Grandma 's Paul Weitz Talks Secrets, Surprises and Channeling Lily Tomlin

The new film Grandma tells a story rare for American cinema: a lesbian of advanced years (Lily Tomlin), in mourning for her soul mate and on skittish footing with the much younger woman she's been seeing (Judy Greer), is suddenly thrust into an adventure involving her teenage granddaughter (Julia Garner) and an unwanted pregnancy.
09/04/2015 09:31 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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The new film Grandma tells a story rare for American cinema: a lesbian of advanced years (Lily Tomlin), in mourning for her soul mate and on skittish footing with the much younger woman she's been seeing (Judy Greer), is suddenly thrust into an adventure involving her teenage granddaughter (Julia Garner) and an unwanted pregnancy. The female-centric subject and cast are courtesy of a filmmaker who would perhaps not be one's first guess for such material: Paul Weitz, whose directorial debut (with his brother, Chris) was the proud cultural touchstone American Pie.

Weitz has a pattern of upending the expectations brought by his early success, though, writing and helming a wide range of resonant and entertaining pictures. From the deservedly beloved About a Boy to lesser-known gems like the affecting rom-com/workplace dramedy In Good Company, sharp satire American Dreamz, sweet-tart comedy Admission, or the giddy series most recently bringing him to New York, Mozart in the Jungle, Weitz can be counted on to marry classic screwball intelligence with an enlightened contemporary sensibility.

I meet the 49-year-old writer-director in downtown Manhattan on an early summer morning armed with tidbits about his history; I've read that his mother was Imitation of Life actress Susan Kohner and his father iconic James Bond-ian designer, novelist and historian John Weitz. But I've tried to resist further Googling in hopes of getting to know him as one does talking with any stranger. He's staying at a hotel, so his home base is the first thing I ask about. Weitz pauses, then says he lives in California but grew up in the heart of the city, on 57th street and Sixth Avenue.

You hesitated when I asked if you were a New Yorker. Do you call yourself an Angelino?
No. [Laughs] But I went out there a lot as a kid. The traditional [path] if you're trying to get into film -- going out there and only knowing other buffoons who are trying to get into film -- was not my experience. Actually, my grandmother is 105 and still living in the same house in Bel Air that she's been in for 80-something years. I had a lot of family there, so I don't not feel like I'm -- well, I do feel like I'm from New York.
What's the difference? A New Yorker has irony, and a soul...
Growing up in New York, in retrospect, my upbringing was very provincial. It was quote unquote worldly, in that my parents traveled a lot, and my dad was a fashion designer, my mother had been an actress, and they knew interesting people. But I find that New York separates into little fiefdoms. I grew up going to all-boys schools, and I didn't have any sisters, and so by the time I graduated high school, mostly through my own lack of intellectual curiosity, I would pretty much say that I was a misogynist. I don't mean actively denigrating women, but by the nature of having grown up only among boys, I didn't have any sort of feminist sensibility. Growing up in New York, you get all these marvelous things, but you also get the false sense that you're operating on a faster speed than other people. You get sold a bill of goods. It can be so miserable living in New York.
When did you leave?
Twenty-something years ago -- but I don't really feel like I did leave, because I make a lot of films here, no doubt thanks to the fact that there's a whopping tax credit. And then also I write plays.
Did you imagine when you were little that you'd grow up to make movies and plays?
I should possibly have imagined that, because I got to meet a lot of filmmakers when I was a kid. My grandfather was an agent for filmmakers like John Huston, Ingmar Bergman, all the new German filmmakers, Volker Schlöndorff, [Wim] Wenders. I was around really interesting people, but I never quite made the leap into thinking that was something I was going to do -- it was much more like something that older people with thick European accents did [laughs] -- or in the case of Huston, booming voices. And I wanted to be a playwright, and luckily now I have a [New York] theater that I have a good relationship with that does my plays. But I was kind of reverse-engineered. Most people who become filmmakers, they maybe go to film school and they make an independent film, and then they hope to get enough dough to make a larger-budget film. I didn't go to film school; I had a really terrific mentor who was a film historian named Jeanine Basinger, but I was quite phobic about the process of making a film. I went to Hollywood with my brother to try to make some dough; we were script doctors and then got to write an interesting script of this movie Antz, which was an exploration of totalitarianism in the guise of a children's film. And then did American Pie and became a studio filmmaker. And now I've arrived at a completely do-it-yourself independent film.
How did you come to this particular story?
I didn't have any particular preconceptions about what I was trying to do or any sort of political aspect to it. It's an inherently political film on numerous levels, but I hope that the best level is that it's trying not to dehumanize the characters. You can really see how easily that happens when there's a societal debate going on.
