In Grandma, Lily Tomlin does not play your typical grandma.
She doesn’t bake cookies or assume a beatific and benign smile through adversity. Tomlin, as Elle Reid, grandmother to Julia Garner’s Sage, is a firecracker and a hoot. A feisty, cranky, angry, brainy, feminist, lesbian septuagenarian, Elle is a complicated, three-dimensional woman who proves that movies about older women can be fascinating and hilarious, and that there is an audience for their stories. [Read our interview with Tomlin here.]
Paul Weitz, best known for the testosterone driven 1999 teen romp American Pie and the 2002 boy-child dramedy About a Boy (both co-directed with his brother Chris Weitz), is not the name that immediately comes to mind in connection with a feminist film. Yet that was the point for the director. In an interview, Weitz told me he was embarrassed that Admission was the first film he’d made with a female protagonist in the lead. Though the 2013 film starred Tina Fey, Tomlin plays that character’s mother, also a writer and feminist. Many critics thought Tomlin was the best thing about the film. Inspired by that collaboration, Weitz sat down to write Grandma.
MM: Clearly you made Grandma because you heard that movies about older women who are both complicated and sexual are box-office gold, right?
PW: The thing is, as a filmmaker you realize that there are no sure bets. You don’t understand why studios want to do the third installment of a superhero movie, because even those don’t work sometimes. You’re in an almost impossible position if you’re a studio filmmaker. I think there are two or three people who can pull it off and consistently have intelligent films. A lot of the pressure on filmmakers is actually put on by the audience, not the studio. And I’m sorry to pin it on the audience, but they determine what gets made, and so if you’re trying to reach a large bunch of people, it’s almost impossible to make a really good film.
MM: How did you become a feminist filmmaker?
PW: After Admission I talked a bit about how I was embarrassed that it was the first film I’d done with a female protagonist, that I thought I’d had good female characters—even formidable ones—in movies before, but nothing where female characters were completely the leads. I write plays and I’ve done that in plays before but never in movies. It’s been an interesting interplay because I sat down to write Grandma at the time Admission came out, and I felt completely at sea. I’ve made a lot of films—this is the 10th I’ve directed—and I’m usually on the set of another movie by the time one wraps up. So to contend with the complete powerlessness of this situation, I sat down to write this. I just spent time with Lily and then I heard her voice and then the thing kind of started to write itself.
MM: Did Lily Tomlin know you were writing a movie for her?
PW: I was afraid to call her up and tell her I was writing something for her because if she hemmed and hawed then I probably would have stopped writing it, so it was a collaboration even before Lily was aware of it. And now it’s interesting because it’s so clear how much she gave to it, but it’s also clear to me that she was the audience for the film. I cared about Lily’s opinion of the film over anyone else’s.
MM: A lot of critics wrote Lily was the best thing about Admission. Did that inspire you to make a movie loosely based on that character?
PW: I think Tina Fey did a great job in that film and I think that she embraced doing a drama as opposed to doing a comedy. I think that, understandably, as a marketing [tool] it was [marketed] as a straight-out comedy, so people had different expectations about what that film was going to be. I’m biased because I love my actors, but I thought Tina was great and she didn’t get her due for what she did in that film. Lily got a lot of attention because her character was only scratching the surface of something. Her character was a really smart woman who was in charge of her sexuality. That was the iceberg, I think.
MM: You shot Grandma in just 19 days. What was the budget?
PW: I made it for just under $600,000. Honestly, there are fantastic films made for $150,000, but none of them are with Sam Elliott and Lily Tomlin. They all did it out of love. Lily had to. I don’t think Lily had ever done a movie of that budget before and I think initially she was wondering how the heck it could be done.
MM: Did the actors get paid?
PW: They got paid whatever the super low budget scale is for SAG actors. Once the budget hit $625,000 everything goes up, so hence the necessity to stay under that number. They just did it for the love of it and that’s a great place to be, especially for actors with decades of experience. You can feel it when you get to be around these iconic people. That’s the reason they’re icons: They haven’t lost the part of themselves that remembers going out for that first audition.
MM: Having the main character as a 75-year-old woman with an active sex life is something you never see in films. And she doesn’t die! What inspired such a radical idea?
PW: That line in the film where Elle says, “I wrote more in the last four months than I have in the five years prior to that. That’s what good sex will do to you.” There was one thing I said to Lily early on: “I really want you to do this, and this is a role in which the 70-something year-old protagonist is not going to have a deathbed scene.” She is at the beginning of something rather than at the end, and that was really key for me.
