Director Paul Weitz on Tina Fey, the Mysteries of De Niro and the Next 'American Pie' Movie

Paul Weitz
Paul Weitz
 Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

Writer-director Paul Weitz has become synonymous with the coming-of-age film. He started off with a bang, so to speak, with his 1999 directorial debut, American Pie, and has gone on to become one of the most prolific directors and producers in Hollywood. In 2002, he directed About a Boy -- a film whose star, Nicholas Hoult, has been ubiquitous in the early months of this year -- and in 2012, Weitz released the Paul Dano-Robert De Niro indie, Being Flynn.

His next project, out on March 22, is a small film with big stars. In Admission, Tina Fey stars as a career-driven Princeton admissions officer who gets bamboozled into visiting the new-age farm school run by an off-beat world traveler played by Paul Rudd. He's working to get a brilliant-yet-unfocused autodidact student (Nat Wolff) into Princeton -- and maybe woo the meltdown-prone Ivy official on the side.

Earlier this month, Weitz spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the film and his long career, including new American Pie movies, working with the enigmatic De Niro and figuring out fatherhood as he goes along.

The Hollywood Reporter: A lot of your work deals with growing up and finding who you are in adolescence. What appeals to you about those stories?

Weitz: I think that, my dad was from the World War II generation, and it was almost like a biblical view of the world, in terms of his authority. He was Old Testament -- there was a degree of certainty projected. And I think that comparatively, I feel very uncertain as a parent of little kids now. I think I’m interested in roles that you take on that seem to require you to behave a certain way, i.e. I know what’s best for my six year old. But, as a matter of fact, I might not know what’s best for that kid, and I’ve had to entertain that at various times.

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I really like the idea that you pretend to be that something and you try to be a good version of that thing. You might reject that thing; going back to American Pie, they think it’s all about getting laid, but actually it’s about how are you going to negotiate moving on in life and not being in high school?

THR: Is there going to be another American Pie?

Weitz: I’m happy that keeps on going. I imagine [there will be]. I think this one kind of benefited from it being seven years since the last one, so there’s a curiosity factor.

THR: So what will the next one be?

Weitz: I don’t know. Maybe they’re in a retirement home [laughs].

THR: The studio wants you to do them, is that what happens?

Weitz: It kind of happens where they tell me about it, and I go "Neat." And if they want my two cents, I give it.

THR: So you weren’t deeply involved in the latest one?

Weitz: No, although I read the script and I told those guys, who I thought did a good job, I gave them some ideas. Most of them weren’t used, a couple were useful.

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THR: One of the lines that stuck out for me in Admission is, after a bad night, Tina sees the kids touring Princeton and says "Be yourself, because that’s who you’re stuck with." That turned a key for me, about accepting who you are.

Weitz: I think so, and also accepting that you might not know who you are. That version that you set up for yourself might not work. I definitely think that’s what she’s going through. She’s had this idea of what she’s going to be, which is kind of a rejection of her mother, Lily Tomlin’s character, but it just doesn’t work, and she’s kind of cracking apart during the course of it. But that thing she says, "Just be yourself, because that’s who you’re stuck with," I feel that all the time. Everybody has -- well maybe not everybody, maybe I’m worse than some people -- but I have an internal monologue of what an idiot they are ...

THR: I certainly have that all the time.

Weitz: So it’s like, all right, that’s who you are? [Laughing]. Like, "It’s okay. You’re going to make things difficult for yourself."

THR: You have young kids, and while the film is about getting into college, these admissions battles happen for high schools, middle schools, even pre-schools.

Weitz: I’m drawn to schools where, if you show up, you’re in. My kids go to the Le Lycee Francais, which, there’s not that many people in L.A. who want a French education. And I don’t even know if I want a French education, but it was kind of an outside the box choice. But I think the whole thing of, putting your identity into whether your kids get into a certain place is dreadful. I grew up in fairly elitist circumstances here in New York, but if I look at my classmates who graduated, some of them did fine, and a lot of them ended up in dire straights. So I think objectively -- except if you want to be president, then clearly you have to go to Harvard or Yale -- but in the industry I’m in, I think it’s important not to get stuck on a particular avenue for your kids.

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THR: Do you get a lot of job applicants, for PA positions or interns, that go to elite schools and think they’re owed the world?

