Interview: Grandma Writer-Director Paul Weitz

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Writer-director Paul Weitz has been making movies for more than a decade, first in partnership with his brother Chris (American Pie, Down to Earth, About a Boy) and then solo (In Good Company, American Dreamz, Cirque du Freak, Being Flynn). But it wasn’t until 2013’s Admission that he cast a female actress in a leading role, placing Tina Fey as the daughter of Lily Tomlin.

That film opened up a whole new set of opportunities, as it not only motivated him to write for more women (there are 6 women in major roles), but also introduced him to his 75 year old muse, Lily Tomlin. In Grandma, Tomlin plays Elle, a financially strapped, recently widowed lesbian with a grown daughter (Marcia Gay Harden) and a 19-year-old granddaughter (Julie Garner), who comes to grandma needing money for an abortion. Weitz spoke about the task of writing for a comic legend like Tomlin and the new opportunities he found writing for women.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): One of my favorite films is actually In Good Company, so I was excited to see this film. A lot of your films have focused on mentorship relationships. What is your interested in that theme?

Paul Weitz: Well, in a film like Grandma, there is an obstacle in the way of Lily’s character being that mentor to her granddaughter. She has an incredible amount of emotion, but it is a struggle for her to translate that into love, because she’s been through so much. She’s been through 50-something years of women’s history. Discrimination as a woman. Discrimination as a gay person. And she knows so much and won’t suffer fools. I really like stories about how to pull a person out of self-protectiveness. And it is very rare for a parent to really be able to help their child grow, because they don’t want them to experience pain. So inadvertently, Sage, the 19 year old, comes across someone who can really help her grow and learn to stand-up for herself and say screw you to people, and it just happens to be her grandmother. And at the same time, Lily’s character gets pulled out of her shell. Their relationship is somewhat similar to the relationship between Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult in About a Boy. He has no intention of being kind to anyone, but gets pulled into this kind of off kilter relationship with that boy.

TMS: Lily seems like such a perfect choice to represent those 50 years of history because she really was such an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and the LGBT community. But did the character’s history with that movement, as an activist, create the distance we see onscreen between her character and Marcia Gay Harden’s?

Weitz: I think so, and I also think they share this kind of scathing wit. But I think, when you have a really strong parent, you also need to be a really strong person or else you’ll kind of fade into the woodwork. And what I see from Marcia’ character is she is a single mother, really successful corporate lawyer in what would have been a male dominated profession when she was younger. And she’s really formidable. And I think she was kind of born that way. Lily says in the movie, “I’ve been scared of my daughter since she was 5 years old.” And I do think that happens sometimes, parents just get kids who are extremely driven from an early age. So to me, Marcia’s character is also a feminist, but someone who benefitted from some of the path breaking which came before her. But I also see someone who grew up with two mothers before that was something that was spoken about. And in the beginning, when Lily is going through memorabilia and comes across a drawing that says “I love my moms.” And I like the idea that you can see wounds on Marcia’s character related to this loss. And I also liked the fact that because the two of them are so tough, Sage (Julie Garner) has grown up with barely any air and just seems to be floundering.

TMS: I’ve seen Julie in things before, and she always seems to play such timid and quiet characters, so it was nice to see her with Lily Tomlin and literally finding her voice in the course of their journey.

Weitz: Yeah, the thing about Sage is, she’s in this situation where she’s pregnant because she clearly didn’t have the ability to say no to this guy who turns out to be such a tool. By the way, he’s played by a lovely guy named Nat Wolff. And I just thought it was realistic. She’s a girl who grew up trading affectionate insults with friends like bitch, whore, and slut, and now she’s with someone who tells her what those words really mean.

TMS: Do you know a lot of women who have had that kind of relationship where they are so tough they start butting heads with people they really care about?

Weitz: Yeah. I’m friends with a lot of women who are super smart and were raised by super smart mothers they have a real problem with them. And I know women who have had abortions, and it is an impossible situation for both men and women, but men tend to get a relatively free pass when it comes to the decision making. And hopefully the blender effect of progress will continue, but it seems women are still saddled with having to make these kinds of tough decisions which are dictated by societal constructs.

TMS: This film and Admission both deal with the subject of unplanned pregnancy, with Tina Fey’s character choosing adoption and Sage’s character choosing to have an abortion. What interested you in addressing these subjects as kind of a plot device?