MM: You deal with a lot of issues in only 80 minutes and all the action takes place over the course of a day. Was that always going to be your time frame?
PW: Having everything take place in 24 hours was inspired by movies like Oslo, 31. august by Joachim Trier, the Norwegian director. It’s a very dark movie, much darker than this, but it looks beautiful.
I very consciously wanted to do a sparse story that took place over the course of one day. I felt like if I did that then hopefully all these other things—theme and character development—could become as complicated as I wanted them to be. And I think that was due to this one-day storyline where there’s this sort of ticking clock and a character who grows exponentially over the course of the movie.
One thing that that was interesting to me was the point at which Lily’s character gets emotional when she’s saying goodbye to her car. It was not necessarily where I thought the emotion would be, but it ended up being almost like the most emotional part of the film. The 1955 Dodge Royal we used in the film was her real car and probably had all sorts of meaning to her. But then on the other hand, when she’s dealing with the loss of her lover of 38 years, she’s laughing and thinking of stuff that person did that cracked her up. And I didn’t know what Lily’s thinking of, nor did I ask her. But everything was simplified for me by having a very simple plot.
MM: Grandma is getting a lot of Oscar buzz, as I’m sure you are aware of. Is that stressful for you to think about, especially so early in the season?
PW: I don’t think about it at all. I’m also a producer of the film and I love Lily’s performance so the fact some articles have spoken about her as being worthy of a nomination has been really thrilling, but eventually it doesn’t mean anything. It would mean a tremendous amount to us, because she did great work, but every year there are great performances that don’t get noticed. I do think her work stands up next to anybody else’s that I’ve seen recently, and I feel she’s an underutilized actress.
MM: Do you think Hollywood is becoming more open to telling stories about people we’re not used to seeing on screen?
PW: Yes, I definitely see a change. I think Hollywood is, at this point, a little bit of a myth because financing comes from everywhere. Most things are shot outside of Hollywood. This movie was shot in Los Angeles because, frankly, it was so inexpensive. There wasn’t any incentive to get a tax break because there was nothing to tax. It’s clear that the audience, especially the male demographic under 25, is being eroded by different forms of entertainment, like video games and television. They still come to see some movies but not in anywhere near the numbers they used to. The whole thing was a myth from the get-go. When my brother and I were auditioning to direct American Pie, we talked about women with the heads of the studio. We talked about aiming that movie towards girls. American Pie is a male-dominated movie, but the women are put into positions of power almost constantly. There’s a discussion about the female orgasm, there’s Tara Reid’s character talking to Natasha Lyonne’s character about if she’s ever had an orgasm and the idea that women should have as much right as men to enjoy sex.
MM: Will your next movie have a female lead character or is your focus on having a good story, period?
PW: Just a good story. I’ve been working on adapting the novel Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which is somewhat daunting. I just don’t want to be afraid of any subject. I think I’m probably more interested in making movies that are driven by women now.
MM: You wrote this, but you don’t write all your screenplays. Do you prefer to direct your screenplays?
PW: I write plays and I prefer to write my own stuff because then I don’t have any guilt in how I treat the writing. I love writing and I didn’t start directing to protect my writing in any way, but I prefer to have written the stuff that I direct.
MM: The scene with Lily and Sam—you’ve said that it went off into a different direction than you expected. How so?
PW: There’s a progression to it, and it’s almost like a movie within the movie. You’re in a completely different spot at the end of that sequence than you were at the beginning of it. Sam’s character in the beginning has a menace but you’re not sure were it’s coming from. And it wasn’t until they were doing it that I understood how raw it was and how lucky I was to have thought of Sam, because he’s so good. I think that he’s somebody who gets taken for granted; we know he’s really good but the roles he plays sometimes don’t invite you too far in in terms of the character’s vulnerability. In this case, that was a really exciting place to start from. We shot Lily’s side first and Lily was getting really raw in it, and I could see what it was doing to Sam and how much he wanted to not put any sort of boundary between him and the emotion. I had a note about something for him and I came over for him, and he said, “I know you want me to pull it back, right?” And I said, “No, not at all, just do whatever you’re feeling.” I don’t even remember now what the note was, but that’s actually where I like to get to as a director: being prepared enough and confident enough in the writing to give over control completely to the actors, and to be present enough to help them be creative, yet still not know what they’re doing next. I love when they feel stuff, but not know, because that’s the most realistic place to come from. MM
Grandma opened in theaters on August 21, 2015, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.