The film Being Flynn (my review here) is based on the celebrated memoir, "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City" by Nick Flynn. The screenplay was adapted by writer/director Paul Weitz and tells the true story of when Nick (played by Paul Dano) was an aspiring writer in his late twenties and began working in a Boston homeless shelter. Struggling with addiction as well as the emotional wounds left by his father's abandonment and his mother's suicide, Nick is shocked when his father, Jonathan (Robert De Niro), suddenly contacts Nick after nearly twenty years of non-communication, and eventually becomes a guest at Nick's shelter. Jonathan is an alcoholic who has deluded himself into believing that he's one of the greatest writers in American history, despite having never published or even completed a book. So not only must Nick grapple with the trepidation and anger he feels about his father's abandonment and a fresh reminder of the sadness and guilt Nick feels over his mother's death, but also the fear that his predestined future is now staring him in the face.
I had a chance to talk with Weitz, and as I began transcribing our interview, I began to notice parallels between Nick's story and Weitz's journey to both forge a unique movie from a beloved existing work and to embrace his past as a way to move forward and develop his own voice. It began to make sense why, during the interview, Weitz had said, "I probably identify with this film more than anything else that I've done, despite the fact that it's someone else's story."
Weitz and his brother, Chris, burst onto the scene in 1999 when they co-directed American Pie, a teen comedy that became infamous for a scene where the film's hero attempts to have sex with an apple pie. Both Weitz brothers have moved on to more serious adult fare since then (Chris' film A Better Life recently earned a Best Actor nomination), with Being Flynn as the darkest effort yet between them. So I was curious how Weitz reconciles the fact that he's gone from movies with MILFs and dicks in desserts, to a movie about suicide, addiction, and homelessness.
Paul Weitz: I think for a while I said, "No, for god's sake, I'm not the pie guy," but now I'm very happy to have been the pie guy. I was in London... and American Pie was on TV, and I watched it, and it was really kind of a nice feeling because I think the film is unpretentious and we were approaching the working aspect of it in the proper way, which was with humility and I think an attempt to have everybody be kind to each other. And I try to bring that to the set now. I treat (I hope) people on the set now the exact same way as I did when we made American Pie... And it's kind of weird because I think, for my stuff, there's always some sort of equation between comedy and sadness, and American Pie was heavily on the comedy side of it, but also there was this sadness of these guys who were no longer going to be able to be as close with each other because they were graduating.
I also noticed a connection between Nick's efforts to both accept and differentiate himself from his father with Weitz's thoughts on honoring "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City" with what it takes to successfully turn a book into a film.
Weitz: There's a bizarre catch-22 when you're adapting something, which is that you can't be true to it and be utterly faithful in adapting it because you don't have enough time, literally. You can't jam everything in there and if you try to hopscotch onto each beat that exists in a book -- it's going to be incoherent.
In Being Flynn, Jonathan is verbose, racist, arrogant, and sometimes violent. I was curious if De Niro ever met the original Jonathan, and when the conversation turned to Weitz's father, the reason why Weitz felt such a connection to the story and characters became clear.
Weitz: Nick and I went up with Bob (De Niro) and we sat down with Jonathan, and Jonathan is now living in an assisted care facility. And the first thing Jonathan said was, "So do you think you can pull this off?" to Bob De Niro. And Nick said, "Well, dad, he's a very well-respected actor. The Godfather Part II, he's done lots of famous movies." And Jonathan said, "Yeah, yeah, I hear you're good. But do you think you can pull this one off?" There's sort of a marvelous egotism to him, and he was going to own that situation no matter what he was in. So I actually think that was a useful thing for Bob to see, how this guy tried to master any situation. He's still not a sweet and cuddly guy. He's still capable of saying horrible things...
My dad, who I really loved, was a benevolent maniac and shared some of Jonathan's characteristics. He was a fashion designer, and pretty successful, but he always wanted to be a writer, and also he came from a generation that drank a lot of scotch. That's part of why I identified with this -- how do you learn lessons from people who are clearly battling their own demons.
Being Flynn is out now in limited release.