In the dramedy film “Grandma,” Lily Tomlin is cranky feminist writer Elle Reid. Elle has just gotten through breaking up with her girlfriend (played by Judy Greer) when Elle’s 18-year-old granddaughter Sage (played by Julie Garner) unexpectedly shows up needing $600 before sundown in order to get an abortion for an unplanned pregnancy. Temporarily broke, Grandma Elle and Sage spend the day trying to get their hands on the cash as their unannounced visits to old friends and flames end up rattling skeletons and digging up secrets.
“Grandma” had its New York premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. “Grandma” writer/director Paul Weitz and several of the movie’s cast members — including Tomlin, Garner, Nat Wolff (who plays Sage’s unsympathetic boyfriend Cam, who got her pregnant) and Laverne Cox (who plays Deathy, a friend of Elle’s) — did a Q&A after the film’s premiere. Here is what they said when they took questions from the audience.
What was your rehearsal process like? Was there a lot of improvisation?
Garner: We had rehearsal a week before with Paul.
Tomlin: I got to rehearse breaking Nat’s balls.
Weitz: I got to go through the script for quite a while with Lily. A lot of it was just talking through things and seeing what actually made sense and her questioning me about certain aspects. For instance, the long-term relationship she’s mourning in the film.
When I first wrote about it, it was very idyllic. But Lily said, “If this was real, there would be fight scenes. So when Laverne’s character says to [Elle] that [Elle’s late partner] is the one with the temper and stuff like, Lily and I just talked about the characters.
Cox: We talked the day of, and we did it.
Wolff: Paul made such an amazing movie. I’m so proud to be a part of it. We were all watching it and crying.
Weitz: The improv wasn’t really happening in the script phase. But after you get to a certain point, the improv is emotional. For instance, the scene where Sam [Elliott, who plays Elle’s ex-husband] and Lily, there were some directions that were there that I don’t think we went there at all in rehearsals.
Tomlin: I’m not sure I recall.
Were any of the characters in “Grandma” inspired by anyone in real life? If not, then what was the inspiration for the story?
Weitz: I had this idea of somebody being taken care of and being challenged by somebody. From hanging out with Lily, it really clicked … All I could do is go to a dingy café and write this thing, which I’ve had in my head for a while. And I was hearing all these voices that were helping me write it.
And every time I cast somebody, I altered it a little bit and hoped they would be honest with me about the words. It was inspired by the idea of women’s history and knowledge of how bad things have been in certain ways. There’s so much missing, in terms of knowledge. I embraced that aspect of it.
Tomlin: I didn’t understand a word he said.
Weitz: I will say after writing this, I have a friend who is a poet. And I asked, “What kind of poet would Lily’s character read?” And he turned me on to Eileen Myles, who’s actually here. She let me use a line from one of her poems at the top of the movie.
Paul, since “Grandma” is a female-dominated movie, did you do anything special to tap into that feminine side?
Weitz: I don’t know where it came from, but I did feel that I just wanted to focus on the female characters. A lot of the movies I’ve done, like “About a Boy” or “American Pie,” were about males trying, faltering and learning things. Actually, one of the great things about doing this one was … I wanted to do a completely female-based movie.
Abortion is a controversial topic. Was the idea of Sage going through with the abortion always in the first draft of the “Grandma” script? Was it complicated for a movie studio to accept the pro-choice message in the film?
Weitz: Thank you for asking. Sony Pictures Classics was not involved in making the movie, [which was financed independently]. I’m honored to get to work with them. I was just focused on what was happening to the characters and the actors and feeling like I wasn’t letting them down.
Yeah, I was never tempted to have [Sage] making a different decision because there’s almost no one in America who hasn’t come in contact with someone who had to make that decision [about an unplanned pregnancy], whatever that decision was that was made. Statistically, so many women have to make that decision.
Tomlin: Was that always part of the movie when [Sage] says, “Am I going to go to hell?”
Weitz: Yeah, it was. Honestly, I was wanting not to take any sides. That’s why [Elle] says [to Sage] in the beginning of the movie, “You thought about this? Because it’s something you’ll have to live with for the rest of your life.” Also, when there’s a cultural issue or touchstone for disagreement in culture, I wanted to keep a human edge. I wanted to keep the humanity.
Paul, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Weitz: On your first draft, kill your self-critical instinct. And once you have a draft, you can be as critical as you want. You might have an idea that’s good, but if you kill it in your first draft, you might never have a first draft. And also, just please yourself and listen to the characters.
Laverne, how did you get involved with “Grandma”?
Cox: Paul reached out to my agent. I loved the script. We got to meet in L.A., and we had a lovely chat about who this woman is and this relationship. I’ve loved Paul’s work for years. And, of course, Lily Tomlin is quite the draw and the attraction.
I’m just really proud to be a part of this film. It’s so moving and profoundly human. I think this is such an intense and difficult moment in the lives of so many women. I’m so happy to be a part of such a wonderful role.
One of the best scenes in “Grandma” is when Elle, Sage and Judy (Sage’s mother, played by Marcia Gay Harden) are in the abortion clinic together. Was that scene always in the movie?
Weitz: When I was first writing it, I wasn’t sure when [Judy] was going to show up, but then I really liked the idea that she was processing some things and being angry … and being OK with it. We were shooting that scene in such a small room, there was practically no space to put the camera in there.
Usually, that would make a DP [director of photography] freak out, but luckily, I had this guy [director of photography] Tobias Datum, who was completely copacetic with it … [Elle] comes to realize that’s she’s not only lost her partner but she’s lost her daughter as well.
Lily, how does it feel to be a goddess?
Tomlin: Goddesses don’t speak.
For more info: “Grandma” website