Did Lily Tomlin Inspire the ‘American Pie’ Director’s Feminist Awakening?

‘Grandma’ writer-director Paul Weitz talks with DAME about the Anita Hill hearings, leaving bro-hood behind, and raising the next generation of women.

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The new film Grandma tells a story rare for American cinema: a lesbian of advanced years (Lily Tomlin), in mourning for her soul mate and on skittish footing with the much younger woman she’s been seeing, is suddenly thrust into an adventure involving her teenage granddaughter (Julia Garner) and an unwanted pregnancy. The female-centric subject and cast are courtesy of a filmmaker who would perhaps not be one’s first guess for such material: Paul Weitz, whose directorial debut (with his brother, Chris) was the proud cultural touchstone American Pie.

Weitz has a pattern of upending the expectations brought by his early success, though, writing and helming a wide range of resonant and entertaining pictures. From the deservedly beloved About a Boy to lesser-known gems like the affecting rom-com/workplace dramedy In Good Company, sharp satire American Dreamz, sweet-tart comedy Admission, or the giddy series Mozart in the Jungle, Weitz can be counted on to marry classic screwball intelligence with an enlightened contemporary sensibility. He shares his evolution from chronicler of adolescent bro-hood to a filmmaker who channels Lily Tomlin’s life as never before seen.

How did you come to this particular story?

I didn’t have any particular preconceptions about what I was trying to do or any sort of political aspect to it. It’s an inherently political film on numerous levels, but I hope that the best level is that it’s trying not to dehumanize the characters. You can really see how easily that happens when there’s a societal debate going on.

I was nervous watching it, because I worried about what people’s reactions would be.

I had the film Admission—which was where I met Lily Tomlin—come out, and I felt kind of powerless, and anxious. I think most film directors are probably control freaks—you can be a little bit of a benevolent one when you’re directing, but then when a film comes out, you have no control. So in order to sort of calm myself down, I just started writing this thing. It was just the situation of this character, this 18-year-old showing up on her grandmother’s doorstep wanting to get some dough because she’s pregnant and wants to terminate the pregnancy. With no intention of spending time with her grandmother. But I’d just spent time with Lily Tomlin on the set of Admission, and she really got under my skin. I felt like she had so much to say, and there was unfinished business, in my mind—that this 70-something-year-old woman who’d lived through all this women’s history who is so forceful and so youthful and so transgressive in her thinking, that she ought to have a film in which to hit every note that I was perceiving in her. So I sat down to write—and the grandma, it was Lily’s voice, and it just kept on going from there. I didn’t tell Lily I was doing it, because I was worried she would be ambivalent about it, at the least. I’ve done a couple of movies about mentorship but from the male perspective, and it finally had become clear to me how interesting it would be to me to do a movie about female mentorship. Also the idea that, in not only Lily’s character and Julia’s but Marcia Gay Harden’s character, that one could check in with different eras of consciousness of women’s history, and the idea that there’s been an erasure of women’s history in the minds of young people now. After Lily has a sort of relatively erudite insult-fest with Judy Greer, where they’re calling each other “writer in residence” and “solipsist,” Julia’s character says, “My friends just call each other ‘bitch,’ ‘ho’ and ‘slut.’” And she says, “Do you think I’m one?” That is the cost of a generation’s not having a consciousness of women’s history. I think even if I didn’t have a daughter I would be preoccupied with these things, but I do have a daughter, who’s 11, and I want her to have a consciousness. She’s a really tough—she’s really able to articulate and stand up for herself. In terms of my own personal learning curve, there was a point when I was 25 when I’d been dumped by a woman I was dating, and I really was trying to figure out what the hell had happened, and I read this book called Women’s Ways of Knowing. What really stuck in my head was this idea that when girls hit puberty, they stop talking in class and sort of fall into the societal norm that girls aren’t supposed to be holding forth. [The book] talked about how oftentimes fathers, when their daughters hit puberty, don’t know how to express their affection any more; they feel like it’s inappropriate to hug them. All this sort of stayed in my head, and it’s stuff that I think about and talk about with my daughter today.

It sounds like you imbued her with the ability to be strong.

Tougher than my wife and me. We don’t particularly like confrontation, but my daughter seems to have no issue with it. We were with an uncle in D.C. recently, and he was sort of poking fun at her and telling her he was going to put it on the Internet that she wasn’t eating her vegetables, and she turned to him and said, “I think you might get in trouble if you’re publicly shaming an 11-year-old girl on the Internet. Possibly you’ll lose you job.” [Laughs] Also she’s very interested in gay rights and in marriage equality. It’s nice.

How did you go from being the self-described misogynist, someone for whom females were essentially alien beings, to today? Was it really getting dumped and reading a book and feeling empathetic?

I went to Wesleyan, which had a fairly outspoken feminist student body—I was taken aback by it at the time, frankly. Also, having a female mentor in this woman Jeanine Basinger. Actually, I was thinking about it the other day: I think the Anita Hill hearings snapped something in me, just watching this woman who was clearly so smart and had no reason to be lying, being grilled by these largely male senators. It felt like watching a tragedy. And then she wasn’t listened to. It was like watching something out of the Bible, honestly. That was just like, Wow, not only does chauvinism exist, but it’s still functioning on the highest level.

You’ve managed to make a successful career out of personal human stories when these things seem to be rarer and rarer in the culture.

Those are the kind of films that are probably most interesting to me, in terms of American films. I really liked Kramer vs. Kramer, for instance, which seemed very much to be dealing with some cultural issues in terms of divorce and in terms of gender roles in society, and The Graduate, and The Apartment. I like films that are in a way just personal stories that are often funny but that are by implication political. My daughter sometimes asks me—it’s almost like she’s testing me, she’s like, “How come people have a problem with gay people getting married? Why do they care?” That goes back to the phrase “all politics is local politics”: There must be something that makes them uncomfortable or afraid about their own … I remember there was a Jon Stewart joke—I think it was Jon Stewart—probably when Prop 8 was coming up, he said, “I became completely for gay marriage when I realized that it didn’t mean I had to marry a man.”

