Campus crush: Paul Weitz directs Tina Fey and Paul Rudd in romantic comedy 'Admission'

The Brothers Weitz, Paul and Chris, could be said to be in some sort of filmic freefall. One never knows where, or how, they’ll pop up next. They write, direct, produce and, in a pinch, act. All this is what comes from being a cinematic third-generation.

Granny was Lupita Tovar, star of Mexico’s first talkie (1932’s Santa) and the Spanish-language Dracula (which was shot at night on the same Universal set Bela Lugosi used by day). Their mom, Susan Kohner, enjoyed some screen prominence in the late ’50s and early ’60s and an Oscar nomination for Imitation of Life. Their dad, designer John Weitz, also wrote best-selling novels and raced sports cars. Is it any wonder their movie careers have been so wide-ranging?

“Well, I don’t see myself as a producer,” says Paul the elder (by four years)—he succumbs to that role only in moments of necessity. “I consider myself a writer first and director right on the tails of that. If you’ve written the thing, you can be more cavalier throwing out stuff that doesn’t work. I always prefer to do both things.”

In a very reel sense, he did do both things for Focus Features’ March 22 release Admission, a perky, pleasant antic that presents Tina Fey as a by-the-book university admissions official suddenly confronted with an applicant who may be the son she gave up for adoption eons ago.

Officially, however, Weitz only takes credit as director (plus producer) of Admission. “The first draft was written by Karen Croner, from a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, and then every subsequent draft I worked on with Karen,” he admits. “The only reason I didn’t work on the first draft is that I was off directing something else.

“It’s utterly arbitrary what one directs. To me, the only times I’ve gotten into big trouble, after the fact, were when I wasn’t 100% sure why I was directing something in the first place. Sometimes, one is talked into something, and then one fails to deliver because of any number of reasons, but it’s always a learning process.

“The film I did right before this—Being Flynn—nobody saw, but it was very important to me for various reasons, and Admission was thematically important to me because it felt like I was going back to filming In Good Company or About a Boy. This, too, was a comedy about parenting on some level, being put in situations where people need you and you don’t have the ability to be good at parenting.”

About a Boy, from Nick Hornby’s novel about a 12-year-old lad administering life lessons to an immature “swinging bachelor,” was co-written and co-directed by the Weitz siblings and won them an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

“It’s strange, adapting a novel,” Paul concedes. “There is no way to do justice to all the detail in a novel, so you end up adapting the x-ray of a novel and hoping that the author doesn’t hate you. In the case of Admission—as with About a Boy—you have to diverge from some of the details of the novel in order to remain true to its spirit.

“Here is a woman who chose a life of not having kids—yet has strong relationships to 17- and 18-year-olds. Every year there’s a new batch of them being judged by her. The idea that this woman made a decision not to raise a kid and is now in a position where she has to deal with a kid who could be the one she surrendered for adoption years before seemed to have enough blood in it to be a motor for a movie.”

It’s no happenstance that family matters are usually at the heart of the Weitz brothers’ movies, and that’s counting their American Pie. “I was the reluctant product of my dad’s third marriage,” says Paul. “I remember him telling me late in life he really hadn’t thought he’d be able to do parenting again. He felt he didn’t do such a good job as a dad the first time around, but my mom really wanted kids, and he didn’t because he thought he would screw it up. The thing that always stuck in my head is that people who would happily isolate themselves put themselves in situations where they are emotionally involved in something. That’s the case of Hugh Grant in About a Boy, and that’s the case of Tina here. They’ve made a decision to elevate comfort over pain, and then they get thrust in a bad situation.”

The role is such a good fit for Fey that one might suspect her creative multitasking had lent “a helping hand” to the screenplay, but Weitz says no, the whole thing was just a matter of planning ahead. “I got her pretty early on because, from a plot point of view, there were certain decisions I knew I wanted to make, and if she didn’t like those decisions, there’d be no point in making the movie. So I brought her in early, and often. Also, because she’s so used to running her show, I think there was some relief on her part she wasn’t as responsible for everything as she’s used to being.”

