DATE April 25, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Psychologist Dan Gottlieb, a quadriplegic, talks about
his new book "Letters to Sam," a collection of letters to his
autistic grandson in which he describes his own experiences of
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Psychologist Dan Gottlieb was in his mid-50s and had been a quadriplegic for
more than 20 years when his young grandson Sam was diagnosed with autism. In
Gottlieb's new book "Letters to Sam," he collects the letters he's written to
his grandson in which he describes his own experiences of being different.
It was a car accident that left Gottlieb with quadriplegia, but it was after
the accident that he made his mark in his field. He opened a private
practice. For the past 20 years, he has had a very popular psychology call-in
show called "Voices in the Family." It's on WHYY in Philadelphia where FRESH
AIR is produced. And he writes a column for the Philadelphia Enquirer. Dan
Gottlieb's grandson Sam will be six next month.
Why did you want to write a book of letters to your grandson?
Dr. DAN GOTTLIEB: When he was born, I was a 56-year-old quadriplegic. I had
been a quadriplegic for 20 years. I know my life expectancy is shortened. I
live as Sartre said. We should live with death on my shoulder. I knew that
anything could take me out. And I could feel that my body was beginning to
fatigue. I wanted to share with Sam what I've learned, both as a psychologist
and a quadriplegic because I did not believe I would be in the world that he
would see. I wanted him to know who I was, how I saw the world. This is
something most of us don't get from our grandparents. I wanted him to have
that. And then when I learned that he had autism, it became more urgent. I
felt I had more to tell him about being different. And the book has turned
into two things. A book of love letters for my grandson but, in a way, it's a
prayer for the world. The prayer is that the world become softer, more
gentle, more loving. That the world Sam grows up in is safer than the world
you and I are living in today.
GROSS: You end the book by explaining to Sam that it might soon be time to
say goodbye. And you explain that you've been near-death several times. And
you just said that for quadriplegics, `death often comes sooner.' Is that what
you said? That the life expectancy--is that true, that medically the life
expectancy is shorter?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Yes. Yes, it is. I went to my urologist. My bladder is
beginning to fail on me which is typical of spinal cord injuries. That is our
weak link more than anything else. And I said to him, `Be blunt with me. How
long now do we have? Are we talking one year, five years, 10 years?' He said,
`I'll tell you the truth.' He said, `You are the first generation of
quadriplegic that has lived this long. We don't know. We have no idea.' So I
have all the hopes in the world that I'll live another decade. Meanwhile, I
am so grateful every day. I am so grateful for every season that changes.
GROSS: I know that the car accident that left you paralyzed nearly killed
you. So that forced you to change your life. You've had a few close calls
with death in the past few years. Did those close calls almost allow you to
change your life? You know, allow you to make changes that you actually
wanted to make and felt that you couldn't?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Yes. Yes. What a great question! The vision I had--have
about my accident is that when my neck broke, my soul began to breath. I
became the person I always dreamt I could be and never would have been if I
didn't break my neck. And with each time I faced death, I became more of who
I am and less worried about what others might think of me.
This last time was two years ago. I've cut my practice back. I don't work
quite as hard. That's a lie. I work just as hard. I don't work quite as
hard on things that pay, but I work just as hard. But I spend more time with
things I love. I'm involved with the boys and girls club. I'm involved in
more volunteer activities. I'm involved in a program to deal with violence
with--between city and suburban children. I spend my time trying to make the
world better in my own way for Sam and for all the Sams in the world.
GROSS: Tell me how you think you became the person who you wanted to be and
you thought you should be only after you broke your neck.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: My genetic loading would have me being more depressed more of
the time. My parents were both mild to moderately depressed their whole
lives. And I think I would have been. The good news about quadriplegia is
because I felt alienated as a child, I lived my whole life, up until 33,
thinking that, if I made enough money, I'd be OK--if I was successful as a
psychologist, if I was stronger. And when I broke my neck, I lost all hope.
And that was a gift. I lost hope that I would ever walk again. I lost hope
that I would ever be one of the kids again. My only choice was if I was going
to live, I would live as me, not as the person I wanted to be ideally. It was
liberating and terrifying.
GROSS: I mean, did you feel there were certain pressures that you or other
people had put on yourself to become somebody who you weren't particularly?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: We're all like that.
