Deconstructing the career of director Paul Weitz can be difficult, as he's never moved in a singular direction, going from comedies ("American Pie," "Little Fockers") to satire ("American Dreamz") to dramedy ("In Good Company," "About A Boy") to fantasy ("Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assisant"). His latest is the drama "Being Flynn," an adaptation of the celebrated memoir "Another Bullshit Night In Suck City" by Nick Flynn, that centers on a young man (Paul Dano) who works at various homeless shelters in Boston, and spots his estranged father (Robert De Niro) seeking a bed one night, leading him to face his past.
The Playlist recently sat down with Weitz to talk about the film, and we discussed the title change that left the director with a "splinter in my soul," the parallels between Robert De Niro's character and Travis Bickle from "Taxi Driver" and more. In case you missed it, Weitz also told us about his upcoming adaptation of the book "Admission" and his hopes to eventually bring Michael Moorcock's "Elric" series of books to the big screen. You can read about it right here.
What led to the title change from the book to the film?
I was so bummed out to change the title, but the MPAA would never allow it, nor would they allow one to use asterisks. During shooting we worked with the temporary title of "Another Night," because we were filming partly in an abandoned Catholic school down in Little Italy. Weirdly, it was the school where Martin Scorsese had gone. Of course, we couldn't be handing the materials with "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City" on it. I find it really, personally, upsetting that the movie is not called the same thing as the book, and it also makes me feel bad on a superstitious level. That's the reality–you couldn't advertise for it, you couldn't put it on a marquee and it seems like they're more lenient with television than they are with film. Cause they won't allow you to put an asterik. I had been talking about this over the last year with Nick Flynn, because I knew it was coming. And he was like, "Yeah, I couldn't believe that they let me call the book that." Literally, Nick and I and Focus [Features] talked about hundreds of titles. To me there's only an intellectual saving grace to what we're having, which is what refers to Nick's name in it. In particular when we were talking about titles, Nick told me he had always had an ambivalent feeling about his own name because he inherited from a dad that he didn't grow up with. So he had this name, Flynn, which reminded him of an absent person. But yes, you bring up the one splinter in my soul I have about this.
Even the film's tie-in book has the new title, is Nick fine with that?
Look, I found it weird when I saw the book in a bookstore recently. Honestly, you have no idea how many hours I spent stressing out about this. At some point, I guess you have to conform to reality.
The film has been a pet project of yours for a number of years now. What attracted you to the material?
I read the book and it massively got under my skin. I think part of it was the central themes of the book as I saw it. The first one being whether you're fated to become your parent or whether you can create yourself. This seemed sort of like the dark fable that encapsulated that than almost any other narrative I've seen. The secondary theme that really interested me was the relationship between relationship and ego, because it's about two writers, one of whom is massively egotistical–which is De Niro's character who considers himself one of the three great authors that America has ever produced with Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger–and one being Nick who, through the course of the film, and through some degree the course of the memoir learns to become a writer and learns the humility that you have to have in order, I think, to accomplish anything.
I found that a lot of people who read the book personalize this story and relate to it in this surprising way, given to the extreme details. In my case, my dad was a fashion designer who was pretty successful but he always dreamed of being a writer. He would write until late in the evening; and he did have a couple of novels published. At the same time, the figure he sort of wanted to be was Ernest Hemingway and he was from a generation that was articulate but was used to drinking throughout the day. I really identified with this idea of somebody whose ego was helping them survive, but whose ego was also destroying them because they could never be what they most wanted to be.
The book is even a really damning portrait of being a writer, because it displays the self-destructive and egotistical side of the creative process.
Yeah, it's a really interesting thing. That's one thing that also kept me going was that there are ironies embedded in the book and the story. And a wicked sense of humor in the midst of all the seemingly tragic things that are happening. One irony is that the real Jonathan Flynn, while he considers himself a great writer, has never published anything. But he has had a well-respected book written about him and he's had a film made in which he's being played by Robert De Niro. There's a funny moment when I went up with De Niro and Nick to see Jonathan. He's living in an assisted care facility and we sat down. As opposed to being at all intimidated by Robert De Niro, he said, "So do you think you can pull this off?" Nick said, "Dad, dad. He's a well respected actor. He was in 'The Godfather,' etc." And he said, "Yeah, yeah, I hear you're good but do you think you're able to play me?" He still has this incredible, outsized sense of self. Another thing that Jonathan said while we were up there was–he looked to Nick and said, "You're going to win the Nobel Prize before I do." There's a triumph of storytelling over reality in this guy's psychology and the events of his life. Look, aside from me sticking with it for seven years and doing all these drafts, De Niro stuck with it all that time as well. He stuck with it through the budget being massively reduced.
Was Robert De Niro involved from the start?
I think I first gave it to him six years ago. It was at a more mainstream studio with a higher budget and I was not in a position–I mean, you've probably heard I did 30 drafts on it. A good 15 of those were probably watering it down in some attempt to get it made. Luckily those didn't happen. The version that eventually happened because there was a lower budget was able to be as sort of prickly as the first draft that I had written, which was never going to get made. He stuck with it and had an incredible attitude, including a month before shooting I was here in New York and we needed some stuff of him walking around in the snow. I got a weather report that it was going to blizzard the next day. I called him up and he was in New York and I said, 'How would you feel about getting out on the street tomorrow with me and a camera and whatever costume we have?' He was game for it, even though he officially wasn't supposed to start for another month. We went out, down to the Financial District and it was snowing like crazy. It was freezing and people were just trying to get to work. So, they completely ignored the camera and De Niro. It was like doing a student film with no permits. He had a great attitude going into it.
I couldn't tell if this was intentional or not, but there are clear parallels to "Taxi Driver."
Absolutely. Well, the thing was in reality, Jonathan's job was driving a cab for quite a while. I was very conscious of the hubris during the movie with Bob De Niro going into a taxi. I figured I'd just better own it [laughs]. There is a weird similarity between his character and Travis Bickle, I think. In that, Travis Bickle weirdly ends up on top in that movie. He becomes a hero at the end and you're not quite sure at the end of the movie whether you're seeing reality or his version of reality. And this character, too, is a weird cockroach-like survivor with a massive sense of self–a much more articulate one than Travis Bickle but there's a similar level of artifice going on, an artifice taking over reality.
It weirdly plays like if Travis Bickle kept on doing what he was doing.
[Laughs] I know. It's bizarre–and had read the classics of literature in the mean time.
"Being Flynn" opens in limited release on March 2nd.