May 19, 2019

Paul Weitz on dads, De Niro and “Being Flynn”

Father figures emerge prominently in the films of Paul Weitz—as do complex relationships between fathers and sons.  The last time I spoke with the convivial filmmaker was regarding “About a Boy”, the 2003 film Weitz made with his brother, Chris Weitz (“A Better Life”), about a selfish bachelor (Hugh Grant) who becomes surrogate father to a misfit kid.  At the time, the brothers told me their interest in fathers and sons partly stemmed from memories of their own late father, John Weitz, a Jew who had fled the Nazis, spied for the OSS, helped liberate Dachau and later became a dashing, legendary New York fashion designer who also raced cars professionally.

Paul Weitz went on to direct films such as “In Good Company” and “Little Fockers,” the comedy starring Robert De Niro as the formidable father-in-law to nebbish Ben Stiller. Now comes “Being Flynn,” inspired by Nick Flynn’s memoir about reuniting with his absent father when he becomes a guest at the homeless shelter where Nick works. 

De Niro portrays Jonathan Flynn—menacing, grandiose, possibly bipolar and utterly unrepentant – who believes himself to be one of the greatest writers who has ever lived, even though he has published nothing. Paul Dano (“There Will be Blood”) plays Nick, who himself is battling addictions while struggling to become a writer and to find his way in the world. 

Weitz labored for seven years to bring Nick’s book, “Another Bulls—t Night in Suck City,” to the screen; he spent time visiting homeless shelters as research and even shot one sequence guerrilla style, without permits, in Manhattan’s financial district to capture the homeless Jonathan weathering a blizzard. 

“A son meeting his father for the first time, in these extremely loaded circumstances, felt like some sort of fable to me, about whether we’re fated to become our parents or whether we can create ourselves,” Paul said of why he was drawn to the story.

Here are further excerpts from our interview:

NPM:  In the film, Jonathan Flynn can be hostile and even dangerous.  What was your first meeting like with him?

PW:  Nick took me to meet with him at the assisted care facility where he now lives.  While De Niro in the film has essentially a baseball bat with nails driven into it that he would use to intimidate people, at that point the real Jonathan had lost his club.  But I remember sitting on his bed with him, chatting, and just to illustrate how nobody would mess with him, he reached under the mattress and pulled out a really large butcher knife and then kind of waved it in my face. I probably flinched, but I also just tried to not have any particular reaction because I didn’t want to elicit anything from Jonathan. I was not going to make any sudden moves.  And Nick was kind of chuckling because I was getting the real Jonathan Flynn.  Then eventually we chatted for a couple of moments and he put the knife away and the conversation continued.

NPM:  Does Jonathan Flynn have bipolar disorder?

PW: I imagine that one might diagnose him as bipolar; however, there’s also been a fair amount of organic damage to his brain through the drinking— he used to be drunk all the time—so I think it’s hard to extricate what might be a chemical imbalance from what may have been alcohol-related.  And he was homeless off and on, in real life, over the course of two or three years. 

NPM:  De Niro’s character drives a cab before he becomes homeless; did you intend that as a deliberate reference to the actor’s iconic role in “Taxi Driver?”

PW: The taxi driver aspect was a coincidence, because that in real life was Jonathan’s job, which I was quite anxious about, frankly. I knew that starting the movie with Robert De Niro walking through taxi depot and driving out in a yellow cab would elicit a whole bunch of movie references – sort of like treading on hallowed cinematic ground.  But I do feel that part the reason why I was so excited for De Niro to play Jonathan is that it’s a movie about a son who makes a mythic figure of his father.  So the degree of iconography that De Niro brings to the role, through all these great performances we think of him doing, would actually be beneficial on a subconscious level to the audience.

NPM:  Your father was also a larger-than-life kind of figure, albeit in a very different way.

PW: My dad was a German Jew who was a refugee in Shanghai as Hitler was coming to power, and his own dad had lost his fortune and essentially his stature as a traditionally looming male figure due to Hitler.  I feel like my dad carried this sense that everything could fall apart at any moment of his life; while he was a very wonderful and loving dad he also doubted his own ability to be a good father, in that he’d had big demons and a tremendous amount of anger that he was carrying with him—not only from the events of the war but from seeing his own father go from a decorated World War I German officer to somebody who was brought low.  According to my dad, his father was less psychologically suited for the scrabbling life of the refugee than his mother was.

Given that he had such an intimate acquaintance with the loss of status, I think he was always seeking a sort of safety through status, and that is a way I sort of equate him with Jonathan Flynn.  It’s not good enough for De Niro’s character to be a good writer or to be a writer who gets published; he has to be a great writer.  There’s always some burning fire of unattainability that drives him both to write every day – sometimes on the backs of napkins and envelopes – and to obliterate himself to some degree.  The gap between one’s perceived greatness and one’s actual circumstances is a chasm that needs to be filled with something, and it’s most often filled with the drug of choice of one’s generation.

NPM:  Did your father drink?

PW:  He really was of a different generation where drinking was part of manliness and there was very little stigma attached to it unless you were a sloppy drunk, which he wasn’t.  His idea of manhood was not to show weakness, but as a father he was extremely expressive, and while he was a successful fashion designer he always wrote, and he kind of told me that he felt in certain ways fashion was a frivolous way to make a living and he would much have preferred his primary career to be that of a writer.  And he did write some [published] books and novels toward the end of his life.

NPM:  Nick in the film grapples with whether he is destined to become his father or whether he can create his own way in the world.  What was your experience?

PW: You have to understand, I grew up around the fashion world, meaning the normal attempt at self-definition through dressing was an incredibly loaded issue.  For me this idea that what you’re presenting to the world defines you in a real way was something that I always rebelled against.  I’ve always been deadly afraid of pretentiousness – I’m not saying I’ve escaped it in myself – but it’s been a decision maker in a lot of circumstances for me.  Another thing that I identify with in this movie is I spent a lot of my youth seeking out marginal people, I think initially probably as a rebellion but eventually it became a very important choice I’ve made in my life which is to open myself up to different kinds of people.  My wife is a wonderful writer and also she’s the tenth of 10 kids from a working-class Catholic family in rural Connecticut, and she grew up working in factories in the summer and was far removed from the sort of Park Avenue, New York that I grew up with.

NPM:  Do you think you might ever make a film about your father?

PW: Possibly, but I think I would have to do a little bit of a ‘meta’ version of it because his personal history is so mythic.  Also, it would be hard to pin down because it’s very difficult to find World War II records and there’s a degree to which my dad talked about stuff and there’s a degree to which he didn’t.  It would be an interesting thing to attempt, but I’d be very, very afraid of cheapening it.

“Being Flynn” is now in theaters.