'Pie' Director In Good Company
Paul Weitz may have changed Hollywood's film culture with his American Pie, co-directed by brother Chris, but his later films show no similarity with that raunchy teen classic. He followed it with the acclaimed About a Boy, and now, minus his brother, Weitz's latest film, which he also wrote, is In Good Company, originally called Synergy. A deft look at corporate America, this is a personal film for the writer/director. Central character Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) is headed for a shake-up. He is demoted from head of ad sales for a major magazine when the company he works for is acquired in a corporate takeover. His new boss, Carter Duryea (Topher Grace) is half his age--a business school prodigy who preaches corporate Synergy. While Dan develops clients through handshake deals and relationships, Carter cross-promotes the magazine with the cell phone division and "Krispity Krunch," an indeterminate snack food under the same corporate umbrella. Both men are going through turmoil at home. Dan has two daughters--Alex, age 18, and Jana, age 16--and is shocked when his wife tells him she's pregnant with a new child. Between college tuition, the mortgage and a new baby, Dan can't afford to lose his job in the wave of corporate layoffs. Carter, in the meanwhile, is dumped by his wife of seven months just as he gets his promotion. Dan and Carter's uneasy friendship is thrown into jeopardy when Carter falls for, and begins an affair with, Dan's daughter Alex (Scarlett Johansson).
It's not necessarily the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, but that doesn't seem to bother the director, as he explained exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer : Where did this come from and how personal a piece is this?
Paul Weitz: It is extremely personal but the connections are probably are quite somewhat tenuous. It came from hearing stories of various people who were either fired or whose parents have been fired, who have to readjust their lives at a point when they probably thought they were probably going to be at the top of their game and getting more and more responsibility. So the core relationship of the 50-year-old guy afraid of losing his job with the new 25-year-old boss was the starting point. And then sort of having the boss fall in love with the guy's 18 year old daughter was what made me feel like maybe I can actually stretch it out into a full length film. That a) Felt like a metaphor for all the humiliation that Dennis Quaid's character goes through and b) meant that there could be something underneath it which would make you wonder when it was going to be found out and when the older guy might snap and punch the younger guy out.
P.F: I mean these aren't the kinds of movies that a studio will necessarily invest in, very character acting pieces. Was it difficult for you to create characters that are believable and don't really care what the money-makers think?
P.W: Well I do care what the money-makers think for two reasons because I need to get the money from them to make the film and because I want to continue to make films. I mean honestly this probably is the kind of thing that the Indy division studio kind of does. But I think that is kind of sad because it means that it doesn't get seen by as many people and if I didn't care about people seeing my work I would be a playwright. I like the idea that film is a broad, popular medium and if you discuss something with any sort of facile implications in a film you are just, it is being seen by a large number of people. What I have found in the case of this one is I brought it in and they the studio sort of said do you really want to do this and they weren't quite sure whether it was a good idea or not but then they perhaps reluctantly just came up with a number at which it made sense to them. Luckily, About A Boy was somewhat successful and American Pie had been successful so they could justify themselves taking a risk on me with this. But it was not initially something I think that they identified with, of course during the course of the filming they went through yet another change of ownership at Universal and I think they began to identify with it more and more.
P.F: Talk about the title change from Synergy to In Good Company.
P.W: It does. I got cold feet about the title Synergy for a couple of reasons. One was I would ask around and people were convinced that it was a Science Fiction term. The second was that I stripped out numerous references to it that were in the script that did not make it into the film so the only references to it in the film are from either Malcom McDowell's character or Topher's character and it is used in it's most negative form, as sort of catchword, this amorphus not sensible catch word. Where as in the original script I had Quaid's character look it up in the dictionary and found that is just means sort of working together to each person's benefit. I took that out of the movie so all that was left was the negative implication but I ended up feeling like it was a good title for a pure satire like Network, which was not necessarily appropriate for this film and I probably also felt like I didn't want to cut my own throat with the title in terms of people thinking it was a different kind of movie to what it was.
