Something striking has occurred in the career of Chris Weitz. Once the self-described “techie” half of a low-key directing duo with brother Paul, Chris has now gone solo in a very big way: First with his ambitious adaptation of Philip Pullman’s epic The Golden Compass, and now with the second installment of Stephenie Meyer’s wildly popular Twilight blood-romance, New Moon.
This latest incarnation of Weitz—whose co-directing work includes a successful debut with American Pie and the beautifully crafted About a Boy—finds him painting on a larger canvas. But his themes and concerns remain human and relatable, whatever the scale. If there is a through-line in Weitz’s work, it may be a lack of cynicism—a willingness to trust that audiences are smart enough to want stories that go a step beyond formula.
A graduate of the University of Cambridge, where he studied English Literature, Weitz is also the product of a storied cinema family. Claiming that he had no early inclination toward film, it was nonetheless in his blood.
“My family has been in moviemaking for a long time,” he says. “My grandfather was John Huston and Ingmar Bergman’s agent. My grandmother was a silent film actress. My mom was in Imitation of Life; she was nominated for an Academy Award. However, there was then a generational break. My brother and I grew up in New York; we didn’t assume that we were going to work in films.”
But this soon changed. “We decided to write something together; we did a pitch, we got hired and we were screenwriters, sort of,” Weitz remembers. “It took us a while to earn our first screen credit, which was on Antz. Then the chance to become directors was one we snatched up, because it was the logical next step to get as much control as possible.”
FLASH FORWARD 10 YEARS: Weitz is now an A-list director. Here, he talks about his approach to helming New Moon, the influences which informed his vision and why this moviemaker with such a promising future may be about to direct his last movie.
Phillip Williams (MM): How did you come to be involved in New Moon?
Chris Weitz (CW): It was rather random. When things didn’t work out between Summit Entertainment and [Twilight director] Catherine Hardwicke, they came to me—I presume because I have some experience working with CGI and young actors, and I’ve adapted books. Like many males, I had not read anything in the Twilight series, so I got myself up to speed as quickly as I could.
I saw the first movie and was really taken with Rob Pattinson and Kristen Stewart and their performances. And the script worked. It’s not just that the book has this monumental appeal to people on a sort of Jungian level, but I felt that this was a book that I could do properly because it had a lot of depression and darkness in it… and I’m a very brooding sort of person. I’ve been dumped many times, so I could sympathize with Bella. (laughs)
MM: The project really has its own history and certain expectations attached to it. Did that play into your consideration as to whether or not to do the project or your approach to the film? Did it scare the shit out of you?
CW: It didn’t scare me terribly. All the baggage here is good: The fans are crazy about the series, they’re crazy about the actors—that’s all good stuff. I just try to find a touchstone, and in this case, it’s the book. I think of the Mark Twain quote, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” As long you are being faithful to the book, you can’t go wrong.
Then it was important for me to conduct a personal media shutdown. I withdrew from Facebook, I didn’t go to any fan sites; I didn’t want to know what people were thinking of me as the director selected for the film, because it’s really easy to be influenced.
MM: What sort of learning curve did you experience in adapting to the world of CGI? How do you direct something that is not there?
CW: The first thing is to make some allowances for the actors and to keep them informed as to what they are supposed to be interacting with and reacting to. The second thing is to provide as many real props as possible. In some ways, it’s drawing upon things you used to do as a kid, which is to dream up scenarios and keep them in mind. It takes a lot of patience to wait for completed shots to come in; it takes some trust, too. In this case, I got the band back together from The Golden Compass. These are the guys who won the [Visual Effects] Oscar.
It’s just hoping that the studio and producers are going to make allowances for things that aren’t there when they are first shown footage. With New Line [on The Golden Compass], this really wasn’t the case, which is astonishing because they had done three Lord of the Rings movies; but the mucky-mucks up there had no imagination to understand the process.
With Summit I found a tremendous amount of trust in my ability to deliver. Of course, that’s probably because of the success of the effects in The Golden Compass. I don’t mean to sound blasé about it, but by now, for me, 450 effects shots is no big deal.
MM: Is it just a matter of showing the storyboards to supervisors and leaving it to them to imagine it?
CW: To some degree, but the problem with storyboards is that they very rarely represent 3-D space accurately, or camera angles or camera lenses. If you really want to nail your shots down accurately, you need to pre-viz them in 3-D, and we didn’t have the resources—or the time—to do that extensively. So you have to adapt accordingly.
If you have a scene with a werewolf and a human character, the human actor is going to have opinions and is not going to necessarily act and move in a way that corresponds to even the most accurate pre-viz; you have to be ready for happy accidents and even actual accidents.
MM: Genre pictures can be such a great cover for making something else. The vampire aspect to the series is interesting, but it would likely bore me to tears if there wasn’t also a great romance.
CW: Definitely. I think the supernatural things are bells and whistles, which allow for the playing out of these kind of wish fulfillments. In the case of this movie, the universal experience of being left by someone who you think is your life is not played out as in real life, where they simply don’t call you back.
In New Moon, Bella has been left for her own protection and she actually can—by an act of extraordinary bravery and heroism—save the life of the person she loves, who actually loves her. Now that is the fantasy that one concocts in one’s mind when one is dumped, but it rarely gets to be played out. It’s that kind of supernatural skeleton of the movie that allows this to work.
MM: Were there aspects of other genres that you were referencing?
CW: Yes. I love David Lean and I love Kurosawa. Every time I refer to those guys, I feel a bit sheepish because they are gods and I am mortal.
MM: They were mortals, too, though.
CW: They were, but what they achieved is titanic. I think of the way Kurosawa is able to manipulate crowds, or the widescreen composition of David Lean; I’m kind of a symmetry addict, like Kubrick… Those are the guys who I aspire to evoke in this kind of movie. Having said that, I don’t consider myself worth mentioning in the same breath.
MM: I could see how David Lean, as a master of romance, could be an inspiration.
CW: He wasn’t afraid of romanticism, he wasn’t afraid of symbolism and he wasn’t afraid of being extraordinarily expressive with the camera. There are certain shots in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago that are so loaded with meaning that you couldn’t make them today without people snickering. Yet somehow he got away with them because of the sheer mastery of his technique.
MM: Some elements appear consistently in your career, including working with young actors and adapting novels to the screen. Is that an unplanned coincidence, where people see what you’ve done and offer you more of the same, or does part of it come from you?
CW: I do like working with young people but, weirdly, the young people here are experienced actors, so it was like working with adults. I can’t find any intentionality in my career other than hoping to get the chance to do another film, wanting to do something different from the previous one and trying to accumulate a set of skills. I still feel as though I’m learning.
When it came to The Golden Compass, I really wanted that to be my masterpiece. And by that I don’t mean work of genius, but rather the piece that you do that says to your peers that you’re ready to stop being a journeyman and start being an actual craftsman. Unfortunately, the edit was taken from me and whatever chance I had at that was also taken from me, which is kind of sad.
I still feel that I’m learning, and yet I also feel that the number of aspects that go into making a film of the sort that I’m making now have become so multifold that it’s really exhausting. Every time I make a movie I’m pretty much convinced it’s the last time I’m going to be able to do it and that really it’s a rather silly occupation to undertake. But I think I have maybe one more film in me. (laughs)
MM: Only one? Are you serious?
CW: Yes, I think so. I know this is for MovieMaker, but I don’t think that people have to do the same thing for all their lives. Giuseppe di Lampedusa wrote one great novel, The Leopard, and he didn’t have to write anymore.
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