Based on Nick Flynn’s 2005 autobiography “Another Bull***t Night in Suck City,” “Being Flynn,” opening here Friday, tells the story of Nick, an aimless young man (Paul Dano) who drinks and does drugs too much. He finds a job at a homeless shelter, where he comes face to face with the father who abandoned him and his mother nearly 20 years ago. Nick has to decide whether to allow his father, who suffers from alcoholism and mental illness, into his life.
The film also tells the parallel story of his father, Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro). He is (at least in his own mind) a great undiscovered writer, a sought-after dinner guest, a raconteur and a cabdriver who reconnects with his son while staying at a homeless shelter to gather research for his to-be-published novel, for which he has already received a hefty advance. That’s what he says, anyway.
The two characters fight over who gets to tell this story, often in voice-over. “The story happens to be about two writers. And early on, I had this thought that the movie is about identity, and whether you’re fated to become your dad or not,” says director Paul Weitz, who also adapted the screenplay. “I like the idea of these two guys who were trying to pull the movie from each other. Each of them felt it was their story.”
Weitz used multiple voice-overs in his 2002 film “About a Boy.” “Through trial and error on ‘About a Boy,’ I kind of figured out my approach to narration,” he says. “When it’s two characters, the danger is you feel there are two movies going on. And having one voice throughout helps sew it together.”
He also had a very firm idea coming in about how he wanted this film to look. “When I arrived on the set, I not only had the script, but I had a 200-page book of the shots I was going to use,” he says. “I knew what the end of each scene would be, where the actor would be. If it was Paul Dano walking out of a shot I knew that I would want, [I’d get] Bob walking in from the same part of the frame,” giving the film a visual bridge between the two narrators.
“I think narration gets a bad name, because it’s usually used when a studio finds out an audience doesn’t understand what the heck they just saw,” Weitz says. “But in this case, it was planned from the get-go.”
Robert De Niro plays Jonathan Flynn, a man who says that America has produced three classic writers: Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger and himself. That line from “Being Flynn” does not exaggerate the real-life Flynn’s sense of his own importance, says writer-director Paul Weitz. “When we went to visit Jonathan, instead of being intimidated by De Niro, Jonathan said, ‘So, do you think you’re going to be able to pull this off?’” When Jonathan’s son Nick pointed out that De Niro is, well, De Niro, Weitz says Flynn responded with, “Yeah, I hear you’re good. But can you play me?”