She’s irascible. She’s intelligent. She’s head-strong. She’s not the typical kind of woman you’d associate with the warm and fuzzy title of “grandma.” The “she” in question is Lily Tomlin in writer-director Paul Weitz’s GRANDMA, an inter-generational tale set in Los Angeles over the course of a day. The titular heroine has just ended a romance when her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) pays her an impromptu visit, asking for $600. But since Ellie is flat broke, she and Sage must collect debts from friends and foes trying to rattle up enough money before the sun sets.
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, Weitz, Tomlin and Sam Elliot sat down to talk about everything from their intent, to creative freedom, to fascinating tidbits on the production and costume design.
5. This isn’t an issues-based movie. The exact reason why Sage need the cash quickly may provoke some hot debate. However, in all reality, that taboo hot-button issue is only the catalyst that brings the intimate immediacy of the deeply engrossing, briskly-paced story together. Weitz said of his progressive approach, “It wasn’t particularly conscious for this to be an issue film at all. It was that this 18-year-old character shows up and this is the situation she’s in. For me it was important to not make light of anything. I think it’s very easy to lose track of human beings in stories that bear upon social issues. It’s tricky to talk about, but I’m interested in films about our society that are personal films.”
4. That’s Lily Tomlin’s actual car and clothing. Tomlin said, “I think Paul really did write it with me in mind. Looking at it from the outside, I don’t think I’m like Elle, but I must be a great deal like Elle, because it was so fluid and natural.” Later she added, “This character is very much like me, physically, in everyway in terms of her youthfulness in her body. She’s not stunted in any way from the years that she’s lived. I drove my own car and wore my own clothes. So it was quite a bit close to me.”
3. Imposing strict limits leads to creative freedom. Weitz (IN GOOD COMPANY, LITTLE FOCKERS), Tomlin (BIG BUSINESS,THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN) and Elliot (HULK, THE GOLDEN COMPASS) have all had their fair share of working on big budgeted features. However, going back to basics with this little indie renewed their creative vigor. Tomlin said, “On a big studio movie, there would be emphasis placed on getting the moment, getting the joke, getting the humor. It would be too contrived to be worked out. This is much more freeing.” Elliot responded, “We shot this in 19 days and were unencumbered by everything that comes with those big blockbuster type films – a lot of waste, a lot of bullshit and a lot of personalities to satisfy. On an independent, everybody is on the same page. Everybody is excited and everybody wants to make a good film.” Weitz expanded, “For me, I didn’t want to shoot anything that wasn’t going to end up in the movie because on that kid of schedule, you can’t afford to really do that. That was very freeing for me because sometimes when you have more of a budget, you might do certain things to see if they’re going to work or not. In this case, it was very spare and a tiny bit zen – in terms of no wasted effort.”
2. Sam Elliot’s character was supposed to be a biker with a ponytail. Though we get to see Karl, an ex-flame of Elle’s, as a conservative guy, Elliot’s character wasn’t written in the script as such. Weitz confessed, “Initially, in the script, his character was a biker and had a ponytail. So Sam, being gracious, was going to pay to have a wig made and pay out of his pocket to have it done properly. I said, ‘Sam, I don’t care if he has a ponytail.’ Sam came up with his very specific thing – and it’s a small touch. On the day, one of his jeans is not tucked in properly. It shows something about this guy that he’s being caught when he’s alone. That’s something the actor has to utterly own is his costume.”
1. Julia Garner and Lily Tomlin are divine together. Garner has been on the independent scene for years, starring in MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE and ELECTRICK CHILDREN. But it’s not until her performance in GRANDMA that she’ll probably gaining more star power. Weitz said, “Julia is so a-typical. She’s completely counter to the thought of ‘vicious young actor.’ Even in terms of her look, she’s so 1930’s Jean Harlow. I knew that Lily’s character was going to have her foot on the gas so much that I needed someone who is inherently interesting – that had a lot going on. Also, that I bought Lily being protective of her. She can’t manufacture a false beat, which is fun to direct but also means you can’t fake it.” Tomlin added the anecdote, “Right away we bonded. When Paul brought her to my office, I didn’t want her to feel like because she was coming to meet me that I was gonna say, ‘No. I don’t think I like her that much.’ I said, ‘Make sure she knows she got the role.’ I didn’t want her in anyway to feel discounted or second guessed. She’s just a natural.”
GRANDMA opens in New York and Los Angeles on August 21 with a slow roll out to follow. For where/ when it’s playing, go here.