Paul Weitz Reveals Why 'Grandma' Is The Feminist Film He Wants His Daughter To Watch When She Grows Up
It's no secret that films about a nuanced, complicated, badass women are far and few in Hollywood. Though white male actors receive these types of roles often (and, even when they're playing completely unlikable characters, manage to be applauded for it), female actresses are so rarely given a platform in a film that's honest and unapologetic not only in its approach to the issues that women go through, but also how complex women themselves are. Add in to the equation that the lead is a complex, lesbian, multi-dimensional female character in her 70s, and it's basically unheard of in Hollywood. Yet, that's exactly what writer/director Paul Weitz did with his new film Grandma , which features Lily Tomlin playing a character who is basically as described above — in addition to a lot more. As Weitz tells Bustle, this is exactly what inspired him to create Grandma in the first place.
"I think the reasons that it was important — now I’m thinking of them, but at the time I wrote it, it was very subterranean — I have a daughter who’s 11, and I would like her to see this film someday. Maybe not right this minute, because there’s a lot of swearing and stuff in it… but I wanna do things that I can be proud of in terms of that," he explains.
The film follows 18-year-old Sage (Julia Garner) who, after an accidental pregnancy, seeks out her grandmother Elle (Tomlin) for money to get an abortion, and introduces a bevy of strong female characters from all walks of life: a trans woman working at a tattoo shop named Deathy (Laverne Cox), Elle's ex-girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer), and the judgmental corporate lawyer who happens to be Sage's mother and Elle's daugher, Judy (Marcia Gay Haden). In other words, the film is pretty much one of the most feminist you'll find not only this summer, but also in general.
"It just occurred to me the situation of this woman of Lily’s age, who is, by the nature of it, more punk rock and hardcore than this 18-year-old granddaughter who’s come to her needing help, but also who had no sense of a feminist identity," Weitz says of what inspired him to write the film. "[I was inspired by] the idea that this 18 year old is, to some degree, suffering from the erasure of large sways in women’s history in America [and] about the nature of the fact that we don’t talk about it, and that feminism got a nasty name at a certain point... the idea that it’s normal for her, for her friends, to insult each other supposedly affectionately by calling each other 'b***h,' 'h**,' and 'sl*t,'" he continues. "It takes her grandmother to sort of tell her, 'I don’t want to hear you say that word, and what kind of friends are these?' At every point, I was just trying to not undersell the characters."
And undersell the characters is something this film definitely does not do. In addition to presenting a set of characters with differing gender identities and sexual orientations without defining them by that ("I just think it’s a truism which we’ll hopefully get more and more closer to — this idea that we’re all having our own weird, specific lives, and it’s just boneheaded to put us into a box because of those things,") the film also deals heavily with the subject of abortion in one of the most honest ways seen in film. As Weitz adds, the lack of films like this was also one of the reasons he made Grandma.
"Obviously there’s been films that have dealt with abortion, be it Juno or, in a way, Knocked Up, although the word abortion is never spoken in it... I think that the idea that you can be an American citizen and not know somebody who’s at least had some decision to make over that is false, because women — and supposedly one third of women by the time they reach menopause — have had an abortion. It’s false to think that you don’t know anyone who’s had to make some decision about that," he says.
It's just another facet of what makes the project so unique and worthy of attention. Its influences contribute in large part too: legendary French writer Simone de Beauvoir is name dropped, as is Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, and the genius lesbian poet Eileen Myles. In fact, throughout the film, Elle can be seen carrying around a tote bag with a quote from Myles' Inferno, which is the story of a girl discovering herself. Of the decision to include the bag, Weitz says it was absolutely deliberate.
"I don’t consider myself a particularly sophisticated reader of poetry, but there’s just some poets that are just flat out great writers. And the thing I like about Eileen is I felt like she was undefinable, it wasn’t so much that the work of hers was dealing with being a specific age or anything, it was actually that you can’t really pin her down," he said. "I mean, obviously she’s a lesbian poet and has no problem being transgressive, but at the same time, the things that she writes about are universal and she’s incredibly entertaining at the same time that she can be really bleak... I wanted to have as many shoutouts to her as possible."
Subtle though the references to these great female figures in poetry, literature, and feminism may be, it all adds an extra layer to the already complex Grandma. It takes a majorly talented, learned person to put something like this together — someone not only able to make astute observations about human nature and generation gaps even between family members, but also open to learning more in the process. In other words, well: Someone like Weitz.
"I really liked this inversion that we have in that people in their 70s and late 60s grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s — in this era of complete political change and revolutionary fervor. And that people who grow up now are… I think things are changing massively, but they’re changing in ways that isolate us. Which isn’t always bad, but I mean, there’s no sort of cultural cohesion in terms of feeling like you’re part of some change or thought... what’s changing is that we’re tapping into the Internet more and more, and tapping into personal relationships to other people, but also to machines," Weitz explains of his desire to make a film that highlights the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter.
"And somebody in a particular situation where there wasn’t something virtual happening to her — she was pregnant, and she needs help, psychologically, to figure out whatever decision she’s gonna make, how to navigate it and get through it and how to come out with some more self confidence — the idea that it’s not her mother," he continues. "Basically, your parents don’t want you to feel pain, and I feel like you have to skip a generation to have somebody who’ll sort of tell it to you straight, usually."
It's a feminist, human message that Grandma gets across so effortlessly, it's difficult to even comprehend how other films so consistently fail to do so.
Grandma hits theaters on August 21.
Images: Sony Pictures Classic (2)