Eccentric's Corner: About a Boy, Named Paul
Director Paul Weitz knows how to bluff his way to success.
By May 1, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016published
Profession: Director, producer, playwright.
Claim to Fame: Wrote a play that ran off-Broadway before he graduated from high school.
Paul Weitz once told a Hollywood executive a little white lie: Sure, I've directed a lot of theater. That sort of moxie may well be his secret ingredient. It's what landed him, and his brother Chris, in the director's seat of the now infamous American Pie series. Weitz has since garnered enough credits that he no longer needs to fib. One of his earlier projects was writing, also with Chris, the screenplay for the animated film Antz. Later, he won an Oscar nomination for About a Boy. Recently he decided to write and direct something closer to home: His newest film, Being Flynn, is an adaptation of Nick Flynn's memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.
What drew you to Flynn's story of a young man who re-encounters a distant, delusional father?
It was the question of whether you're fated to become your parents or whether you're able to create your own life. You have this guy, Nick, who wants to be a writer; he cycles through odd jobs and then works at a homeless shelter. Apart from the occasional letter from prison, he hasn't seen or heard from his dad—a man deluded that his own writing was remarkable and convinced he would win a Nobel Prize—for 18 years. Suddenly his dad [played by Robert De Niro] shows up at the homeless shelter and Nick gets a glimpse of his father's stark reality. It's also an interesting spin on the theme of storytelling as a mode of survival, as well as creativity and its relationship to ego.
Do any of these elements appear in your own life?
There are some similarities between Flynn's father and my own. My dad was a successful fashion designer [John Weitz], but he always thought that designing clothes was a silly way to make a living. He really wanted to be a writer. He'd go to work to run his company and come home to write, late into the night. He was always affectionate, but he had demons. He was a refugee in World War II who ended up in the army. There was always a sense that at some point everything could fall apart for him. And my mom was a successful actress [Susan Kohner], but she was less tortured. She stopped acting once she had my brother and me, yet she never made us feel guilty about this. She wasn't the kind of person who talked about the films she'd worked on. Like Nick in Being Flynn, her story was one of humility.
Did you ever feel pressure to live up to, or surpass, their success?
I'm not delusional enough to think I'd surpass them in any way. The only pressure I ever felt was to try to make some money. I was so thrilled when my brother and I were paid to write Antz. I started out writing plays [Mango Tea, All for One, Captive] and I segued into filmmaking when an agent, who represented directors, noticed Captive. American Pie was my first opportunity to direct a film—no one else wanted to direct it. My brother and I essentially bluffed our way into the job: I told the studio I had directed a lot of theater, because I knew no one would check. Then the film became a surprise success.
Substance abuse was definitely a concern of mine. One of the people I was closest to, while growing up, got into heroin. Fortunately, he went to rehab and got his life back on track, but at that time we were sort of going down the same path. Like many people, there were times I didn't enjoy my own company, and trying to obliterate myself with drugs and alcohol was a way to reduce that discomfort.
How did you get yourself back on track?
To some degree, it came down to pure luck. Part of it was chemistry—there were certain [bad habits] I just wasn't drawn to as strongly. Years later I was talking to my friend about why he became an addict and he said that he felt there was some hole he was trying to fill.
How have you and your brother influenced each other's work?
I've learned a lot from my brother's ability to take risks. Chris isn't as shy as I am. He can really stick his neck out. Chris might say I'm driven in a slightly different way. For me, everything boils down to the question of whether I'm conducting myself in the fashion I'd like.
Were you anxious about carving your own niche, apart from your brother?
I was nervous when I started working on my own projects, like Being Flynn. I felt anxious when I went into the studio to say there would be only one director—me. Although Chris didn't want to take it on, I was still quite freaked out that it would hurt my brother, or be some form of betrayal. But neither of us would ever tell the other not to do a project.
How do you see yourself as a director?
I may ask people to do things in particular ways when I'm directing, but I try to treat everybody just as I would like to be treated. I also try to keep my ego at bay when I'm writing; if you're worried about being perfect, you're never going to come up with anything good. I have to constantly forgive myself for fearing failure.
Have you developed any strategies for dealing with difficult people, especially actors?
I've dealt with a lot of eccentric people. But there was only one time when it was someone whose insanity was coming out of fear and revulsion. I honestly try to stay away from people like that now. I have a cheat sheet with details about different actors—what they're like to work with and how I can adapt. You've just got to be prepared; you cannot be an egotist. I don't mind insanity as long as it's coming out of some form of love—like love of creativity.