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INT: Paul Weitz

Dec. 28, 2004by:

This week, writer/director Paul Weitz delves into the world of corporate mergers, globalization and middle-aged angst with IN GOOD COMPANY, starring Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and Scarlett Johannson. The story centers on Dan Foreman (Quaid), a 51 year-old executive whos suddenly demoted after his company, a national sports magazine, is bought out by a giant conglomerate. Adding insult to injury, his precocious new boss (Grace) is barely half his age. Weitzs first solo project (Chris, Pauls brother and frequent collaborator, decided to take a break), IN GOOD COMPANY once again ventures into new comic territory.

After scoring big with AMERICAN PIE, the Weitzs could have easily made a career of crafting crude, raunchy and highly lucrative teen-sex romps. Instead, they followed that up with DOWN TO EARTH and ABOUT A BOY. While DOWN TO EARTH proved disappointing, ABOUT A BOY was an unqualified success. Their most sophisticated and best-reviewed film to date, it proved to the world that their skills werent limited to jokes featuring horny teenagers and the bodily fluids they emit.

Paul Weitz stopped by the Four Seasons a few weeks ago for a press conference to promote IN GOOD COMPANY. The film opens in New York and Los Angeles tomorrow and goes nationwide on January 14th.

< some spoilers at your own risk >

About a Boy took you in a different direction from American Pie and showcased your skills at more adult comedy. What was your motivation for taking on this project?

Well, ABOUT A BOY was a joyful experience and a very British experience. We were purposely trying to do something where it wouldnt be apparent that the directors were American. So after that Chris really wanted to take a break and I really wanted to do something that had the same scope but that was particularly American. I consciously it sounds very dry, but I consciously wanted to do something that I felt was set against a social backdrop, that was just sort of a human story with sort of comedy/drama elements to it. So it was sort of tactical on my part, and it was because of some things that I was reading and articulations of what was going on economically in the world. And for me, strangely, its not that much of a departure from AMERICAN PIE.

I tend to over-intellectualize things after the fact, so I was just silly enough tofor me, AMERICAN PIE was sort of just about growing up, and it involved all of these sort of disgusting things that happened when I was growing up and when Adam Herz, the writer, was growing up. But I dont really conceive of it as, I dont want to do that anymore. Obviously, we didnt want to do that anymore; I remember we got this wave of submissions of teen sex comedies after AMERICAN PIE. One of the producers came in and said, Ive got your next project. Its fantastic. Its called Chickmasters. (laughs) Clearly there was a chance wed get pigeonholed if we did something like that. So now, honestly Im just trying to become a better filmmaker and getting more intrigued by the visual aspects of filmmaking. I mean, thats the one thing where I do feel like Im hoping to learn something

A big theme in explored in this film is the ageism that seems so pervasive in todays corporate culture.

Ive always that the whole concept of ageism was very strange, because the very people who are being ageist are gonna at some point, if theyre lucky, get to be the people theyre discriminating against. So, out of self-preservation, I think that one should respect experience. I also think its interesting that that generation, which had every right to believe that, at this point, they are probably going to be very secure and at the top of their game, is now in large partand theres a lot of people who are anxious because of the side effects of corporate mergers and globalization.

Why did you choose Topher Grace and Dennis Quaid?

Topher I didnt really know his work. I hadnt seen That 70s Show and I was stupidly thinking that maybe it was a stereotypical sitcom. And after Id done the movie I saw it, and its actually quite good. He just came in and auditioned numerous times and a) he made me laugh the most, and b) I felt that I believe that he appeared sharky enough that someone would give him that kind of responsibility. And beyond that he has a good sense of humor and a degree of vulnerability in there, but not the kind of vulnerability that is sort of winking at the audience and saying, Hey, Im a nice guy. Dont worry.

I thought it was very important that everyone believe that he could fire Dennis Quaid, because that was such an important (part) of the movie. Scarlett Ive been a fan of hers from when she was a child actress in MANNY & LO and I liked her in GHOST WORLD and AMERICAN RHAPSODY. Lost in Translation had not come out yet but I had gotten to see the film, but the funny thing about Scarlett is that shes a very verbal person and I think a very funny person, but those two performances that she became famous from were completely non-verbal. So I thought it would be interesting to do something different with her.

Can you tell us a little about one of your future projects, ELRIC?

ELRIC is a series of fantasy novels which, if you were a specific kind of geek at the age of thirteen, which Chris and I were, it formed a large part of your personality.

Youre able to make romantic comedies that guys can enjoy. Is there something about material that you pick that steers you toward that?

Probably its that men are taught to hide their emotions, so its interesting to see where those emotions lie. And I guess its similar to ABOUT A BOY, because its to some degree an unconventional, sort of father-son relationship or a mentor relationship. And the mentor relationship is something thats not overly valued. Its not en vogue as a subject of discussion or even asone side effect of the way that most jobs work now is you dont have any sort of apprenticeship situation. As a director, its struck me that Ive had people that Ive been fans of, but not necessarily somebody who I was able to observe and see them work. I think because its sort of felt to be such a competitive field or something. But its of interest to me. And I dont know why everyone gets obsessed with that sort of thing. I think its because my dad was an unconventional guy and while he was my dad, it was sort of a strange, colorful relationship.