Weitz: I don’t know if they think they’re owed the world; you get out to Hollywood for a couple weeks and you realize that nobody thinks they owe you anything. It’s funny because you get people of widely divergent backgrounds educationally in Hollywood, much more so than I think the magazine industry. My wife went to community college for a couple of years, and then she went to UConn, and then she worked at The New Yorker and The Nation, and pretty much all of her colleagues were Ivy League. Nobody else could afford it. So there are far more elitist places. I think I wonder whether Hollywood can be anti-elitist in some way.

THR: Because they don’t care where you come from if the work is good?

Weitz: Yeah, but it’s really hard to tell whether the work is good or not. I think people are too workaholic out there.

THR: Why do you think that?

Weitz: I think because it just makes it no fun. I think the cruel fact is that you can overwork something. As a filmmaker, you can way overwork something. The version of your film that was three months before you did those last 15 edits might have been better. So it’s really hard to let go.

THR: In Tina Fey you have someone who isn’t just an actress, but a writer. She wrote her own lines for years. Was there a lot of collaboration once she signed on?

Weitz: Definitely, on the level that both she and Paul are able to look at the big picture of their character and the movie. So that was great. I’ve learned to be collaborative from good situations and one or two less-good situations. I want to add that to my arsenal, I want the actor to know more about their character than I do, so I can be excited as I’m watching them shooting it. So it was great. There were definitely a couple times when I was ready to move on from something, and she said "Oh do you want to try this or that?" And she was 100 percent right. And in terms of her character, not just comedically, but some of the dramatic things she did, she had very good instincts about things.

THR: I saw Being Flynn last year, and Robert De Niro’s character, the crazed father, I hadn’t really seen him do anything like that in a long time. Did he make a lot of those decisions.

Weitz: No question. Also, Nick Flynn, who wrote the memoir [on which the film was based], was on set every day. There was some stuff on set that Bob was doing privately -- he would go off into a corner before a take, and I didn’t ask him what he was doing -- he was clearly wanting to be in the moment. That was very, very collaborative. That was a great joy. I wish more people had seen the movie, but I was extremely happy with how it ended up and Bob’s performance.

THR: I see him at a lot of events in NYC, but he doesn’t do much speaking, so he gives off the impression of a man of mystery.

Weitz: I think people think that good actors are extroverts, but really, if you look at what they’re doing, they’re empathizing with an imaginary character and speaking through an imaginary person, essentially. And also I think that a lot of artists feel that if they talk about their work, the magic will disappear. And I think he’s one of those artists. On my part, I deal with a lot of stars in my job, and you can kind of see the ones that have managed to retain a really good aspect of their personality. I really like him and really care for him.

THR: You directed Nicholas Hoult in About a Boy, and now he’s in two big movies this winter [Warm Bodies and Jack the Giant Slayer]. It must be interesting to watch him grow like that.

Weitz: I'm still friends with Nick, and what a relief, because he asked me recently, "Did you think about how you would change my life by casting me in About a Boy?” And I said "Yeah, I was worried about whether it would screw you up." But he’s a really great guy, really smart, really funny, and I thought he was excellent in Warm Bodies, even though it was a really hard role to pull off. It’s nice to have a long-term friendship with somebody, from when they were 11 to, I guess, 23 or 24 now.

THR: Nat Wolff had that young stardom, too, and it’s perilous sometimes.

Weitz: It’s a cruel thing, because for some people, if they get attention when they’re young, it kind of messes with their heads. You have to be really smart and cynical and have a sense of irony to make it through that.

THR: He had his career as a kid, and then didn’t do big projects for a while.

Weitz: I think he’s really good. I think he’s really talented. I always sort of look like, okay, you look at Dustin Hoffman and De Niro and various people in the 70’s, where it was character leading men, and who are going to be the next people? And you hope there will be that next batch. Films are changing and you’re hoping that they get that role, like Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, because you want those films to exist.

THR: Is it hard to make films like Being Flynn or this movie in a business that has moved toward big budget tentpole movies?

Weitz: Yeah, it is. I’m willing to do things at any budget, basically, as long as I can figure out a way that it’s appropriate for the film. For me, whatever bar they set, I’ll limbo under it. Then it’s just important that the actor be willing to do it too. So it’s hard, but certainly not impossible. I’m always worried about -- because I really love making films and there’s so much to learn from the process -- whether I’ll get to keep doing it. But then again, at worst, I’d make a film with my iPhone probably, get people that I’ve met to be in it.

THR: So what are you doing next?

Weitz: I’m working on some original ideas, and also on adapting a book called Bel Canto, which is a very wonderful book and should be very hard to adapt.

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin

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