In the latest movie from About A Boy director Paul Weitz, actor Paul Dano plays Nick Flynn, a young writer who starts working at a homeless shelter. Nick is forced to face himself and his background when his estranged father Jonathan, (Robert De Niro) a downward spiraling writer, comes to stay at the shelter. Being Flynn is based on Nick Flynn's memoir "Another Bullsh*t Night in Suck City." I spoke with director Paul Weitz in a roundtable interview to discuss what it was like to adapt this true story with the real man's support, the chemistry of De Niro and Dano, and more.
Being Flynn opens in Chicago on March 9, 2012.
How did the Q&A go last night?
Pretty good. Quite kind. 'Quite kind'? Is that your normal priority with Q&A's?
Oh God, yeah. It's funny because first they sort of bring up the motley collection of films that I have made, and I brought up American Dreamz, which is one film which I personally really like - it's idiosyncratic - but no one saw it. There was one guy who applauded [it].
Was it challenging to make a story within a story ... to make a story about a writer writing about a writer? That was part of the essence as why I felt like I was able to do this movie. I am not able to dwell in tragedy, nor am I capable of talking on a sociological level about some of the things that this movie touches upon, such as homelessness and drug addiction. I have at various points in my life spent time with people who were homeless and have been homeless, and I have spent time with people who were addicts. Including the people I was closest with when I was in high school.
I had this sense that everyone has their own story that they bring into the situation. The movie boils down on some level about whether we're fated to become our parents, and in this case it's a movie about two writers. There are levels of irony and interplay between the fictional story and reality. For instance, De Niro's character considers him one of the great three writers, and is clearly delusional. But that outside sense of self is what Nick Flynn, his son, believes got him through his homelessness. That since he thought he was better than the people around him, it was a survival mechanism. How did the real Jonathan Flynn react to the news that he would be played by the great Robert De Niro?
It was a very funny meeting. Robert De Niro, Nick [Flynn] and I went to go visit his dad [Jonathan]. Instead of being intimidated by De Niro, Jonathan looked at him and said, 'So, do you think you can pull this off?' Nick responded to him, 'Dad, he's a great actor, he's been in The Godfather and Raging Bull,' but then Jonathan said, 'But can you play me?' Jonathan has retained that narcissism to this day.
When did you really become friends with Nick?
When we were shooting Julianne Moore's most dramatic stuff. It sensitized me more while shooting that to have him there. On his part, it was a further part into distancing himself from his life. He's apparently written about a tell-all book about being on-set, which is hopefully not about how stupid film directors are.
When making this story you have a very big allegiance to Nick, and his story. Was his opinion the most important when it came to how things would work, and did you ever disagree with him when it came to representing his life? His opinion was the most important to me, not because they were the events of his life, but because I respect him so much, and his sense of irony. I wrote 30 drafts of Being Flynn, and I know it's 30 drafts because I numbered them on my computer, and Nick read almost all of them. I think he was amused. He never gave me a hard time, even though I think those middle drafts were cheapening the story. At the time, I really wanted to make it, and it was at a place where the budget would have been higher, and there would have been more pressure on me to make a fake version of it.
But I respect his sense of humor so much, and he's very generous in spirit. So I know there were things that he didn't understand that I was putting into this. For instance, there's that scene when Paul Dano gets busted cheating and dumped by his girlfriend. He looks in the mirror, smiles, and then smashes his forehead into the mirror. That is nothing that Nick Flynn would do, but it's something I would do at that age. I don't think Nick ever had that level of stupidity. And when Nick read it he thought, 'What the heck is this? How is this going to work?' Eventually he was interested in how it functioned in the film. The whole Nick character part in the film is very much about how you deal with your own self hatred. Both expressing it, and figuring out how to get past it. Did he think it was good poetry?
I think he eventually thought [his character] was going to appear insane, and that I would cut it from the film. [laughs]
Could you tell us some of your own observations on homelessness?
I think that there are some things that we assume, that are not the case. One of the things that you have access to if you are living in a homeless shelter is a shower and shampoo. It was interesting, because I really tried to get into the process of what it was like working there. One thing that was quite surprising was seeing people like construction workers, who might work during the day, stay at a homeless shelter. In terms of De Niro, it was important for me to have Nick Flynn there. Nick told me that when you're out there on the cold, you use duct tape to seal up your clothing at night. In part of the movie, De Niro is wearing a wool cap, and has toilet paper under his ear flaps. There are a lot of things in this movie that are based on observations, and the details that were gained from observations.
How did Robert De Niro and Paul Dano get along off-screen?
It's interesting. Usually, I like to rehearse a lot, but in this case I didn't because the characters had to be meeting for the first time in this charged situation. The first time that they acted together was on screen. One of the reasons that I wanted Dano is because he acts with a chip on his shoulder - he's quite aggressive, actually. He acted opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, who I gather is quite intimidating and even stayed in character off-screen, and Dano even described calling Daniel Day-Lewis and having him answer in character while shooting There Will Be Blood. I figured that Dano would be comfortable pushing De Niro, and at the same time Paul is a very respectable guy, and was respectful to Bob [De Niro] off-screen. Your father is not a director, he was a writer and a fashion designer. How did you and your brother (A Better Life helmer Chris Weitz) become directors?
My dad was pretty successful as a fashion designer, but he always dreamed about being a writer. He thought fashion design was a silly way to make a living. He was of a generation that worshiped Hemingway. When I was a kid he'd come home from work and write until late at night. When I was a kid he had a couple of novels published and a couple of non-fiction books. He was also of a generation that was very articulate, and drinking was not stigmatized like it is now. On occasion, he would start drinking Chivas Regal very early in the day. He was different from Jonathan Flynn, but he had real demons which he was contending with, largely from his experiences in World War II. I very much identify with the idea of creativity as it relates to ego.
And weirdly also, our grandfather was also a Hollywood agent for directors like John Huston, Billy Wilder, and Ingmar Bergman. As a child, I remember going to Ringling Bros. Circus with Ingmar Bergman.
When you're nine years old, you only recognize him as a tall guy with a thick accent. I was too young to ask him questions. It was sort of a treasure trove of knowledge that I might have had knowledge to. But now, of course I wish I could go back and ask him some questions. Do you think this movie will boost the pride of Jonathan Flynn, or humble him? Nick has shown him the trailer, and apparently his favorite part is the section in which De Niro is yelling at Dano and saying, 'You are me, I made you.' Apparently he made Nick rewind it several times. Have you read anything written by Jonathan Flynn?
I have. I read parts of his manuscript. Is it how Nick describes it? It's essentially poetic - that isn't to say in three years it will be some of the most remembered work in literature. Van Gogh wasn't well known in his lifetime, but I think the chances of that happening with Jonathan are slim [laughs].