What’s it like to bear the burden of adapting someone’s life story into a film? That’s exactly the conundrum director and screenwriter Paul Weitz faced with Being Flynn, which opens Friday.
No stranger to the adaptation process – he brought Nick Hornsby’s About a Boy to the big screen in 2002 – Weitz stumbled upon author Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City when it was released in 2004, and went through 30 drafts before finally settling on a screenplay.
We spoke with Weitz about how his close relationship with Flynn affected the way he handled the sensitive material, which deals with Flynn’s true story of being abandoned by his father at a young age only to come in contact with him years later while working at a homeless shelter. Weitz talked about constructing the parallel journeys of the Flynns, writers with two very separate views on the work they produce, and crafting the performances of Robert De Niro (as Nick’s father Jonathan), Julianne Moore (as Nick’s mother) and Paul Dano (as Nick).
Well, first of all, I have to thank you for spearheading this movie, because I’m a long-time follower of Nick’s writing and really love his work.
Oh, cool! [laughs]
I actually met him when I was in college, when his first book of poetry Some Ether was released, and I’ve been going to his readings and following his writing ever since. I think Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is a masterpiece.
Yeah, I do, too.
I feel like the book was just begging for an adaptation, so I’m personally really happy that Nick’s memoir has found this outlet, and with a film starring Robert De Niro as his dad, no less!
It’s true, and there’s a weird aspect to adaptation of something, which is that I personally don’t feel like there’s any reason for a wonderful book to be adapted into a film. The only reason is if it means enough to a filmmaker to have to risk ruining the experience – one’s own experience of having read it. And there’s also a weird catch-22, which is that you literally can’t faithfully adapt a book because you don’t have enough time – you’re going to be cutting certain things. So once you’ve cut certain things, which you like in the book – how are you going to create that connective tissue? And you have to come up with new stuff, and the new stuff has to adhere to some central theme, which is what you took from the book.
Paul Dano mentioned something interesting to me this morning – he said that he believes a necessary part of adapting a piece of material is inserting yourself into it. Do you find that to be true?
Well, it’s absolutely true. And to me, the movie was partly about how you get past your self-hatred. And there’s a lot of things that Nick’s character does in the movie which are not in the book and which Nick never did or said. Happily, I’m older now – but there were certain scenes that I was shooting with Paul that were very troubling to me, scenes where he’s being drawn towards addiction. My best friend growing up was a heroin addict – or, became a heroin addict – and I sort of took a divergent path from him, but I was going down – step by step – the same path for quite a while. And I also have had various times in life where I really loathed myself, and it’s something that you have to get past – try to get past once you have kids, and I have three kids now.
When I think of this film, I’m reminded of your big-screen adaptation and direction of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, which I loved. There are so many similar themes between Suck City and About a Boy – depression, addiction, absentee parents. So it seems to me a no-brainer as to why you were drawn to Suck City.
But Nick Hornby illustrates his drama with humor – often dark humor – and Nick Flynn illustrates his drama with humanism. How did you reconcile that?
I think that Nick would say that his book is funny. It might be a humor that only appeals to him and to me, but Nick in real life has a sort of wicked irony. And I think that was incredibly beneficial to me in the first place because it’s very weird to be making a movie about somebody’s life. And to be begging them to stay involved. It’s weird to have written 30 drafts of that movie and to have imposed upon the person to read all 30.
You’ve had it since 2004, right? You basically started adapting as soon as the book came out.
Yeah, I was writing it for seven years.
And it took Nick seven years to write the book.
Wow, I didn’t know that – that’s really interesting! I personally don’t know how people process stressful situations without humor. It’s not something that I’ve observed. I’ve always observed humor, even in the sort of dire circumstances that people have. And my literary masters are people like Chekhov, who thought they were writing comedies and then people would perceive them as tragedies. And I think it’s a really key aspect of this that when De Niro’s character shows up in the homeless shelter, it’s not shameful and hat in hand, it’s with utter self-confidence and he’s demanding a private room.
That’s something that comes across so perfectly from the book, too – I remember Nick saying it was really important that – in the film – his father not be perceived as crazy, because he’s not. He’s just a serial narcissist.
His narcissism is oddly born true. The first time I went with Bob and Nick to meet his dad, we sat down, and Jonathan – far from being at all intimidated by meeting Robert De Niro – Jonathan Flynn said, “So do you think you can pull this off?” [laughs] And Nick said, “Dad – this is a very well-respected actor, he was in The Godfather.” And Jonathan said, “Yeah, I hear you’re good – but can you play me?” He’s the utter master of situations despite all appearances to the contrary.
I actually spoke to Nick this past fall regarding the process of working on Being Flynn, and while we were chatting you two were texting each other because he was meeting you after talking with me. I was taken aback by your close working relationship – that’s got to be unusual. Was it like that with Nick Hornby, too?
Well no, it was utterly the opposite with Nick Hornby – not because he’s not a great guy, but Nick [Hornby] had had a couple of films adapted form his books and he just didn’t want to suffer through the possibility that it was going to stink. So we tried to get him to come to the set, but he really didn’t want to. The only connection that we had with Nick is that we asked Badly Drawn Boy to do the soundtrack – who ended up doing the soundtrack for this [Being Flynn] – and Nick Hornby was a huge Badly Drawn Boy fan, so there was a degree of synchronicity and faith that that made him have in us. No, I think it’s really rare that somebody is as generous as Nick Flynn has been with his time.