I was nervous watching it, because I worried about what people's reactions would be.
I had the film Admission -- which was where I met Lily Tomlin -- come out, and I felt kind of powerless, and anxious. I think most film directors are probably control freaks -- you can be a little bit of a benevolent one when you're directing, but then when a film comes out, you have no control. So in order to sort of calm myself down, I just started writing this thing. It was just the situation of this character, this 18-year-old showing up on her grandmother's doorstep wanting to get some dough because she's pregnant and wants to terminate the pregnancy. With no intention of spending time with her grandmother. But I'd just spent time with Lily Tomlin on the set of Admission, and she really got under my skin. I felt like she had so much to say, and there was unfinished business, in my mind -- that this 70-something-year-old woman who'd lived through all this women's history who is so forceful and so youthful and so transgressive in her thinking, that she ought to have a film in which to hit every note that I was perceiving in her. So I sat down to write -- and the grandma, it was Lily's voice, and it just kept on going from there. I didn't tell Lily I was doing it, because I was worried she would be ambivalent about it, at the least. I've done a couple of movies about mentorship but from the male perspective, and it finally had become clear to me how interesting it would be to me to do a movie about female mentorship. Also the idea that, in not only Lily's character and Julia's but Marcia Gay Harden's character, that one could check in with different eras of consciousness of women's history, and the idea that there's been an erasure of women's history in the minds of young people now. After Lily has a sort of relatively erudite insult-fest with Judy Greer, where they're calling each other "writer in residence" and "solipsist," Julia's character says, "My friends just call each other 'bitch,' 'ho' and 'slut'." And she says, "Do you think I'm one?" That is the cost of a generation's not having a consciousness of women's history. I think even if I didn't have a daughter I would be preoccupied with these things, but I do have a daughter, who's 11, and I want her to have a consciousness. She's a really tough -- she's really able to articulate and stand up for herself. In terms of my own personal learning curve, there was a point when I was 25 when I'd been dumped by a woman I was dating, and I really was trying to figure out what the hell had happened, and I read this book called Women's Ways of Knowing. What really stuck in my head was this idea that when girls hit puberty, they stop talking in class and sort of fall into the societal norm that girls aren't supposed to be holding forth. Also the book talked about how oftentimes fathers, when their daughters hit puberty, don't know how to express their affection any more; they feel like it's inappropriate to hug them. All this sort of stayed in my head, and it's stuff that I think about and talk about with my daughter today.
Sounds like you imbued her with the ability to be strong.
Tougher than my wife and I. We're don't particularly like confrontation, but my daughter seems to have no issue with it. We were with an uncle in D.C. recently, and he was sort of poking fun at her and telling her he was going to put it on the Internet that she wasn't eating her vegetables, and she turned to him and said, "I think you might get in trouble if you're publicly shaming an 11-year-old girl on the Internet. Possibly you'll lose you job." [Laughs] Also she's very interested in gay rights and in marriage equality. It's nice.
How did you go from being a self-described misogynist, someone for whom females were essentially alien beings, to today? Was it really getting dumped and reading a book and feeling empathetic?
I went to Wesleyan, which had a fairly outspoken feminist student body -- I was taken aback by it at the time, frankly. Also, having a female mentor in this woman Jeanine Basinger. Actually, I was thinking about it the other day: I think the Anita Hill hearings snapped something in me, just watching this woman who was clearly so smart and had no reason to be lying, being grilled by these largely male senators. It felt like watching a tragedy. And then she wasn't listened to. It was like watching something out of the Bible, honestly. That was just like, Wow, not only does chauvinism exist, but it's still functioning on the highest level.
Do you think being surrounded by artists growing up and going to a school that nurtured an artistic sensibility was why you never doubted you could make a career as an artist?
I doubted it. But I always doubted that I could make a career at anything else. I probably would have been fairly happy being a teacher.
Would you do that now?
I don't know that I have the selflessness to do that now.
You've managed to make a successful career out of personal human stories when these things seem to be rarer and rarer in the culture.
Those are the kind of films that are most interesting to me. I really liked Kramer vs. Kramer, which seemed very much to be dealing with cultural issues in terms of divorce and in terms of gender roles in society, and The Graduate, and The Apartment. I like films that are in a way just personal stories that are often funny but that are by implication political. My daughter sometimes asks me -- it's almost like she's testing me, she's like, "How come people have a problem with gay people getting married? Why do they care?" I often think of the phrase "all politics is local politics": there must be something that makes them uncomfortable or afraid about their own... I remember there was a Jon Stewart joke -- probably when Prop 8 was coming up, he said, "I became completely for gay marriage when I realized that it didn't mean I had to marry a man."
