Paul Weitz may have begun his career with pies and teenage sexuality, but he has blossomed into one of Hollywood’s more interesting filmmakers, with the likes of About a Boy and In Good Company to his credit. His latest film, which he wrote, is American Dreamz, in which a befuddled and unpopular second term president faces his reality on an American Idol-type TV show. As politics and pop culture in America go hand in hand in this funny political satire. Weitz talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Question: The last time we spoke, for your last film I don’t know if you had mentioned this one because it seems very timely. How long did it take you to write?
Weitz: Well I probably hadn’t thought of it when we last talked. I thought about it for a few months and I wrote it really quickly – like in three weeks – because it’s almost like a Shaggy Dog story that I’d been telling to people and sort of saying, well, I’m not going to make this film but, here’s what I’m thinking of. I was talking to a friend who said, you know what, you should expend whatever capital you’ve built up in Hollywood to make this film because who knows when you’ll ever be able to make something as potentially ill-advised as this.
Question: [Laughter]. What particular political events kind of prompted you to decide that you wanted to create this story?
Weitz: Well certainly some of the things were the urban myths as it were about Bush that were, like, whether he was wearing a battery pack microphone in his first debate. and really I think it was just the weird feeling of, being like a lot of Americans and sort of reading the paper in the morning and worrying about terrorism and whether the administration was handling things in the right way, and then in the evening worrying even more about whether Constantine was going to get kicked off American Idol. It was really just kind of observing myself and, finding this weird disconnect, between the supposedly deadly serious situation of being at war with us going about our daily lives as if nothing is happening.
Question: What are the pitfalls of making political satire because this is not a used to political satire in mainstream Hollywood.
Weitz: Well, it’s interesting because while there is a political satire element in it, but basically I don’t think this is a wildly successful political satire. I mean there is an element of cultural satire to it but I mean, no, it’s almost like a third rail, you can’t actually talk about real things in comedy, and, I mean I think that to me, the reason that I detach from a lot of satires is that there’s no attempt made to have the characters be identifiable or to sort of have them be sympathetic in any way. and it might very well be that the fact that I’m trying to do that in this movie makes the satire less biting; but also I think what I was really trying to do was explore something, a little more about core American values than to have it be about this idea that everyone in America is supposed to have a dream and to see whether the flip side of that is that it makes it impossible for people to deal with reality.
Question: How do you account for the obsession that we have for pop culture, in particular things like the American Idol phenomenon that seems to have taken hold?
Weitz: I think it’s the feeling that we’re all one step away from being stars. And what blows me away about all the reality shows is how amazingly natural people are. I mean everybody seems to be like a born actor, and these people have cameras following themselves around but they’re able to express their deepest emotions as if they were like an incredibly well-trained actor. I think that our celebrity culture has changed. In the sort of golden era Hollywood wanted to romanticise our stars and have them almost be kind of untouchable, but now, we’re kind of delighted if Brittany Spears is driving without a seatbelt with her infant or, if somebody makes an ass of themselves. It’s almost like a drug that, we all feel like we’re one step away from sort of being the subject of what we’re watching.
Question: When you make a film like this and you present it to the studio, do they regard it with any degree of scepticism?
Weitz: Basically they told me that it had to be cheap and it had to have big stars and, luckily I had some stars who really helped get the movie made because they all cut their fees and the film wouldn’t have happened without them, so the good side of that is that there was never at any point at which they said, hey, wait a minute, you can’t do this or why don’t you change this part of the plot because it’s too edgy, because I kind of held up my part of the bargain. And it was the shortest shoot I’ve had since American Pie, and it’s actually a relatively complex movie.
Question: What about the growing relationship between you and Hugh Grant. What is it about Hugh that appeals to you as a director – because he hates acting as far as I can gather every time I talk to him?
Weitz: Well, I mean there’s a scene in the movie – at the beginning of the movie – where his character is saying, please don’t make me do it, oh, god, please don’t make me do it again, and I knew that’s what he was thinking when I sent him the script. I think he kind of didn’t want to let me down; but I think the appealing thing for me about Hugh is that he tends to have a genuinely biting, sense of humour, and also he’s quite juvenile too. So I think there’s a lot of overlap in what we find funny. And after I finished the film I sent him an email and said I want you to see the film because you along with, terrorists under the age of 25 are my core audience. So I think that for some weird reason that we find similar things to be funny.
Question: You’re not going to screen this for the Republicans I take it anytime soon?
Weitz: [Laughter]. I doubt they’re going to use it as a fundraiser or anything. I’d be very curious to see whether Bush was curious to see Dennis Quaid’s portrayal of a president like him. But I guess I’m not holding my breath for an invitation to the White House.
