'Being Flynn' Takes On Father-Son Relationships

Filmmaker Paul Weitz's new film, Being Flynn, is about a struggling writer who meets his estranged father while working at a homeless shelter. The movie stars Robert De Niro and Paul Dano, and it's based on a 2004 memoir by Nick Flynn. Host Rachel Martin talks with Weitz.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is one of the most complicated of family relationships, the one between father and son. Filmmaker Paul Weitz tackles it head-on in his new film, "Being Flynn." And it is familiar territory for the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of "About a Boy," the 2002 film about a bachelor who becomes a surrogate father to a 12-year-old boy in London.

But Weitz's latest film is set in New York City where Nick Flynn, a young struggling writer, played by Paul Dano, runs into his estranged father one night while working at a homeless shelter. It's only the second time Dano's character has seen its alcoholic, ex-con father, - played by Robert DeNiro, since he abandoned the family years ago. The first face-to-face meeting between father and son is almost nearly as awkward.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BEING FLYNN")

PAUL DANO: (as Nick Flynn) So you drive a taxi, right?

ROBERT DENIRO: (as Jonathan Flynn) Well, it's an excellent way of learning about all different kinds of people. And what's your vocation?

DANO: (as Nick Flynn) My vocation - done lots of different jobs.

DENIRO: (as Jonathan Flynn) I always thought you'd end up a writer, like your old man.

DANO: (as Nick Flynn) Actually, I do write. You know, sometimes I try.

DENIRO: (as Jonathan Flynn) Well, there's no such thing as trying to write. One writes are one doesn't.

MARTIN: That was Robert DeNiro and Paul Dano in a scene from "Being Flynn." Paul Weitz wrote and directed that new film which is based on a memoir by the writer Nick Flynn.

PAUL WEITZ: It's just odd because this is sort of the most personal film that I've done, but it's based on someone else's life story. And when I read the book, which is a different name from the film, a name which I was unable to put on the movie marquee...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: We should say the sanitized title of the memoir is "Another BS Night in Suck City."

WEITZ: Exactly, and nor would they even allow me to do that on the movie marquee.

MARTIN: Wow.

WEITZ: When I read this book, it really got under my skin and in particular the theme of whether we're fated to become, in this case, our father, or whether we can create ourselves as new people.

MARTIN: Did you feel some pressure? I mean this is a very personal story that Nick Flynn has told in his memoir.

WEITZ: Well, Nick has a great sense of irony and he thinks his book, along with being sort of dramatic, is quite funny because of the inherent strange situation of having a dad who considers himself a great writer. In the beginning of the movie, DeNiro says there's only three classic writers in American history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BEING FLYNN")

DENIRO: (as Jonathan Flynn) America has produced only three classic writers: Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, and me.

WEITZ: He's the sort of genius...

MARTIN: He's a little delusional.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEITZ: Well, yes. He's delusional and at the same time, Jonathan Flynn - the real person - is still alive and has now had a memoir written about him and a movie in which he's being played by Robert DeNiro. So I can't really tell if his delusions have been borne true.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEITZ: And then there was a very funny movie where I went with the DeNiro and Nick to visit his dad for the first time. And as opposed to being at all intimidated by meeting Robert DeNiro, Jonathan looked across at him and said, So you think you can pull this off. And Nick said...

MARTIN: Wow.

WEITZ: ...well, Dad, he's a very well-respected actor. He did the "Godfather." And Jonathan said I know, I know, but do you think he's going to be able to play me?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEITZ: One of the ironies in this is, is that that degree of ego tends to lead him in toward self-destruction. But, at the same time, Nick feels that the sense of outsized self-confidence is what kept his dad from either being permanently institutionalized or living on the street.

MARTIN: As you mentioned, a big theme in this movie is this question of how much influence our parents have over who we become, the people we become...

WEITZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...and how that can be a burden sometimes. Your mother, Susan Kohner, is an actress. But your father, John Weitz, wasn't in the movie business. He was a fashion designer, I understand.

WEITZ: Yeah, he was quite a successful fashion designer and really a product of World War II. He was a German Jew who was a refugee and then ended up in the OSS. And he had, for very excellent reasons, demons.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEITZ: And while he was a successful fashion designer, I think he always thought that was kind of a frivolous way to make a living. And he wanted to be a writer. That was his dream. I think in particular he wanted to be Ernest Hemingway. But he would write into late at night. He'd, you know, do his day job of being a fashion designer and running that business. And then he'd write all night.

