Chatting with Lily Tomlin and Paul Weitz

Aside from the opportunity it afforded him to work with Lily Tomlin, director Paul Weitz (Antz, American Pie, and About a Boy) remembers 2013's Admission as the point in his career when he lost the script. But his onset experience with the legendary funny woman did ultimately inspire him to regain his voice and produce Grandma as a vehicle for Tomlin. In the edgy indie comedy, the powerhouse comedian plays Elle, a feminist lesbian, determined to help her distraught granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) raise funds for an abortion. 

SF Weekly spoke to Lily Tomlin and Paul Weitz about Grandma, which opens Friday, their incredible creative synthesis and the challenges of relating to teens and tweens today. 

[jump] Paul, the movie feels edgier and grittier than anything you've done before. Was that intentional?

Paul Weitz: I write plays, and I think when I initially started doing film writing, the first film my brother and I did was Antz, which was an idiosyncratic movie, because it's an animated film about totalitarianism with Woody Allen, so I was initially thinking that I'll split my life and have these plays that are fulfilling something personal to me, and the film work will be something different. In this case, I actually wrote this movie in reaction to having my movie Admission come out, in which Lily did a wonderful job.

I wouldn't have written this without Admission in two ways. First off, I was hearing Lily's voice when I wrote this. But secondly, I got quite terrified when that movie came out. It was the first time I had a movie come out where I wasn't on the set of another movie. I felt for a moment that I had blown it in terms of my work and also that I didn't know where I was. I was really losing my identity somehow, so in order to throw myself a life raft creatively, I went to this cafe in Venice, and I took a notebook and sat and wrote this thing. It just kind of came to me.

While there are marvelous actors in it who'd get paid any amount of money normally, I and everybody else did it just because we loved it. It was way lower budget than anything I had done before, and that made it easier to make it more interesting, in that there's no pressure to dumb anything down, there's no pressure to be expository and I could really be myself by erasing myself and let the characters come to the fore. I'm happy that you say it's different from anything you've seen of mine, because it absolutely is. I think that meeting Lily was a huge thing, but also a product of things I learned and wanted to learn about.

What was it about the way that the two of you worked together that made you want to reconnect?

PW: I wanted to, but I don't know if Lily wanted to.

Lily Tomlin: Oh, I wanted to, but I had no idea if it would lead to anything. He totally surprised me. It was a big surprise. I was a little trepidatious, because I thought, 'What if I don't like it? It's gonna kill me to have to tell Paul that I don't like it,' if that were true. But it wasn't true. I felt lucky to have the offer, to have such a good script about something so important, interesting and human offered to me that way.

Lily, in which ways do you identify with the Elle character?

LT: In many ways. I'm feminist. I'm lesbian. I've been in a long-term relationship.  I don't have any children of my own, but I have cousins, who have small children, and we're a fairly close family, even though we're all spread out.

PW: There's something really cool about Lily. The thing about Lily and this character is that they're the quote-unquote young person in this story. Sage, this 18-year-old, is the one who can't put up her dukes.

Lily, your character's connection to her granddaughter makes the story so moving. When you meet teens or tweens today, are you able to find any common ground with them? 

LT: I'm delighted and interested in the children and how they evolve, and I'm very heartened by the idea of a young person in their late teens or early 20s, who seems like they have good sense. Then I see them fall off the wagon and I'm dismayed and horrified and think, 'God, what's gonna become of them?' Yes, I have a hard time relating to them. But that's when they're en masse. When they're in a group, they're like mongooses running wild.

I see them in Vegas, all those young girls in short dresses up to their crotch, literally, and big handbags and big hairdos, and I think,”'Oh my God, all they want is to find a guy, but they haven't given any thought to themselves,” and I'm so agonized for them. Yet, I could talk to them and they could have plenty to say about a lot of things. On the other hand, they might not. Or they might not wish to impart it to me, because I'm of another generation, at an age so far in the future that they can't even imagine they would become a part of it at some point, years down the road. I worry what it could all come to. I don't think a lot of kids or young people have a real interest in the world.

Has it always been this bad? Or is it getting worse?

LT: I have a younger brother, and he's gay, so he's not typical by any means. But my brother was more thoughtful, and I'm sure he identified with the kinds of people I identified with. So I don't even have a sibling that I can think about in those terms back in the day. And I was theatrical, too, so I didn't fall for a lot of that stuff. I had a sense of theater and how to be theatrical and how to create a life and image for yourself, so you keep pursuing that and you become something else. But I had a little core to me that I could rely on. I didn't even have teenage friends, I don't think. 

PT: Who knows? There are some really smart people who feel we're all going to be ruled by artificial intelligences fairly soon in the future.

Lily, how have you kept your personal and professional relationship with writer Jane Wagner going all these years?

LT: It's the commitment to the relationship. You're just determined to make it work. You want it to work, and not to have that person in your life, you're just going to go out and get another person to replace that person who's going to be similar to that person in some way? It's a foolish thing to destroy all the time you've put in together and the growing you've done. If you find it's central to your well-being, then I guess you have to make that choice, but I've never felt that, and I don't think Jane has. I think we just value each other. It's not so superficial that you could just cut and run. It just doesn't work that way. It doesn't work that way for us.

How do you compare collaborating with Jane to working with Paul Weitz?

LT: We make the decisions, the choices that are made. We might argue about some of them or we might disagree about them, but somehow we come to some synthesis of the choice. When you're working on your own project, you'll go to the mat for it. You just want to. You want to try to fulfill it. But anything I throw myself into, I feel that. I would want Grandma to be fulfilled. And it was. It's just a blessing. 

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