GROSS: No. Not me ever.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Lectures, children, most people I know spend their lives
trying to be the person they think they should be and never get to discover
who they are. And that's the gift, one of the gifts. The fact that I can't
run away from my demons, literally, I have to sit with them. The person I
wanted to be, I had always dreamed of being a visionary, of being a
peacemaker. But I had to be a psychologist. I had to be a father. I had to
be the kind of man I thought I was supposed to be. And when I broke my neck,
that was gone. I had to be the kind of man I was.
GROSS: How did the accident happen in which you broke your neck?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: I was traveling on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, westbound.
There was an 18-wheeler traveling eastbound. He lost his whole wheel, not his
tire, but his whole wheel. It bounced across the turnpike and crushed my car.
Thank God I was alone in the car because whoever else would have been there
would have been dead. And I'm also lucky that there was a car right across
the street, and in that car who watched the accident was an RN.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: So she ran across. As soon as she saw me, she knew I was a
quadriplegic, and she knew not to take me out of the car. Me, being the
person I am, when the ambulance came, I said call everybody I know to come
here right away. I knew I needed a network. I knew I needed a support
GROSS: Did they come?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Boy, did they come! I was in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, which is
about an hour from Philadelphia. And they came. They came in droves. And
they still do. I am sometimes embarrassed by my wealth.
GROSS: I imagine that you don't remember the moment of impact?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: No.
GROSS: Is that a good thing that you don't remember that?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: I think it is. The last thing I remember is a big black thing
in the sky, and that's the last thing I remember. I think, though, all of us,
if we can use that metaphorically, all of us have been hit by a big black
thing coming out of the sky. You know, it's a lump. It's a doctor saying, `I
think it's malignant.' It's a spouse saying, `I don't want to be in this
marriage anymore.' I'm no different than anybody else in that regard.
GROSS: Were you certain that you wanted to live while you were in the
hospital dealing with the news?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: No. No. No. Not at all. I was surrounded with people who
loved me. I was surrounded with people who told me I had value, and still I
wanted to die. I was taken to intensive care one night. And there I lay in
bed in a halo vest, which is a grotesque apparatus where your head is bolted
by metal bolts in order to immobilize your neck. I'm laying there with IVs,
with catheters, looking at the ceiling wishing I could go to sleep and not
wake up. A nurse came up to my bedside one night. I couldn't see her face
because I couldn't turn my head. She said, `You're a psychologist, aren't
you?' And I said, `Yes.' She said--not knowing I was suicidal, she said, `Does
everybody feel suicidal at some point in their life?' And I said, `Well, it's
not unusual, but if you want to talk, come back after your shift.' She pulls a
chair up, 11:00 that night. We talk for an hour. Of course, it was her. She
tells me about her life. I refer her to a therapist. She leaves, I close my
eyes and say to myself, `I can live with this.' That woman saved my life
because she asked something of me. All these people told me I had value, but
it had no meaning. She showed me that I had value by asking something of me,
by allowing herself to be vulnerable with me and asking my help.
GROSS: And you continued to be a therapist. You started your own practice.
You didn't have your own practice before the accident, right?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: It was a very small one, but I, yes, started my practice right
after the accident.
GROSS: So you started your practice, and then eventually you got a radio show
which you still have in which you help people and give people advise and also
discuss the latest issues in psychology. You have a column in the
Do you feel like your approach to working with your clients changed when your
life was changed by the accident?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: It changed dramatically. But I don't know how. I went to my
supervisor because I was scared by the intensity of my work. And he didn't
get it. So I went to a man who was nationally known in the field of family
therapy, and he didn't quite understand it, but he said, `You know what, call
my analyst in Atlanta, Georgia.' And I called him, and he was so moved by me,
by my story, by what happened, we spoke on the phone every week. But he
didn't get it. He was so outraged by the injustice I had to live with every
day that that's all he could focus on. And he wasn't able to help me with my
work. And once again, I knew I was alone here. And I had to sort it through
on my own with my patients. We had to come through this together. And we do
it together. We are both vulnerable.
GROSS: My guest is psychologist Dan Gottlieb. His new book is called
"Letters to Sam." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is psychologist Dr. Dan Gottlieb. He has a new book called
"Letters to Sam," which is addressed to his young grandson who has autism.
