Director brothers Paul and Chris Weitz didn’t plan it this way. Yes, they’re both releasing new films within weeks of each other and, yes, each of those new movies is an adaptation of a popular young-adult vampire novel: Paul’s “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant,” is due out Friday, while Chris’ “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” is set for release Nov. 20. Both use fantastic casts of characters to deal with serious real-world themes -- the nature of friendship, the inevitability of heartbreak, the unintended consequences of thoughtless actions.
To pile on the coincidence, “The Vampire’s Assistant” opens on Chris’ 40th birthday, while “New Moon” launches the day after Paul turns 44. And then, of course, there’s the fact that on a recent early fall afternoon, they’re seated together at a table on the Universal lot, the same place where their grandmother, Mexican actress Lupita Tovar, shot her starring role in the studio’s 1931 Spanish-language version of “Dracula,” produced by their grandfather, Paul Kohner.
Vampire blood, you might say, runs in the family.
Still, the brothers insist it was pure happenstance that they found themselves working on films that prominently feature the undead. They don’t have any particular insight into why vampire-mania is thriving in pop culture at the moment -- “I usually just mumble something about metaphor,” Chris Weitz said, of being asked about the ghouls’ popularity -- and neither one is exactly the brooding, loner type with a widow’s peak and a wardrobe full of black satin capes.
In fact, for two guys who have logged a lot of hours worrying about the exploits of immortal blood drinkers, they’re downright sunny.
Paul Weitz said it was the opportunity to explore the rich, vibrant world presented in the “Cirque du Freak” novels, penned by Irish author Darren O’Shaughnessy under the pseudonym Darren Shan, that made directing “The Vampire’s Assistant” such an appealing prospect.
The film, which combines elements from the first three books in the series, tells the story of a 16-year-old named Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia) and his best friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson), who after sneaking out to watch an underground freak show performance, find themselves on opposite sides of a long-prophesied vampire war.
In Darren’s case, he also discovers a place that’s far more visually captivating and ethnically diverse than his pastel-saturated suburban home.
“The German Expressionist painters that I like, like Otto Dix or Max Beckmann, their vision was dark and somewhat humorous but also incredibly colorful,” Paul said. “That was part of the reason I wanted to make the film, was to do something that was gothic but completely packed with color. Also in a way it’s about two best friends and I guess I was thinking about Chris and I and how that’s downloaded into me, this idea of this very important relationship being the center of one’s life.”
Page to screen
For “New Moon,” Chris Weitz also drew from experience, though nothing having to do with family. When he was approached to helm the sequel to last year’s hit teen romance “Twilight” -- which sees high school student Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) struggling to cope with a broken heart after her vampire boyfriend Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) leaves her -- the filmmaker said he connected with that sense of loss.
He’d been profoundly saddened by his experience making his last film, a special-effects-laden adaptation of Philip Pullman’s acclaimed novel “The Golden Compass.” He said that his inability to persuade New Line Cinema to allow him to move forward with the bleaker ending he’d originally planned for the $180-million fantasy left him feeling that he’d failed to do justice to Pullman’s work.
That Chris considers himself “a slave to the text” of the projects he adapts could work in his favor only when it comes to “New Moon.” The books in author Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series have a wildly devoted following that helped push Catherine Hardwicke’s 2008 movie to record-breaking box office grosses (it brought in $365 million worldwide). Those fans already are clamoring for the next installment, with screenings for the movie selling out earlier than for any other film to date, and Chris said he understands what they’re expecting him to deliver.
“What they want is a faithful rendition of the book, so that’s really my job,” he said.
Which is just fine with him. Chris said he actually “enjoys the restraints that are imposed by my constituency.” He’s particularly fond of adapting works of literature because he’s an avid reader -- he studied English at Cambridge’s Trinity College -- but for other reasons as well: “It’s probably that I’m afraid to do my own stuff because I feel like people might not take it seriously,” he said. “I have difficulty believing my own characters. I always think I can see right through them and everyone must be able to.”
Of course, Paul Weitz is pretty comfortable with the written word as well. After graduating from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he began his career as a playwright, and he’s continued to work in theater -- his upcoming play, “Trust,” will be produced by the off-Broadway Second Stage Theatre next year.
That Paul and Chris found their way to creative careers was perhaps inevitable given their upbringing. Their father, men’s fashion designer John Weitz, wrote several books before he died in 2002, and growing up in New York, the brothers were constantly surrounded by luminaries of all stripes, friends of John and his third wife, actress Susan Kohner. “We grew up around a lot of eccentric actors and directors with thick accents,” Chris said.
