Chris, barely noticed these influences. As Chris Weitz told The Telegraph, “we weren't particularly aware of this pedigree growing up. Our mother is incredibly modest about her achievements and our grandfather was from a totally different era, the funny-accents era of Hollywood. When Billy Wilder and John Huston were knocking about his house, we just thought they were these nice old men. They didn't impart any film-making wisdom to us." But after attending Collegiate, Paul Weitz sought his own film-making wisdom by studying cinema at Wesleyan University, a college where the likes of Miguel Arteta, Mike White, Joss Whedon and Michael Bay were also students at the time. In 1988, during his last year at Wesleyan, Weitz pushed off in the direction of theater, writing a play, Mango Tea, which was produced later that summer with Marisa Tomei and Rob Morrow at New York’s Ensemble Theater. While Weitz would continue to work in theater, writing plays like Privilege, Show People, and Trust, his future would be in film, as he soon discovered when his brother Chris returned home from Cambridge, awaiting news of his application to the State Department. The two started collaborating on some scripts, and never stopped. While they first got work doing rewrites and script doctoring jobs, they hit it big in 1998 by penning (along with Todd Alcott) Antz, an animated comedy with Woody Allen as a freethinking ant, which Roger Ebert called “sharp and funny--not a children's movie, but one of those hybrids that works on different levels for different ages.”

Paul Weitz | Brothers in Film

In 1999, Paul Weitz and his brother, Chris, moved from writing to directing when they took the helm of a new teen sex comedy called American Pie. After Antz, the Weitz brothers were bonded by their creative collaboration. As Chris Weitz joked to CNN, “we're basically completely unemployable without each other, so the only way to survive was to team up, and ... the two of us just about make up one person.” They were also bonded by their desire to rethink the conventions of a Porky’s-style sex romp by turning it on its head. As Paul Weitz told Film Monthly, “I think that there was an attempt to be a little subversive with the genre in that we tried to give the girls in the movie as much power as possible and let them be the ones determining whether they had sex or not, and to talk about sexual life from the female point of view.” Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers highlighted the Weitz’s humanizing touch, saying the film brings “an unexpectedly endearing take on unhip adolescence that gives you a rooting interest in the characters.” In future films, Weitz would continue to reframe comic traditions. In Down To Earth, the Weitz brothers remade the 1978 Heaven Can Wait (itself based on 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan), giving the supernatural yarn of an everyday Joe reincarnated into the body (and life) of millionaire a racial twist with Chris Rock coming back as white cranky business tycoon. In 2006 American Dreamz, Weitz managed to combine TV’s American Idol, George Bush and Islamic Jihad in spoof that’s more about our times than it is about its targets. As The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr commented, “American Dreamz is a political satire that's eerily emblematic of the moment we're living in: smart, spring-loaded with pop culture references.” And, most recently, Paul Weitz mixed comedy and chills in Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, his adaptation of Darren Shan's kid lit series.

Paul Weitz | Fathers and Sons

After Paul and Chris had shown themselves adept at smart, broad comedies, they proved themselves equally skilled at subtle wit and emotional shades in About a Boy. Adapted by the Weitz brothers along with Peter Hedges from a popular novel by Nick Hornby, the film features Will (Hugh Grant), a single charmer whose self-centered world is turned upside down when he meets awkward teen Marcus (Nicholas Hoult). Despite many critics' trepidations about two Americans handling this subtle British tale –– like that posited by USA Today’s Claudia Puig when she asked, “Who would have guessed that the creators of that sophomoric teen comedy could take a poignant novel and adapt it so winningly?” –– the movie proved a commercial and critical hit. As’s Stephanie Zacharek trumpets, “About a Boy is as close to mainstream perfection as I’ve seen all year. It gives us everything we want, need and deserve without batting an eye.” Indeed the Weitzes and Hedges were nominated for Best Screenplay Oscar for their poignant adaptation. For Weitz, the theme of fathers and sons, be they real or surrogates, continued to intrigue him. His first solo film, 2004's In Good Company – in which an executive (Dennis Quaid) is demoted to work for a younger boss (Topher Grace) – again examined the relationship of older and younger men, albeit within the framework of American capitalism. As New York Times critic Manohla Dargis points out, while the drama is “set on the battlefield of contemporary corporate culture, a site of our leading blood sport… Mostly, though, the movie is about men. Men without fathers, men without sons, men with wives who work and make them feel like less than a man and men with wives…”  With 2010's Little Fockers, the third installment in the Meet the Parents franchise, Weitz took the theme out for a comic turn with Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro as son-in-law and father-in-law.

Paul Weitz | A Family Story

From the start, BEING FLYNN was for director Paul Weitz a personal project, even though it was based on the memoir of Nick Flynn. In the original book, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Nick Flynn dramatizes the real-life story of him confronting his absentee father while working at a homeless shelter. On reading it, writer/director Paul Weitz related strongly to the father/son issues at the story’s dramatic core. “Nick is a poet, and the book happened to be utterly beautiful,” Weitz commented. “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.” The film, with Robert De Niro playing the long-lost father and would-be writer Jonathan Flynn and Paul Dano portraying Nick, melds both visions together, demonstrating once again Paul Weitz's talent for rendering complicated human drama with an utterly humane vision. Indeed New York Times critic A. O. Scott noted “There is honest feeling, genuine humanity and real intelligence in” in Paul Weitz adaptation.


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