P.F: The one thing about your work American Pie perhaps notwithstanding, was the comedic tragic aspect of your writing. Certainly About A Boy was a brilliant example of that, because you are interested in exploring the reality, the realism of humanity as opposed to a hyper reality quite often?
P.W: Well, there is definitely a point in this film were I felt like I had to decide whether I was going to base this film on other films or base this film on some perception I had on what reality was. That means that Dennis Quaid's character for instance does not have some big plot were he tries to sabotage Topher. It was tempting to do something like that and it might have given his character more of a traditional arc, but I thought it was interesting to just see this guy almost have a war of attrition were in the question if his he going to retain his dignity and eventually whether he is going to be able to cope with becoming a father again at the age of 51. And that is the one sort of place where he does have an arc because in the beginning of the movie he is terrified by that and by the end of the movie he accepts it and is happy enough to have a daughter as opposed to the son he never had. I think also my big hero has always been Chekhov who definitely plied that terrain, who wrote things that he considered comedies in the front of his plays. So the idea that there is not much separation between comedy and tragedy is an appealing one to me.
P.F: What was your brother's involvement in this project?
P.W: His involvement was to be a creative producer in that he gave me voluminous notes and helpful ideas and was a good critic for me of the script and then of the first cut of the film. The decision to not work with him on was made simple by the fact that he did not want to do it.
P F: Why?
P.W: I think it was after About A Boy he wanted to something on a very different scale and I was interested in doing something on the exact same scale but have it be something that was about American culture I mean the attempt with About A Boy was to have it be a British film, so there was a certain amount of anxiety on my part about a) whether I would be able to do the job well and b) whether it would upset Chris and somehow threaten our friendship. But I sort of realised that if I didn't do it because Chris didn't want to do that would threaten the friendship more then if I did do it and it turned out to be the case, that in order for us to continue to be partners we had to sort of step out on our own and do separate things but still be supportive of each other.
P.F: Will you two collaborate again?
P.W: Yeah, I am looking forward to it. Yeah...
P.F: I wonder how different the relationship will be after...
P.W: It probably would be. I mean in my head it is always the ending of Spinal Tap where the two of them get back together in Japan and that you know they love it in Japan. I imagine it will be different but the side benefit of separating work wise a bit, it is really hard to be really good pals with them if you argue them with about a work thing for 8 hours it tends to take the joy out of hanging out.
P.F: Do you think looking back on American Pie, that film was a way for you to make a foray into film making?
P.W: Well certainly we had not gone to film school and we were coming at it from a writing perspective, so yeah, we were learning about film making. I think that there was some emotional realism at the core of that movie, in that there was an attempt to have that be the core. It was still about people's anxiety about what happens if I go to the next stage in my life and I no longer have the comforts of my 3 best friends, and that they translated into desperately trying to get laid. Also I think that there was an attempt to be a little subversive with the genre in that we tried to give the girls in the movie as much power as possible and let them be the ones determining whether they had sex or not, and to talk about sexual life from the female point of view and. Scarlett's character in this movie is very much in control of the relationship she has with Topher, so I think there are some links between the different styles of movie and we certainly were trying with American Pie to have all those ridiculous situations be realistic situations and not to heighten reality too much.
P.F: Did you anticipate that that movie would spawn various sequels and kind of a new way of 'shock film' that were made from that movie? There were so many attempted copycats...
P.W: Ummm, no I don't think we anticipated that there was going to be that successful. No we didn't. We were sort of operating beneath the radar and Universal was going through a terrible couple of years, where they were all losing their jobs and making bombs, so we were sort of ignored for the most part.
P.F: When did that perception change?
P.W: The perception changed with the first preview, it looked like a gang truce (laugh) at the preview theatre, and I began that preview hating mall rats and ended up feeling like they were my people. They knew that they had something there that was going to be financially successful after, sort of, showing it for the first time, and not until then. They used to call it, apparently at the studio when they went through the daily's they called it Quaalude High (laugh) they felt that everybody was acting unnaturally and faking it and.....
P.F: How do you feel about the profit of the film, generating all these sequels and ...?