Weitz: Admission was based on a novel so I just followed the book’s plot pretty closely. In this case, I was interested in looking at abortion in a different way. And it is just a 19 year girl who has gotten pregnant and needs to decide what to do and says up front, she wants to have an abortion. Because there have been a lot of movies in the past which were unwilling to even use the word, despite millions of women having abortions, statically I’ve read a study which says a third of women have had abortions by the time they reach menopause. So I just wanted it to be real. And the film isn’t really about abortion, it is about how we care about each other and the primary message of the film is to not judge, and we aren’t talking about statistic, we are talking about people. But I also didn’t want to take the subject lightly, which is why Lily, who is stanchly pro-choices, asks her “have you thought about this, because it is something you will think about at some point in your life every day.” Which I think is a real thing and the women I know who have had abortions did not take the decision lightly.

TMS: There is also the Sam Elliot character in the film who has an opposite view of the abortion debate, and there is almost a 15 minute debate between Lily and his character where the audience is asked to not judge either and really listen to their conversation.

Weitz: I think it was really important to have a character in the film who has a different perspective, but whose connection to the subject is clearly personal. Because he was someone who was in love with Lily’s character and there is that point in the movie when they go to his safe to get money, and he has the money, but he also has a picture of Lily when she was in her 20s, which Lily gave me for the movie. And I don’t really understand people who approach things from a purely political perspective, rather than a personal one. I think that is all mythological. And I’m not even sure I know that character’s political perspective. But I do know that under these circumstances, he is unwilling to be a part of it.

TMS: Lily is a hero and legend of comedy for so many people who have loved her for literally decades. I know she was in Admission, but what was it about her that made you want to write a leading role for her?

Weitz: I think first of all, Lily is so young in her thinking. When we wrapped the film, it was like 2 or 3 in the morning. And then that very same night, I went to see her one woman show and for 2 and half hours, she was jumping around on stage doing characters. So she’s young in terms of her energy level, but also her show is quite transgressive. Her humor from the get-go has been really, really edgy. So I thought, if I apply her sensibility to this character, the movie would make sense. But also, if you are that smart and perceptive of people, the question is, how do you give of yourself generously. And I think she is really, really unique in how kind a person she is. She’s kind to the crew, she’s kind to the other actors, especially Julia who is a relative newcomer. And she was also this incredible ally to me and secret weapon to have, in terms of making sure every beat made sense.

TMS: Being someone who has written a lot of her own material and has a very specific voice for her comedy, was it hard to write in and capture her voice?

Weitz: It is actually easier to write with someone with that specific of a voice, because I’m always looking for specificity when writing a character, so sometimes I’ll write with an actor in mind, even if I’m not sure I can get that actor. With this film, I’m not sure how I would have done this with anyone else. But also, Lily has her writing partner Jane Wagner at home, who is her partner in every sense and a really brilliant writer in her own right. So I knew I was getting in someone else’s office in a sense and I was anxious about what Jane would think of the script and movie. And she’s been very generous.

TMS: Did you ever consider asking Jane to co-write the film?

Weitz: I knew Lily would be showing Jane the script, so I knew I’d be getting her thoughts anyway. But I never considered asking her to co-write it. Because when I sat down to write the film, I didn’t have any intentions in mind. I wasn’t thinking into the future about submitting to festivals or hoping it would get bought. I was just doing it to do it. Writing this felt very, very private and I just didn’t want to go ask for help. And, I knew I’d eventually get it anyway.

TMS: Judy Greer plays Lily’s partner in the film and is so good in the film, even though it’s a smaller role. What made you think of her for the part?

Weitz: She was in a film of mine called American Dreamz and a play I did in New York, so I’ve known her for a long time. And I felt that in terms of that relationship, she is smart enough to be with Lily, and while she’s quirky, there is also something formidable about her, which I thought Lily would get a kick out of. And she did. When they met for the first time, Judy was cracking Lily up. They are both from Detroit. So I needed someone who could really sell their relationship and feel like it would make sense that they would be together. Although Elle, Lily’s character, is convinced they have no future together and in the end lets Olivia off the hook. She says she wants Olivia to have the kind of relationship she has had, but I think she also knows they aren’t going anywhere. And Judy is able to make stuff seem smarter, which I knew would be helpful. My company is actually putting together a film for Judy to direct, which I’m really excited about because I think Judy will be an excellent director.

TMS: Laverne Cox is also in the film and it’s always so nice to see her having the opportunity to show how much range she really has as an actress. Did you write the role for her?

Weitz: Yeah. I was a fan of Orange is the New Black and I thought she was so good, I wanted to write a different kind of character for her to play. I think she really got a kick out of playing a rockabilly and was super excited about the tattoos. So I just sent her the script and I think she was most excited about working with Lily. And she’s so busy, but luckily we had time to sit together. And I like when an actor really builds a character, and she wrote the whole rockabilly thing and showed me a picture of a friend of hers who looks like that. And I know part of the appeal of this film was to play a character who isn’t going to have to discuss her gender or sexual orientation a lot. I actually had a friend who got silicone breast implants which started leaking, and that always stuck in my head as such a horrible thing. So I used that for what Elle loaned her money for. But I also liked that she is an artist, as was Elle’s deceased partner, and had been a mentor to Laverne’s character.

