Bye-Bye, 'American Pie'

Chris and Paul Weitz want you to know that they loved directing "American Pie." They're proud of the final result, proud that it became a teen-comedy classic. But there are downsides to making a movie in which a horny teenager humps a baking product. See, scenes like that tend to follow you around. You become the pie guys. And then something decidedly non-pie comes along--something like Nick Hornby's "About a Boy," a smart, witty best seller about a selfish London bachelor who befriends an oddball kid--and you've got to spend two years begging people to let you make it. Because Hornby and Hugh Grant, the star of the movie, do not want the pie guys. "I think Nick actively disliked the movie," says Paul, 36. Grant says he enjoyed it--he just wasn't sure about the men who directed it. "As it turns out," Grant says, "Chris and Paul are probably the most highbrow directors I've ever met. Bizarrely so. They sit around on the set reading Freud and Dostoevsky."

Hornby is a step or 12 behind Dostoevsky, but his books glide more easily onto the big screen. In "About a Boy," Grant plays a 38-year-old juvenile named Will Freeman. When a friend asks him to call upon his "hidden depths" and be her baby's godfather, he's incredulous. "You've always had that wrong about me," he says. "I really am this shallow." During a botched scam to pick up single moms, Will meets Marcus, a 12-year-old with real problems: a hopelessly uncool haircut and a mother who sobs through breakfast (review). When the Weitzes first read Hornby's novel, it reminded them of their cinematic hero: Billy Wilder, the late, great director of "The Apartment" and "Some Like It Hot." They'd always loved Wilder's acid humor, his battered optimism, the way the last lines of his movies are often the best. "We'd been mouthing off for a while about trying a Wilder-esque film," says Paul. "But it was hard to find a story where there's enough irony that the happy ending is earned."

The Weitzes grew up in New York City well-heeled--and well dressed, thanks to their father, John Weitz, a renowned men's fashion designer. (Their mother, Susan Kohner, was formerly a film actress.) As it turns out, the boys knew Wilder: their grandfather, a talent agent, represented the director, as well as John Huston and William Wyler. They met Wilder a few times--and never once discussed film- making. "We had no idea how lucky we were," Paul confesses. After private school, Paul went to Wesleyan, where he became a serious hippie; Chris, 32, went to England for high school, then Cambridge, where he became seriously English. That's right, the directors of "American Pie" have never been to a prom. Or band camp.

The Weitzes began their partnership as writers, making a splash with their zingy script for "Antz." That got them "American Pie," which raked in $100 million, which got them... well, kinda stuck. They desperately wanted to make "About a Boy," but British director Iain Softley was already attached. While the Weitzes prayed for him to quit, they made the Chris Rock vehicle "Down to Earth," a movie even the Weitzes don't exactly recommend. Then Softley did quit--to make an even worse film, "K-Pax." Suddenly the door had swung open.

The Weitzes won Grant over during their first night together, when the three men went out in London and got fall-down drunk. "I actually have photographs of them in the middle of the night where they've gone blurry they're so drunk," Grant claims. "Now that's an accomplishment." Of the two, Paul is more reserved. In his little brother's presence, he tends to yield the floor. "I think of Paul as the id and Chris as the ego," Grant says. "Chris is the charm guy. Paul is the weird heart of darkness. He's much more likely to be found in a post office with a machine gun." Twelve-year-old newcomer Nicholas Hoult, who plays Marcus, puts it a bit more simply: "Chris is noisier. Yeah. A lot noisier. And Paul--well, he thinks more."

If the film has any echoes of "American Pie," it's in Hoult's presence. Once again the Weitzes have drawn a sweet, confident performance out of a true rookie. When the directors first met with Hoult to discuss the script, Chris says, "Nicholas picked this place called the Rainforest Cafe, which has animatronic gorillas and a fake rainstorm every 15 minutes. All he wanted to talk about was video games and these books about kids turning into animals." After two months of shooting, that boy was gone. "We completely corrupted him," Grant says. "His interests are now gambling, women and cars." ("Yeah," Hoult says, "Hugh got me into girls. It's terrible.") The Weitzes' new interest, meanwhile, is culinary school: they're working on a script about a CIA agent turned aspiring chef. Ten bucks says they don't let him anywhere near a dessert.