It started with a pie. Once Chris Weitz and brother Paul deflowered the dessert in 1999's American Pie, they became two of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood. Though he was barely out of his twenties, Chris Weitz was smart enough not to squander the opportunity, and instead of signing on to keep the sequels coming (seven, counting the straight-to-DVD installments), he held out to direct more literally adult fare like Chris Rock's Down to Earth and About a Boy , the Hugh Grant-led adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel. Weitz invested the next several years in his passion project—the big budget fantasy film The Golden Compass —but the film's irreligious subtext coupled with Weitz's high ambitions and the studio's anxiety doomed the American release. Though worldwide grosses of $372 million justified the estimated $180 million budget, its comparatively small US take left everyone involved backing away from what had once considered a surefire franchise. But with The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Weitz has taken the reins of another hit franchise, and he's certain to steer this one to box office success. Weitz talks to B OXOFFICE about the power of break-up stories and his family's gratitude to vampires—a lineage that stretches back to his grandparents.
How do you direct a film when everyone knows the story and ending?
In a way, that's an advantage. That people know and love the book means that people know and want to see the movie, which is what you hope for when you're making a film. It's a fine balance between being as faithful as possible to the spirit of the book, and bringing changes. I regard myself as fan as much as any other, and the way that I see the book in my head is just like any other fan's ability, except that I happen to have tens of millions of dollars at my disposal to realize that vision. One hopes that it's a strong enough envisioning of the book that people will be amused and entertained and excited even though they know how things are going to end.
One of my favorite New Moon conspiracy theories is that the producers are ordering Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson to keep their love hidden because it will affect the way people will perceive the story, even though the story is already known even until the next two books.
The fans know what the Volturi look like or what Taylor Lautner as Jacob's amazing bod is going to look like—the producers know these things are big points of curiosity about whether we've been able to be faithful to people's notions. And they want to parse these things out over time. [Laughs] It is a conspiracy, but the conspiracy is called marketing.
There are so many films about vampires, vampire romances, teenage romances—what is it about Twilight 's love triangle that's catalyzed this phenomenon?
To me, it has a lot less to do with vampires and werewolves than with readily identifiable emotional situations. Bella has a choice between the loving friend who's nearby and the distant, unattainable object of her affections. That's a pretty common scenario, and unfortunately also, so is being dumped. I know I've experienced it—pretty much anybody except the incredibly lucky has experienced it—and the supernatural element of things just allows for a degree of wish fulfillment. We can play out these scenarios on a grand scale. When you get broken up with, you'd like to think that if you just did something brave enough, something amazing enough, you could rescue the relationship that's been broken. And you would like to think that the person who's left you has left you for your own good against their heart. That's usually not the case, but in New Moon it happens to be, so that's a lovely way to fulfill one's wishes. A great thing that Summit as a studio understands is that there are dark places that the movie has to go in order for it all to work. They're not afraid of the angst and the sorrow that's in the book. In a way, the film can be kind of a throwback to weepies as well as very cutting edge in terms of visual effects.
It's got this operatic tone that's like soma for anyone with a broken heart.
We're probably going to put out one of the greatest breakup mix albums of all time on the soundtrack. Alexandre Desplat doing the music means there's this sense of French Romanticism that goes back to Alexandre's mentor Maurice Jarre and everything he did for David Lean's movies—going back to Debussy and Ravel and that kind of stuff. There is a lot of luxuriating in the emotionalism of the piece. I think I'm probably now supposed to add at this point that there's great stuff for guys as well. But leave that aside for the moment.
You talked a minute ago about Pattinson being an 'unattainable male.' We always see stories about men pursuing a woman. It's rare to see stories where a woman really pursues a man, and when you do, it's usually handled like All About Steve, where it teeters into comic stalking.
Exactly. You always hear about the male gaze in films, but this seems to have such a strong female gaze. One of the prerequisites is how many times Pattinson and Lautner take off their shirts.
It's there in the script, and that's one for the ladies, really. Women have been objectified plenty in Hollywood films. And there's still sort of a chasteness to the objectification in Twilight and New Moon. One approaches it hopefully with a bit of tact—not just an exercise in beefcake peddling. You hope when you're shooting any kind of above-the-waist nudity that it suits the demand of the moment, it isn't just in there for the hell of it. That being said, I think we did come to Comic-Con with a lot of muscles and it was really fun to see the reaction to it. I've tried to make films that take into account the female members of the audience. Even American Pie, which comes from a genre that is notoriously misogynist.
I would agree with that. In American Pie, you make a point to show the girl's side of why she would or wouldn't do it on Prom Night—it was fair.
We were trying to say, too, that they were really in control of the scenario, and the guys were more or less hopeless schlubs just trying to navigate these waters. The girls were in control of what happened when.
American Pie —like Twilight —was one of those films that made stars of everyone in the cast. This time around, do you find yourself wanting to give this new generation career or life advice?
