With his brother Chris, Paul Weitz cut his teeth working on screenplays like Antz. That was before the duo co-directed teen smash American Pie, Chris Rock's Down to Earth, and Nick Hornby adaptation About a Boy (on which they also shared screenplay credit with Peter Hedges). On his own, Weitz wrote and directed In Good Company and, most recently, American Dreamz, as well as penning the off-Broadway plays Roulette, Privilege, and Show People. I spoke to Paul Weitz at San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel on March 14, 2006.
Groucho: When do dreams become dangerous or unhealthy?
Paul Weitz: I think when they enter into the realm of self-delusion. And there's all sorts of ways that I could delude myself about this film, such as thinking that it's going to have any effect, or anything like that. Basically, I've done a lot of comedies, and I'm comfortable working in the genre of comedy—and this is a weird one, because it's a comedy dealing with the sort of most important issues that we face as Americans today....With all this stuff in the newspaper about Ambien, movie stars have been thinking about that question as well. I guess the central question is this idea at the core of American identity that having a dream is always a positive thing—And then the question arises whether it's even possible to deal with reality.
G: Did you have dreams for yourself, as a youth?
PW: Well, one of my dreams was just to make a living. And my first dream was to be a playwright. And luckily, I didn't have much success at that, so I decided to try screenwriting and spent a long time just making money, but not having my name on any films. But that was actually okay with me, 'cause I was making a living, which was one of my dreams. Now, I really think actually making this film—well, first it was quite surreal, because it's got stars from a bunch of films I'd done in the past—Dennis Quaid, Hugh Grant, Chris Klein, Jennifer Coolidge—so it's literally surreal to me that they're all in the same film, and in the same scenes together. And then simply the fact that I got to make a film that was this edgy is kind of a dream. So I feel like I'm kinda living it right now.
G: And your almost accidental success in film—since that was sort of a lark for you, at first, to write a screenplay—has led you back into theatre.
PW: Yeah, the last couple of years, I've had plays off-Broadway, and I have a play called Show People going into previews this week in New York.
G: You mentioned Hugh Grant and Dennis Quaid, who you've worked with before. What is it—obviously this is a great partnership for all concerned, because you're giving them great roles, and they're delivering great work for you—but what do you think it is about those two guys that makes them good collaborators?
PW: They're both smart. I mean, Hugh is a little bit more of an intellectual actor, in that he comes to the set, and his script is filled with notes; he's already thought of various approaches to it. But at the same time, if you give him a note that makes him giggle, he'll go for it. And Dennis comes to the set, and he doesn't like to memorize the lines way ahead of time because he feels like it's going to make him less spontaneous. So it's actually a lesson in how different actors are. That's one interesting thing about directing is you can't have a single approach if you want to be a good director, to actors, because each of them, has their own technique. And I like both of them—it was a strange combination, seeing them in the same movie, 'cause Hugh is so British and Dennis is so American, but I feel lucky to work with both of them.
G: Okay, so which were you more concerned about: satirizing American Idol or the Presidency? There's some question in my mind as to which is more powerful.
PW: (Laughs.) I think American Idol is far more powerful at this point. (Laughs.) I was trying to make a connection between the two.—I don't think you can do a better job of satirizing the government than the government may have itself the last few months. So the goal was to kind of go beyond that. I was a bit also concerned that there's a character in the movie who's a show-tune-loving, incompetent terrorist. So I was a little bit concerned about, you know, having a comedy with a terrorist character. But that character's kind of like going back to Woody Allen and, like, Bananas....I was actually simply concerned about satire in and of itself because part of my problem with most satires is that you don't really become attached to the characters because they're just tools for the writer. So one of the things I've tried to do in my films is to have characters that you care about. And to do that in the midst of a really extreme comedy where there's some really edgy material was, I thought, the strangest thing about this film—was to not simply have Dennis Quaid doing a parody of Bush, but to actually have that character learning something during the course of the movie. And see whether people who hate Bush could actually palate the idea that he might sort of change. So that was kind of the thing I was most concerned about.
