Brothers move past 'Pie' to grown-up film
Outside the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston, brothers Paul and Chris Weitz are joking around while posing for a photo. They're wrapping their arms around each other and making funny faces like two boys who can't sit still in a classroom.
They look and act like a couple of ordinary guys except for the fact that they have directed the teen comedy "American Pie" which has grossed about $200 million worldwide and the new comedy-drama "About a Boy," starring Hugh Grant and Toni Collette. Opening in theaters today, "Boy" is the only major film competing against "Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones" this weekend.
While lunching on chicken tacos and empanadas at a dimly lit Latin steakhouse inside the hotel, Chris and older brother Paul express amazement that they were able to make "About a Boy."
"If you get a shot at making a comedy [that] could potentially be mainstream, but is still an adult film, you really have to count your blessings," says Paul, the more talkative brother during this interview.
Especially since director Iain Softley of "K-Pax" was originally pegged for the project for New Line Cinema.
"A couple of years later, as things happen in Hollywood, everything fell apart," Paul says. Chris and Paul shopped it around to different studios, and Universal and Working Title Films banked on the brothers.
"Fortunately, there was a writers' and actors' strike [looming]," says Chris, between bites of a soft taco. "[The studios] felt like they had to make as much product as possible, so they rushed it into production."
Chris and Paul read the best-selling 1998 book by British novelist Nick Hornby a few years ago, and they loved its combination of humor, cynicism, and a hopeful ending.
In the film, Grant plays Will, a shallow bachelor in London who attends meetings of single moms and invents an imaginary son in the hopes of meeting someone. But instead of the typical boy-meets-girl romance, the film takes a detour. Will meets Marcus, a 12-year-old boy who is made fun of at school and has problems at home. Marcus soon changes Will's perspective on life.
"It's about how one can cobble together a family ... out of an unlikely set of connections," Paul says. "None of these people have a nuclear family and they end up relying on each other."
On the surface, Chris and Paul might seem an unlikely choice for a mature comedy, given their "American Pie" background. Even Grant initially expressed some concern. In December, he told premiere.com: "When their names came up, I thought, 'That's insane....' Then I met them. They have a hugely juvenile humor streak, but they're also these scholarly, erudite guys. I've never worked with directors who read Trollope between setups."
Paul and Chris grew up in a rich cultural and intellectual environment. Sons of fashion designer John Weitz and actress Susan Kohner, the brothers lived in New York.
During school vacations, they visited their grandparents in Los Angeles. Their grandfather, Paul Kohner, worked as a an agent for Billy Wilder, John Huston, and Ingmar Bergman.
"As a result, we're conscious of an earlier era of American films," Chris says.
The brothers admit they had an unusual upbringing. "I went to school in England when I was 14 and didn't come back until I was 21," Chris says. Paul had no desire to go abroad. "I wanted to party a little bit more," he says, smiling.
Even though their grandfather worked in the movie industry and their mother was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the film "Imitation of Life" in the late 1950s, they had no plans to work in Hollywood.
Chris eventually earned a degree in English from Cambridge University in England and pursued a career in journalism ("with little success," he says). Paul studied film and literature at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and wrote plays for the off-off-Broadway Ensemble Studio Theatre.
Chris then decided to work for the US diplomatic corps. While waiting to see where he would be placed, the brothers worked on a script together.
After writing several scripts (none of which were produced), the siblings were hired to write the screenplay for the animated film "Antz." From there, they directed "American Pie" and "Down to Earth," starring Chris Rock.
The Weitz brothers, who now live in Los Angeles, see few similarities between themselves and other brother-director teams (the Farrelly brothers, the Coen brothers, the Hughes brothers).
"We only compare ourselves to the Farrelly brothers in that we've [explored] that arena of play," says Paul. "That's not necessarily our natural arena."
The siblings acknowledge that "American Pie" opened many doors for them, but they'd like to change direction.
"The first thing [we told] our agents: We didn't want to read anything that was a teen comedy," Paul says. "We only read about two scripts," he adds, half joking.
"If people only keep talking about 'American Pie,' I guess I'll be bummed out," says Paul. "It's funny because we did 'Antz' before 'American Pie,' and no one remembered that."
With "About a Boy," the brothers may prove they can create more than risqué teen comedies especially if their latest film does well against Anakin Skywalker & Co.
"We probably won't take first place at the box office," Chris says. "But there's still room for a movie about real people with real flaws who are not fighting galactic wars."