- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

Sibling partnerships have flourished in the American movie industry during the past 20 years or so.

The Zucker brothers, David and Jerry, got the ball rolling with "Airplane!" in 1980. The Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, emerged a few years later with "Blood Simple." Since then, the Farrelly brothers have become farcical style-setters ("Dumb and Dumber," "There's Something About Mary") and the Wachowski brothers have established a "Matrix" franchise.

Paul and Chris Weitz, the most recent reinforcements to the trend, enjoyed a sleeper hit two summers ago, the teen sex farce "American Pie." The pair recently visited Washington to promote their third picture as a directing team, "About a Boy," which opens today. A classier comic proposition, it derives from a 1998 novel by the English humorist Nick Hornby.

The movie proves an ideal starring vehicle for Hugh Grant, cast as a debonair wastrel whose idleness is subverted by the intrusion of a needy but irresistible adolescent (Nicholas Hoult).

Although the Weitzes were a little tardy in catching onto the possibilities of show business, they grew up with such a heritage. Their mother, Susan Kohner, was a starlet during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Their maternal grandfather, the late Paul Kohner, became one of the most influential agents in Hollywood after immigrating to the United States from Germany in the early 1930s. His client list included William Wyler, John Huston, Billy Wilder and Ingmar Bergman.

Their father was the fashion designer and writer John Weitz. "Home was New York, and we'd visit Los Angeles most summers. Our grandfather had all these famous clients and cronies coming in and out, but we were aware of them only as nice older guys," Chris Weitz says.

The brothers first tried their hands at a script about a decade ago. At the time, Chris was waiting for an entry-level job with the State Department.

"I got the job and would have gone into training to be a foreign service officer, but there was a waiting period between acceptance and actual assignment," says Chris, now 32. "While I was waiting out the waiting period, Paul and I wrote our first script, as a lark. It was about a porn producer who wanted to make an art film. Like his dream project, our script was probably destined to never get made. But it attracted attention and got us other writing work."

The boys were educated at private schools in New York. Paul later attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he majored in film studies, despite suffering "some kind of meltdown" during the second day of shooting on a short film project.

"I pulled the plug on myself," he jests. For a few years, he was an aspiring playwright in New York while working as a clerk in a bookstore.

The bleak stretch may have paid off years later when the brothers were promoting themselves for the directing job on "American Pie" at Universal. "I said I had directed a lot of theater in New York," says Paul, now 36. "I lied. I had directed about 10 minutes, but I knew there was no way they could check up on it."

Chris Weitz acquired the loftier academic credentials. He attended St. Paul's in London and then Cambridge University, eventually graduating with bachelor's and master's degrees in English literature. He suspects those connections may have helped when he made a pitch to direct "About a Boy," which he had read and loved when it was published in 1998.

By the time Mr. Grant had committed to the movie and serious planning was under way, the film had gone through enough false starts to make the Weitzes eligible for consideration as directors.

"Paul and I worked in the shadows as screenwriters for about eight years, but we made a very good living. Finally, 'Antz' put our names on the screen. That was the first big thing we got to do," Chris says.

"The development process in Hollywood provides a generous income for obscure screenwriters and executives. The inefficiencies of the system are what you live off until something you've written gets made. I'm sure the Farrelly brothers were the first choice to do the "American Pie' script. It helped us that there had been some expensive, high-profile bombs. 'Meet Joe Black' was the one they were brooding about.

"We brought in 'American Pie' half a million [dollars] under budget. It cost $2.8 million and grossed $230 million around the world."

The movie rights to "About a Boy" had been snapped up quickly by Tribeca, the production company founded by Robert De Niro. The firm got a jump on a British counterpart, Working Title, which had acquired the first two Hornby novels, "Fever Pitch" and "High Fidelity." The latter had been Americanized in a film version starring John Cusack.

Before long, a co-production arrangement was negotiated between Tribeca and Working Title for the movie version of "Boy." An initial screenplay changed the protagonist to an American living in London. This draft, as well as an earlier directing choice, fell by the wayside after Mr. Grant and then the Weitzes came onboard.

"We were adamant about sticking to the book," Paul says. "It seemed incredibly funny to us, and it had the potential to exploit Hugh's comedy in a fresh way not so much the bumbling, lovable side, but as the guy he's really like, which is more edgy and contradictory, self-assured and witty but also skeptical about himself."

Chris adds: "We weren't generating much material of our own at that point, and we were looking for something unlike 'American Pie.' It was great when this fell into our laps. Billy Wilder is one of our big favorites, and we had been looking for something in the vein of his films. The book had this balancing act we wanted to attempt, between cynicism and hopefulness."

According to Paul, "Hugh was extremely leery about us. Only now do we realize how leery."

The press kit relates Mr. Grant's apprehensions: "I have a brother, and the idea of directing a film together is unthinkable. There would be blood on the floor before lunchtime. But these two are spookily nice to each other. On the surface, at least."


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