Pie Kids

How two American filmmakers made a very British Boy

Despite coming from a show-biz family--their mother, Susan Kohner, was nominated for an Academy Award for Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life; their father is designer John Weitz--they've not traded on their roots. After Antz, the Weitzes had to convince a studio they could direct their own film, to be made with millions of dollars. Universal handed them a budget of $11.3 million; they made their Pie for $10.8 million and for their efforts were rewarded with an opening weekend haul of $18 million. (It eventually broke the $100 million mark during its U.S. theatrical run; worldwide receipts, plus home-video sales, would more than double that figure.) For their second film, Down to Earth, they would not prove so fortunate.

In hindsight, the Weitzes agree it was perhaps a bad idea to remake Heaven Can Wait with Chris Rock. Not only were they taking on an adored film--the Warren Beatty-Elaine May version from 1978, not to mention the original Here Comes Mr. Jordan made in 1941--but they also found themselves trying to deliver Rock as a bona fide movie star, which was his intention all along. But the result was a sanitized and dull redo, a stuffy-silly movie about racism and romance that wound up as earthbound as any major studio film released last year. Paul readily admits his brother was reluctant to even get involved and that he pushed for the job.

"It was roundly despised by the mainstream press, and probably rightly so," Paul says, "at least in terms of Chris and my sort of..."

Chris Weitz, left, and brother Paul hustled About a Boy to five studios before getting it greenlit.
Chris Weitz, left, and brother Paul hustled About a Boy to five studios before getting it greenlit.

"Participation?" Chris says, smiling broadly. (He often finishes his brother's answers with a question.)

"You've got a beloved film that we're remaking," Paul says, "and both Chris Rock and us are known for pushing the envelope, and we made, like, practically a G movie."

"It was a weird sort of intellectual conceit on our part," Chris says. "We thought, 'Well, it will be interesting breaking someone as a movie star; it will be interesting remaking a film for the second time.' And I think we got..." He pauses. "We started contemplating our navels so that when it came to..."

Paul interrupts. "Now I feel a bit differently about it, 'cause I know that despite the fact that our work on it was not necessarily successful, artistically I wouldn't give back the experience of having shot a film in Harlem and making an almost all black film. I mean, American Pie was almost all white, and it was just a completely different experience. I got exposed to a lot of things I hadn't seen before. And maybe the film wasn't...Actually, what I wanted the film to be was a film that 11-year-olds could see and get exposed to questions of race in America. To that extent, I actually think that it was OK. I know parents who took their kids to see it. So, I don't know. It was...an experience." The brothers laugh.

If they were in disagreement about what to do for their second film, there were no doubts about the third. They had both read About a Boy when it was published in 1998 and wanted to make the film; they use words like "covet" and "passion" when talking about how badly they wanted the property. Problem was, it belonged to New Line, which had already commissioned a script, hired a director and wrangled a star.

The script had been floating around New Line for three years: Peter Hedges (A Map of the World) had written it and, by all accounts, so mangled the novel it was all but unrecognizable. (Apparently, Will Freeman was, in his version, an American transplanted to London, and its finale took place in the veddy Hollywood setting of Piccadilly Circus.) Worse, set to direct was Ian Softley, whose last film was the inexorable K-PAX starring Kevin Spacey as a banana-eating lunatic who may or not be an alien, as though anyone gave a whit by film's end. The studio eventually ditched Hedges' script, and the Weitzes turned in their own--which was promptly "deep-sixed" by the studio, says Paul. New Line immediately put the film into turnaround; it was stuck, for a while, in that revolving door leading to oblivion. "New Line," Paul says with a deadpan smile, "obviously had their doubts."

Chris and Paul eventually would take their script to five different studios, giving each "a dog-and-pony show," Paul says. Initially, it felt as though time was running out: They were bumping against the then-impending writers' strike deadline, and at least one studio wanted them to move the film to the United States, which would have all but ruined the movie. Finally it landed at Universal, and Hornby and Grant signed off--because, in part, they were tired of watching the movie bounce around for so long.

"Only now are we hearing about the resistance to our doing the movie," Chris says. "Everybody tries to be polite to you in Hollywood."

That's shocking. Since when?

"'Cause they never know when they're going to run into you again," Chris says, "not because they're good people."

"I mean, I know Hugh had resisted us, because he was worried that we were going to drag the tone down into the gutter," Paul says. "He was probably more worried about whether we had that part of the brain that could process....uh...um..."

"Complex ideas?" Chris says. He and his brother crack up.

Paul, taking a deep breath, smiles. "Yeah" is all he says.

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