When AIDS first struck I remember thinking it was essentially how people viewed homosexuality -- as this insidious disease that's contagious and lethal. Ironically, the response to the epidemic actually changed a lot of people's minds about gay people.
Do you think that there were certain cultural things -- like, no matter what one thinks of the movie Philadelphia, do you think that helped change people's [minds]?
Absolutely. Even a show like Friends, which had a lesbian couple -- if you had attractive actors playing gay characters, even if they weren't particularly convincing, just the fact that shiny, pretty people were playing gay characters, suddenly people could think, "Oh, a gay person doesn't have to be this horrifying thing." Movies and TV are hugely influential -- maybe more than activism, because it's just so absorbed into our bloodstream.
Television particularly.
How is working in television?
Mozart in the Jungle is a particular form of storytelling, for me at least. Somewhat interestingly I do it with Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, and we each have our own sort of tastes. For me it's harkening back to Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges, like a kind of slightly stylized form of comedy. So it's fulfilling a different thing for me than Grandma.
What's the most enjoyable part of making a movie for you?
I love writing, but in terms of directing, the most enjoyable thing is being with the actors, figuring out how they tick. You can have an actor who's very intellectual, like Hugh Grant, whose script is full of notes about how he's going to attack each line. Then in the same movie, there's Toni Colette, who's completely instinctive -- hyperintelligent, but also not particularly keen to even think that there is a script. I mean, she memorizes the script; I remember going to her at point and saying, "Is there anything in the scene that you don't think works for you?" She looked at me as if I was talking in a foreign language. [Laughs] But that moment where I get to be the first audience, which is very much the case with Grandma, is incredibly exciting. There's something truthful about that moment, which is that the game of pretend is real. It says something almost religious, that we're all -- that our lives are games of pretend. Also there's something really great about momentarily forming a troupe with people. So many of these actors were people I'd worked with before, like Marcia Gay Harden, who were just up for sort of jumping in.
Was it a long shoot?
Nineteen days. I learned over the course of 10 films how to not waste any movement. I didn't write anything that's not in the film -- I barely shot any shots that aren't in the film -- and the cinematographer lit it in such a fashion that we didn't have to stop and move the cameras, so Lily and everybody else had more than enough time to experiment. I felt like for [a] story where these two people have a ticking clock, a little bit of the feeling of "Okay, we've gotta get going" was going to be beneficial.
Not telling her you were writing the script -- did you really think Lily Tomlin would take exception to having a movie written for her?
I thought that would be something she'd feel ambivalent about, and I was accurate, I think. At this point, she takes great pleasure in having done it, and Jane Wagner, who Lily still calls her partner -- I don't think she likes the word "wife," for some reason; maybe she's not used to it -- but Jane really appreciated the film, which was a big thing. Huge for me. Especially with something like this, which is so close to the bone for [Lily], my assumption is that she looked at this and went, "Boy, this really has to be something special or I'm gonna hate myself." And I think it was probably a little anxiety-provoking to think, "Oh, I'm going to be in every scene of this movie." She hasn't done that many extremely low-budget films, and didn't realize, I don't think, how liberating it would be. But once she was in, she wore her own clothes, she drove her own car, and she was effortlessly tapping into things. She's such a good actress.
She operated on quite a different register in Admission; she was so liberated, where here she's more curmudgeonly.
To some degree the movie's about, How do you get over things? How does she get over the loss of this long-term love? I was very conscious that [Lily] has this relationship of 42 years with Jane Wagner. What if a person of that importance had died before, for instance, there was a legal chance to marry? How do you let go of grief and move on? There's a scene early on where she's forced this breakup with this younger woman and she's looking through pictures of her lost loved one. I asked my friend Jacqueline Woodson, the writer, if she would allow me to use some pictures of her, because Jackie has a really lovely spirit, and I felt she would bring something to it, even though that character's not in the film. [Lily's character is] curmudgeonly, but I can't tell how much of it is just coming from her grief and just railing against this thing. At the point in the movie where she is actually overcoming her grief and able to say goodbye in a way, the point in the script where I would have thought that Lily would be crying, she's actually laughing.
Another reason she might have resisted doing it: having to live in that grief.
I also just think, Why do it? You've achieved a certain amount of success. [Laughs] Why risk it?
Can you think of another film that has as its central characters a 70-something-year-old woman and mainly other women?