Dan Gottlieb was in a car accident over 20 years ago that left him with
When you returned to therapy after the accident, were you resentful of some of
your clients, and thinking like, `Oh, well, you think you have big problems?
You can walk.'
Dr. GOTTLIEB: I had that experience once. I was working with a man who was
being treated for alcoholism, and in a drunken stupor, he killed a girl. And
I'm watching him in the chair rationalize this. He got off for some reason.
I'm watching him in the chair rationalizing this, wiggling his foot as he did
it. And I'm thinking I would like to kill this man for what he has done.
That was the only time I felt it. I did have those emotions. When I was in
the hospital, I was looking out my window at a street, at a man living on a
vent, and I was envious of him. I thought at least he can get up and walk off
the vent, and I can't. And now, I'm envious of no one. No one. I don't have
that emotion of envy.
GROSS: Do you think that your patients are ever almost reluctant to tell you
their problems, thinking like `All this will sound kind of trite because,' you
know, `he can't walk, and I'm complaining about that my mother hollered at me
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Yes. They do say that. They do say that. I mean, my
position on that is suffering is suffering. Quadriplegia is a fact. A
history of child abuse is a fact. But suffering is suffering. I mean, if
you're not able to sleep at night, you're suffering. I'm not suffering with
quadriplegia. There was a man in my office a couple of years ago, extremely
obese man with two artificial knees sitting in a chair that was probably too
low for him. So, to the end of the session--and he struggles to get out of
the chair, and he's working hard. I feel badly. And I'm watching. And he
knows I'm watching. And he gets up, and he takes a deep breath, and he says,
`You know, Dan,' he says, `as hard as it was for me to get out of the chair,'
he says, `I look at you and I think, "Thank God I can get out of the chair."
Maybe I shouldn't say it, but that's what goes through my mind.' And I said,
`You know, I've got to be honest with you.' I said, `I look at you and how
hard you struggled to get out of the chair, and I think, "Thank God I don't
have to go through that crap when I get older."'
GROSS: What was his reaction?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: We both laughed. You know, it's all a matter of perspective.
It's all a matter of how you look at it. You know, my dad used to tell a
wonderful story, if I may?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: As he got older, he used to say, `I'm ready to leave this veil
of tears.' And I said to him, `Dad, is your life that bad that you're really
ready to go?' And he said, `Some days.' I said, `Tell me about those days.' He
said, `Well, I get to thinking my wife is gone, my daughter is gone.' My
sister had died five years earlier. `And here's my son struggling through
life every day in a wheelchair.' He said, `Those days I'm ready to go.' I
said, `But, Dad, those things are true every day. Tell me about the days
you're not ready to go.' He says, `I'm not thinking about those things.' It's
all perspective. It's all where your mind lands is how you read your life and
how you experience it.
GROSS: Well, he's ready to kill himself because you're in a chair, and, of
course, you're not feeling that way about it when he's saying that.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Well, the truth of the matter is...
GROSS: You were?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: No. No, not at all. The truth of the matter is I would much
rather be a quadriplegic than be a parent of a quadriplegic.
GROSS: Really. Why?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: The helplessness he felt watching me every day in his life.
The powerlessness. The stories he told himself about my suffering. I mean, I
can't imagine. I've watched both my daughters be ill, and I suffered more
than then did. I watched my wife, when I went back to work as a quadriplegic,
I was hospitalized for a year and I went back to the clinic I worked in, and
it was very difficult for me, and the staff was unkind to me, and her rage and
helplessness at them. Meanwhile, I had the ability to work it out with them,
who was in there. I worked it out with them. I was fine. She could never
forgive them because the person she loved was suffering, and there was nothing
she could do about it. You know the famous psychoanalyst Sheldon Kopp said,
`The most difficult part of love is dealing with your helplessness in the face
of a loved one suffering.' And that's what it means to be a parent of a
GROSS: You have a column in the Philadelphia Enquirer. And, you know, people
often write letters and you respond. You print their letter and respond in
the column. I want to read an excerpt of a letter you wrote back in your
column to somebody. And this was somebody who was saying that, it was a man
who wrote, and his girlfriend was emotionally disabled basically by having
been abused as a child and having been abused as a woman. And you gave--and
this man left her, but they're having a lot of troubles in their relationship,
and you gave him this advise.
