Interview: Little Fockers Director Paul Weitz

Director Paul Weitz has a ton of pressure on him with his latest film, Little Fockers. Not only does he have to manage a massive top-notch cast, but he’s also the guy who has to take the reins from Jay Roach, the man who helmed the first two films that grossed over $330 million and $516.6 million worldwide, apiece. But Weitz is the guy responsible for critically acclaimed films like About a Boy and In Good Company and he certainly has experience managing an ensemble cast and dealing with some pretty raunchy material thanks to his very first feature, American Pie. Little Fockers was right up his alley.

This time around the action takes place in Greg and Pam’s (Ben Stiller and Teri Polo) hometown, Chicago. They’re about to throw a big birthday party for their twins and the whole family is coming for the occasion. Well, everyone except Greg’s dad, Bernie (Dustin Hoffman), because he’s busy studying the Flamenco in Barcelona. As much as the kids want their grandfather to be there, one less person might not be a bad thing because Greg is already trying to deal with the usual pressure from Pam’s father, Jack (Robert De Niro), her ex, Kevin (Owen Wilson), trying to get the kids into the esteemed Early Human School and attempting to promote the erectile dysfunction medication for the beautiful drug rep Andi Garcia (Jessica Alba) without Pam questioning his motives.

There’s a lot going on in this film and there was a lot going on on the set as well. While Weitz was thrilled to be working with John Hamburg on the script, a significant amount of material came naturally, through improvisation. Unfortunately, with so much on-set inventing came many more cuts in the editing room. Check out what Weitz had to say about guiding his cast while still giving them their freedom, what didn’t make it into the film, but will be on the DVD and much more.

When it came time to take on this franchise, what were some of the clichés you knew you wanted to avoid?

One cliché I wanted to avoid is that there’s no reason to do the third version of a franchise and there’s a big temptation to just go to the well and have 100 Focker jokes and every new actor who comes to it wants to at some point say, ‘Focker, Focker!’ [Laughs] You have to gently go in and say, ‘I’m sorry. We just did that five minutes ago in the film.’

Can you tell us about the Jaws and The Godfather references? Were those in the script or just something that came up while filming?

The Godfocker reference was in the script phase and I assume it was John Hamburg who did a lovely job and was really helpful to me not only in terms of the script, but in terms of helping me make the film. That was part of what made this make sense to me was this ridiculous sense that there is such a thing as complete leadership of a family and that it’s going to fall to the man to be that and Ben’s character is confident enough in his life now that makes him fall into this fatal trap of being The Godfocker. Then in terms of the Jaws scene, I can’t remember when that came up. It might have been the stunt coordinator who put some Jaws music over it. [Laughs]

How do you manage all those personalities and getting them all screen time?

[Laughs] It is like managing an all-star team where you have to distribute the ball. This one, the generator of it is Ben [Stiller] and Bob [De Niro]’s relationship, which is similar to the first film and there’s so much conflict in that relationship that it’s a good place for it to be. I’ve witnessed in my directing that I can make actors worse as well as make them better and so I try to recognize that. If I give a terrible note, I’ll go up and say, ‘That note was terrible and please just do the opposite or do anything you want.’ [Laughs] They know what they’re doing and eventually it boils down to some game of make believe where you’re having a good time trying to figure out what that character would be going through and that’s what I would tell to my idols who I was getting to direct.

This film has a lot of physical comedy. Did you ever look at the script and say, ‘This is going too far?’

I did start out by directing American Pie, so I have great experiences with bodily fluids of all type. [Laughs] Nothing was ever going to feel quite as inappropriate as that. My experience did come in handy. I know that when you’re doing a certain kind of situation below the belt, it’s [the actor’s] decision what size of prosthetic they’re going to get. [Laughs] So I’m pretty shameless and what you try to pay attention to is that everything is hopefully coming out of something that the characters are doing. So the kid vomits not just because it would be funny and mortifying to be vomited on by your kid, but because Greg is stupid enough to think that now that he’s the boss of his family, he’s going to get his kid to eat something that the kid doesn’t want to eat. I’ve done that in a restaurant. It was actually way worse than the situation in the film. [Laughs] I was trying to get her to eat some sort of peanut butter praline thing and my daughter threw up on me and on the table.

Did you feel the need to top the other movies?

I didn’t think I could top the others. I think the funny thing in this one is that so much of that mortification is born by Bob’s character. He’s the one who gets the erection that he can’t get rid of and he’s the one who gets buried under a ton of dirt and so it was interesting to shift things a little in that direction.

How difficult is it to sit down with Robert De Niro and say, ‘We’re going to fit you with a prosthetic penis and then we’re going to throw some dirt on you?’

Well, if I said it that way, it would be really difficult. Bob is really game and he really wants to get it right. It’s somewhat terrifying having your star jumping into a ball pit with full force, face first and you just really hope that it’s in focus and that you’re not going to have him do it too many times because he will do it. It’s not difficult with him because he’s so game.