I'm sure they exist, but no, not really. That is a benefit of having done these films over the years, access to actors. I think we are somewhat dismissive of people who are well-known or "stars," but usually the reason that they've become well-known is that they're really, really good. So if you get them to do something because they want to play that character, you really have some weapons.
Is there any pleasure in promoting a film, or is it something to experience relief when you're done with?
There's pleasure in it. I never want to take for granted the fact that people are interested in talking about something, even if they have to. [Laughs] And sometimes they have to, I know that. With a movie like [Grandma] it's probably more fun because there are things to talk about -- and there's bad ways to talk about them too. I don't want to say something glib or stupid about things that mean something to me and that mean something to other people. If you look at our culture -- I think about this in terms of race -- one mistake people make is to think that they've erased what ails them, you know? In our society, when we elected, thank God, a black president, finally, one might have thought for a moment, "Okay, our society has grown up." And look at what's happened in terms of brutality and race relations over the last few years. I think the same can hold true for feminism and for respect for women. This film, though -- it was exciting to learn things, to be collaborating with Lily; I was writing this character whose experiences were different from mine but it was extremely, extremely personal to me. At the same time I had somebody who had so many of the same experiences as the character -- I would have listened if she'd told me something was fake or not right. I [recently] did a thing at Lincoln Center and there was a young woman who hadn't seen the movie, she'd just seen clips, and she said, "Could you talk about the sort of ambivalent sexuality of the character?" And I said, "Her sexuality's not ambivalent. She's gay." There's a point at which it's revealed that she had a relationship with a male and she was a similar age to Julia Garner's character, but [I was] very conscious to have Julia's character ask, "Did you not always like women?" and her say, "I always liked women. I didn't always like myself." If Lily had said to me, "I don't think that's right," or "I don't want this character to have had that experience," I would have cut it.
What we learn, the twist in that scene with Sam Elliott, is so powerful.
I think everything is personal. Depending on your perspective on the issue of abortion, I think it's quite clear that when abortion was illegal, it wasn't that women weren't having abortions, it was that they were unsafe medical procedures. That Lily's character is of an age where she can remember that is somewhat the point.
I was interested to see Eileen Myles' poetry have a cameo in the film.
I wrote the script and the character was a poet, probably because I'd spent some time with Nick Flynn, who's a poet, and I called Nick up and I said, "I've written a script about a woman who's a 70-something-year-old poet, who should I read to know who she would like?" He gave me a number of women poets and I read Eileen's stuff and it really struck me. I got in touch with Eileen through Nick, and she said, "I really like Lily, but is this about some old grandma? I'm not sure I want to be associated with that." [Laughs] I kind of assured her that the character was a transgressive character. She said she liked that she felt like the character was a cowboy sort of walking off into the sunset in the end.

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You occasionally act in films yourself. Do you enjoy acting?
I always say yes if somebody asks me to do it. I have one buddy who's a fan of Chuck & Buck, and so he asks me to do stuff.
A lot of people don't know about that movie. It's so unsettling.
It was a total hoot. Miguel [Arteta, its director] also went to Wesleyan, and Jeanine was also his mentor. It was nice because [it was] about the time American Pie was coming out [and Chuck & Buck] was so not a commercial movie.
The casting of you and your brother is inspired, with you as a sort of twisted romantic stand-in. When you were children, did you anticipate you would work together so well?
I would have anticipated it, actually. I'm four years older, but our parents were very strict -- very kind but very, very strict -- and so we always had a little secret life going on and were always very close. I always loved him; he was always my best friend. He was actually going to join the State Department. He'd taken the test to join the State Department, but there was a one-year wait for a posting. And in that year we wrote a screenplay together and got paid, and he was like, "The heck with the State Department; this looks like more fun."
Was that movie made?
No. It was called Legit and it was about a bunch of porno actors and a porno director trying to make an art film. [Laughs] I'm really happy that there was a point when we'd done three films together and I wanted to do another film which was going to be the same scope as About a Boy and he wanted to do an epic, and he ended up doing The Golden Compass. We were able to be supportive of the other person doing their own thing. That often is not possible, people who work together who then are able to both go function on their own.
You each have such range. I met the director Arthur Penn some years ago, and I thought part of the reason he's not considered this genius is that everything he does is completely different.
I think about that sometimes, looking back at filmmakers of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, and John Huston in particular, who was not considered the level of auteur of some other filmmakers. There's a couple of films I made that nobody saw which are among the ones I'm most proud of -- American Dreamz, and this film I did with De Niro based on Nick Flynn's memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. There's ones that are the best version of what I could have hoped, which is personally for me what Grandma is, and there's some where I worry that I didn't do justice to the material, and there's some where I was just a fool to think it was anything but something to make money so I could do other stuff. But it's okay. I think one has to learn sometimes by failing.
