Writer-director Paul Weitz talks about Grandma

Life lessons from a lesbian Grandma

The new independent film Grandma tells a rare story:  a lesbian of advanced years (Lily Tomlin), in mourning for her soul mate and on skittish footing with the much younger woman she’s been seeing (Judy Greer), is suddenly thrust into an adventure involving her teenage granddaughter (Julia Garner) and an unwanted pregnancy.

The female-centric subject and cast are courtesy of writer-director Paul Weitz, the man who got his big break writing the film Antz, and gave us About a Boy, In Good Company, American Dreamz, and Admission.

Writer-director Paul Weitz with Lily Tomlin, who plays the wisecracking Grandma

Writer-director Paul Weitz with Lily Tomlin, who plays the wisecracking Grandma

How did you come to this particular story?

I didn’t have any particular preconceptions about what I was trying to do or any sort of political aspect to it. It’s an inherently political film on numerous levels, but I hope that the best level is that it’s trying not to dehumanize the characters. You can really see how easily that happens when there’s a societal debate going on.

I was nervous watching it, because I worried about what people’s reactions would be.

I had the film Admission — which was where I met Lily Tomlin — come out, and I felt kind of powerless, and anxious. I think most film directors are probably control freaks — you can be a little bit of a benevolent one when you’re directing, but then when a film comes out, you have no control.

So in order to sort of calm myself down, I just started writing this thing. It was just the situation of this character, this 18-year-old showing up on her grandmother’s doorstep wanting to get some dough because she’s pregnant and wants to terminate the pregnancy. With no intention of spending time with her grandmother.

But I’d just spent time with Lily Tomlin on the set of Admission, and she really got under my skin. I felt like she had so much to say, and there was unfinished business, in my mind — that this 70-something-year-old woman who’d lived through all this women’s history who is so forceful and so youthful and so transgressive in her thinking, that she ought to have a film in which to hit every note that I was perceiving in her.

So I sat down to write — and the grandma, it was Lily’s voice, and it just kept on going from there. I didn’t tell Lily I was doing it, because I was worried she would be ambivalent about it, at the least.

I’ve done a couple of movies about mentorship but from the male perspective, and it finally had become clear to me how interesting it would be to me to do a movie about female mentorship.

You’ve managed to make a successful career out of personal human stories when these things seem to be rarer and rarer in the culture.

Those are the kind of films that are most interesting to me. I really liked Kramer vs. Kramer, which seemed very much to be dealing with cultural issues in terms of divorce and in terms of gender roles in society, and The Graduate, and The Apartment. I like films that are in a way just personal stories that are often funny but that are by implication political. My daughter sometimes asks me — it’s almost like she’s testing me, she’s like, “How come people have a problem with gay people getting married? Why do they care?” I often think of the phrase “all politics is local politics”: there must be something that makes them uncomfortable or afraid about their own… I remember there was a Jon Stewart joke — probably when Prop 8 was coming up, he said, “I became completely for gay marriage when I realized that it didn’t mean I had to marry a man.”

When AIDS first struck I remember thinking it was essentially how people viewed homosexuality — as this insidious disease that’s contagious and lethal. Ironically, the response to the epidemic actually changed a lot of people’s minds about gay people.

Do you think that there were certain cultural things — like, no matter what one thinks of the movie Philadelphia, do you think that helped change people’s [minds]?

Absolutely. Even a show like Friends, which had a lesbian couple — if you had attractive actors playing gay characters, even if they weren’t particularly convincing, just the fact that shiny, pretty people were playing gay characters, suddenly people could think, “Oh, a gay person doesn’t have to be this horrifying thing.” Movies and TV are hugely influential — maybe more than activism, because it’s just so absorbed into our bloodstream.

Television particularly.

What’s the most enjoyable part of making a movie for you?

I love writing, but in terms of directing, the most enjoyable thing is being with the actors, figuring out how they tick. You can have an actor who’s very intellectual, like Hugh Grant, whose script is full of notes about how he’s going to attack each line. Then in the same movie, there’s Toni Colette, who’s completely instinctive — hyperintelligent, but also not particularly keen to even think that there is a script. I mean, she memorizes the script; I remember going to her at point and saying, “Is there anything in the scene that you don’t think works for you?” She looked at me as if I was talking in a foreign language. [Laughs] But that moment where I get to be the first audience, which is very much the case with Grandma, is incredibly exciting. There’s something truthful about that moment, which is that the game of pretend is real. It says something almost religious, that we’re all — that our lives are games of pretend. Also there’s something really great about momentarily forming a troupe with people. So many of these actors were people I’d worked with before, like Marcia Gay Harden, who were just up for sort of jumping in.

Was it a long shoot?

Nineteen days. I learned over the course of 10 films how to not waste any movement. I didn’t write anything that’s not in the film — I barely shot any shots that aren’t in the film — and the cinematographer lit it in such a fashion that we didn’t have to stop and move the cameras, so Lily and everybody else had more than enough time to experiment. I felt like for [a] story where these two people have a ticking clock, a little bit of the feeling of “Okay, we’ve gotta get going” was going to be beneficial.

Not telling her you were writing the script — did you really think Lily Tomlin would take exception to having a movie written for her?

