Paul Weitz says Robert De Niro wanted to play a real person again in 'Being Flynn'
To be quite honest, I've never been a big fan of Paul Weitz. Along with his brother Chris, the Weitz are two of the nicest and most engaging filmmakers you'll meet in the business, but their work often has been wildly inconsistent.
After breaking through on "American Pie," Paul co-directed the underrated Chris Rock comedy "Down to Earth" with his brother and then both helmed the overrated "About a Boy" a year later. The solid "In Good Company" followed, but then it sort of all went wrong for Paul. His political satire "American Dreamz" just didn't work on any level and he followed that with "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" which was another costly mess for Universal and hardly the franchise starter they'd hoped for. He made it up for the studio by agreeing to direct "Little Fockers," but ended up shepherding the least successful film of the once lucrative franchise. Considering he could easily find himself in movie jail or producing yet another "American Pie" movie (whoops, too late), it's a relief to reveal that his latest endeavor, "Being Flynn," is something of a satisfying surprise. Of course, considering the subject matter (Nick Flynn's 2004 memoir "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City") isn't the happiest of tales that's a sincere compliment.
Retitled as "Being Flynn" for obvious reasons ("bullshit" just isn't going to fly on most movie marquees), Weitz has adapted Flynn's tale to focus on the relationship between Flynn (Paul Dano) and his absentee father (Robert De Niro). As Flynn tries to find himself both creatively and financially, he ends up working at homeless shelter. At the same time, his father's abrasive personality and loner tendencies find him falling on hard times and having to stay at set shelter. It's an awkward setting for the two to try and work out their differences and Weitz brings an authenticity to the subject matter you wouldn't expect. When a film is set in a homeless shelter you can almost predict the preachy show and tell scenes, but not in "Being Flynn." Moreover, while Dano is Dano (you either love him or don't get him), De Niro delivers one of his strongest performances in years (perhaps since his underrated turn in 2008's "What Just Happened"). If you're looking for quality cinema in March, a rarity outside of awards season films at the end of their long runs, you can easily find it with "Flynn."
Speaking to Weitz a few weeks ago about "Flynn," the Oscar nominee was candid as always. Moreover, he sounded like he was just thrilled that the film got made after years of development.
Awards Campaign: Considering the subject matter, how hard was it to get this movie made?
Paul Weitz: It was freakin’ hard you know and that’s part of why I had seven years in which to do 30 drafts. It began at a more mainstream studio and I feel like they wanted to make it, but every time I tried to sort of water it down it became a lesser version of the film and eventually yeah, I got used to the idea I was just going to continuously be writing drafts of this project. Then somebody called my bluff in that it got in front of Focus Features and they said, 'O.K. if you can make it for beneath this number and Robert De Niro will stick with you then go to it.' And they were in no way interested in me sort of watering it down or making a 'touchy feely' ending or anything. So. it was a very hard proposition and over the course of the seven years that I was developing it you could kind of see the economics of the film business changing where this kind of movie was not going to get made.
Awards Campaign: What’s also interesting in the seven years since you’ve started the subject matter is almost more timely. I'm not sure if you live in Los Angeles, but you see so many more homeless people on the street because of the economy. And the fact De Niro's character falls so quickly it reflects the fears of many. Did you think of that at all while you were shooting the picture?
Paul Weitz: Well, it’s interesting because I've had to wonder kind of what kept me thinking about the story over the course of that long period of time and I thought that the first thing was whether we’re fated to become our parents or not and the sort of extreme situation of a guy who didn’t know his dad and his dad was kind of a mythological figure to him. And then to see the dad in the context of the father showing up at the homeless shelter where he was successfully working. It felt like the encapsulation of some element of that universal question. So, for me there is some part of this that is timeless and akin to a fable and in terms of the filmmaking I try to reflect that in that it’s not a period piece. [Because] it’s not a period piece except in that I excluded things which would pin it down to a particular time. In other words, there is no cell phones. There is no laptops, but nor did I say, 'O.K., this is 1987 and this is the music that’s playing and this is the brand of Walkman that people are wearing.'
I do think that since were in a time of economic crisis makes a story seem closer to home, but in this case [the story meant something to me because] I grew up with a dad who was a fairly successful fashion designer, but he always dreamed of being a writer and he had his own demons. I mean he wanted to be a writer I think with a Hemingway level of success and he led a somewhat Hemingway-esque life, including the booze part of that and so despite the fact that he was successful there was some feeling that everything could go crazy. So even when times are good there is still some [trepidation] that there is danger around the corner.
Awards Campaign: I know events happened over a series of weeks in the film, but I thought it was portrayed very realistically that De Niro's fall could actually happen. I was curious. You mentioned that Focus was going to let you make it only if De Niro was on board. How long was he attached to the project?
