Interview: Being Flynn‘s Writer-director Paul Weitz

At one point in our interview, writer-director Paul Weitz described his directorial career as “a checkerboard.” A game of Twister might be a more apt metaphor.

Weitz and his brother Chris hit it big in 1999 when they co-wrote and directed the original American Pie. They went on to also co-direct the Chris Rock vehicle Down to Earth and 2002’s adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Since then Chris has directed The Golden Compass, Twilight: New Moon, and last year’s A Better Life, while Paul helmed In Good Company, American Dreamz, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, and Little Fockers. For the past decade Paul has also been writing Off-Broadway plays such as Roulette, Privilege, Show People, Trust and most recently Lonely, I’m Not.

Just to keep his resume moving over the genre board, Paul Weitz’ newest film is Being Flynn, a darkly comic but mostly dramatic adaptation of Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The film follows Nick Flynn (Paul Dano) as he deals with the reentry into his life of his long-absent father Jonathan (Robert De Niro), a larger-than-life writer (in his own deluded assessment of his unpublished talents) who ends up living on the streets and staying at the homeless shelter at which Nick, an aspiring writer himself, is working. Julianne Moore also co-stars as Nick’s mother, appearing in flashbacks to his father-less childhood.

Another film writer and I sat down last month with Paul Weitz in Chicago to talk about adapting Being Flynn for the screen, involving the real Nick Flynn in the process, and squaring Robert De Niro off against Paul Dano.

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Paul Weitz and the real Nick Flynn

The real Nick Flynn was on hand during both the writing and filming processes. You’re both writers, but you’re mostly a screenwriter and playwright, and he’s primarily a poet and memoirist. How did that close proximity and the differences in your writing styles and genres work out?

Paul Weitz: There were a couple of things that made me feel like it would be okay for me to do this adaptation, because I’m not a believer that certain good books are sort of crying out to be adapted into film–I think rather that it’s the opposite. I think adaptation can essentially be a selfish act, in this case on my part, but the book somehow felt so personal to me despite the fact that it was someone else’s story. Nick’s a poet, so the memoir is not wildly linear, it’s poetically constructed. I think it’s a fantastic book. I’ve read it so many times now, but it was really hard for me to read more than 20 pages at time –like poetry, you go back and take different things from it.

What was attracting me to it were certain themes and questions I think anybody can identify with such as, “Are we fated to become our parents?” and “How do we create ourselves?” Another aspect of it was the relationship between creativity and ego, in that you have one writer who is an egomaniac, Robert De Niro’s character, who never gets published, and another writer—Paul Dano as Nick—who’s learning the dignity of work and humility.

Did you really write 30 drafts of the script over seven years?

Weitz: It’s true, there were 30 numbered drafts on my computer by the time I got to make the film, and there were drafts that were really selling it out a little bit, because somewhere in the middle there I had been working on it for a while, and I just wanted to make the darn thing. So there were some drafts that cheapened the story, but even with those the real Nick was interested to see what I would do, and gave me enough rope to hang myself if that was what I was going to do—he was so generous of spirit.

Nick has a wicked sense of humor, and I’ve never seen, not for a moment, any self-pity. I always need some layering of humor under tragedy, or sadness under humor—that’s when I feel like I’m doing a decent job is when I can see one beneath the other. In this case, Nick feels like his book is funny, even though the events of his life are somewhat hair-raising at points. And he was very, very nonjudgmental about my script.

He also sees the irony of taking a real experience and turning it into a narrative. I was able to have him on set pretty much the whole time while shooting, and now he’s written a book about the experience of being on the set, which I haven’t read yet, but it’s going to come out from Norton at the end of the year.

During those 30 drafts you said you moved toward some more “Hollywood-style” endings, but by the final draft it sounds like you circled back around to the earlier drafts and their less-resolved endings.

Weitz: I was the person cheapening it along the way in hopes that I would please somebody. Really I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to sort of cheapening material. I made a few films between getting this book and getting to shoot it seven years later, and during those I learned the limits of my talent. Sometimes I wish that I was more like Alexander Payne, who seems to not be necessarily learning from his mistakes, but learning through his successes. But I’m not that.

So by the time I got to shoot this film was important to me to do the best version of it. I was extremely lucky that I was at a place that gave me one third of the budget that I initially had, but also was encouraging of me—for instance, not asking the film to falsely redeem Bob’s character at the end of the movie. There’s one character who changes and one character who is essentially problematic throughout the movie, which is De Niro’s character. The real Jonathan Flynn, who I went with Bob and Nick to meet, is still wildly egotistical and was not at all intimidated by meeting Bob De Niro. He was only interested in probing Bob as to whether he’d be able to pull off playing Jonathan Flynn.

Nick’s story is set in Boston in the ‘80s, but the film’s setting is present-day New York.

Weitz: The book struck me as a fable, a very stark fairytale about parents and kids, so I wanted to exclude New York landmarks so it wouldn’t feel like I was making a movie about New York. Also in terms of the time setting, I excluded things like cell phones and laptops, but I didn’t say, “Okay, this is 1989 and we need this brand of sneaker and this music playing.” Instead I tried to shave off the edges of the time period.

And some of the scenes with De Niro living on the street were shot on the fly?

Weitz: That was really fun. About a month before shooting I knew I was going to need a section of the film where it was going to be snowing and De Niro’s character is out in the street in the cold. But no one ever knows when it’s going to snow in New York these days, and a month before we were going to start principal photography I got a weather report saying there would be a blizzard the next day. So I called Bob up and said, “Where are you?” and he said, “New York,” and I said, “What are you doing tomorrow?”

I got him to go out with me as if it was kind of a student film. It was De Niro and me and a camera person, and we had no permits as we hopped around the city during this blizzard. We went to the financial district during rush hour, because I knew everyone was on their way to work and wouldn’t be paying attention to anything, so they just walk by the camera, walk by the megastar walking down the street. Bob used whatever costume he had at the time. That was the attitude De Niro brought, which was really just dedicating himself to it.

Paul Dano not only held his own with De Niro, but there’s a powerful sense that they are son and father. You didn’t have them rehearse together to maintain the distance and estrangement of the characters, so how did their acting approaches mesh on set?

Weitz: One always thinks of aggressive acting being “loud” acting, but one of De Niro’s secrets is he likes to underplay things and go under people, which I think is even more intimidating for an actor coming in. So it was really interesting to see those two together for the first time and see them sort of probing each other and sparring.

I knew Paul wasn’t going to back away from De Niro when the camera was rolling, because he’d held his own with Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood—so I knew he hadn’t been intimidated in intimidating situations. But Dano’s a smart respectful guy—I think without his attitude off screen it wouldn’t have worked. It’s a great combination to have somebody who’s really pushing when the camera’s rolling, but is not being a jerk off camera.

You went from Little Fockers with De Niro to Being Flynn, so you’re clearly interested in doing both broad comedy and heavier drama. Do you know which direction you’ll go next?

Weitz: I hope to get into a terrain where the two are occurring at the same time. I started out being a playwright, and I’m still writing plays. Anton Chekhov would write a comedy in four acts, and then Constantin Stanislavski would direct them in Moscow as flat-out tragedies, and Chekov was always furious because he wasn’t getting laughs. I really like that area in which comedy and tragedy overlap—there’s always some balance between the two that I’m trying to work in. So I’d be really happy to do balls-out comedy again, but I hope that I’m able to do whatever version of a story that’s the best.

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Being Flynn is currently playing in select theaters across the country.

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf
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