Pie Kids

How two American filmmakers made a very British Boy

At first, they approach tentatively, their pens and posters timidly extended as though afraid the two men standing beneath the blank movie screen might bite or bark them out of the theater. "No, no," insists Chris Weitz, standing next to his older brother Paul. "I'm happy to sign your poster," and he proceeds to scribble his name across Hugh Grant's grinning mug. Chris' kind gesture--he signs with a smile--opens the floodgates; soon, the auditorium, which had been emptying after a screening of the Weitzes' big-screen adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel About a Boy and a post-movie question-and-answer session, begins to fill back up as word spreads through the lobby that the brothers are handing out autographs. Later, over a cocktail in the Dallas theater's lobby bar, Chris will admit his eagerness to dole out such scribbles. "Man, things like this are the only time we're recognized," he says, chuckling.

Though 36-year-old Paul and 32-year-old Chris have, in fact, starred in a movie--2000's Chuck and Buck, in which Chris played a character creepily shadowed by a childhood friend--they are anonymous; at dinner, before the Q&A, they strolled through a steak house without attracting a single patron's glance. Such is the lot of the storyteller who gets out of the way of the story; they glide through life unknown, unbothered and unburdened, because they make their magic on the wrong end of the lens to ever become too famous. If one were to tell diners who they were, perhaps they would be impressed: "These are the guys who made that movie about a guy who has sex with a pie," one might offer by way of introducing the directors of American Pie. A parent might flinch; their children might dude 'em to death.

The funny thing is, Universal, which is releasing About a Boy, isn't selling the movie as being from the men who baked American Pie; quite the opposite. The poster instead advertises it as being from "the makers of Bridget Jones's Diary and Notting Hill" and "the producers of Meet the Parents"--which is technically accurate but artistically misleading. Yes, it was financed by the UK-based Working Title Films, which was also responsible for Four Weddings and a Funeral; and, yes, Robert De Niro's Tribeca Productions produced the film. But it seems somehow...dishonest (and unfair, not just a little bit). The Weitzes, who fought for years to make About a Boy, deserve better.

"It's about marketing," Chris says, with a tiny shrug.

"I think it's more like, 'It's British and the people have funny accents, but you will enjoy it,'" Paul says, between bites of chicken-fried steak.

"'And we will make money,'" Chris adds.

"I think they're probably right," Paul says, "but it goes, like, 'From the producers of Meet the Parents and the makers of Bridget Jones's Diary,' but it doesn't go, 'From the guys who brought you pie fucking.'"

It's unfortunate the studio would choose to advertise the film this way. About a Boy--about a rich slacker, played by Grant, coming to terms with his uselessness when he meets a 12-year-old boy with a suicidal mother--actually plays like the grown-up counterpart to American Pie, which was as much about the relationship between Jason Biggs and Eugene Levy as sexually discombobulated son and compassionate pop as it was a slightly naughty teen sexploitation romp. (Indeed, the brothers will readily admit they're not fans of that genre anyway.) Grant's Will Freeman might even be the middle-aged, British version of Biggs' Jim Levinstein--a selfish, horny man coming of age only as he crawls toward 40. What the poster hides is the fact American Pie, deep beneath its crust, was a warm-hearted, good-natured film about growing up.

"I would tend to agree," Paul says.

"Maybe it'll just get 'gay, gay, gay' written all over the posters," Chris offers, and he's probably right. "We're trying to spin-doctor this so that guys won't run screaming away from it. The best indication of that should be the movie itself. So, really, we're not going to kid you; I think people are seeing it as a chick flick, and 'From the makers of Bridget Jones' doesn't help us in that regard."

Fact is, About a Boy needs little prompting at all; it's a remarkable work in its own right, a heartwarming bit of cinema at a time when most movies feel cold to the touch. The Weitzes have ripped the guts out of Hornby's novel and given it soul; if the novel was obsessed with Nirvana, the film hums like a Van Morrison song. And it reveals an extraordinary evolution: Where their earlier films--they wrote Antz before shooting American Pie and The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps afterward--suggest workmanlike skill, their newest work was rendered with considerable care and compassion. Billy Wilder--who was a client of their grandfather, agent Paul Kohner--would be proud; the brothers have built their own Apartment, a comedy populated by a suicidal woman, played by The Sixth Sense's Toni Collette.

"We just wanted to do something where the tone was balanced between cynicism and hopefulness," Chris says. "Will's situation--I mean, inventing a child to meet women--was such a Wilder premise, it just leapt out at you."

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..."

"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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