When AIDS first struck I remember thinking it was essentially how people viewed homosexuality—as this insidious disease that’s contagious and lethal. Ironically, the response to the epidemic actually changed a lot of people’s minds about gay people.

Do you think that there were certain cultural things—do you think that the movie Philadelphia helped change people’s [minds]?

Absolutely. Even a show like Friends, which had a lesbian couple—if you had attractive actors playing gay characters, even if they weren’t particularly convincing or realistic, it always seemed to me that just the fact that shiny, pretty people were playing gay characters, that suddenly it became acceptable to think, “Oh, a gay person doesn’t have to be this horrifying thing.” I think movies and TV are hugely influential—maybe more than activism, because it’s just so absorbed into our bloodstream.

Television particularly.

Not telling her you were writing the script—did you really think Lily Tomlin would take exception to having a movie written for her?

I thought that would be something she’d feel ambivalent about, and I was accurate. At this point, she takes great pleasure in having done it, and Jane Wagner, who Lily still calls her partner—I don’t think she likes the word “wife,” for some reason; maybe she’s not used to it—but Jane really appreciated the film, which was a big thing. Huge for me. Especially with something like this, which is so close to the bone for [Lily], my assumption is that she looked at this and went, “Boy, this really has to be something special or I’m gonna hate myself.” And I think it was probably a little anxiety-provoking to think, “Oh, I’m going to be in every scene of this movie.” She hasn’t done that many extremely low-budget films, and didn’t realize, I don’t think, how liberating it would be. But once she was in, she wore her own clothes, she drove her own car, and she was effortlessly tapping into things. She’s such a good actress.

She operated on quite a different register in ‘Admission’; she was so liberated, where here she’s more curmudgeonly.

To some degree the movie’s about, How do you get over things? How does she get over the loss of this long-term love? I was very conscious that [Lily] has this relationship of 42 years with Jane Wagner. What if a person of that importance had died before, for instance, there was a legal chance to marry? How do you let go of grief and move on? There’s a scene early on where she’s forced this breakup with this younger woman and she’s looking through pictures of her lost loved one. I asked my friend Jacqueline Woodson, the writer, if she would allow me to use some pictures of her, because Jackie has a really lovely spirit, and I felt she would bring something to it, even though that character’s not in the film. [Lily’s character is] curmudgeonly, but I can’t tell how much of it is just coming from her grief and just railing against this thing. At the point in the movie where she is actually overcoming her grief and able to say goodbye in a way, the point in the script where I would have thought that Lily would be crying, she’s actually laughing.

That could be another reason she might have resisted doing it: having to live in that grief.

I also just think, Why do it? You’ve achieved a certain amount of success. [Laughs] Why risk it?

Can you think of another film that has as its central characters a 70-something-year-old woman and mainly other women?

I’m sure they exist, but no, not really. That is a benefit of having done these films over the years, access to actors. I think we are somewhat dismissive of people who are well-known or “stars,” but usually the reason that they’ve become well-known is that they’re really, really good. So if you get them to do something because they want to play that character, you really have some weapons.

Is there any pleasure in promoting a film?

I never want to take for granted the fact that people are interested in talking about something, even if they have to. [Laughs] And sometimes they have to, I know that. With a movie like [Grandma] it’s probably more fun because there are things to talk about—and there’s bad ways to talk about them too. I don’t want to say something glib or stupid about things that mean something to me and that mean something to other people. If you look at our culture—I think about this in terms of race—one mistake people make is to think that they’ve erased what ails them, you know? In our society, when we elected, thank God, a black president, finally, one might have thought for a moment, “Okay, our society has grown up.” And look at what’s happened in terms of brutality and race relations over the last few years. I think the same can hold true for feminism and for respect for women. This film, though—it was exciting to learn things, to be collaborating with Lily; I was writing this character whose experiences were different from mine but it was extremely, extremely personal to me. At the same time I had somebody who had so many of the same experiences as the character—I would have listened if she’d told me something was fake or not right. I [recently] did a thing at Lincoln Center and there was a young woman who hadn’t seen the movie, she’d just seen clips, and she said, “Could you talk about the sort of ambivalent sexuality of the character?” And I said, “Her sexuality’s not ambivalent. She’s gay.” There’s a point at which it’s revealed that she had a relationship with a male, but [I was] very conscious to have Julia’s character ask, “Did you not always like women?” and her say, “I always liked women. I didn’t always like myself.”

And what we learn, the twist in that scene with Sam Elliott’s character, is so powerful.

I think everything is personal. Depending on your perspective on the issue of abortion, I think it’s quite clear that when abortion was illegal, it wasn’t that women weren’t having abortions, it was that they were unsafe medical procedures. That Lily’s character is of an age where she can remember that is somewhat the point.

I was interested to see Eileen Myles’s poetry have a cameo in the film.

I wrote the script and the character was a poet, probably because I’d spent some time with Nick Flynn, who’s a poet, and I called Nick up and I said, “I’ve written a script about a woman who’s a 70-something-year-old poet, who should I read to know who she would like?” He gave me a number of women poets and I read Eileen’s stuff and it really struck me. I got in touch with Eileen through Nick, and she said, “I really like Lily, but is this about some old grandma? I’m not sure I want to be associated with that.” [Laughs] I kind of assured her that the character was a transgressive character. She said she liked that she felt like the character was a cowboy sort of walking off into the sunset in the end.

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