When you have a plot thats fairly predictable, what do you put in the film to keep things interesting?

Lots of sex. (laughs) Unfortunately, none of it ended up in the film. I think that, honestly, what I hope to have is a degree of humility before the characters, which means that I begin by pretending they exist. Part of the fun of writing is this strange interaction with imaginary characters where youre not totally controlling their destinies; theyre somewhat controlling where the plots going to go. For me, I get really bored if I know what the actors are going to do, so I like to encourage improvisation and on the set I like to not exactly know whats going to happen. I sort of cherish the idea that what one tries to get to while shooting is a moment of spontaneity and actual real-life happening in this incredibly artificial environment of cameras rolling and everybody having lines, etc.

Its something obviously that is a direct contradiction to the concept of CGI and creating everything after the fact. I think youre right, that we all know the plot of life in general theres a beginning and an end. Im being way too abstruse. (laughs) Also, it has to be funny. I mean, Im certainly trying to put things across with comedy, and one persons comedy is another persons drama. Chekhov always used to, in the front of his plays, write, A comedy in four acts, and Stanislavski would direct them as tragedies with no laughing (and) lots of hand-wringing, and Chekhov was furious. Hated him for it. So I suppose I like sort of the boundaries between things. And I think also in terms of film actors one reason I think that someone like Scarlett is particularly interesting is that she doesnt look like a model, shes not someone where you can put her in sort of a beauty box. But youre alwaystheres something striking about (her) and youre always questioning what her attraction is.

This film was originally called Synergy. What was the reason for the change in title?

The reason we changed the title is most people thought it was a science-fiction term, and those people who knew that it wasnt thought it sounded boring. I just felt like it waswhy do it to myself? I got very cold feet about my original title, Synergy. And I have this delusion that Im good at titles because I came up with the title AMERICAN PIE. And then I just started asking a lot of people andit meant something to me. Also, the other thing was that, during the course of the script, I stripped out numerous references to that word and the only references that were left were sort of buffoonish references.

What effect on the audience are you looking to create with this film?

The effect that Im striving for and Iall I hope is that an audiences reaction will in some slight way mimic mine. The effect Im striving for at the end of a film that Im doing is a slight heightened degree of vulnerability, whether thats from laughing or identifying with the characters of sort of having felt something emotional. Its the idea that theres one or two layers stripped away so that you feel something a little. I cant say when an audience feels that, but I know that for me making a film is a humanizing process. Even the actual shooting of the film is a very humanizing process. Thats one thing about transitioning from being a writer to a writer/director; when youre a writer, youre isolatedfor me, it exacerbated certain tendencies of mine to be a fantasist and a fairly isolated person, so to have to deal with a couple hundred people on the set and interact with a crew and know that Im largely responsible for what kind of workday they had is one of the joys of directing for me.

The image that I was really constantly thinking of in it was the image of Carter (Topher Graces character) sort of running in place all the time, either on the bike machine or jogging. I was thinking of that because of THE GRADUATE, where Dustin Hoffmans character is always running. Hes a runner and he runs to the wedding; hes running after the car, etc. And so I thought, why not have a guy whos gone the next step. Hes gotten into plastics and now hes running in place and not getting anywhere. And so the final image in the film for me, I did a closeup that was meant to for a moment make you possibly feel like maybe he was jogging in front of the TV again, and then he sort of runs off and hes actually physically running. So that was, I think youre right in that I was trying to use some images to talk about becoming humanized or becoming sort of a rat on a treadmill. I guess that Im certainly used to the idea of being a workaholic and being able to not deal with my personal problems through that particular addiction, so I understood Carters point of view.

Youre producing one of Chriss projects, based on the Phillip Pullman novels. How big of a challenge do you think its going to be?

Id really have to let Chris answer that, because this is something that hehe loved the novels so much when he read them and I think they sort of changed his view on belief, because there is a current, which is the novels are about freewill or determinism.

And Pullman is an atheist.

He is, although not an amoral writer. Its just something that Chris has adored for a long time, and just after this one, this is something that I wanted to do and Chris was not as interested in as I was. Also, I think he wanted to do something epic like THE GOLDEN COMPASS. So we realized that the way for us to continue to be partners was to sort of support each other and not say to the other one, Well, you cant do that because I dont want to do that. So in the case of THE GOLDEN COMPASS, Im going to help him by producing, which will pretty much mean the same thing as what he did for me here, which is to give him critique whenever he wants and to give him moral support. But the thing about THE GOLDEN COMPASS is that Chris, I know that he loves and relates to that material as much as anyone possibly could. So I know that that material is in good hands with him.

Is solo directing more or less the future for each of you?

Well probably direct together again. It may be like in SPINAL TAP, where they only want us to do in Japan at the end of their run (laughs). No, were planning to work together again, its just that were also intending to not be Siamese twins.

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