As a director, Weitz subscribes to the Robert Altman doctrine that overlapping dialogue be allowed, and this gives scenes an almost improvisational air of reality. “I always try to get actors to improvise, and sometimes it’s hard to get them to do it,” he says, “but that’s how people speak. Rarely does one have a sufficient pause to let the other person speak. With Tina, also, there was a comedic comfort level between her and Paul Rudd where they trusted each other and got a kick out of each other.”

Temperamentally, the choice of Rudd as a leading man for Fey seems, on the surface anyway, a harmonious match—and the director says that carried over off-camera.
“When you’re making a movie, you get so many different types of personalities, and the pressures of filmmaking tend to drive people insane. It exacerbates whatever tendencies that person might have. If they were brought up in paranoid situations, you get a horrible person given to paranoid acts of power. But Tina and Paul were, very clearly, brought up well. I think that they both made a decision to be polite to people and tried not to appear that they were taking themselves too seriously.”

Rudd’s character is the flipside of Fey’s—an old college classmate who had opted for single parenthood and taken that relationship about as far as it can go. He’s also the high-school teacher who red-flags her that a student of his applying to her school may be the child she put up for adoption, setting up the film’s central ethics crisis.

“I was really interested in having Tina’s character be somebody who didn’t have kids but who had some knowledge of what 17-year-olds are like from reading their personal essays—and then to have the person she was falling in love with be a guy who is a single dad. I liked the idea that here is a guy who had this one important relationship—his relationship with his adopted son—but who is at the point where his kid doesn’t want to do everything he wants him to do. He’s coming from being a loving parent but having this tumultuous time that’s the exact opposite of Tina’s.”

The applicant in question is played by 18-year-old Nat Wolff, who, with twin Alex, comprise The Naked Brothers Band—they’re the sons of Arsenio Hall’s onetime bandleader, Michael Wolff, and actress Polly Draper—and the rest of the roles have been lightly cast with actors who must maintain longer faces than they usually do: Wallace Shawn as Fey’s university boss, Michael Sheen as her faithless fiancé, Lily Tomlin as her iconoclastic mom, and Gloria Reuben as a politically savvy office rival.

Shawn, in particular, plays arguably the gravest scene of his career, with not one iota of humor seeping in. “To me,” says Weitz, “Wally is a formidable figure because I know his plays and they’re fairly grave. When I met with him, he came in and said, ‘Well, I know I’m a figure of fun, and I’m assuming you’re going to be wanting to exploit that.’ I said, ‘Actually, I don’t want to exploit that.’ I liked the idea that he was a warm, genial figure, but when he’s let down, he suddenly turns.

“It was also really interesting to have Tina and Lily playing off each other. Both are icons of comedy, but they’re coming from very, very different backgrounds.”

Whatever the combination, Fey was on top of it, he affirms. “In addition to being a good actor, Tina is a technician in terms of comedy, so, in a way, I felt like Tina and Paul were peas in a pod, and Tina and Lily were opposite, creating some nice friction.”

Princeton also plays a conspicuous part in the film, as it did in the novel. The author is the wife of Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who’s a professor of poetry there, and, indeed, she’s spent time working in Princeton’s Admissions office, hence Admission may be the only movie with an admissions officer for a central character.

“I was dreadfully afraid Princeton wasn’t going to let us film there since there’s sort of a scandal at the center of the story,” Weitz confesses. “They wouldn’t let us go into the Admissions building, probably wisely. It’s like the Pentagon or something. In fact, they wouldn’t let us point the camera toward the actual building. They’re very serious about their secrecy. Eventually, they enjoyed having us there, I think—but, initially, they were leery of it, and I was dreading having to make up a fake name.”

Although the movie does get off to a breezy, lighthearted start, it slows down in mood and pace as certain moral and emotional issues take hold. “I’m very drawn to things which are on the borderline between comedy and drama. In terms of inspirations: Chekhov’s works, which he would always label as comedies, I would look on as very dour. That, to me, is something to aspire to—this idea that there’s not much distinction between what makes us laugh and what feels more serious.”