That upper-class pedigree might not have been immediately recognizable in their first film, 1999’s raunchy teen sex comedy “American Pie,” or its follow-up, 2001’s “Heaven Can Wait” update “Down to Earth.” But it began to emerge in 2002’s “About a Boy,” which earned Paul and Chris (and writer Peter Hedges) an Oscar nomination for their screenplay.
Based on the Nick Hornby novel, the film, which the Weitzes also directed, offered a serio-comic take on the relationship between an unrepentant Lothario and the young son of an unstable single mother, which the brothers depicted with a winning balance of sentiment and earthy humor.
That same mix of sincerity and jocularity is present in the way the Weitzes interact with each other. When Paul -- who is somewhat sleep deprived after a week of directing the upcoming “Meet the Fockers” sequel “Little Fockers” on location in Chicago -- loses a train of thought, his younger sibling articulates his point.
When asked what they’ve learned from each other, there’s no hesitation from either: “I learned how to work with actors from watching Paul.” “Although Chris often expresses ambivalence about all the things that directing requires, I think he’s got a huge degree of courage, which I find inspiring.”
But there are also plenty of deadpan one-liners throughout the course of a conversation. When Chris begins to explain that the next film he’d like to make is smaller in scale than either “New Moon” or “Golden Compass,” Paul interrupts with, “The Bible?” Chris then goes on to explain that it’s actually a story about a Mexican gardener and that he’s still working to lock down the financing. After a brief pause, Paul offered, “Every studio has a competing Mexican gardener project. I’m actually developing one.”
Their sense of timing is sharp even though their schedules have prevented them from spending as much time with each other as they would like. Even when they are in L.A., Chris lives in Malibu with his wife and their son, while Paul resides in Hollywood with his wife and two children -- not exactly an easy commute.
“It’s like living in different states,” Chris said. “But I’ve been putting the full-court press on Paul to move westward for the last couple of years.”
“I like living in this weird nexus of Thai Town and Little Armenia,” Paul countered. “Malibu’s awesome, but it’s too far out if you want to get anywhere or see anybody.”
“His loyalties to the Thais and the Armenians will bear out,” his brother noted with a laugh.
On the same wavelength
Although the brothers have spent the last few years working separately, their professional rapport remains strong; they’re still one of the industry’s go-to fraternal teams, a small group that includes Joel and Ethan Coen and emerging indie talents Jay and Mark Duplass. Paul believes that their time apart has had its upside, namely enabling them to follow the artistic pursuits that most strongly interested them.
“The friendship is so important, and the moment that one of us would have said to the other, ‘You can’t do this because I don’t want to do it,’ it would have been difficult,” he said. “Sometimes what one needs is to not have the other person particularly involved. Chris didn’t need anything from me when he was doing either of his last two films, but he would know and I know that if there’s ever something that I’m concerned about or a creative question that I can always call him and rely upon him.
“It would be fun to do another film together, no question,” he added, “but I don’t really feel like we’re separate in what we’re doing anyway -- maybe because we’re doing the same thing, we’re both directing.”
They’ve also been able to refine and sharpen their individual approaches to filmmaking. With 2004’s “In Good Company,” 2006’s “American Dreamz” and now “Vampire’s Assistant,” Paul Weitz has become even more adept at blending drama and comedy. He also seems to have an innate ability to play absurd situations to great effect as when, in his latest, John C. Reilly’s exasperated vamp argues with his girlfriend, the bearded lady played by Salma Hayek, about why the undead don’t carry cellphones.
Chris Weitz seems to favor a more classical, visually refined aesthetic. “New Moon” might be about a love triangle that develops among a human, a vampire and a werewolf, but it was shot with serious artistry by Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, whose other recent credits include the upcoming post-apocalyptic tale “The Road” and 2008’s European romance “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”
Their similarities, though, might be slightly more striking than any creative differences. They each display a deft touch at working with actors to elicit real, relatable human emotion, even when the stories they’re directing aren’t necessarily about humans. The secret, Chris said, is understanding that underneath it all, vampires are people too.
“Why should people worry about the choice of becoming a vampire?” he wonders. “I suppose it’s about major decisions you make in your life which will affect you forever, the friends that you choose, the people you decide to go out with. These define you, and both of the movies in their own way deal with how a young person is going to define themselves by who they choose to spend time with.”