Book fellows: in the stacks with filmmakers Chris and Paul Weitz – Buzz The City Observed
LOPING ALONG THE AISLES in their black short-sleeved shirts and sneakers, Chris and Paul Weitz can be forgiven if they begin their visit to Hollywood Book City’s going-out-of-business sale with a lack of urgency. The labyrinthine bookstore, eclectic to the point of crackpot genius, has been announcing its imminent doom off and on for the past few years.
For their latest collective effort, About a Boy, the brothers adapted Nick Hornby’s novel of a pop culture-obsessed recluse drifting into middle age and directed Hugh Grant in the starring role. They began their joint film career as cowriters on Antz, the 1998 animated feature about a noncomformist insect with the voice of Woody Allen. In 1999 they codirected the salacious teen hit American Pie, and in 2000 they costarred in the independent dark comedy Chuck & Buck, the chronicle of a Hollywood music executive and his childhood friend-cum-stalker.
Asked if they have any favorite books that would be too daunting to adapt, Paul mentions Anton Chekhov’s short stories, while Chris picks Joseph Conrad’s Victory and Chance. But Book City, which is a block away from their Whitley Avenue offices, inspires in the Weitzes a kind of Laurel and Hardy lowbrow giddiness, what with its crazy stenciled signs pointing every which way to such subjects as CAVES, ODDITIES, CHECKERS, FOODS, and DISASTERS.
“This store’s like being inside a schizophrenic’s brain,” Paul says as he drifts into EAST ASIA. At 36, Paul has the same cleft in his chin as his 32-year-old brother, and it deepens as he smiles at a shelf sagging from the weight of Chinese history. “Did you ever read this book, The Private Life of Chairman Mao?” he asks. “It’s by one of his former physicians. There’s all this gossipy stuff about Mao’s orgies.”
“He had orgies?” Chris asks.
“Lots of ’em,” Paul says, “and he would never bathe.”
“Ugh,” Chris says. “That’s less sexy.” Chris laments how, as a kid, he was enticed by TV ads that dangled the delights of Plato’s Retreat before him. Alas, the Manhattan sex club shut its doors before he came of age. “They don’t have orgies anymore,” he says, shaking his broad head. “I missed the whole free-love thing. I grew up with everyone terrified about sex.”
“Just terrified about sex with you,” Paul says, grinning.
The Weitz brothers’ shtick is rooted in their childhood. “We definitely collaborated on driving our parents insane,” Paul says. “That was our main motivation as kids.”
“Whenever we were taken on vacations,” Chris says, “we never paid attention to all the amazing things that we should have been paying attention to. Instead, we were improvising skits.” One outing made their father particularly apoplectic. “We were supposed to be looking at the Roman Colosseum, and instead we were both interviewing pigeons.”
“It was a talk show,” Paul says.
Their parents were a formidable audience. During World War II, John Weitz was an OSS agent spying on Hitler’s Germany; he went on to design a men’s clothing line that competed against Pierre Cardin at suburban bar mitzvahs in the mid ’70s. More recently he’s written biographies of Nazi notables, including Hitler’s Diplomat: The Life and Times of Joachim von Ribbentrop. Their mother, actress Susan Kohner, was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Imitation of Life, while Chris and Paul’s grandfather, Paul Kohner, was an agent to Billy Wilder and John Huston.
In the shadow of such over-achievers, there was little room for the brothers to outdo each other. “We were kind of like Eastern bloc states,” Chris says. “All the ethnic rivalries were prevented by the overwhelming power of our parents.” As codirectors on the set, the Weitzes still don’t find themselves struggling much for the upper hand. It’s almost like biorhythms,” Paul says.
“It depends on who’s debilitated with anxiety on a given day,” Chris says. “The other person will have control.”
The brothers drift into Book City’s sports section — BASEBALL, BASKETBALL, BULLFIGHTS–where Paul is captivated by the autobiography of 1970s soccer star Shep Messing, goalie for the Oakland Stompers. “`When he’s not diving into an opponent’s boot,'” he reads from the dust jacket, “`he may be teasing his boa constrictors, munching glass, or posing for nude centerfolds.'”
Chris meanders the popular-culture section, past three copies of Mort! Mort! Mort! by the late right-wing talk-show host Morton Downey Jr. “A secondhand bookstore can be a very depressing place,” he says. He plucks out a fan guide to Frasier. Even though it’s tied to a hit TV show, he frets over its future. “These lost, orphan books, these companion books for TV shows that never quite made it, the bad novel adaptations of bad films. I feel sorry for the books. There’s a great poem called `The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered.'” Moving on to cookbooks, Chris brightens. He looks at a gourmet microwave cookbook by an author named Kafka. “A Kafkaesque microwave cooking experience,” he marvels. He conveniently ignores the ship’s wheel and the sailing regalia on The New Cruising Cookbook. “Hey,” he laughs. “What to serve your rough trade!”
Reunited in the World War II stacks, the brothers reminisce about their father’s research for his von Ribbentrop book. The conversation soon deteriorates into a routine that owes a debt to the “Springtime for Hitler” sequence in The Producers.
“Our father had this special source,” Paul says. “This guy named Fitzee or something.”
“No, no,” Chris says. “Reinhard Spitzy. Ribbentrop’s personal secretary, I think, this I Nazi our dad was friends with.”
“He called him `My favorite Nazi,'” Paul says.
“As kids, we actually had a nanny who was a Nazi,” Chris says. “Well, it turned out that way. She wasn’t hired because she was a Nazi.”
“We really tortured her,” Paul says. “We were always trying to get her to say something incriminating. We asked her what she thought of Hitler, and she said, “He made the country work.'”
Like other uncovered Nazis, she fled. “Our parents were out of the country,” Chris says. “We were left alone in Manhattan, and it was fantastic. We finally had driven her crazy enough that she quit.”
COPYRIGHT 2002 Los Angeles Magazine, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group