(Reading) "If you decide to stay in the relationship, do so with integrity.
Be in a relationship with the woman she is and not the woman you think she
could be or will be. Many men get involved with women who they see as wounded
and then try to rescue them from their injuries. Please don't do that. It's
disrespectful, and it almost always fail."
GROSS: And I'm wondering if people have tried to rescue you and have tried to
like build a relationship around trying to rescue you? And if you found it
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Always. It's always disrespectful. Unsolicited advise is
always self-serving. And it's--I don't need to be rescued. When I want help,
I'll ask for it. None of us need to be rescued. We're--by and large, we are
GROSS: Is that a phenomenon you faced a lot though of people wanting to
rescue you and trying to build a relationship around that?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: No. No. It hasn't happened often. And maybe it's the
message I put out there. What I face often is people wanting to be of help to
me. And I almost feel badly about that because I see the best in people every
day. I see their kindness and their compassion and their openness. And
somebody who appears strong and healthy and independent doesn't see what I
GROSS: Psychologist Dr. Dan Gottlieb. He's the author of the new book
"Letters to Sam." He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: In the new film satire, "American Dreamz," an inept terrorist and a
dimwitted president both end up on an "American Idol"-style TV show. Coming
up, we talk with the screenwriter and director Paul Weitz. He also made "In
Good Company," "About a Boy" and "American Pie."
And we continue our conversation with psychologist Dan Gottlieb.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with psychologist Dr. Dan
Gottlieb. Over 20 years after a car accident left him with quadriplegia, his
young grandson was diagnosed with autism. In Gottlieb's new book, "Letters to
Sam," he collects the letters he wrote to his grandson about his own
experiences being different. Gottlieb hosts a psychology call-in show called
"Voices in the Family" on WHYY in Philadelphia where FRESH AIR is produced.
And he writes a column for the Philadelphia Enquirer.
You mentioned earlier that you're part of the first generation of people with
quadriplegia who have lived into their late 50s that, you know, medical
science has gotten to that point. And so, you've nearly died a couple of
times. You've come really close. At the same time, you have people who have
been able-bodied, burnt in accidents and who have died. Your ex-wife died.
Your sister had a brain tumor and died. And so, I'm just kind of thinking of
like the relative length of life that the people who had seemed healthy--some
people who had seemed healthy have already left.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: I don't know how to respond, Terry. You know, Franklin Abida,
a sociologist, said that we couldn't have life without death. We couldn't
understand it. The closer I come to death, and I feel I come closer every
day, feel it, know it, touch it--the more that happens, the more precious I
feel daytime is, nighttime, colors, knowing you, being here, writing this
book, the more grateful I feel for what I have. The imminence of death just
makes life more alive. I don't know, Terry, if we could do it without
GROSS: You've done a radio show with WHYY in Philadelphia for many years.
How many years is it, 20?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Twenty.
GROSS: And, you know, you interview a lot of people, psychologists,
psychiatrists, all kinds of people related to human relationships, human
problems. And you also give a lot of advise on the telephone. What have you
learned over the years about where the line is between advice that you feel
you can give on the phone and what is inappropriate to presume on the
telephone on a radio show with other people listening? Because you haven't
had the chance to talk to the person one-on-one for a long period of time.
And it's--also, it's a public communication. It's not a private
Dr. GOTTLIEB: It's a great question, and I don't know if I have a great
answer. A lot of it is instinct which is a horrible answer. I don't diagnose
someone over the phone. I don't give specific advice over the phone. And any
advice I give to anyone over the phone, I am fully conscious of thousands of
ears, hopefully thousands of ears, listening at the same time. And I'm
talking to all of them at the same time. What I try to address to my
listeners, to the caller, is the human aspect of the dilemmas that they're
struggling with. And if I can address the human aspect of it, then it's
relative to everybody who is listening to it.
GROSS: You ask a lot of questions, too, when someone calls, don't you
Dr. GOTTLIEB: I'm a therapist. That's what we're trained to do. I went to
school for 16 years to learn how to say, `Why?'
GROSS: So this therapy help you as an interviewer? You know, do the skills
of a therapist help you with the skills as an interviewer on your radio show?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Very much so. Very much. They started off helping me a lot.