Paul Weitz: He was attached almost all of that time. I showed it to him pretty early and I think he was interested in playing a real person again. I also feel that part of what he was interested in was the idea of somebody who is creative, who considers himself a writer and has to struggle on despite the fact that from the outside they look like a failure. That sort of belief in one’s self that it takes to continue. Somehow I feel that was part of what got under his skin and rang true to him. So. he really stuck with it.
Awards Campaign: And so how did you decide that Paul was the lead actor that you needed opposite him? I mean, obviously that must have been going through you mind. I need the son to be someone who could stand up to De Niro and also be believable as his son.' Where was that inspiration for that?
Paul Weitz: Well, first off I had been a fan of Paul’s work for a long time from his early days in 'The Ballad of Jack and Rose,' but also I knew that he had acted twice with Daniel Day Lewis who I gathered is a fairly intimidating [actor] when he’s working. (Laughs.) So, I felt that he would be able to challenge Bob while the camera was rolling. At the same time Paul is a nice guy and is respectful, so I knew it wasn’t something where this guy was going to come in and be a jerk to Robert De Niro, but at the same time I felt that he would come in and be utterly un-intimidated. One of the things that I like about Paul is that he kind of acts with a chip on his shoulder and this character has to be angry at his father for abandoning him and in the midst of all the other things that were going on it’s really kind of a battle between the two guys. I thought Paul would be capable of pulling that off. [De Nero is also a] kind of oversize figure and I felt like that baggage that Bob was bringing with all of his famous performances was going to be actually beneficial to the role.
Awards Campaign: You shot it in the winter correct?
Paul Weitz: Yes, in the winter and spring, but you know there is a segment of the movie where Bob is getting kicked out of the shelter for being so rowdy and he’s out on the street in the cold. I needed some scenes involved walking through snow and it was a month before shooting and you never know when it’s going to snow in New York and I got a weather report that it was supposed to blizzard the next day and I called De Niro up and I said 'How would you feel like going out on the street tomorrow to shoot?' And he said, 'Well, you know we’re not supposed to start shooting for a month and I've just began to put together my costume.' I said, 'I understand, but it’s supposed to really snow tomorrow' and he was game for it. So, we went out in a car with Bob and the cameraman and we didn’t have permits so we just went to places where I felt like people would ignore him. We went down to the financial district and when everybody was arriving during rush hour for work and essentially shot it like a student film.
Awards Campaign: I think any filmmaker because of the mythic of his career would think to themselves, 'God. I can’t believe I'm asking Robert De Niro to be out in the middle of the night in ten degree weather doing the scene' and obviously you were like 'Nope we’re going to do it.'
Paul Weitz: Yeah, the funny thing is that at rock bottom even through all the films that he’d done I think he is still really excited to make films and he still has a respect for the craft and the nuts and bolts of it. One thing that I'm leery of is sort of making any assumptions about him because he’s been through a lot more experience in life than I have, but I think that we’re both really afraid of being pretentious and I think that informs some of Bob’s decisions. The one thing that I can say is that he is utterly incredibly in this film just so eager to do the work.
Awards Campaign: That’s great. It’s funny. I really don’t have time to tell you this, but my favorite De Niro memory is he was lauded at the BAFTA Britannia Awards like three years ago. Ben Stiller did a tribute to him and it was almost like a roast and De Niro was laughing more than anyone else in the room.
Paul Weitz: That’s really cool.
Awards Campaign: He was dying. So, that unpretentiousness I believe. My last question is really about Nick Flynn, the author whose story the movie is based on. I haven’t read the book, so I'm not sure how much you were able to keep and not keep, but was it important to you that when it all came down to it that he saw his own life story in this?
Paul Weitz: Nick is a very terrific guy. He has a real sense of humor. He has never had a moment of self pity even though he’s been through some really tough stuff in his life. Y'know, it’s interesting because when he wrote the memoir he was out doing reading in different cities often with other people who had written memoirs that were best sellers and some of those people have since been proven to have made up some stuff in their books. Nick would always say at those readings, 'Well these things actually did happen, but what I've written is not the 100% truth. There's always a degree of [fiction] involved in turning it into a book and Nick really gave me the rope to [do the same with the movie]. I don’t think you can do justice to a novel by or to a book by adapting it 100% faithfully and you simply can’t fit all that is in a book into a film, so you have to diverge from it and then figure out what’s important to you. In this case Nick really gave me license. I think he was just kind of interested in seeing what would happen and one of the first things that I talked about with Nick was, 'Can we please talk about a character named Nick Flynn? I don’t want to say you and I prefer that you not say I while we’re talking about the movie.' It was quite artificial for awhile, but then we both got used to it and I think that he really owned that attitude that this was going to be its own thing. Also he is married to to Lily Taylor who is in the film so I think he’s seen through her all the ups and downs [of the film business]. So, the weird circumstance of me having written 30 drafts over seven years? Somehow he didn’t give up faith in me and he’s a really great guy. The book is really terrific and surprising.
To read Drew McWeeny's review of "Being Flynn," click here.
"Being Flynn" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.