Q&A: Paul Weitz takes on taboos and a punk rock Lily Tomlin in ‘Grandma’

"I'm perversely inspired by very low-budget independent film and also Hollywood studio films of the '30s, '40s and '50s," says director Paul Weitz.

“I’m perversely inspired by very low-budget independent film and also Hollywood studio films of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s,” says director Paul Weitz.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Paul Weitz wrote and directed “Grandma,” a road comedy in which Lily Tomlin plays a 70-year-old poet helping her granddaughter raise the money for an abortion. Weitz, who also directed “In Good Company” and “Admission,” as well as “American Pie” and “About a Boy” with his brother, Chris Weitz, spoke with The Times about tackling taboos and casting a punk rock septuagenarian.

It’s pretty provocative to make a movie where an abortion is the main goal of your protagonists. Where did you get the idea to do that?

I wasn’t intending on making an issue movie nor a polemic. It’s very much a movie about how this seventysomething character played by Lily is teaching this 18-year-old how to stand up for herself and how to give hell to people who are mistreating her. In terms of abortion, this is gonna sound possibly naive, but that was the situation the 18-year-old character was in when she showed up at the door of her grandmother. She was pregnant and trying to figure out what to do about it.


If we go back to a movie like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” which is now just looked at as a commercial comedy that was the birth of Spicoli, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is contending with a similar thing in the movie. I wonder at the time that that movie came out how that aspect of it was thought of and what that says about how things have progressed or not.

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Are you saying you think people have gotten more reactive to the issue of abortion than they were when “Fast Times” came out [1982]?

Quite possibly. Lily’s character and Lily herself is a trailblazer in terms of being a feminist. Her daughter, Marcia Gay Harden, is a corporate lawyer who’s been succeeding in a male-dominated world. But now this granddaughter [Julia Garner] at the age of 18 is struggling with her identity. In exploring these three generations of women, one could talk about taking for granted a certain amount of history.

It’s also a pretty bold idea to have a seventysomething woman as your protagonist. Why did you create a lead in that demographic?

I had hung out with Lily when she played Tina Fey’s mother in “Admission.” Seeing how funny and edgy and insightful she was, I knew this was somebody who should be the lead in a movie. It’s so rare that somebody that age is driving a film. I was really excited by this idea that people in their 70s have actually lived through the ‘60s, an era of social foment, and if you look at that and at what 18-year-olds are going through now when the cultural revolution seems to have to do with the Internet and technology more than anything else, I thought that was really interesting.


I liked the idea that, by the nature of her experience and her personality, this 70-year-old was more punk rock and more progressive than her grandkid. Also I was very keen to do a movie with a 70-year-old where there was no deathbed scene for that character. One of the things I said to Lily was, this is a completely vibrant person who has a lot of life and is driving this movie.

Tomlin drives her own car in the movie and wears her own clothes, so how much of the real Tomlin are we seeing up on screen?

It is probably closer to what it’s like hanging out with her than anything she’s done. She’s not a comedian who tries out her material on you. Lily is just insightful and doesn’t need to push in any way. When somebody is that smart and accurate they have to have some degree of misanthropy but at the same time are loving towards people. That’s really exciting to me.

There’s an undercurrent of anger to Tomlin’s character. Where does that come from?

It was some perception I have in terms of what that character has gone through, as a feminist, as someone who had brought up Marcia Gay Harden’s character with another woman, and as a grandmother. She’s also in the movie getting over the loss of a long-term love. I looked at Lily’s marvelous and creative relationship with her partner, Jane Wagner. I looked at that relationship and thought, wow, what if that deep and layered a love had ended for somebody? How on earth would they get past their grief for that?

You’ve worked at a variety of different budget points for your films. Do you have a preferred range to work in?


I’m perversely inspired by very low-budget independent film and also Hollywood studio films of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Weirdly, now, to do that type of intelligent comedy, you had better be OK with doing things at different budget ranges. I worked with people who are used to doing movies at this scale. I’ve also learned what I don’t need so I don’t have to waste any time on set. I think a certain level of budget gets in the way of the acting. Getting a great performance has nothing to do with what size your trailer is.

For most people, money problems are among the biggest issues in their lives, but it’s rare to see on screen. In your film you’re taking on the cost of healthcare, credit card debt. Why did you make your characters two broke people?

That was the obstacle in creating the plot. I also thought it was realistic. One forgets how normal it is to not have any money. It’s sort of the taboo. There’s a movie called “The Seventh Continent” by Michael Haneke, which has these people cutting up cash. He said that when that screened, people were gasping at that, not at the very violent scenes in the movie.

You and your brother, filmmaker Chris Weitz, are adapting the Japanese film “Like Father, Like Son,” for Steven Spielberg to direct. What can you tell me about it?

We’re transposing it to America. It’s a beautiful film about two families whose children have been switched at birth. We’re hoping to do the not-soap-opera version of that.

How does it work when you collaborate with your brother? Is there a shorthand?


We talk about the outline so we know what we’re doing, and then we swap five or six page sequences and hope the other guy likes it. One tries not to have the shorthand be rolling your eyes.


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