And you’ve worked with Robert before – I don’t even know how you approach working with an actor of his caliber, and it’s great to see such a huge star disappear into a role. Did you have to rein him in a lot with this – remind him, “Hey – you’re doing the ‘Robert De Niro’ right now!”
No, I mean, the thing is – with this part – because it’s about a guy whose father is a legend to him, because he hasn’t grown up with his dad and his dad is such a colorful figure, the baggage that De Niro brings of having been in all these iconic roles I felt would actually be beneficial to the viewer in this case. Which is basically what Nick is processing. This guy, this ghost from his past has shown up and is now messing with his life. De Niro worked incredibly hard on it. Even to the point where we had a day of guerrilla shooting a month before we were actually supposed to start to shoot, because I needed him to be walking around in the snow after he’d been kicked out of the homeless shelter, and I got a weather report that it was going to blizzard the next day. And I called him up.
Production value! And it’s free!
Exactly! I said, “What are you doing tomorrow?” And he said, “Why?” And I said, “How do you feel about hopping in a car and driving around and shooting?” [laughs] And he said, “Well, I don’t really have a costume yet.” And I said, “Well, let’s get to it!” And he went out – we went down into the Financial District and jumped out of the car and I knew people were just going to be trying to get to work and they wouldn’t pay attention to the camera or Robert De Niro. And we did it like it was a student film, essentially. And that was really the amount of hard work and faith that he brought to the whole thing.
And Nick was on set every day – when we talked about it, I asked what it was like for him to relive some of these traumatic moments from his childhood. And he said he realized it was important for him to have some sort of aesthetic response in order to give you feedback. Was there ever a moment when you worried about him being present?
Well, before the scene that you’re probably referring to, which is a very tragic moment from his life, I called Nick up and I said, “I know I begged you to be on set every day, but if you don’t want to be here, you don’t have to be.” And he told me that he thought about it and figured he’s going to be thinking about it anyway, so he showed up. It was a gift to me to have him there on that day because he’s my friend now, and I was really just empathizing with what he’s gone through in his life. He’s not a self-pitying person in any way, but he’s been through a lot. And it brought me to an emotionally raw place to have him there while I was shooting it. And I just used that. I don’t think he was in the same place – I think, for him, it was actually a distancing moment, in a hopefully healthy way.
It’s obviously been creative fodder for him as well, because he wrote his third memoir about the experience of turning his life story into a movie. I know it’s not out yet, but have you read it?
I haven’t – he’s given me a version of it and I don’t want to inhibit him in any way, even if – for instance – there’s anything unflattering about me in there. I really believe in having the same perspective that he seemed to bring to this film, which is … that that’s going to be its own piece.
And Nick also wrote a play.
Yeah, I’ve read it!
And you’re a playwright – would you guys ever collaborate on something together?
I don’t know! I don’t direct my own plays, so …
Well, a writing collaboration.
Honestly, I’d love to make another film with Nick, although that sounds like a weird thing to say about a poet.
As far as casting goes – and, considering the fact that Nick made himself so accessible, did you guys refer to photos of his parents while searching for actors? Do Julianne and Robert look anything like his mom and dad?
No, they don’t. De Niro, I believe, is part Irish – and Nick’s dad is of Irish descent. Probably Julianne looks more similar to his mom than Bob does to his dad. But, in terms of costume and how they bore themselves, I think that Nick felt that they were similar.
And Paul, too – Nick mentioned that Paul stole some of his mannerisms, like with tucking his book into the back of his pants. It seems like it was strange for Nick to realize he was constantly being observed by an actor playing him.
Definitely. I think a good actor is always keen – if they’re playing a real person – to not imitate them, but to steal things.
Did you encourage them to talk and collaborate?
Yeah, I did. They didn’t need much encouragement because they live a few blocks apart [in Brooklyn]. But I was always happy when I would hear that they were together. I would text Nick about some detail or other and he’d say, “I’m having lunch with Paul.”
And bringing it back around to the About a Boy versus Suck City adaptation – Hornby writes really linear and Nick is almost vignette-style, very non-linear. Where do you even begin, because it had to be a completely different adaptation process?
I think that the first place to begin was to figure out whether Nick was going to be deeply upset by the prospect of having his book adapted into a film. It’s one thing to let your book be optioned and cash the check, it’s another thing to actually believe that there’s a new piece of art that can be created, which will have merit on its own. It’s even more important to me that the person who wrote the book not feel disappointed, given that it’s his life.
I think it’s really great that you zeroed in on the parallels between Nick and his father – because Suck City is primarily about Nick. And you did really give a special treatment to Nick’s rise paralleled with his father’s decline.
Good! Good. It’s about two writers, and they’re battling over whose story it is. The first thing I had written down – which remained through all 30 drafts – was the last thing you hear in the movie … De Niro saying to his kid, “I bequeath it to you – I’m giving you the last word.” But literally the last voice you’re hearing is Bob’s.
So it’s still hyper narcissistic, as per the character. I love the part, as well, where Julianne shows Nick a mug shot of his father and says, “Never become a writer.” Boy, is that a screwed-up moment.
It kind of hits you right in the gut.
Good, good, good! Thank you so much!