It struck me how driven he was. And I, luckily, had a very loving father but one who was clearly been battling through some things. And I absolutely identify with certain aspects of the character in Nick's memoir. The movie is meant to feel, along with anything else, almost like a myth of parenting.

MARTIN: How so?

WEITZ: In that the character is mythologized by his son in this case, because the son doesn't know him. He would only receive these letters, when he was a kid from prison. But the letters would be along the lines of: Never fear, I'm going to be winning the Nobel Prize within two years.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEITZ: And I think we all mythologize our parents, whether they were present or absent; whether they were somebody like this who's an outside figure or somebody like Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman," who's just struggling to make it through every day. There's some story that we tell ourselves about where we come from that inevitably makes us wonder if it utterly informs where we're going.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about this guy, Robert DeNiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: He stars in the film as the father, Jonathan Flynn; pretty heavy thing to secure him in this role.

WEITZ: Well, no question. And I met him years ago when he was a producer in "About a Boy." In this case...

MARTIN: We should also mention you worked with him on...

WEITZ: Oh, on "Little Fockers."

MARTIN: "The Little Fockers."

WEITZ: Yes. Yes, a very similar film...

(SOUNDBITE OF )

MARTIN: A little different tone.

WEITZ: Yeah, "Being Flynn" has a few more laughs than it. An example of Bob's attitude was a month before we were supposed to start shooting "Being Flynn," I was in New York doing prep. And we got a weather report that it was supposed to blizzard the next day. And so, you never know when it's going to snow and I needed to have a section of the movie where DeNiro was walking around the streets in the snow.

And I called up DeNiro and I said where are you and what are you doing tomorrow? And he said, Well, I'm in New York, and why? And I said how would you feel about throwing on some costume and coming out with me and shooting? So we went out with DeNiro and we shot in the Financial District, where I knew people were not going to pay attention to the camera or to Robert DeNiro walking down the street.

MARTIN: Looking like a homeless guy.

WEITZ: Yes, looking like a homeless guy, I should say. And...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEITZ: ...Bob is involved in a hotel in New York - and this is going to sound like a made up story - but they got a call one day that there was a homeless person in the lobby.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: No.

WEITZ: And they came down and it was their boss.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEITZ: One of their bosses. But anyway, I thought it was so marvelous that Bob was up for going out there as if we were shooting a student film.

MARTIN: The first film you directed was "American Pie."

WEITZ: Yes.

MARTIN: Another very different tone.

WEITZ: You know, the funny thing is that "American Pie," I got to direct it with my brother. And we were very conscious of the fact that while it was a flat out comedy, the sort of core of it was that there was a bunch of guys who really cared about each other, but who were about to graduate college and who were not going to be seeing each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WEITZ: And sort of that was what was driving them to these insane, ridiculous self-defeating acts.

MARTIN: Wondering when you look back at that, I mean that's now in American classic film...

WEITZ: Aw, thank you.

MARTIN: ...if you don't mind me saying. But as you look at the arc of your career, what did you learn from that first film, from that first experience that has shaped what you do now?

WEITZ: Honestly, what I learned was that I want to treat people with respect on set. And that's what we did on the first film and that's what I try to do every time I make a film. I'm really interested in the things that one can control in life. And one of the things you can control is how you treat other people. And being a director on a film set, you have a huge amount of power essentially to determine what kind of day people are going to have.

MARTIN: You mentioned that you worked with her brother before, who's also a filmmaker. Chris Weitz has also recently released another film about the father-son dynamic.

WEITZ: That's true, yeah...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: "A Better Life" about an undocumented Mexican immigrant and his teenage son, living in L.A. Is this a subject that you and Chris just keep wanting to wrestle with?

WEITZ: I think so. Yeah, and that they're very different films, "Being Flynn" and "A Better Life." But in some ways they're both were sort of modestly budgeted films. And certainly I do think of my dad sort of and how pleased he would be not only that Chris and I made films together, but that we had sort of had enough chutzpah to think we could do it on our own, as well.

MARTIN: And that he's a thread linking them.

WEITZ: Yeah, no question. Yeah, that we had to start to make films about our mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Paul Weitz wrote and directed the new film "Being Flynn." He joined us from our Washington, D.C. studios.

Paul, thanks so much for stopping by.

WEITZ: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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