Question: You began your career with a film that redefined the sex comedy in cinema and these were very highly commercial movies, and I can understand why you made them, and yet the films that you’ve done more recently have been so much more personal and so much more introspective in a way about American society – or about society in general. So was American Pie a means to an end for you?
Weitz: Not consciously. I mean basically all that was I was terribly afraid of directing because it seemed like some sort of mysterious dark art and, I read the script and I thought, wow, here’s something that I’d get a kick out of and I could potentially not screw up because it would benefit from being done simply. And then after the fact – after it had become a big hit – I guess it probably made it a bit easier to do whatever I wanted to do. I mean I immediately squandered the opportunity by making Down to Earth but…
Question: Well you made up for that by doing About a Boy.
Weitz: I mean Down to Earth was in a way a successful film and I learned a lot from doing it, but I felt like, I personally didn’t do a particularly good job dealing with it. So that was actually also a terrific thing to have happen because it gave me a lot of freedom to try to be a little bit more ambitious as a filmmaker with About a Boy. I mean I’m definitely going about things in a backward fashion because usually what happens is you have an Indie filmmaker, who comes to Hollywood and sells out, but I started out by selling out and now I’m sort of getting lower and lower budgets and making more and more idiosyncratic films.
Question: Yet you’re about to make a film with a title – which I don’t even know how the MPAA will approve this – but tell me about Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.
Weitz: Well we’ll have to change the title of course to get it past the censors. it’s a really touching and odd memoir by a poet by the name of Nick Flynn who when he was in his 20s was working at a homeless shelter in Boston and his father, was an alcoholic who ended up being homeless and living in the shelter while Nick was working there. So I’m kind of drawn to sort of, strange father/son stories. His father sort of fancied himself a great writer and, was working on what he considered one of the great novels in American… over the course of 30 or 40 years, and there’s something in there about the connection between creativity and ego, which I find really interesting.
Question: It’s interesting that you say that, because I mean About a Boy is, is a father/son story in a way, and even In Good Company is a father/son story. Do you look back on your own relationship with your father and, and is that one of the reasons why you’re drawn to such, thematic movies?
Weitz: Well I had a father who, was of the, generation of mythical characters whose lives were changed by World War II. He was a weird set of contradictions. He was an extremely kind of macho guy who, who was a German Jew but he ended up being in the American Army and being in the OSS and going behind German lines in the war, and then he was also a race car driver but he was a fashion designer, which is not what one associates with being a macho guy, and also he had a huge amount of anger. He was the kind of guy who would get into confrontations which always seemed that they were going to end up in a fight but basically because he wouldn’t back down they never quite did erupt into that. But I don’t know why I’m being so, self revelatory and you might have to charge me $150 after this for a shrink.
Question: Apparently so.
Weitz: Anyway, he was also a very affectionate guy and I think that, men are taught to suppress their emotions in our culture and, that makes for interesting drama because whenever you have something that’s being suppressed it’s more interesting to the characterisations are more loaded.
Question: You seem too smart to be a filmmaker working in Hollywood. [Laughter].
Weitz: I’ll take that as a compliment. [Laughter]
Question: Now is your brother involved as producer of these films because he always seems to be credited …
Weitz: Yean Ian he’s an executive producer, and essentially what that meant on this one was when I first wrote it he said, now are you sure you want to make this film. (Laughter)
Weitz: and then after I made it, he gave me a lot of good feedback and critique. So I really feel like I wouldn’t be making films and I wouldn’t have had the guts to do it, if not for having been partners with him. So he has tenure as far as having some sort of credit on my films whenever he wants it.
Question: Will you two guys work together again as a duo?
Weitz: I’d love to but it basically would require us to be equally excited about a project and, and that doesn’t seem to happen all that often. I mean basically the reason I did In Good Company was that Chris didn’t particularly want to do it. We don’t have any kind of rules about what we will or won’t do together or not, and I really hope that we will. But to do that it would kind of have to be something that, that he really wanted to do.
Question: Well, congratulations. I very much look forward to the Bullshit movie. It’s a pity you’ll have to change the title but…
Weitz: [Laughter]. I know. I don’t know what it’s going to end up being.
Question: is it going to be for Universal again?
Weitz: Well actually that one is owned by Columbia and I’m not sure if I’m doing that or… there’s a couple of original things that I’m working on. which ever one I can sort of get together with the right actors.
Question: Another film that you’re writing yourself?
Weitz: Well there’s another one which is kind of about the question of whether people with religious faith in America and people without religious faith are going to be able to find any common ground or not.