G: And the likeability of the actors helps, I think, the audience to take that ride with them and hope, even if it's against hope, that they're going to see the light.
PW: Yeah, there's no question. I mean, Hugh is able to do some really heinous characters (laughs) and make them watchable because he's funny.
G: You deal in the film with terrorism and the Iraq War. Were you concerned about where to draw the line as to what would be funny, and were test screenings of any help to you there?
PW: I was very concerned about not—I was very concerned that I could stand behind what I felt the film was saying. And there are some real buttons pushed in that area. And I imagine some people might be upset about the things that happen in the film, and that someone is poking fun in that area. But I also decided that I wasn't really going to censor myself in this film. But the testing audience wasn't really a help in terms of that: it was actually really strange because there's some things I thought that they might get really upset about—and some people did get upset—but also I think the fact that it's a comedy allows people kind of a pressure release, and they're actually glad to be laughing at the things that they're stressing out about most of the time.
G: It seems that your films tap the zeitgeist, and I wonder if that's a career strategy or you're just following what strikes your interest.
PW: I'm just trying to not ignore the things that I'm thinking about despite the fact that I'm a Hollywood filmmaker. So it's really just an attempt not to censor myself.
G: I just want to touch on another couple of projects you have in the hopper—one is "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City," and I know you recently went to Boston to do a little research. What was that experience like?
PW: Well, it's a memoir that's set largely at a homeless shelter called Pine Street Inn in Boston, and the author, Nick Flynn, worked there. And his father ended up living there after becoming homeless, so it's a—to me—very moving father-and-son story. At the same time, the book is quite funny. And I spent a little time there. And I don't delude myself into thinking that, in the course of a short visit, you can learn all that much. But at the same time I think that the big secret to most things is that there's more similarity between people than there is difference. So it helps us cope with reality to dehumanize people, but it's always good to be reminded that there is a connection between even the most different types of people.
G: And you also have in development, I understand, a film called "The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-Up Artists"—
PW: That's something that my company is producing, that my brother is writing. I have yet to penetrate the Secret Society of Pick-Up Artists, myself.
G: Can you talk a little bit about your development as a visual artist?
PW: (chuckles) Well, I hope I've had some development. And the only indication that I have is that I get very bored if I'm doing things in a very simple fashion. And at the same time, there's always a trap of doing visual things for their own sake. And I think each story that you're telling has its own set of rules that you're trying to learn as you're making the film. In the case of this film, it's very colorful. I wanted it to be kind of seductive in the way that American Idol is, for instance. And, I mean, I'm also working with some really good cinematographers. Robert Elswit, who did this, did Good Night, and Good Luck. and did all of P.T. Anderson's films. And I was very lucky to get him for it. So I think that you can't help but learn from people if they're really good at what they do.
G: Is it my imagination, or was there a conscious effort to maybe cake on the makeup a little more to achieve that TV feel?
PW: (chuckles) With Hugh?
G: With anyone.
PW: Yeah, I mean, you know, the Tony Yalda character wore a hell of a lot of makeup. (Laughs.) But that was just something he surprised me with on the set. Yeah, there's—I always find it strange that people are wearing makeup in movies, but they look really ghastly if they don't.
G: And since the film is so much about television, and how America defines itself through television, I guess the visual style is partly—you're dealing with all of those garish elements from TV.
PW: Yeah. I just wanted it to appear kind of "pop"-y, essentially—
G: You have a tradition of doing push-ups between magazines on your films. I read that Rachel Weisz was the only one who did that on About a Boy, and now she's an Oscar winner: coincidence?
PW: I don't think it is a coincidence. I think anybody who works with me, it'd be smart of them to get down and do the push-ups while I'm doing them; however, nobody other than Rachel has ever done it—
[For Groucho's review of American Dreamz, click here.]