P.W: I don't really care about it. I think that it is a good way; its a money making machine for the studio. The only benefit for me is that I can point to that and did the casting in 'About a Boy' and say to a studio you should trust me on casting because I can take an unknown and have it be right for this movie. And while Topher wasn't an unknown he was relatively unknown to the studio, because they don't really watch TV and I don't really watch... I didn't really watch that show either, so it helps bolster my argument that all those people unknown and the film was successful.
P F: Was About a Boy ever... was the British press ever hard on you about these 'American Pie people' coming in to quintessentially very British story?
P.W: The British press is at base perverse in a good way and a bad way. So no, I think that they liked the idea of outsiders coming in to do this film. I think it appealed to their sense of the absurd that the guy that did American Pie was going to come direct Hugh Grant in this excellent adaptation of an excellent British novel. I mean the, we probably took less flack than those people who felt like maybe Hugh was not appropriate...
P.F: Being an outsider, do you think that being an outsider has helped the film like that, and do you still consider yourself to be in some ways on the periphery of American cinema
P.W: Yeah, we're absolutely on the periphery if there is a thing as American cinema. I think that to some degree it was helpful with About a Boy we cheated a bit because Chris had spent 8 years in England and he understood things about it that I didn't. But I think the moment you become an insider in film, you just make films that are about other films, and there is always a danger if you are working in Hollywood that you become completed cut off from the rest of the world.
P.F: Is there a sort of a danger that you repeat yourself?
P.W: There are sort of 2 dangers which are flip sides of the same coin, there is a danger of repeating ones self and there is a danger of showing off by trying to do something to be different and neither of them necessarily leads to good film making. I think that, sort of, the piece genuinely has life then you put yourself in the service of it. And I think there is just as much of a danger of like, trying to do something crazy and different, and interestingly there are certain directors who have achieved legendary status by doing that, like Howard Hawks, and then there are other directors, most directors who do very different kinds of things who are looked at as sell outs or they not look good as having a voice...
P.F: How do you define your voice?
P.W: I'm hoping it is developing. I think that I'm hoping that I'm able to be accurate about people's feelings, while at the same time having a believable element of optimism in the films.
P.F: Do you, writing something; are you writing something at the moment?
P.W: Yeah, I'm writing a couple of things, one of which is, sort of, a very active satire of American Culture and the other of which is a film exploring the duality of faith and disbelief in American culture now, that one can sort of, perceive as being such a big part of the last election. It seems like there is this feeling whether it is true or not, that there is part of the country that believes but doesn't understand what the other part of the country does, and there's another part of the country that doesn't believe in, doesn't understand why on earth they feel the country is progressing.
P.F: You start that after the last election?..
P.W: The night of the election, I locked cut on this and saw the election result and came up with this idea, so I'm hoping that it is a good idea that will have legs. But that might be the next sort of windmill, until something happens in terms of getting a studio to fund it, a film they don't wan to fund.
P.F: Yeah, the big studios are frightened of films with political resonance---
P.W: Yeah absolutely. I mean, I'm surprised they let me get away with this one, given what they've gone through
P.F: Well I guess if it is successful...
P.F: Now, if you look at your place in film now, verses where you were at the release of American Pie, how do you chart that progression?
P.W: Well I think that I have the opportunity, and that there's... I have enough rope to hang myself now. I can get a movie funded at a certain budget I hope. So it is up to me now. I mean I think one has to do two things one has to make a living and then decide whether one wants to decide whether to be creative as well. So the first part of my career was just trying to make a living and the second part now, I'm hoping that I don't get afraid; I'm hoping I can do interesting things. It is an enjoyable thing to actually be able to make films a opposed to be doing the 10th rewrite on a particular comedy that if it gets make, is going to stink anyway!
P.F: And what about Chris, what is he up to?
P.W: He is getting started on the epic task of directing Golden Compass. He has written, he's been working on the Phillip Coleman novels, which is a series of novels that he loves and that had a huge meaning for him in his life, so...
P.F: Now, will you adopt the same role for him as he did for you?
P.W: Yeah, I'll be sort of there for moral support and to be a sounding board for him.
In Good Company opens on December 29.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.