Director Paul Weitz: Admission comes down to choices
An accomplished writer-director who has also authored a number of plays, Paul Weitz helms Admission, a film about Portia, a Princeton college admission officer who has to confront her past when a high school teacher (Paul Rudd) shows up with a student (Nat Wolff) who may or may not be her son. Comedian Lily Tomlin also has a starring role as Portia’s ardently feminist mother. We recently spoke with director Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy, Little Fockers) during a roundtable discussion to talk about the film, which is based on a book by the same name.
What did you like so much about the story?
I really liked the book. When I took the x-ray of it, I thought it could make a movie in that you can boil it down to two sentences. A woman who has decided not to have kids and is dealing with kids at arm’s length is now dealing with kids and has a day of reckoning with her own phobias. And then, it comes to the point that her kid could walk through the college’s door at any moment. It’s the idea of somebody who has made a choice not to be something, but on some level they have a boomerang of that choice. That’s what I liked about it.
How much did you work on the script?
I wrote with [screenwriter] Karen Croner for two years. I was shooting something else when the first draft was happening. She did a lovely job on the first draft. If she hadn’t done a lovely job, it would be a different conversation. I would have thrown it out and tried to reconstruct it. From the get go, I was writing with her. I’m not all that good at doing stuff that I don’t have that level of involvement with. For me, if I’ve written something, I have no compunction about changing stuff. I’m not credited, but I did write for a couple of years.
Talk about making changes to a book.
The last adaptation I did [Being Flynn] was an awesome situation except for the fact that nobody saw it. It was Nick Flynn’s life story and I’ve become good friends with him. I care about whether the author likes the movie. And now I’m a character in his book, The Reenactments. There was only one thing in there where I was like, “Nick, why did you make me look like such an idiot?” With About a Boy, the whole last third diverges and luckily [author Nick] Hornby liked the movie.
A fair amount of your work is about young people and how they react. Is that something you’re akin to?
I do plays as well and I’m just trying to educate myself in gray areas when I’m working on something that’s exciting to me. I have three little kids and certainly parenting has changed over the years. And my dad’s generation is a World War II generation so his parents were very strict and their methods would be ineffective with my kids. The question does present itself whether you’re going to be good at parenting. I identify with the feeling that I don’t have anything to offer as a parent and yet I’m in control of this kid.
How was working with Tina and Paul different than working with other actors?
The great thing is about how different actors are from each other. In their make up there’s instinct and analysis. Eventually the two have to go together. If you have a purely instinctive actor and they’re walking into the lights, you’re in trouble. There’s something you need to do. If you have someone like Tina and is able to analyze what is going with the character and whole story, that’s helpful. They were similar but there were a couple of times where I asked Tina to be very selfish as an actress and get her out of her comfort zone. I would push here in the direction of not thinking about that the crew and wasting people’s time. She responded well and graciously.
At first, Paul was excited to do the film because he wanted to work with Tina. And then he didn’t want to do it because he felt the character was soft and a bit of a cliché. I worked on the character. I was excited to write about a dad who was giving his kid a hard time. I think that’s how love expresses itself.
How did Tina end up taking the part?
I met with her and Karen and I did a beat by beat of the story because we were making decisions about diverging from the book. The book is ambiguous about a couple of things. Having done that, I knew that if she didn’t think they were good ideas, there was no point in pursuing the project. If she didn’t want to do it, I didn’t know who else would. We had breakfast and I went through the story with her. I asked her what she thought about the kid. She thought it had to be that. I knew it was going to be okay and our minds were thinking similarly. It’s so much better if you and the actor feel like you’re telling the same story.
Whose idea was Portia’s mom’s Bella tattoo?
That was Lily’s idea. I met with Lily and I knew she would know so much of that world of what it was like to be a feminist at the at age and the iconography. There was more hardcore stuff that Lily wanted to do. She wanted a chest tattoo and I couldn’t shoot that in a way that you could see what it was. I was delighted when she thought of Bella Abzug. That was a joy working with Lily and her experience working with [Robert] Altman you could feel that all the time. She wanted to feel in the moment and feel like everything didn’t exist but the character. I get so excited by any kind of passion. There’s an emotional scene in the car and I asked Lily to just give it one hundred percent. It was great. She would let it rip. It was really exciting. The characters are contrasting — this daughter having reaction to this domineering mom — and the fact that their styles are different but there’s mutual respect.