March 13, 2003
About Two Boys
Late fashion designer John Weitz inspires his Academy Award-nominated sons, Paul and Chris.
On a cloudy afternoon in Hollywood, Paul and Chris Weitz are recounting how their late father, legendary fashion designer John Weitz, dressed down a man who dissed their raunchy comedy, "American Pie."
The elder Weitz had laughed hysterically throughout a screening of the 1999 film, best known for a scene involving a libidinous teenager and a pastry.
"The next day, an elderly gentleman approached dad in a diner," says Paul, 37, sprawled in a fuzzy beanbag chair in the brothers' rambling offices.
"He said the movie was vulgar," adds Chris, 33, who, like his brother, is dressed in rumpled jeans. "And our father, who was always quick to accept a challenge, even in his 70s, said, 'Haven't you ever masturbated in your life?'"
A photograph of the impeccably groomed pere Weitz dominates a corner of the casually messy office; father figures loom large, as well, in the brothers' comic films. In "Pie," a well-meaning but dorky dad (Eugene Levy) mortifies his son with overly candid talks about sex. In "About a Boy," based on Nick Hornby's novel, Hugh Grant plays a selfish London bachelor who becomes surrogate father to a bullied, misfit kid.
John Weitz wasn't required to defend "Boy" from bullies, as the witty, heartfelt film earned the brothers rave reviews and a 2003 Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay. He never learned about the Oscar nod, however, as he died in October after a long battle with cancer.
"It was sad because one of my first thoughts was that he would have been so tickled," Paul says.
"It felt so surreal," Chris says, quietly. "He was such a powerful figure that he managed to get inside your head to the extent that you felt like it was possible that if one person on earth could not die, he was going to be the guy."
John Weitz, the son of wealthy, assimilated Berlin Jews, fled Hitler to Shanghai and then to New York in the late 1930s, his sons say. By age 19, he was an OSS spy posing as a Nazi officer in that agency's most dangerous mission: aiding the German resistance's plot to kill Hitler. After the war, he helped liberate Dachau, "which forever destroyed a kind of innocence for our dad," Paul says. He subsequently reinvented himself as a pioneering designer who starred in his own ads, raced cars professionally, and, in his later years, wrote best-selling novels and non-fiction books about Hitler's Germany.
The brothers are the product of his third marriage, to glamorous actress Susan Kohner -- daughter of famous Jewish agent Paul Kohner and Mexican Catholic actress Lupita Tovar. While the Weitz's Park Avenue household was nonreligious, it was not entirely assimilated: "Our father identified as Jewish almost out of spite toward [anti-Semites]," Chris says.
"He was always scornful of people who changed their names," Paul says. "The only people he thought should change their names were the family members of ex-Nazis."
The brothers inherited his subversive streak, sometimes to his chagrin. Dad wanted them to wear twin Navy blazers with insignias; they preferred shlumpy jeans. When John Weitz hired a German nanny to watch the boys, then 7 and 11, during a vacation, "We tortured her," Paul says. "We kept asking her what she thought of Hitler until she finally said, 'He made the country work.' We were like little OSS guys undermining her authority and questioning her politics until she got so aggravated that she left."
When Kohner's famous clients came calling (Ingmar Bergman even took them to the circus), the brothers remained cheerfully oblivious. Chris' recollection of Billy Wilder, now one of the Weitzs' cinematic heroes: "He didn't know us from Adam, but he was nice to us because of our grandparents."
By the 1990s, Paul and Chris Weitz, graduates of Wesleyan and Cambridge University, respectively, were determined to launch their own filmmaking careers. Their father initially had his own idea of how they should proceed: "He kept suggesting that we ring up Merchant Ivory Productions," Chris says with a laugh. Instead, the boisterous, bookish brothers snagged script doctoring assignments and persuaded DreamWorks to let them write the 1998 animated film, "Antz."
For their directorial debut, they latched onto Adam Herz's "American Pie," which placed them among a growing list of filmmaking brothers (Coens, Farrellys, Wachowskis) whose perspective is not only shared but genetic. They don't think it's surprising that the scions of all that John Weitz breeding grew up to make a ribald teen classic: "There is a kind of old Berlin, knockabout bawdy sense of humor in 'American Pie,' which was our dad's sense of humor, actually," Chris says.
Nevertheless -- in part to counter the raunchy image -- they sought to make a more sophisticated, Billy Wilder-ish comedy after "American Pie." They knew they'd found it upon reading "About a Boy": Hornby's protagonist "reminded us of Jack Lemmon's character in 'The Apartment,'" Chris says. "The story is unerringly optimistic, but there's enough cynicism and acid in it not to make you gag."
When Hornby and Grant balked at hiring the "pie guys," the brothers won them over during a series of social calls (they bonded with Grant while getting falling-down drunk in London). They begged Universal for two years before landing the project.
Grant, for one, was impressed: "As it turns out, Chris and Paul are probably the most highbrow directors I've ever worked with," he told Newsweek. "Bizarrely so. They sit around on the set reading Freud and Dostoyevsky."
Since receiving the Oscar nomination, and other "Boy" kudos, the brothers no longer have to beg to direct projects of their choice. They've toyed with the idea of filming their father's story, although they have rejected that idea, for the time being, because "you don't want to sensationalize it or mess it up," according to Paul. Instead, they're working on another comedy, "The Making of a Chef," about the escapades of culinary school students. Their father would have liked it, they think.
Even though the cooking saga will not feature a pie.
The Academy Awards air March 23 on ABC.