And then I had to hone them because I could sit for 50 minutes easily with one
patient and be very interested. But that doesn't make for good radio, the
kinds of questions I've asked. My years on the radio has helped me hone my
question and get to the heart of things very quickly.
GROSS: So radio has helped you as a therapist?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Radio has helped me as a therapist a great deal. I'm much
more efficient as a therapist. One thing I learned, a patient came to me
years ago, and she said, `I feel like my soul is a prism and everybody I know
only sees one color and nobody sees the whole prism.' And I thought, `That's
the way to be a good therapist. That's the way to be a good parent, a good
spouse, a good lover, is to see the prism of somebody else's soul.' And that's
what I do as a therapist, as a radio interviewer, even as a friend. I work
very hard to see the prism of somebody else's soul. And that's what my
questions are geared towards help me see the prism of your soul.
GROSS: It sounds like you have a really good perspective on life and death,
and on your physical limitations with quadriplegia. And you said before
there's no one that you envy, like you've put that kind of envy behind you.
Are there times, though, where it just gets to you and you don't have such a
clear view, you don't have such a good handle on the world and your emotions
and all of that?
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Oh, often, often. I don't feel envy. That doesn't mean I
don't suffer. I remember a couple of years ago I was driving in my van and I
saw somebody jogging on the drive one spring day. And I just burst into
tears. I had to pull over to the side of the road. I was crying so hard. I
suffer, I suffer greatly. I suffer that my bladder is failing. I suffer. I
feel great pain during the day. But I say to people, `My body is broken. My
mind is neurotic. My soul is at peace.' And that is really true. It's really
true. I suffer with my body. On occasion, I suffer with my mind, and my soul
really is at peace today, and I pray it's at peace tomorrow, too. And I pray
it's at peace when I'm in my death bed.
GROSS: Well, Dan Gottlieb, thank you so much for talking with us.
Dr. GOTTLIEB: Terry, thank you. It was delightful.
GROSS: Dr. Dan Gottlieb is the author of the new book, "Letters to Sam." He
hosts the family therapy call-in show "Voices in the Family" on WHYY in
Philadelphia where FRESH AIR is produced. And he writes a column for the
Coming up, a new movie satire about an "American Idol"-type program and an
inept terrorist and a dimwitted American president. We talk with Paul Weitz
about writing and directing "American Dreamz."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Movie director Paul Weitz talks about his new movie,
(Soundbite of song from "American Dreamz")
Unidentified Singer #1: (Singing) "Girl, let's not be friends 'cause we've
shared too much. Girl, you know that I'm yearning for your touch 'cause I
can't be last..."
TERRY GROSS, host:
That's just the kind of singing you'd expect to hear on "American Idol," which
is why you hear it in the new movie "American Dreamz." It's a satire about an
"American Idol"-type program and what happens when an inept terrorist ends up
being one of the contestants and a dimwitted American president becomes the
guest judge on the final edition, hoping to give his own popularity a boost.
The movie was written and directed by my guest Paul Weitz. He also wrote and
directed the comedy "In Good Company." And with his brother Chris Weitz, he
made the movies "American Pie" and "About a Boy." Here's a scene from early in
"American Dreamz." The president, played by Dennis Quaid, has just been
re-elected. He's in the bedroom with the first lady doing something very out
of character, reading the newspaper, when his chief of staff walks into the
room. The first lady is played by Marcia Gay Harden. The chief of staff is
played by Willem Dafoe who's made up to look like Dick Cheney.
(Soundbite from movie "American Dreamz")
Mr. WILLEM DAFOE: (As chief of staff) What's with the papers, new puppy?
Mr. DENNIS QUAID: (As president) They're newspapers.
Mr. DAFOE: (As chief of staff) I can see that.
Hi, Mrs. P. You look beautiful.
Ms. MARCIA GAY HARDEN: (As first lady) Good morning, Louis.
Mr. DAFOE: (As chief of staff) So Mr. P., you ready to meet the press?
Mr. QUAID: (As president) Not right now.
Mr. DAFOE: (As chief of staff) Mr. P., we've discussed this. I mean, it
was your idea to meet the press after the big win, herald in the new era of
openness, what with our overwhelming mandate.
Mr. QUAID: (As president) Yeah, I know. It's just that there is a lot of
stuff in here. There's a lot of interesting things.
Mr. DAFOE: (As chief of staff) Yeah, there is a lot of stuff. They have to
fill the pages with something. But I think interesting is stretching it.