I thought that would be something she’d feel ambivalent about, and I was accurate, I think. At this point, she takes great pleasure in having done it, and Jane Wagner, who Lily still calls her partner — I don’t think she likes the word “wife,” for some reason; maybe she’s not used to it — but Jane really appreciated the film, which was a big thing. Huge for me. Especially with something like this, which is so close to the bone for [Lily], my assumption is that she looked at this and went, “Boy, this really has to be something special or I’m gonna hate myself.” And I think it was probably a little anxiety-provoking to think, “Oh, I’m going to be in every scene of this movie.” She hasn’t done that many extremely low-budget films, and didn’t realize, I don’t think, how liberating it would be. But once she was in, she wore her own clothes, she drove her own car, and she was effortlessly tapping into things. She’s such a good actress.

She operated on quite a different register in Admission; she was so liberated, where here she’s more curmudgeonly.

Julia Garner and Lily Tomlin in Grandma

Julia Garner and Lily Tomlin in Grandma

To some degree the movie’s about, How do you get over things? How does she get over the loss of this long-term love? I was very conscious that [Lily] has this relationship of 42 years with Jane Wagner. What if a person of that importance had died before, for instance, there was a legal chance to marry? How do you let go of grief and move on? There’s a scene early on where she’s forced this breakup with this younger woman and she’s looking through pictures of her lost loved one. I asked my friend Jacqueline Woodson, the writer, if she would allow me to use some pictures of her, because Jackie has a really lovely spirit, and I felt she would bring something to it, even though that character’s not in the film. [Lily’s character is] curmudgeonly, but I can’t tell how much of it is just coming from her grief and just railing against this thing. At the point in the movie where she is actually overcoming her grief and able to say goodbye in a way, the point in the script where I would have thought that Lily would be crying, she’s actually laughing.

Can you think of another film that has as its central characters a 70-something-year-old woman and mainly other women?

I’m sure they exist, but no, not really. That is a benefit of having done these films over the years, access to actors. I think we are somewhat dismissive of people who are well-known or “stars,” but usually the reason that they’ve become well-known is that they’re really, really good. So if you get them to do something because they want to play that character, you really have some weapons.

Lily seems like such a perfect choice to represent those 50 years of history because she really was such an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and the LGBT community. But did the character’s history with that movement, as an activist, create the distance we see onscreen between her character and Marcia Gay Harden’s?

I think so, and I also think they share this kind of scathing wit. But I think, when you have a really strong parent, you also need to be a really strong person or else you’ll kind of fade into the woodwork. And what I see from Marcia’ character is she is a single mother, really successful corporate lawyer in what would have been a male dominated profession when she was younger. And she’s really formidable. And I think she was kind of born that way. Lily says in the movie, “I’ve been scared of my daughter since she was 5 years old.” And I do think that happens sometimes, parents just get kids who are extremely driven from an early age. So to me, Marcia’s character is also a feminist, but someone who benefitted from some of the path breaking which came before her. But I also see someone who grew up with two mothers before that was something that was spoken about. And in the beginning, when Lily is going through memorabilia and comes across a drawing that says “I love my moms.” And I like the idea that you can see wounds on Marcia’s character related to this loss. And I also liked the fact that because the two of them are so tough, Sage (Julie Garner) has grown up with barely any air and just seems to be floundering.

Do female protagonists open up new opportunities as a storyteller that wouldn’t have necessarily existed for you that might not exist if you were writing the same kind of stories about men?

Absolutely. Years ago there was a version of this story involving a male character helping someone younger and I’m really glad I didn’t make that. I just think women have historically had more crap to deal with, and it’s always interesting to examine how characters come out of. There is an old saying about how hard it is for a resistance fighter to run a country, which is why a person like Nelson Mandela was such an extraordinary person, because he was a fighter but had the grace to also run a country and be a great leader. But there is an element of that fighter mentality in Lily’s character. She’s someone who has had to fight constantly, to deal with rejection. So the question she is facing now is, how does she move on and live her life.

Do you have anxieties about Grandma?

I have anxiety about crazy people. All you have to do is look at the movie After Tiller [about doctors murdered for performing abortions]… But I’m trying to keep in touch with the original impetus for the film, which was just to do it, just some perception about Lily. I did the film for what for me was so little dough so that there would be no compromise — which didn’t mean I didn’t want to make something entertaining; it was a comedy. I want people to see Lily’s performance and Sam’s performance and for them to get noticed for it. But I don’t want to devalue the whole thing by getting too stressed about what’s going to happen. Which is easier said than done.

Did you imagine when you were little that you’d grow up to make movies and plays?

I should possibly have imagined that, because I got to meet a lot of filmmakers when I was a kid. My grandfather was an agent for filmmakers like John Huston, Ingmar Bergman, all the new German filmmakers, Volker Schlöndorff, [Wim] Wenders. I was around really interesting people, but I never quite made the leap into thinking that was something I was going to do — it was much more like something that older people with thick European accents did [laughs] — or in the case of Huston, booming voices. And I wanted to be a playwright, and luckily now I have a [New York] theater that I have a good relationship with that does my plays. But I was kind of reverse-engineered. Most people who become filmmakers, they maybe go to film school and they make an independent film, and then they hope to get enough dough to make a larger-budget film. I didn’t go to film school; I had a really terrific mentor who was a film historian named Jeanine Basinger, but I was quite phobic about the process of making a film. I went to Hollywood with my brother to try to make some dough; we were script doctors and then got to write an interesting script of this movie Antz, which was an exploration of totalitarianism in the guise of a children’s film. And then did American Pie and became a studio filmmaker. And now I’ve arrived at a completely do-it-yourself independent film.