If you had your choice, would you only work in theater?
Oh, no, I love film now. It's so exciting, and the multidisciplinary aspect of it is so fun. And just the moment you think you know what you're doing, you screw up [laughs] and then get humbled and hopefully learn something. Also, I love being on the set and dealing with the crew.
I grew up addicted to movies, but theater made me anxious; I was too aware of the artifice. I would worry for the actors. The audience is this live thing. Actors are so brave -- they confront it every night.
They're collaborating with the audience, and the audience has to collude with them. It is anxiety-provoking.
Do you have anxieties about Grandma?
I have anxiety about crazy people. All you have to do is look at the movie After Tiller [about doctors murdered for performing abortions]... But I'm trying to keep in touch with the original impetus for the film, which was just to do it, just some perception about Lily. I did the film for what for me was so little dough so that there would be no compromise -- which didn't mean I didn't want to make something entertaining; it was a comedy. I want people to see Lily's performance and Sam's performance and for them to get noticed for it. But I don't want to devalue the whole thing by getting too stressed about what's going to happen. Which is easier said than done.
It must be a challenge whenever a movie comes out; it's your baby.
This is a film that at some point I'm going to be really happy for my daughter to see. Actually, we've talked about every kind of issue in the film.
Do you have hopes she'll be a filmmaker herself?
If it makes her happy. Clearly there are some artificial roadblocks to gender equality in terms of directing. Less so in terms of showrunning in TV, currently.
It's infuriating. Do you have something next you want to do?
I've been adapting [Ann Patchett's] novel Bel Canto for a while; I'm doing script after script. It's a really hard one to feel totally comfortable about. The book is a weird sort of -- it's a number of things. In terms of adaptation, there's one foot in Buñuel, because it's about people stuck together. It's also alluding to a real situation that happened in Peru, this long-term hostage crisis. So it's the culmination of sort of slightly surreal elements and a romance with tragedy and opera and also realism. I want to be accurate about where my skills are and what I'm not particularly good at.
I love rewriting, more than writing. Is it normal for you to do as many scripts as you've been doing for that?
It's pretty normal. Do you ever look at something and go, "Oh my original version was better?"
The pure kernel of whatever the first thing is has this power. Then you try to improve it, and I always worry, where does the line happen where you've transcended improvement and eviscerated your original inspiration? Is there anything you wish you could make a movie of that's just completely out of the realm of possibility?
That would sort of imply it was some gigantic epic, and I'm not really interested. There's some stuff I'd like to write about a certain aspect of self-destructiveness -- not my self-destructiveness but of the kids I grew up around.
I don't think of you as doing autobiographical work.
Part of the reason I was interested in mentorship was how it changes the person who is teaching lessons, and that feeling of how hard it is to overcome selfishness and self-destructiveness. And how taking the focus off oneself allows one to grow. That aspect of things is definitely autobiographical.
Will it be painful to write about the boys you grew up with?
I don't think so. Well, it ought to be painful. My closest friend growing up very happily has a really good life now but was a heroin addict -- we were sort of doing similar things together and then he went full bore into heroin. I remember him talking to me at the time and he said whatever [I was] doing was sort of an affectation but what he was doing -- there was this void that was unfillable that he was trying to fill. That's interesting to me. And also people who love somebody like that. There's been a lot of stuff done about it, actually.
I'd like to see your take; it would come at it from a position of humanity and not adoration of the void. Is it odd to have total strangers asking you all sorts of personal questions?
I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. I don't take it as anything... I'm trying to get better, honestly, in terms of filmmaking. It's nice when I can sort of see in a film what I've learned, and that's the case here. One aspect of doing film, as opposed to being a novelist, is that the novel will live in the perception of the reader, but as a filmmaker, it is changing as you're filming it -- unless you're Hitchcock and you're working with actors who are almost like marionettes. The actors are going to bring something new to it if the thing's any good. So you have to have a degree of humility, because it's a collaborative art form. Actually, the scariest thing in directing is editing, because you're determining that person's performance after the fact.
The work you do must be so gratifying -- draining, on some level, but also so enjoyable.
It is. It's preposterous that I get to do it.

(Grandma's Julia Garner and Lily Tomlin; on set with Garner, Paul Weitz, Tomlin and Marcia Gay Harden. Photos by Glen Wilson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.)

A shorter version of this interview appeared in Dame Magazine.