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Academic Achievement – Paul Weitz

Filmmaker Paul Weitz mines a stressful subject for laughs in Admission, a romantic comedy about the lengths people will go for acceptance

Author Sam Polcer

academic_achievementMost of us would be hard-pressed to find humor in the college application process—after all, anything that makes you sweat bullets over the thickness of an envelope can’t be all that funny. But with his new romantic comedy, Admission, director Paul Weitz offers a convincing reason to laugh at the whole thing: namely, the comedic talents of stars Tina Fey and Paul Rudd.

Fey plays Portia, a Princeton admissions officer who, while on a recruiting trip, reconnects with John (Rudd), a former classmate running an alternative education school (attending that school, by the way, is a potential Princeton applicant who just might be the son Portia gave up for adoption 18 years ago). When the professor that Portia’s been living with turns out to be a two-timer with twins on the way, well—there’s single father and do-gooder John, with his charming wit and twinkling blue eyes, and … you get the picture.

For his part, Weitz brings storytelling chops honed by directing parent-child dramas (In Good Company), slapstick coming-of-age tales (American Pie) and family comedies (Little Fockers). In interviewing this Wesleyan grad, we learned how much attending a prestigious college really matters, why it’s always a good idea to read your star’s autobiography and what some Hollywood actors will do to not appear in his movies.

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You know, Wesleyan was my top choice until they wait-listed and then rejected me. I’ll try not to hold that against you, though.
Well, I think it was a lot easier to get in back then.

Can you sum up your academic history for me? Were you a good student?
They give you enough rope to hang yourself with there, so I studied a lot of literature and took a variety of courses, and I wrote and directed a number of plays that I didn’t necessarily get a lot of credit for. But I would say there were many metamorphoses. For instance, growing up in New York I went to all-boys schools, and Wesleyan had a strong feminist contingent. So I had plenty to learn when I got there. I learned that college was not an extremely large discotheque. I actually did need to be called out for being a bit of a chauvinist.

Perhaps it imbued you with the sensitivity to become a future rom-com director.
[Laughs.] Yeah, the sensitivity of the director of American Pie. The funny thing about that movie was that my brother and I were actually aiming it largely toward a female audience.  

It’s funny how the college admissions process, something that plays such a short role in our lives, is such a widely relatable topic.
I think that we’re always looking for something that’s going to give us the profound pat on the back that says we’ve accomplished something. Getting into college has become one of those things. The problem is that in order to do that, a lot of kids have to a) reduce themselves to a sound bite and b) work so hard in high school that they don’t learn anything about being human beings.

How will you approach your kids’ college education?
I’m a firm believer that one’s path in life is more idiosyncratic than one’s parents would hope. You can go to a really wonderful college or university like Princeton, and end up coming out ill equipped for an exciting life. Or you can go someplace less prestigious, and end up meeting people, professors and fellow students who are going to change your life in amazing ways. I’m pretty dubious about whether elite institutions provide a big leg up in life.

Do you think the application process is reminiscent of Hollywood auditions? Do you find that actors will go to similar lengths to get into your films?
To the contrary, I’ve actually had an actor answer a cellphone call during an audition of mine.

So they’re not dropping off baked goods at your office.
No, no.

Parent-child relationships are an important element in many of your movies. Has being a father influenced you as a director?
The degree of humility it takes to come home from a movie set and then have nobody listen to me is probably healthy.

Did you read Tina Fey’s autobiography, Bossypants?
I sure did. It was really fun to read. I wish that I had an autobiography by every star I was about to direct, to get some sense of how they identify themselves.

Tina and Paul Rudd have great onscreen chemistry in Admission. Did that take any coaxing from you?
No, you just kind of step out of the way, essentially. We were lucky enough to be able to rehearse a little bit, so they got a little sense of each other beforehand.

If you had to write peer recommendations for them, what would they say?
“Paul is deceptively edgy in his intelligence and humor. Tina is an adult, in the best possible way—in the way that .001 percent of the population is. Stardom and fame are extremely corrosive hallucinogenic drugs in their effect on most people, and both Paul and Tina have managed to retain their humanity.”

Did Tina find it hard to take herself seriously in a role that’s a bit more dramatic than she’s used to?
I think she didn’t want to be self-indulgent. But I don’t think it was hard for her to take herself seriously. Comedians are some of the most dead-serious people you’ll ever meet. They’re more in touch with things like depression and isolation than most people—it’s just that they don’t usually share that aspect of themselves in their public persona.

How did you get her to let it out?
I just talked about the character. Portia is very self-protected and has made decisions in order to not reveal herself. That was something she could wrap her head around.

What’s next for you?
I’m working on an adaptation of Bel Canto—which is tricky, because it’s a really wonderful novel—and I’m working on a couple of screenplays. Just writing away.

Speaking of, what was your college application essay about?
It was about being an underachiever. I was trying to do some reverse psychology.

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