Director Paul Weitz has already established himself as a great filmmaker with numerous writing, directing and producing credits including American Pie, About A Boy and more. His latest Grandma teams him up with iconic actress Lily Tomlin and a great supporting cast. I had the chance to sit down with this prolific filmmaker to talk about this amazing film and how it came to be.
Bobby: Where did the idea of Grandma come from?
Paul: It was an idea I had for years with this older person helping this younger person helping out in this situation. It didn’t really click until I had spent some time with Lily Tomlin and I had gotten to direct Lily in a film called Admission with Tina Fey where she played Tina’s mom and from working with her on that and hanging out with her a bit and seeing how funny she was and how much energy she had, I finally sat down to write this with her voice in my head. It just took off, but I was really interested in this idea that somebody that is in their 70s can be more transgressive and have a more passionate voice than this person who is 18. I really like doing stories about that person and I’ve done that a lot with male characters like in About a Boy or In Good Company, but I think I was really excited to do something about a female character like this.
Bobby: When you have someone already in mind for the character does it make the writing process easier or is it even harder because you are trying to make sure it fits them to tell your story?
Paul: It’s a lot easier, but in this case I didn’t even tell Lily I was writing it because I didn’t know if she would want to do it and I was afraid that if I told her I am writing something for you she would respond with “Thanks, but no thanks.” It’s a lot of pressure I think that if it is someone you know that has done something specifically for you. It depends though. One of the first things I wrote with my brother was this movie Antz which was written for Woody Allen and his specific voice and we based it on his early movies like Bananas. That was another case of specifically writing for somebody and I have always kind of done that, but when you get your heart set on somebody and then they don’t want to do it I would have been in trouble in this case because there is no one else that could have brought what Lily brought to this.
Bobby: When working with someone like her and finally getting to production does she stick to the page or does she go off page to bring something else to the character?
Paul: I would have been happy for her to go off the page, but she didn’t. Partly because the months leading up to shooting we sat together and went over the script kind line by line to make sure everything made sense. It’s funny because people think of improvisation is something that is happening in the moment of dialogue, but our improvisation was done before we started shooting. Whether it be Lily telling me an antic dote about something, for instance there was a time where she and Jane Wagner were in Las Vegas and they saw a little girl walking around without her parents at night. Jane walked over to the little girl and asked if she was ok and where her parents were and the little girl punched her in the eye and I ended up using that for something or her performing different aspects of the character. In this case no, it was all tailored for her and we had basically done all the work ahead of time. I think that also takes the pressure off the actor and allows them to improvise emotionally within the scenes.
Bobby: You have such a great supporting cast as well, especially Laverne Cox who it was great to see her here. What was the process to get the rest of the cast in place?
Paul: In the case of Laverne I just sent it to her and we got together and started talking about the character. The more specific the role is the more excited the actor gets about it, so it was her idea to have the character be more of a Rockabilly. I don’t think Laverne had done that or looked like that before. I knew I wanted her to be a tattoo artist and I don’t think she has any tattoos, so she came up with all of these tattoos that she wanted to do. I also really liked the idea that her character was an artist and maybe a student of Lily’s partner that she is morning. It was unusual with the exception of Laverne; I already had their phone numbers.
My brother had worked with Sam Elliott on Golden Compass, so he called him up for me and we sent him the script and he jumped on. Judy I had worked with before on a film and a TV show. Both Judy and Lily are from Detroit and Judy is really funny. I knew Lily would respect her sense of humor and intellect which was a really good thing in terms of them playing people that were dating. John Cho I met through American Pie initially and Matt Wolf who was in Paper Towns had played a very different character in Admission, so I thought it would be a lot of fun for him to play a complete dirt bag. Julia Garner who played Lily’s granddaughter I saw in a film called Electrik Children that I thought she did a really beautiful job in and just met with her, chatted a bit and just offered her the part. So it was just largely a case of the people I had their phone numbers expect for Laverne.
Bobby: When working on an independent film like this how much harder is it to streamline it to your budget and get it made without having to cut corners to get what you want?
Paul: I think it depends on the film. Both of the characters Lily’s and Julia’s are broke, each for their own reasons and so it was appropriate to have a smaller budget and also it is apparent to me that with comedy and acting a bigger budget can actually get in the way with people in their trailers and such. I think it would have gotten in the way with this movie if we had gotten too much money. I have done this kind of movie before, but also ones with a huge budget and it is a lot less pressure to do something like this. I can just worry about what the actors think and how it is going to be for the audience.
Bobby: I heard that a lot of the film was shot around your own home and props for the movie belonged to those involved?
Paul: Yeah that is true, we were just going to locations we had. The most important thing was Lily’s car. I was looking for a vintage car for the character one day and I was talking on the phone with Lily and she told me to come by there because she had a car in her garage that she hadn’t driven in about a year. It was this incredible old 1950s Dodge and it had so much personality to it and I knew it was going to add to the character. It was also huge, like a huge boat so we could put a camera into it. The only thing that was kind of scary in regards to the brakes because you had to brake a couple of blocks ahead of when you wanted to stop. Lily was very adept to driving it, but I had a harder time when I tried.
Bobby: Being a lower budget movie did you have to make any cuts that to make it work or were you able to get the film you wanted done?
Paul: It was exactly what I wanted actually, but I was building it to shoot his way. It seems weird, but there was never a moment when the actors were rushed I don’t think or a moment that I wished I had a crane shot here. I felt really completely free while doing it.
Bobby: The film leads up to a lot of varying emotions for these characters to deal with, but that last shot is so simplistic but powerful it perfectly caps the film. Was that moment the way you wrote it or something that you had to toy with to figure out what it was going to be?
Paul: I had that in mind very early one. It was one of the only shots I had in mind. I knew I wanted it to be a long shot of her. From one angle it was like a cowboy walking off into the sunset and from the other angle there is a bit of bitter sweetness to it, but that was something I had in mind early on. Also, while there is music in the movie that is the only place a song is used in a particular way. I wanted to withhold a lot and make it as simple as possible actually. It was planned out and when we shot it, I think it was the last thing we had done. Most of the time Lily knew what she was going to use emotionally, meaning she would take something from her past for a scene to get into the emotional state, but that was one she was having a little bit of a hard time figuring out what to use. I suggested using the experience of being in the film and how we had talked and talked about it and wasn’t sure if it was going to happen or not. It was touching to me because I could hear what she was saying through the headphones and she said some really nice stuff to me as she was walking away.
Bobby: That film has a lot of symbolism of her walking away from and letting some things she dealt with throughout the film go as, but her mannerisms during it are awesome with no dialogue. It almost reads like the whole day was hilarious or she has no idea what is going on.
Paul: I am so happy that is what you felt about it because that was all her. (laughs) In a weird way that is what I mean about emotional improvisation. It is very exciting to me when I don’t really know what the actor is going to do, but yeah that was all her.
Bobby: I love the film and got a chance to see it both in theaters and share it with my wife with the Blu-ray and I think it is one of the best films I have seen in a while. I have always thought Lily was a brilliant actress, but we hadn’t seen a lot of her in a while and want to thank you for bringing her back again where she belongs in such an amazing film.
Paul: Thanks so much that means a lot.
Check out Grandma available now on Blu-ray and DVD.