Mr. QUAID: (As president) Well, for instance, did you know that there are
two kinds of Iraqistanis--I mean, actually three kinds of Iraqis.
Mr. DAFOE: (As chief of staff) You mean Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds?
Mr. QUAID: (As president) You knew about this?
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Paul Weitz, welcome back to FRESH AIR. How did you get the idea for
bringing together "American Idol," the American president and suicide bombers?
Mr. PAUL WEITZ: Well, it seemed like a natural, doesn't it? In fact, I had
to race it to theaters to beat the competing studio show tune "Singing
Terrorist" projects to the screen. Really it was from observing the strange
process of my day which was I wake up, read the papers and become stressed out
about terrorism and the way the administration was handling things in the
proper way. And then by the evening I was just watching TV and worrying about
whether Constantine was going to get kicked off "American Idol," as if there's
absolutely nothing going on in the world that affected me.
And this odd sort of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen-esque figure of the bumbling show
tunes-singing terrorist came to me, and I worked out this whole story. And I
would pitch it to friends, and I felt like it was a really insane prospect to
approach this subject through comedy. But, at the same time, people were
really laughing. And I think in terms of agenda, I feel like one of the uses
of comedy can be to dissipate fear. And we've been living in an atmosphere of
fear for such a long time in the country that it makes it almost impossible to
have a rational thought. And beyond that, I then started to think of an
I didn't really care that the movie was lampooning "American Idol" or
lampooning the current administration. What I was interested in was in making
a movie about what I think is a core aspect of American identity, which is the
idea that everybody has a dream. And that's always looked at as a positive
thing. In a way, it's the best thing about America. But, at the same time,
the question presents itself of whether that makes it impossible to deal with
GROSS: And whether those dreams are good or not.
Mr. WEITZ: Yeah. And oddly in the movie, the person whose dream saves them
is this show tunes-loving terrorist who has the dream that he can become a
star because he was chosen for this "American Idol"-type TV show. But I
think, on various levels, you can see how this idea of American identity being
that in which we have to all be aspiring towards something greater than what
we are affects us. And on the political level, I think that one can look at
sort of the Bush administration's dream of creating democracies in the Middle
East and sort of like this idea that if you just have a dream and adhere to
it, everything is going to be OK.
And I think that in terms of political discourse, that the idea of shades of
gray has gotten such a nasty--it's almost like the third rail of politics. I
mean, beyond all the sort of political mistakes Kerry made in the last
election, it seemed like the one thing that really ruined him was the idea
that he was able to look at both sides of an issue, which seems to be the
hallmark of intelligence. So I think now is the time to question whether
dreaming is an appropriate reaction to the world.
GROSS: Yeah, so one of the points you're making is dreams are sometimes
delusions, and it's helpful to know the difference.
Mr. WEITZ: Yeah.
GROSS: Now you had me from the open of the movie, and the opening of the
movie we see like a terrorist training camp. And one of the terrorists in
training is incredibly inept. And then we see him in the evening in his tent,
and he puts--he takes out this like little old cheap outdated turntable and
puts an anthology of Broadway songs on it. And then we see him singing and
dancing along to the song "One" from a "Chorus Line."
Mr. WEITZ: Yeah. I mean, I think that the initial comic thing I was
thinking about was this sort of terrorist training video that we've all seen
500 times and wondering what it was like when they shot it. And what if there
was a sort of an inept guy who was ruining every take because he couldn't hang
on to the monkey bars, and he couldn't get over the wall.
And then, you know, there was this guy Omer played by newcomer Sam Golzari.
And the next time you see him, he's in a tent, and he's--you're not sure what
he is doing in his tent, and you're thinking he's up to some nefarious plot,
and then he takes out this scratchy old record which is it turns out was his
mother's record and she loved show tunes. And the reason that this particular
guy is at this terrorist camp which he is incredibly ill-suited for is that
his mom was killed by a stray American bomb. And the character itself, to me,
feels like kind of early Woody Allen or kind of a schmuck who's at the mercy
of forces larger than he is. And you know that in his heart of hearts, he
doesn't--he's not suited for being an extremist.
GROSS: I think this is the only film I can think of that has the potential of
offending Simon Cowell, President Bush and Osama bin Laden.
