MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

Black and Weitz

“Satire is what closes on Saturday Night”
— George S. Kaufman

Most filmmakers are superstitious. They wear things – socks, ties, shoes – that are supposed to bring them luck; they have traditions that have to be upheld when the deal is made, at the start of filming or on the first evening of a theatrical run.

It happens to be opening day when I sit down to talk to Paul Weitz. He’ll likely go to his grave remembered as the director of American Pie. His subsequent films that have included About a Boy and In Good Company don’t bear much resemblance to his first film but while both were commercially successful they did not gross more than $100 million and spawn sequels.

American Dreamz is a bit of all his prior films. It’s bawdy, rife with social commentary and not averse to delve into matters of taste. It’s a little after noon and if Weitz has been given the East coast matinee numbers, he fails to make note of them or ask if anyone can decipher their meaning. He appears to know that the film won’t be an audience magnet despite nods to a popular television talent show, a dysfunctional head of state and singing and dancing terrorists.

“I do that tradition of going around to theaters and trying to convince managers that I directed the movie,” says Weitz. “On American Pie, I bought tickets for 12-year olds that couldn’t get in because of the rating. But it’s not really organized. I just get in the car with my wife and whoever happens to be around and try to hit as many theaters as I can stomach. It generally leaves me with a hollow, empty feeling.”

He’s joking even if there is a dollop of truth in his words. One gets the distinct feeling that there’s no part of the process that’s particularly joyful for him with the possible exception of reading the script with the cast. Weitz is a compulsive writer, a meticulous planner and somewhat of a worrywart about the audience that will ultimately provide the thumbs up or down. Most of the leading critics haven’t been particularly kind to his new movie though some have found his premise intriguing and several of the performers captivating. Box office trackers see it as the weak sister among a trio of new national releases but predict better numbers than the $3.8 million it will gross on its opening weekend.

If there was a eureka moment that spawned American Dreamz, Weitz has long since forget it. He says that he’d been ruminating a lot about the dismal state of pop cultural as well as his frustration with politics and politicians. Somehow these two threads got intertwined with the notion that the President of the United States would seek to be a celebrity juror on the most popular show on television to buck up his sagging approval ratings.

“It just sounds like a social satire about life in America today,” Weitz observes. “But that was never the glue that bound this story together. We are a nation of people that are supposed to have big dreams and a lot of us, or at least a significant enough number, get to fulfill them according to lore. I wanted to deal with the reality, albeit in a sometimes bizarre and surreal manner.”

There are echoes of such diverse films as Network, A Face in the Crowd and Dr. Strangelove in Weitz’s film though he says any nod or homage was not made consciously. He says he was thinking about the early Woody Allen and Mel Brooks when he was hammering out the script. However, during the editing process he realized their were eerie parallels with The King of Comedy not simply in Robert DeNiro‘s character’s manic quest for stardom but by the fact that both that character and Omer (Sam Golzari) have subterranean studios where they play out their fantasies.

“Omer was the character that evolved the most during the process,” he notes. “I tend to mull a lot on ideas before I start the writing process. This was more fully formed than most and I’d bounce elements of the story off friends to get a reaction. When I’d mention the singing terrorist that loved show tunes, I remember someone said, ‘do it now, you have an opportunity because of past success to get it made that may never come again.'”

Omer, who backs into the competition by several twists of fate, is press ganged into becoming a suicide bomber with instructions to blow up the President. Weitz, whose career began in theater, carried over the tradition of table readings with the actors prior to filming. It’s not quite a rehearsal but it gets ideas on the floor that are incorporated into the film and lessens the prospect of wild surprises on the set. Seasoned actors don’t give performances during the readings but with newer actors including Golzari and Mandy Moore one can see their enthusiasm.

There’s a clear sense that Weitz wants to be prepared for whatever might occur prior to turning film. He’s slightly embarrassed to admit that he’s not very good about visualizing his film while he’s writing it and spends an enormous amount of time with his cameraman and production designer going over every element of the physical production. He doesn’t like to work long days and maintains a regular working day is more efficient for his cast and crew.

“We’re an odd culture,” says Weitz. “I think Americans have a sense of guilt because they understand that they have more of just about everything than anyone else. At the same time we’re essentially isolationist; cut off from the rest of the world both physically and in the news we hear. It’s an odd juxtaposition of opposites that manifests itself I think in fear and apprehension. It can be something as simple as the shark in Jaws or a much more complex issue like terrorism. I’m just stumbling around trying to give it a little bit of human context.”
April 25, 2006

– by Leonard Klady 

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon