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Little Fockers – How Director Paul Weitz was drawn to working with his idols

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Little Fockers - Director Paul Weitz and Robert De Niro
Director Paul Weitz and actor/producer Robert De Niro on the set © 2010 Universal Studios & DW Studios LLC

Paul Weitz wrote, directed and produced the films Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, In Good Company and along with his brother Chris, he directed American Pie and About a Boy.

With his new movie Little Fockers he takes on a new challenge, directing the third movie of a franchise he was not originally a part of. The series began in 2000 with Meet the Parents, when Greg Focker [Ben Stiller] first met his potential father-in-law, Jack Byrnes [Robert De Niro], and I’ll let Paul set up the new story:

What’s the scenario for this movie?

Little Fockers Premiere - Director Paul Weitz
Director Paul Weitz attends the world premiere of "Little Fockers" at Ziegfeld Theatre on December 15, 2010 in New York City © 2010 Getty

Well, this one is five years after the last one [Meet the Fockers], and Greg, Ben Stiller’s character, has a little bit more confidence, he has two kids, twins, and he has a little bit more responsibility at work. He has enough confidence to make the fatal mistake of accepting when Bob De Niro’s character, Jack, says to him, ‘I need to pass on the mantle of family leadership and I need you to be the Godfocker.’

Jack, has a moment of weakness in the beginning of the movie, he has a minor heart attack and he thinks he needs to get somebody to lead the family. He offers it to Greg and then pretty much from the moment he does, he regrets it and wants the mantle back and any little bit of weakness that Greg shows is an opportunity for Jack to try to get back his power.

What was it about this franchise that attracted you to the project?

I’m drawn to independent film, but I’m also drawn to classic filmmaking of the studio era, and it’s almost impossible to replicate that situation where you have huge stars committed to a project. It’s almost like the studio saying, ‘We have Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, and we’re going to put them in a movie.’ This felt similar to that. It’s such an incredibly unusual situation to have a cast of this caliber in place.

I was never going to be offered an opportunity to work with a number of my idols already prepackaged in a film. So I thought it would be an interesting challenge and weirdly the aspect of it, that the first two movies were huge hits, didn’t occur to me that it was something I needed to be worried about which, I suppose, it was.

When it came time to take on this franchise, what were some of the clichés that wanted to get rid of?

Little Fockers - Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand
Bernie (Dustin Hoffman) and Roz Focker (Barbra Streisand) at their grandchildren's birthday party © 2010 Universal Studios & DW Studios LLC

One cliché I wanted to avoid is that there’s no reason to do the third version of a franchise! There’s a big temptation to go to the well of having a hundred ‘fockers’ jokes. Every new actor who comes to it wants to say, ‘Focker, focker,’ and I would gently say, ‘No, I’m sorry, we just did that five minutes ago in the film.’

What makes a great comedy?

The key thing for any really terrific comedic performance is that the character doesn’t know he or she is in a comedy. Ben is very keen to not play anything for laughs. I don’t think he ever thinks, ‘I’m going to do something funny now.’ I think he thinks, ‘My character is in this situation, and this is what he’d be saying.’ Playing comedy is similar to drama. You must be completely invested in the moment.

How did you get Robert De Niro to do stunts?

In one scene, Jack dives into one of those ball pits that are at children’s parties, before he gets into a fight with Greg. He did the stunt himself, leaping into the air, and he went face first into a bunch of plastic balls. It’s the kind of thing that you would normally have a stunt person do, but Bob’s in good shape and was up for it. It was fun to see his old Raging Bull moves kick back in.

Tell us about the comedic prowess of Bob and Ben.

Little Fockers - Director Paul Weitz
Director Paul Weitz on the set © 2010 Universal Studios & DW Studios LLC

They really are great, and the great thing is that everything happens in character and Bob and Ben are almost like jazz musicians the way they are able to improvise with each other. They do what’s in the script and then they come up with a bunch of stuff.

The hardest thing for me directing this was to try to figure out when to say, ‘Cut,’ because occasionally I’d say cut too early and they’d both look at me, because they both has something really funny that they were going to do ten seconds later. So the next take I’d wait around for them to finish, and they’d go, ‘God, you’re killing us, will you please let us stop improvising?’

Why do audiences connect so much to this ongoing struggle between Jack and Greg?

It’s really funny to watch someone going through awful things that you feel that you’ve gone through at some point in your life, because you can sit outside of it and laugh at it. And that idea that you really feel like you’re not good enough for a certain situation, whether it be meeting your girlfriend’s parents or, in this case, taking over the responsibility of even having a family in the first place.