Paul Weitz had a scene in his head in search of a movie: "Somebody at a funeral coming up to a widower, and while everybody else is saying, 'Oh, I'm so sorry,' and 'What an awful loss,' and 'We love you, come have dinner,' this person comes up without missing a beat and says, 'Now that she's gone, I'm going to kill you this weekend.'"
The filmmaker, an Oscar nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay for 2002's About a Boy, wasn't sure where the scene belonged, however, until he got a call from Lily Tomlin. Weitz had directed her in his 2013 seriocomic romantic drama, Admission, in which she had a small role as Tina Fey's character's mom, and then, in his 2015 Sundance dramedy Grandma, in which she took on her first leading role in nearly three decades. "Lily called me up soon after and said, 'I'm sitting here with Jane Fonda. Why don't you write a movie for us?'"
In that moment, he realized the person threatening murder would be Jane Fonda. The movie is Moving On, which begins with Fonda's Claire arriving at the funeral of a late friend and promptly informing the bereaved husband (Malcolm McDowell) that she is going to kill him. Before the wake is over, she's enlisted her estranged college pal, Evelyn (Tomlin), to help her exact revenge on the predatory widower. The film arrives more than 40 years after Fonda and Tomlin first co-starred together in 9 to 5, but Moving On is a very different comedy of comeuppance: A darkly comedic rape-revenge fantasy.
"I loved that it was an extreme tone," Weitz says. "I had movies of Jane's and Lily's from the '70s stuck in my head, but then I was also thinking of her dad [Henry Fonda] and some of the iconic Westerns he had done. I thought of Jane as a Western character coming in and getting revenge."
A.frame: Did you share with Jane the movies you were thinking of when you were writing this?
All I shared with her was that I thought it might be sort of a Western, because that lumped one more tone in there — along with the comedy and drama. What I did do is I went back and watched Klute and Coming Home. I really like doing things about older characters who are still in the thick of something really dramatic. I don't mean dying or having dementia. I mean stuff that 20 year olds are dealing with, like trying to figure out what the nature of love is. What's happened to me? How do I get over something that's practically impossible to get over? Can you ever get over it?
This movie offers a new perspective on what it means to get justice and reckon with sexual violence in a post-Me Too world. Did any aspects of this evolve or change once you sent the script to Jane and Lily and they had a chance to give their input?
Yeah, it's a good one to collaborate on, because both Jane and Lily bring so much to it. The first thing I tend to do, whether the actor is in their 80s or whether they're 11 years old, is ask, 'What do you think it is?' Then I take it really seriously if they don't think something is right. For Jane, and also all the actors as well, they didn't necessarily specify with me, but they were like, 'Yeah, this reminds me of something in my life and that's why I want to do it.' It's a different angle on the things that one thinks of as topical, whether it be that in this movie or the abortion issue in Grandma. One big thing you can see still is you have people who are making the decision now, after 20 years, to speak up and be open about something. And in terms of Jane's character, this is someone who was not able to speak up over the course of decades, and now is her time.
It's also about gay history too. It was conscious on my part that I wanted Lily's character to have a lot of little kids [around her] in the movie. Lily herself is incredibly lovely with little kids and had a really fun time with them. But, as opposed to now — when the idea of a gay couple having kids is not uncommon, thank God — when Lily's character was growing up, that was not something that was in the cards, unless you were going to hide that part of yourself. So, there's the Me Too aspect from Jane's character, but I was also thinking about the history of attitudes towards gay culture.
When you hear such a heightened premise — Jane Fonda telling someone at a funeral, 'I'm going to kill you this week' — you might assume this is going to be a comedy of hijinks. And there are hijinks, but the movie largely unfolds in these very small, human moments. What were your thoughts on threading the needle with the tone of this?
I feel like I've been doing this for a long time, and I'm still worrying about tone and trying to figure out what the right tone of things is. I think so much of the tone is in retrospect. In this case, I really was focusing on the idea that it was about this friendship of two very different women who have made massively different choices in their lives. They diverged in a massive way, but through this funeral, they're brought back together and have this adventure. I wasn't thinking too consciously of tone.
Some of the movies I like the most I think are tonally completely weird, and people tend to get away with them. Dark comedies, I think we probably need a new term for that. Those are particularly dodgy. People are either going to have it in their DNA to be okay with it, or they're going to be like, 'What the hell is this?' Also, because it's about things that are really serious, I needed to not have those moments where those serious things come up be heightened. I needed to really give the ball to Jane Fonda on that and that was part of the excitement for me. To some degree, yeah, it's a movie about how she's threatening to kill this guy. But also, she just wants him to say what happened, and when he won't, she has to say it.
And what a scene that is.
Look, as a director, you want to make sure you're in the right shot when the actor is doing what they're going to do. Because they're not going to do it more than twice. I talked with Jane about how I was going to shoot it, and I asked her, 'Do you want me to start wider or start in the shot that this is going to play in?' She said, 'Let's start intimate with the camera, so that I know that, when I'm doing it, it's going to be in the film.' Behind the scenes, that scene was pretty crazy, because I think there was one take where she almost broke Malcolm's nose because she was so into it. During rehearsals, I think Lily spat on him by accident. It was intense. Poor Malcolm.
Well, if you're going to get spat on or get your nose broken, I can't think of better people to have it done by.
[Laughs] Yeah, for sure.
We've seen Jane and Lily work together so prolifically. They co-starred in 80 for Brady earlier this year, and Grace and Frankie is still recent in people's minds. I don't imagine you bring them together again wanting to get the same thing they've done before. How did you hope these characters would reveal new sides of them or challenge them as actors?
I really was looking back to work they'd done in the '70s, or I suppose to Grandma, the movie that I made with Lily. It's definitely totally different, but they knew that from the get-go. That's part of why they wanted to do it and why they were up for doing it so soon after Grace and Frankie. That was their big concern actually. 'Oh, I don't want this to feel just like we're playing Grace and Frankie.' For them, I think so much of it is specificity. They worked together on the characters' backstories before filming, and then, they would tell me stuff. They wanted to be really specific. That third friend who died, whose funeral they're attending at the beginning of the movie, what was their relationship with that person? Jane told me a lot about her character's childhood, and she was doing some things physically — really constraining the way that she moves — to get a different character from Grace and from herself. I think by making it specific and specifically not whatever they were doing in Grace and Frankie, that made them feel calm.
You have your own relationship with Lily, but when you have two actors who have been working together for years and years, what is it like then coming in as a third collaborator?
I've been really lucky, in terms of working with legendary actors. And I feel like what I'm trying to do is to strip away stuff. And in this case, there's no pitch you could throw at Jane Fonda that she couldn't knock out of the park. Obviously, she has this whole side of her which is very empowered, but in this movie, she's very willing to explore pain. And I feel like I know how to write for Lily, and it's all softballs for her, just because I get such a kick out of her. She does things that are oddly touching sometimes. There's a line where she says, 'I don't hate anyone. It's too exhausting.' Her expression during that is nothing I would have ever have thought of, but there's genuine poignancy in it. There's also a line that she has where she says, 'Everybody thinks I'm being funny, but I'm just talking.' I feel like that's the key to Lily's sense of humor, that it's generally just her perspective.
What I tried to do was I talked with them about when they were first starting and whether they did theater. I really like to get them talking about the plays they did when they were younger, and thinking about who they were before they had success, and what was driving them. Anybody who's been that good for that long still has a connection with what drove them to it in the first place and what they would be doing if they'd never become famous. I think that's really beautiful.