Back in 1999, director Paul Weitz was unsure about the reception of his debut film, a little raunchy comedy called American Pie. Well, we all know how that went, but even over a decade later, Weitz still found himself twitching in his seat at the closing night at Sundance, anxious to see how the audience would react to his latest project. There were no pies, no MILFs, and no solo cups full of horror to catch laughs on. No, Grandma relies on the simple absurdities of human nature for not only humor, but also for a sincere consideration of the relationships we form with our loved ones throughout our wonderfully complicated lives.
And to do that, Weitz had to create a story that resounded within all of us, in some innate capacity. And so he wrote about Elle (Lily Tomlin, I Heart Huckabees), a 70-something novelist who, after breaking up with her girlfriend (Judy Greer, “Arrested Development), finds her doe-eyed 18-year-old granddaughter Sage (Jula Garner, Perks of Being a Wallflower) on her doorstep with a bit of a predicament on her hands. She’s pregnant, and she’s scheduled an abortion later that day, but doesn’t have the cash for it. To Sage’s dismay, her unruly, stubborn grandma had cut up all her credit cards and made it into a lovely wind chime, so she is just as broke as she is. Luckily, Elle has a couple of people who owe her favors, and so, they embark on a journey in Elle’s beat up vintage car, revisiting relationships of yesteryear in hopes of helping her granddaughter.
But hold on. If you happen to be a person who shudders at the word abortion, and thinks “Oh, it’s gonna be that kind of movie,” you should know that Weitz’ approach to Grandma avoids the pitfalls of preaching and shoving. The issue of abortion is not what is important; it’s the person grappling with the decision of having one.
Weitz explains, “For me, it was very important to not make light of anything, so early on in the movie, [Lily’s] character says, ‘have you thought about this? This is something you’ll think about at some point everyday for the rest of your life.’ I think it’s very easy to lose track of the human beings in the stories that are about social issues and turn people into statistics.”
With that spirit, Weitz explores Elle’s complicated past with deft curiosity and tenderness, showing that even though her overt anger may get the best of her, despite Sage’s pleas for a cool head, its really something that stems from the sorrow of loss that she’s experienced through the years. Whether its seeing Elle confront her last male lover Carl (Sam Elliot, The Big Lebowski) for help, or remembering the death of her long-term love Violet, we see a narrative underscored with frustration of true misfortune.
“The issue was a purely human one, asking how do you move on from sorrow and take steps forward and how hard that is,” says Weitz. “I think that there are tools that we use to avoid that, and one is humor and one is anger. Sam’s character seems to have been nursing his sorrow for a long time, and seems still be in love on some level with Lily’s character. There’s some really dark stuff with it. So to me, that’s actually what the movie’s about, where the anger is a step rather than a product essentially.”
Indeed, the anger is there and it is often hilarious and simultaneously heart wrenching to behold. As Weitz wrote the role of Elle for Tomlin specifically, she initially didn’t consider herself similar to the character. Yes, she is lesbian, yes she is a bit tenacious, but it was only as the film progressed over the 19-day shoot where she felt a kinship with Elle’s ferocious nature.
Tomlin explains, “I think Paul really did write it with me in mind. Looking at it from the outside I wouldn’t have said that I was like Elle, but I think I must be a great deal like Elle. It was so easy; it was so fluid; it was so natural. I mean, there are times when you have to transpose yourself from something or some experience or some memory or some person you know, but it was terribly natural to me, and that was a blessing.”
For Elliot, a true icon of the screen (and voiceovers), the finished product was a testament to the simplest of ingredients: a good script, a good cast, and the will of the team at large to create something worth remembering.
“This thing was on the page, and when you have a chance to work with [Weitz and Tomlin], I mean, if you can’t get something out of that, then you just should go home… When we got together on the set, we just connected. We also shot it in sequence, which is always a great blessing. It just rolled and just got bigger and bigger, more and more dynamic in some way. But I just attribute it to great acting across the stage, and generous acting, and a great piece of material,” says the booming voice of Elliot.
Truly, Weitz handled the script with a perspective of care and strength. These women, these generations of women are all representative of people in our lives, so why treat them as anything but? To see Elle traverse the precariousness of her past, especially in the loss of Violet, the love of her life, is to see Elle connect with her present in evolved form.
Weitz says, “The most emotional thing in the movie, to me, is not in the moment when Lily is crying, but actually when she’s laughing—when she’s thinking about some old joke that Violet told, and she says ‘you really made me laugh.’ It’s a very private moment and I really like that. I like that it’s about letting go of stuff and moving on to something of optimism in spite of all of the crap one sees in human nature.”
It’s in this capacity that Grandma becomes not about one grandma, but about a slew of friendships that, while some may have faded and others continue to blossom, there is an inertia to our lives that prevents us from going back. We can only move forward and use what once was to foster what can be.
Grandma opens in select theaters August 21.
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