Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Paul Weitz

Serious Comedy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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With his younger brother Chris, Paul Weitz broke in by co-writing the screenplay for the animated film Antz (1998). From there, he made a hugely successful directorial debut with American Pie (1999). In addition to producing the sequels to that film, Weitz moved on to less box office but greater respect with his subsequent films, About a Boy (2002) and In Good Company (2004). His newest, American Dreamz, is a satire of the Bush Administration, "American Idol" and terrorism in general.

JMA: You once said, "People like their medicine to taste bad," commenting on why moviegoers and critics respect dramas more than comedies.

PW: Before I had the stars attached, Universal Focus read American Dreamz, and didn't want to do it. They were interested in the subject matter but they wanted to do a drama and not a comedy. It was weird, right from the get-go, that approaching central questions of American identity and terror and incompetence in the White House, these really serious themes, weren't worthy of a comedy.

JMA: But you took on some serious issues with your last comedy, In Good Company.

PW: I wanted to be less gentle with this one. I'm not by nature a particularly deft satirist, because I'm only interested in characters, where I care about them. Certain satires, all the characters are props and fools. Even in this, Dennis Quaid is doing a version of a bumbling George Bush, and there's a fantasy that he becomes enlightened.

JMA: I actually would up liking him!

PW: That really wasn't our intention initially. After our rehearsal, Willem Dafoe came up to me and said, 'Wait a minute... I'm starting to like this guy.' I think we'd all like to think that there's some heart to the guy, but I've certainly not seen that much evidence of it. The real thing is, you almost can't parody the Bush Administration any more than they've parodied themselves over the recent months. What you can do is wonder why the heck we voted for him, and what problem do we have dealing with reality. One of the things that people hated about Kerry was that he could explore both sides of an issue, which seems to be the mark of a rational person, but that is translated into being a "waffler."

JMA: You actually make a joke out of the president receiving speaking cues through an earpiece, which no one in the media to date has dared to explore.

PW: It's almost too grim. For one thing, the tradition of actual muckraking journalism seems to be on the ropes right now, with journalists in jail. The media outlets have been so whipped, it's incredible. It's this weird cycle in which people are fed so much crap, that you could have the most damning piece of information come out, and no one would give a darn. If there was a Watergate scandal nowadays, I think people would just yawn and turn the channel. That's my fear.

JMA: Are you afraid of attacks regarding the material in this film? Not a physical attack, but...

PW: I'm more afraid of a physical attack. Any other kind of attack I don't give a darn. I'm attacked any time I do a film or a play. I could imagine getting attacked by both sides. People seem to have no problem with this relatively sympathetic character [the Arab terrorist]. But it's taking this sacred cow, which is that we should all simply be afraid of terrorism, and it's like you get electrocuted if you talk about it in any way other than pure fear. I can imagine people getting upset, but I can also imagine them moving on to the next baseball steroid scandal.

JMA: You're starting to work with the same cast members again and again, which means that they must trust you!

PW: Yes. I've fooled them into thinking I'm not going to embarrass them too much onscreen. Now it's become kinda surreal, because when you put the cast from American Pie, About a Boy and In Good Company in the same movie. It was very weird to see Chris Klein acting with Hugh Grant and very weird to see Hugh Grant doing scenes with Dennis Quaid, because they're so the epitome of something opposite to each other. They played a lot of golf with each other off the set. Sometimes we had to hunt them down.

JMA: Onto "American Idol." Were you familiar with the show?

PW: I wrote this before having watched it, and then I did the second and third draft after watching a season of it. It's interesting when you realize how big a part of American culture relgion is. Everybody's thanking God first and foremost. You don't get too many singing teachers or music teachers being thanked, but God gets thanked a lot. What's despicable about it is the rampant ego trip, but what's great about it is this thing in which everybody deserves to have a dream. But underneath it, this is a country where everybody feels like they should be stars, and that they are the stars of their own movie. And that is at the core of much of the success of "American Idol."

JMA: That and the fact that real people are cheaper than actors.

PW: They've discovered that real people, even if they're stupid, are more entertaining than anything a writer can come up with. And definitely cheaper.

JMA: Still, I worry that real artists and writers are going to lose their jobs.

PW: When the studios are confused about what makes money, that's when they're willing to take a risk on a film like American Dreamz. The great films of the 70s came about largely because the studio heads didn't know what the heck people wanted to see.

JMA: Do you still work with your brother Chris?

PW: No. I did the last two by myself. He's one of the people I have look at it and give me ideas or tells me what isn't working. You have these test screenings, and I think it's dangerous testing whether a joke works or not because, there's some stuff that I find funny that I know no one else finds funny, and I don't want to not have those things in the movie. I don't mind there's a dud joke here and there, as long as -- if you're claiming it's a comedy -- there'd better be a lot of jokes in there.

JMA: Is it true your grandfather was an agent to people like Billy Wilder and John Huston?

PW: Yes. I got to meet these great directors, but I did not take the opportunity to learn anything from them because I was too young. I was taken to the circus by Ingmar Bergman when I was little kid. There are some great films that got slaughtered, which attempted to be serious subjects treated in a comedy, like To Be or Not to Be (1942). My grandfather was a crony of Lubitsch. And my mom and Lubitsch's daughter are friends. Nikki Lubitsch, and she came and saw an early screening of the film and she sent me a really, really nice e-mail in which she reminded me that To Be or Not to Be had been savaged by the press when it came out.

JMA: Did you coach Mandy Moore to be more like the "American Idol" contestants?

PW: She got it right from the start. I think sometimes you get people who are really, really nice like Seann William Scott from "American Pie" and Mandy Moore, when they get a chance to play someone really awful, they just love it because they're suppressing that part of themselves.

JMA: Willem Dafoe is an underappreciated comic actor...

PW: I loved him in Life Aquatic. It was such a weird character. He's really, really funny. I just kind of went with what he wanted to do. The first thing we did, was we made a computer model of his face and Dick Cheney's head and sent it to him, and said, 'would you be willing to do this?' He's a slim guy, but he sold the way that Cheney moves.

JMA: I like the way your films are becoming more and more adult and more aware of the world around you. Will this continue? What do you have coming next?

PW: Maybe moving to Canada, I don't know.

March 14, 2006

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