Mr. WEITZ: Yeah. I don't know if it's going to reach my core audience of
terrorists under the age of 25. But that's what I'm hoping shows up. No,
it's true. I mean, I think that the best thing I could hope for the film is I
saw an early screening, and there was a guy in the focus group afterwards, he
said, `God, these are all the things I stress out about on a daily basis, and
for an hour and a half, I was able to laugh at them,' and that actually felt
like kind of a really good thing. So that would be my sort of best hope for
GROSS: You know, I was wondering if you had a test screening of this and that
if you did, did you have to screen it for people who knew "American Idol" and
who could get all the "American Idol" jokes?
Mr. WEITZ: Well, I mean, the odd thing is that when I wrote it, I actually
had not watched "American Idol." I just knew it was out there.
GROSS: No. Really?
Mr. WEITZ: Yeah. I knew it was out there in the culture in a huge way. And
so the first draft, I just sort of guessed at what it was like. And, frankly,
I wasn't modeling it--Hugh Grant's character on Simon Cowell's "Secrets." I
was really modeling it on Hugh Grant. The idea of a really smart guy who kind
of loathes what he does and what he's become famous for and--but is addicted
to doing it nonetheless. And so then once I wrote it, I went and watched last
season and became quite addicted myself to the show. And then, you know, I
altered some things, but through the initial idea, I had no idea what
"American Idol" was actually like.
GROSS: You had to create songs for the performers in your "American Idol"
show "American Dreamz." So I think you wrote the lyrics to them yourself?
Mr. WEITZ: Yeah. The movie did not have a wildly large budget, given some
of the crazy things that happened in the movie. So at first I wrote into the
script all these big pop songs, and then I realized I wasn't going to be able
to pay for them. So I went to Stephen Trask who had written the score for "In
Good Company" and who also wrote the songs and music for "Hedwig and the Angry
Inch." And he's a really terrific sort of pop song composer. And I said, `Why
don't we put a parody of all these mainstream brands of music that they would
sing on "American Idol"?' And so he came up with this anthemic song "Dreamz"
with a z that Mandy Moore sings. And then we wrote a faux country Western
song called "Momma Don't Drink Me to Bed," both of which are sung by Mandy
Moore, who, despite being a pop star, is an incredibly good singer as well.
GROSS: Then there's also a great song we only hear a few seconds of it. But
Trey Parker actually plays like the rocker on the show.
Mr. WEITZ: Right. Yeah.
GROSS: And he sings this great song "Rocking Man." He was the genuine rocking
Mr. WEITZ: Well, that was a little bit from watching the last season of
GROSS: With Bo Bice. Yeah.
Mr. WEITZ: Yeah. And it seems like it was--they kept trumpeting that. They
finally had rockers on "American Idol." So then there's this sort of moronic
guy who only sings about being a rocking man.
GROSS: My guest is Paul Weitz. He wrote and directed the new film, "American
Dreamz." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Paul Weitz. He wrote and directed the new film, "American
Dreamz," a satire about a TV singing competition like "American Idol," an
inept terrorist who becomes a contestant and a dimwitted American president
who becomes a guest judge.
Dennis Quaid plays the president in "American Dreamz," and you portray the
president as somebody who's not very bright and who wears an earpiece in which
he is told by his chief of staff what to say and when to say it. But the
president starts to rebel. The president starts reading the newspaper, and
once he actually starts learning what's happening in the world, he starts to
Do you want to describe how you wrote the president the way you did and why?
Mr. WEITZ: Yeah. I mean, I took as a starting point his famous quote that
he doesn't read the newspapers. And so I always wanted to do something about
a president who's having a nervous breakdown. And I thought, well, what if
this guy had a little bit of a breakdown because he woke up on the morning of
his re-election and felt kind of cocky and decided to read the newspaper for
the first time in four years. And this caused him to realize that he had been
making decisions based on a black and white view of the world. And the more
that he learns, the more sort of he doesn't want to leave his bed in the
bedroom of the Oval--of the White House. And it's not--you know, because it's
Dennis, it's--he's able to create a relatively fully formed character I think.