Was anything off limits with him?

I gave him a couple of cringe worthy notes. It was really funny because I got to rehearse with him a little bit and I genuinely was rehearsing with Bob and Ben and everybody as if I was doing the school play. [Laughs] I was doing acting exercises. There’s that scene when they’re on the phone together and I knew I was going to have them in the same room when they shot it. I knew it had to feel somehow like they’re in the same room when they were cutting back and forth between locations, so it was a room about this size and I set it up so that there were six chairs and at a certain point in the dialogue, I started them far apart and had them move closer and closer until they were really facing each other. I’m sure that they were absolutely just humoring me, but they did it.

What do you think you brought to this franchise?

I think eventually I brought a degree of humility, which is probably the main quality that was going to serve me. I am sort of drawn to people grappling with the myth of what manliness is and how that works and how that very culture clearly isn’t outdated. I’m also in a similar situation to Ben’s character in that I have a six-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son and so I’m at that point where it no longer feels like some sort of fever dream that I have children; it’s sunk in that I have kids and I could quite possibly screw up this most important job. Also I can identify with his feelings of insecurity, perhaps often too much. [Laughs] And also I bring to it being a fan of these actors, so it was exciting to me doing a bunch of takes with Bob or Dustin [Hoffman] Barbra [Streisand] or Harvey [Keitel] – and to get to say their first names. [Laughs]

Jay Roach produced this film, so did he have any good advice for you having directed the first two films?

I asked him early on, ‘How many takes do you do?’ And he kind of said, ‘Let them go.’ I wish he was around sometimes because sometimes it was hard for me to know when to say cut, which is kind of like the director’s main job. If you sit around dozing in your chair and then mumble cut at a certain point, the movie will get made. [Laughs] But when you have people that are improvising and doing real fun stuff it’s really hard; there were times when I called cut and they’d look over at me and go, ‘We were just getting into it.’ So then the next take, I’d wait around and I wouldn’t call cut until the camera ran out and they’d look at me and sort of go, ‘Why are you doing this to us?’ [Laughs] So those were moments when I wished Jay would have been around to nudge me.

How was it directing Barbra specifically?

There’s a scene, which will be on the DVD extras where she sings really poorly. She sings “Happy Birthday” very off key. [Laughs] I know she had a hoot doing it and I found it really funny. She is very prepared. When I first met her, I went to her house and we were sitting in a room and at first, my back was to the ocean and around twilight she said, ‘How would you like to sit over here and catch the view from this side?’ So I said, ‘Sure, that’s be great.’ So I went and sat over there and I realized that she had changed her lighting. She was in complete control [laughs], so I had no delusions. She’s a marvelous director and a powerful mind, so I just had a really good time doing it and she was very gracious about my fumbling around.

Did she adlib a lot?

She adlibbed a bit, but it was more like she would come in with ideas for the script or that she and Dustin would work something out. I think Dustin really cracks her up and I think sometimes before a take, before I’d start shooting, I’d hear them giggling and I knew it was Dustin doing something inappropriate with her. [Laughs]

You’re speaking about the actors as though you’re constantly managing improvisation and always thinking about ways to approach them. Is that true? What is the way that you approach them?

One thinks of improvisation as coming up with new lines, but actually acting needs to be improvisatory because filmmaking is so mechanical. You have these cameras around; it’s a little easier when it’s digital, but still, there’s people standing around watching and possibly texting other people and it’s very hard to retain the feeling of reality, which is you don’t know how you’re going to react next. You might know what you’re going to say next in a conversation, but you don’t know how you’re going to say it. So I feel like there’s some element of being prepared and at the same time trying to create spontaneity even if it’s exactly what’s scripted on the page. To me it’s always about keeping a moving target with the actor. What I want is no separation between the actor and the character, that they internalized it so much and know so much more about that character than I do that they’re living inside the moment in a very strange situation, which is the lowly thing about filmmaking, there’s some lesson there about being spontaneous in an artificial situation.

Bob, Owen [Wilson] and Dustin spoke about how there were some great scenes that were improvised that didn’t make it into the final cut. Can you tell us about them? Can we expect to see some of this on the DVD?

You can expect about five movies worth of stuff. Everybody sort of points to editing as a marvelous part of the filmmaking process and it is, but it’s also kind of heartbreaking because you end up, for the sake of the film being as tight as possible, cutting lots of really terrific stuff and that was certainly the case here. Some of my favorite stuff is not in the film.

Like what?

Some of the really eccentric stuff. There’s a point when Owen falls from the flagpole at the end. Actually Laura Dern was there at one point and he says that he’s like Icarus – flew too close to the sun. [Laughs] I really liked that and I wish it was in the film, but it will be on the DVD I imagine.

Perri Nemiroff

Staff Writer for CinemaBlend.