Interview of Paul Weitz, writer and director of the Lily Tomlin film 'Grandma'
Paul Weitz is Oscar-nominated filmmaker that got his big break writing the film "Antz," and directing the hit "American Pie." But Weitz is a third generation filmmaker with a long family history of making films. His grandparents were producer Paul Kohner and actress Lupita Tovar. Their daughter and Weitz' mother is Susan Kohner, who was an actress that made her own mark in the film industry. Now Paul Weitz and his brother Chris are trailblazing their own film careers and Paul has struck gold with his new independent film, "Grandma." This film has a beautifully written screenplay by Weitz and has critics proclaiming very early on that Lily Tomlin's performance will finally win her an Oscar. In this exclusive, in-depth interview Weitz describes how "Grandma," became a film that pays tribute to a woman that has been an exemplary, groundbreaking actress and comedian.
When it comes to the story of how the film "Grandma," came about it's really hard to think that things happen accidentally and to know the full story, let's travel back to 1959 and the release of the very popular film "Imitation of Life." The film starred the beautiful Lana Turner as a single mother raising her daughter (Sandra Dee) and working on her own career as an actress. But the real drama in the film resides with her African-American maid Annie (Juanita Moore) and her very light skin daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). The film's most emotionally moments come when Sarah Jane rejects her loving mother to live a life as a white woman, and in one of film's most tearful scenes Sarah Jane learns just a little too late that no one can replace the love of a mother. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, bypassing Lana Turner and Sandra Dee the Oscar nominations went to the powerful performances by Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner.
When the film was released, Lillie Mae Tomlin took her young, adult daughter Lily to themovies to see "Imitation of Life." Before the beginning of the movie, Lillie Mae opened up her purse to reveal that she came prepared. In the purse were washcloths and she told Lily, "We are going to need these for this movie."
So powerful of a movie experience was "Imitation of Life," that Tomlin never forgot the impact that that Susan Kohner's performance had on her.
Forward to just a few years ago. Lily Tomlin met Paul Weitz, a successful filmmaker in his own right was on the set of the 2013 film "Admission," starring Tina Fey. Weitz was directing the film and Tomlin was playing a supporting role as Fey's mother. Tomlin set out to friend Weitz, because of her love of Susan Kohner's work as an actress. The two became friends and as Weitz got to know Tomlin on a personal basis, he was inspired to write a film for her that would feature a character much closer to her own personality.
Of course, Weitz didn't announce this idea to Tomlin before he started writing. When he finally had a screenplay in hand he asked his friend to lunch. Tomlin ordered a steak salad and Weitz was hoping that his proposal wouldn't have Tomlin choking on her meal. Weitz admitted that getting Tomlin exciting about the idea to star in "Grandma," took some convincing.
Weitz and Tomlin worked on fine-tuning the script of "Grandma," and with the help of one financer, Weitz set to make a film with the smallest budget of just under $600,000, "I knew what this meant, but Lily had to get use to the idea that this film wouldn't come with comforts she is use to, like a trailer."
"Grandma" is a film that teams up a grandmother and granddaughter (Julie Garner) during one day as they set on a mission to find the money for the granddaughter's abortion. The film features the sarcastic wit of Tomlin, but it is not a comedy. Tomlin, not only a stand-out comedian, but also a method actor, stands out no matter who shares the screen with her. And it is not surprising that the when Weitz submitted the film to the Sundance Film Festival, that it was not only selected, but it was chosen as the closing film for the festival.
You would think that being chosen for the closing film at Sundance would have Weitz dancing for joy, but it opened the film to being viewed and reviewed before its own premiere. Weitz came close to pulling the film, worried how the film would be perceived. Weitz reflected on how worried he was about the screening, "When you make a small movie like this, you really don't know how it is going to hold-up being shown on a large screen."
When the time came, the film was a sensation during the screening and among critics alike - with Oscar buzz being generated towards Tomlin's performance. And to make things even better, Sony Classic Pictures offered to distribute the film. All of these elements made the screening of "Grandma," a slam dunk at Sundance. No one could ask for a better debut.
When an actor comes to a role that for whatever reason, shows their brilliance, when is it evident? Weitz told about his on-set role as a director, "I don't want the actors to feel any pressure. I want them to feel supported and to own their character. Not only am I their director, but I am their first audience. And this film just felt so weirdly easy."
But it actually took some distance from his own film to really see the impact Tomlin's performance had on Weitz, " I just took my eleven-year-old daughter to see the film just recently. We talked about the issues of the movie and I felt it was a fine movie for her to see. While watching the film I honestly thought 'holy crap this is a really great performance by Lily.' It's not the first time I thought it, but it's like I forgot how great she was."
Weitz learned something very important for his own career as a director while make "Grandma," as well, "After directing nine other movies, the biggest thing I learned from this experience is that I didn't need anything but the writing and the acting."
And it is obvious that Weitz has very warm regards for his friend and star in Tomlin, "She has been charting her own course since the beginning of her career. I really feel that there is something special about her."
"Grandma" is now in wide release in theaters, just in time for the start of a brisk movie season. And no doubt Tomlin will be raking in the prizes during award season. But it very likely that the fan of Tomlin and the creator of this beautiful story just might get some attention as well - especially for his beautifully written screenplay.
As far as fate is concerned, none of this would've come about if Lillie Mae hadn't taken her daughter to the movies that day, long ago in 1959 to see a woman in one of her most remarkable performances on film. What a great way for one performer to make a mark on another gifted performer.