And I'm not particularly interested--I mean, I happen to have my own feelings
about Bush, and I don't think that he's going to wake up any day soon and sort
of reassess everything that he's done. But that was not my aim with this
movie. My aim was to have a character that begins in a place of being kind of
blind and suffers because he's learning about things, and then in the end, his
kind of triumph. In the movie, Dennis' triumph is not that he's suddenly
become smart, but actually that he decides he wants to deal with reality and
with the idea that things are not easily solvable.
So, in a way, it starts as a parody of the administration, but I'm interested
in creating a character which, you know, the movie model that Dennis and I
were talking about most was Peter Sellers character in "Being There," the
Chauncey Gardiner character, sort of a...(unintelligible)...character.
GROSS: The president's chief of staff is played by Willem Dafoe. But you
have him costumed and made up to look like a very trim and more youthful Dick
Mr. WEITZ: Yeah. When we were thinking of--when I was thinking of Willem to
do it, we made a computer morph of Willem's face with the top of Dick Cheney's
head, and there was just something really funny about it I thought. And we
sent it to Willem with the script. And I think he got a kick out of the idea
of looking like that. Well, Willem has actually become one of our best
comedic actors. He's become--he always I think was a fantastic character
actor. But now I think in movies like "Life Aquatic" and this one where he's
really, really funny.
GROSS: You had said earlier that you modeled the Simon Cowell character that
Hugh Grant plays on Hugh Grant himself because Hugh Grant has become somebody
who really loathes what it is that he's famous for doing. What does he loath
about acting or about the movie business?
Mr. WEITZ: Well, Hugh's a really smart guy. And, actually, I think
personally I'm interested in the intersection of cynicism and idealism. And
all my films are in that terrain. And this film is particularly in that
terrain because it's saying some really cynical things, but also I'm lucky
enough to have a relatively optimistic view of human nature. And I think
maybe that's why I like and care about Hugh so much because he sort of sees
the imbecilic aspects of his job and of fame. And he claims to--I mean, he
claims to despise acting but, at the same time, he'll show up on the set with
his script filled with notes. And you know that the night before he shows up
on the set he has been worrying whether he's going to do a good job or not.
And so there is some element of him which is still a deeply idealistic, and I
think when you are really smart enough to see the base of things about human
nature and about your own nature, that makes your idealism more exquisite and
painful. And that to me sums up Hugh. Hugh's a--he's a deeply cynical guy
who has a kernel of idealism which he would hate me or anyone talking about.
GROSS: And the inept terrorist, when he performs on "American Dreamz," sings
the "Impossible Dream" and "My Way." How did you choose those songs for him?
Mr. WEITZ: When I was looking at show tunes for that character, it was--I
was looking for songs that had a very specific and strange change of meaning
when they were sung by a terrorist. And so "Impossible Dream" has these lines
`to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause.' And it seemed
entirely apropos. And I think that part of the task here was to make that
character watchable. And--I mean, the very strange thing that happens in this
movie is that the two--probably the two most sympathetic characters are Dennis
Quaid's president, who has a lot of Bush's qualities but does not share the
quality of seeming to never actually change his perspective on things but
actually becomes humanized during the course of the film, and this sort of
show-tune singing terrorist, who is doing what he's doing for a reason which
is that he says early on that his mother was killed by a stray American bomb.
I wanted the Omer character to be as sympathetic as possible and to kind of
separate him from the other terrorist characters in the movie and have him be
kind of a redeemable character. And so there's something very sort of
vulnerable about somebody going out there and singing show tunes in front of a
GROSS: So when you look at bin Laden tapes, you know, in which he's like
threatening the United States and the Western world, do you just imagine him
singing and dancing?
Mr. WEITZ: I'm not sure I'm quite capable enough of--I mean, I'm terrified
along with everybody else, there is no question. But at the same time, these
are people who take themselves deeply seriously. And when you are a
relativist and a humanist, you want to poke holes in anyone who takes
themselves terribly seriously. I look at it and I'm horrified, and at the
same time, it's interesting to know whether he did it all in one take or
whether, you know, the camera was in focus the first time. Whether he was,
you know, yelling at the sound man, stopped cracking his knuckles while he was
giving his speech.
GROSS: Well, Paul Weitz, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. WEITZ: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Paul Weitz wrote and directed the new film, "American Dreamz."
(Soundbite of song "Impossible Dream")
Unidentified Singer #2: (Singing) "To dream the impossible dream, to fight
the unbeatable foe...
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.