TMS: Throughout the movie we hear more and more about Elle’s partner who we learn she has spent most of her adult life with, and we haven’t had many films which deal with that kind of loss between a gay couples in films. Did you and Lily talk how to present that relationship on screen?

Weitz: The character was always written as a lesbian, who had been with women her entire life. And even with Sam’s character, Julia is shocked to hear that her grandma had ever been with a man and asks “did you ever think you liked men.” And Lily says, “I always liked women, I just didn’t like myself.” So you can see when she was at Julia’s point in her life, when she just couldn’t stand up for herself and voice her opinions. And one thing Lily really did help me with was, their relationship was written as almost too positive. And Lily said, “If this was a real relationship, they would have given each other a hard time and gotten into it with one another occasionally and fought.” So let’s make their relationship a bit more real. So that the reason Laverne’s character says “I saw you two fight. I know she was the one with the temper, even though everyone thought she was a sweetie pie.” So she was helpful in terms of that. But if Lily thought anything was false, I would have taken it out.

TMS: I’m always interested in cinematography which really sets a tone right at the beginning. Why did you choose to make the film look so bright as this one?

Weitz: The reason to make it that bright and colorful was to put a spin on the dramatic aspects of the movie, rather than underlining them. Sometime you can make films unwatchable if you are underlining the darker elements, or you can make the movie ugly. Also, Elle starts the movie in a bad place. She probably couldn’t even tell if she’s breaking up with this person because she wants to or because she feels like she can’t be loved. And during the course of the film, she’s given a quest by her granddaughter. And it really is about helping her become a woman. And from that moment on, it’s like a fighter reentering the ring, and finding that fight again is a joy for her, so the film’s look should reflect that re-awakening. She was anticipating spending the day feeling sorry for herself, and instead she gets to spend the day helping someone who really needs it. And that is what allows her to move on.

TMS: This movie has more major female characters than your previous films, and while there have been a lot of really well written women in your previous films, was it hard to write for this many female voices, or is it the same experience regardless of the character’s gender?

Weitz: I feel it’s just writing characters. But my idol when I started to write plays has always been Chekhov, whose main characters usually are women. And I just felt like it has been stupidity on my part not to do a film with a female protagonist until Admission. It’s something I’m embarrassed about. And doing Admission kind of sprung open a box for me.

TMS: Do female protagonists open up new opportunities as a storyteller that wouldn’t have necessarily existed for you that might not exist if you were writing the same kind of stories about men?

Weitz: Absolutely. Years ago there was a version of this story involving a male character helping someone younger and I’m really glad I didn’t make that. I just think women have historically had more crap to deal with, and it’s always interesting to examine how characters come out of. There is an old saying about how hard it is for a resistance fighter to run a country, which is why a person like Nelson Mandela was such an extraordinary person, because he was a fighter but had the grace to also run a country and be a great leader. But there is an element of that fighter mentality in Lily’s character. She’s someone who has had to fight constantly, to deal with rejection. So the question she is facing now is, how does she move on and live her life.

TMS: Commercially, all these elements feel exactly like the kind of movie we hear about all the time which simply can’t sell. Did you get any feedback from business people to soften the character or alter the story at all in order to make it more commercial?

Weitz: I didn’t, because I made the film in such a way that I wouldn’t need any more money than I had. Because I knew, if I tried to make it for more money, I’d get comments like that. And I knew I had these fantastic actors, so the money is kind of irrelevant. Same thing with writing. All I was concerned about while making the film was that the actors liked it and felt I was doing right by their characters. And the irony of this movie is that it probably plays a lot better than some of my more commercial films I’ve been a part of.

TMS: Because we’ve been talking about the film’s feminist slant and Lily’s legacy, would call yourself a feminist?

Weitz: I do. And I don’t know how that word got tarnished over the years, but I’m really happy that people like Emma Watson have vocally tried to bring the word back as a positive term. My daughter is 11 and she calls herself a feminist. She actually told someone the other day that they were being sexist. I want to conduct myself in a way that she can be proud and I think it’s shameful not to be a feminist. I guess one doesn’t have to call themselves a feminist but I don’t know why. Not liking the word seems stupid.

TMS: Did having a daughter change the way you thought about feminism or how vocal you were willing to be?

Weitz: Maybe. Probably. It is hard to explain to your daughter why there has never been a female president in our country. What do you tell your daughter is wrong with this country?

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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