Weitz brothers' colourful childhood

Film-makers Paul and Chris Weitz grew up surrounded by celebrities and produced skits with their stuffed toys

Chris Weitz, (right) on the high jinks of himself and his brother Paul (left)
Chris Weitz, (right) on the high jinks of himself and his brother Paul (left)PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

LOS ANGELES • The film-making brothers Paul and Chris Weitz, who have had their movie hits and misses since breaking through with the blockbuster 1999 teen sex comedy American Pie, had childhoods that resemble something out of a movie made by their friend Wes Anderson.

The writer Tom Wolfe was a guest at the family dinner table. The Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman once took them to the circus.

And they spent many boyhood hours orchestrating elaborate skits with their collection of stuffed animals, which sipped cocktails and had turf wars at a make-believe club fashioned after El Morocco, a once glamorous nightspot near the Weitz family's Park Avenue apartment.

The brothers described their unusual provenance during an interview at the office they share in the Venice section of Los Angeles, not far from where they live with their wives and children.

"I was four years older and Chris was certainly his own person," said Paul, 49, who has tousled grey hair.

"But we were close." Chris, 45, has a scholarly Clark Kent demeanour. "We were a resistance unit."

We did go through a book-swiping phase. To be fair, they were paperbacks. Anything larger wouldn’t fit into our eight-year-old trouser pockets.

CHRIS WEITZ, on the high jinks of himself and his brother Paul

"Essentially, we had a provincial upbringing in the middle of a huge city," Paul said.

Their father, clothing designer John Weitz, who left Nazi Germany as a teenager, made a grand living in fashion and went on to write novels and biographies of men in Hitler's inner circle.

"Wes told me once he used to have a John Weitz blazer that made its way onto Jason Schwartzman's character in Rushmore," said Paul, referring to the oddball protagonist of Anderson's 1998 film.

Their mother, Susan Kohner, was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Douglas Sirk's 1959 film Imitation Of Life.

She retired from show business when she settled down with Weitz and often travelled with her sons to their grandparents' house in Los Angeles, where Chris and Paul roasted marshmallows by the patio fireplace in the company of "actors with European accents", as Chris put it, such as Yul Brynner.

Their maternal grandfather Paul Kohner, a Czech emigre, was a talent agent who represented Greta Garbo and Billy Wilder. Their maternal grandmother is screen actress Lupita Tovar, who left Mexico in the days of the early talkies and remained close to old friends such as the painter Diego Rivera.

As children, Paul and Chris sometimes annoyed their old-school father with their constant performances.

"Once I remember being in London," Paul said, "and Chris and me were little kids doing some shtick. We were interviewing pigeons on the street and we wouldn't stop.

"I remember dad saying, 'It's so booor-ring!' It was an early piece of dramatic criticism."

Their high jinks had a choreographed flair. They pilfered sugar packets from restaurants while pretending to be spies carrying out a secret mission called Operation White Gold and a brief period of light shoplifting hinted at their literary leanings.

"We did go through a book- swiping phase," Chris said. "To be fair, they were paperbacks. Anything larger wouldn't fit into our eight-year-old trouser pockets."

As a teen, Paul used to doctor the grades on his report cards, turning minuses into pluses. Sometimes he wandered through the Metropolitan Museum of Art high on "stimulants" he procured in Central Park, he said.

Chris pursued more patrician activities. As a youth, he joined Manhattan's Knickerbocker Greys, an after-school marching corps founded in 1881 "for boys of the scions of New York upper-crust families", as he described it. He went to a London boarding school when he was 14, but remained popular among New York's cotillion set.

When it came time for the brothers to embark on a career, their Manhattan upbringing and childhood habit of creating imaginary worlds together came in handy: They wrote (with Todd Alcott) the screenplay for the 1998 animated film Antz, which was set in a place they knew well - Central Park - with a hero voiced by Woody Allen.

After they directed American Pie, they wrote and directed About A Boy (2002). The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar. Then they went their separate ways as writers and directors for more than a decade.

In that time, Paul wrote plays and directed movies such as In Good Company (2004) and Little Fockers (2010). His latest is Grandma, which comes out this month.

Chris wrote and directed The Golden Compass (2007); directed The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009); and wrote two young-adult novels (including the newly published The New Order) as well as the script for a Star Wars spin-off movie, Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One, which is now in production.

If the brothers' films have a common thread, it may be in their exploration of relationships between men, which Chris chalked up to "daddy issues we had to deal with".

Their father was an unusually accomplished man who, during World War II (before his success as a designer and author) served in the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA.

He was an affectionate presence, but he set a high bar.

"He took the level of a perceived insult - walking around with torn jeans - to a new level," Paul said.

He also bluntly doled out fatherly wisdom. When Chris fretted over a girl who was not returning his calls, he said his dad told him: "If somebody doesn't call you, it's because they don't want to talk to you."

These days, even when they are not working together, the brothers give each other advice and encouragement.

"We look at each other's films and give each other notes," Paul said. "I can remember when I was slightly on the ropes about something professionally, feeling bad about myself, and Chris wrote me a postcard. On the back, it read, 'You are going to win'. It was subconsciously childish, but I really took it to heart. I kept it in my sock drawer."

Chris said:"When you are in the middle of these movies, they tend to eat your life."

He understands this better than most, given his experience making The Golden Compass, an US$180- million epic starring Nicole Kidman, based on the first novel in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. The movie was controversial from the start; skittish executives demanded modifications to its sceptical view of organised religion and asked for a more upbeat ending.

"Those books came to me at a tremendously important time in my life," said Chris, whose father, an atheist of Jewish lineage, had died not long before he got to work on the script. "To be, sort of, not delivering a good enough version was really difficult for me."

The Golden Compass faltered at the domestic box office and no sequels followed.

"In terms of career stuff, it was tough," Chris said, "because everything had been coming up roses up until that point for me, for us."

Now the brothers are collaborating again, this time with Steven Spielberg, who hired them to write an adaptation of the Japanese film Like Father, Like Son, which took the Jury Prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

"We grew up being drilled into politeness," Paul said. "It is a great tool in Hollywood and in collaboration because 'You are an idiot' is a lot worse to hear than 'You are really wonderful, and you've done something idiotic.'"

Chris gave his brother a sceptical look. "We don't really talk to each other that way," he said.

"Yeah," Paul said, with a laugh. "That was all metaphorical speech."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2015, with the headline 'Weitz brothers' colourful childhood'. Print Edition | Subscribe