I don't particularly feel qualified because I'm not in their situation. I don't have to deal with that fame; I'm able to turn it on or off—or rather, the publicity department is able to turn it on and off. I don’t walk around and get recognized. I'm recognized in inverse proportion to my nearness to Rob. There's some kind of equation I could work out. Basically if I'm within 50 yards of Rob, I matter. If not, I just don't. I think that they don't really need my advice because they are determined to remain true to their own life, in spite of anything that might turn their heads. That's the only advice I could give them: that they stay the clever and decent people who they already are. And I don't think they're manifesting any problems in that regard.
I heard that the on-set experience has been like living in A Hard Days Night.
It was like that in Italy. Although it wasn't so much running and chasing. I'd compare it more to The Birds. You look around and then there's suddenly ten girls over there. And then there's 20. Then 30, then 40. And then suddenly the street you're intending to walk down to get to your next location or lunch is just blocked and there's no way to get through. Or you will get through, but it'll take you hours because you'll take pictures and sign autographs. Which is fair enough because they've come all this way and they're really the reason that we're there. Or you'll have to be a real meanie and just run past. I've developed a preoccupied look that sometimes works. I try to seem as though there's something going really badly at a different location, and sometimes that gets me out of situations.
Have there been any crazy fan experiences?
The crazy thing has been how extraordinarily supportive, friendly and enthusiastic people are. They really want this to be done right, but they're not hyper-critical. There's a degree of good faith between the people making the movie and the people who want to see it, and we are innocent until proven guilty. And that's great because that's not always the case with fan boys. I did encounter this Italian girl in Montepulciano who then appeared in Vancouver who speaks impeccable English. That's one of the reasons I recognized her. She came up to me and said, 'Do you remember me?' and I said yes, I did. And then her mom was there and I sort of wanted to ask her mom what else she and her kid were up to because it seemed like she should be in school, but it's really not my place.
Which other book would you love to film?
To be honest, I would love to film The Golden Compass. I would love to have been allowed to do my own cut of The Golden Compass because I did film that book and there could be a real version of it, but it would cost millions of dollars to complete with the special effects. The cut was taken away from me and that was a devastating experience. That's the other book that I would like to film. I wouldn't have the strength to go through another three years to do it, but it is a great shame that the fear of the ideas in the book led the studio to do a version which I think caused its own downfall.
It was a beautiful film, the look of it.
It's a good-looking film. And there are moments where it's precisely the way I wanted it to look or to feel. But it's been put through a blender so that the interesting ideas that it had in it and the real emotional heft of the story was lost. And that's a shame because I take very seriously my responsibilities to an author in trying to represent their vision on film. Failing Philip Pullman in that regard is a big sadness for me because he's one of the authors I most admire in the world.
Between the author and the studio, that can be a lot of weight.
It is, and I have to say that Summit understands that the fans want to see the book in the film, not just a popcorn movie.
It's almost a safety net, having that many people know the book already very well, more than American audiences knew The Golden Compass.
Yes, American audiences weren't that familiar with The Golden Compass. Once you start monkeying around with the plot and characters and key concepts in the film, you really lose what made the book appeal to anyone in the first place. If you take the example of The Lord of the Rings, it wasn't that it made everybody into a geek overnight. People were able to see what had been great about it in the first place, and the adherence to story and character really paid off, even though a lot of people went to see it who hadn't read Lord of the Rings in the first place and didn't know anything else.
What can you tell me about The Game, the film adaptation of the Neil Strauss guide to picking up women?
I can tell you that Rawson Thurber [director of
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
] is going to direct it, and that he is rewriting it now. It's an attempt to walk a very fine line with a project like this. It has things to say about the relationships between men and women and it could be perceived as misogynistic or as a textbook in how to manipulate women. But it's really not about that—it's about the weaknesses of men and women more than anything else.
And your brother Paul also has a high school vampire movie coming out?
He does. That was not planned at all. It's very funny. A week before I was offered
New Moon, I was wondering why there were so many vampire movies around. Paul had wanted to indulge a long-standing love of the grotesque, which the
Cirque du Freak
series allowed with its visuals and that sort of perversity—not perversion, but perversity—of the books and the script. It's a funny coincidence. Actually, if you want to take it one step further, my grandmother was a silent film actress in the Mexican version of
Dracula. They shot it on the same sets as the Todd Browning version, but they started shooting at midnight. My grandfather, who was a producer for Universal at the time, was courting my grandmother, and when talkies came out, there were no parts for women with strong Mexican accents. He convinced Carl Laemmle at Universal that you could make a profit by using the same sets during the night and making Spanish-language versions of the same film. Hence, the Spanish
Dracula. It's a film geek delight to compare the Todd Browning version to the Mexican version.
And if your grandfather hadn't done that, you might not exist.
This is true. If it weren't for vampires...