UH Prof Nick Flynn on His New Movie Being Flynn, and His Dad Being "Underwhelmed" by Robert De Niro Portraying Him

Robert De Niro and Paul Dano play Jonathan and Nick.
Robert De Niro and Paul Dano play Jonathan and Nick.
Photo by David Lee - © 2012 Focus Features

For most people, it would be an honor to be portrayed on film by Robert De Niro. But then, Jonathan Flynn isn't most people.

As his son Nick Flynn, a creative writing professor at the University of Houston, recounts in his fascinating memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Jonathan was an alcoholic, absentee father, spending part of Nick's childhood in prison for passing bad checks and living his life on the margins, sometimes with a job and a home, and sometimes not. He believes he'll be getting the recognition he deserves at any moment, honored as a major novelist. "I am a truly great writer," he tells his son.

While the Nobel Prize hasn't arrived, Jonathan's premonition that the world would know him has actually come to pass. His son's memoir is now a movie, Being Flynn, released by Focus Features and directed by Paul Weitz (About a Boy). It screened Monday night at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in advance of the film's Houston opening on March 16.

According to Nick, Jonathan showed no surprise when he learned that a movie was being made about him. "He was completely expecting the phone to ring any day, and it did ring and it happened," says Nick. "So who's crazy? He also expects to win the Nobel Prize, so who knows? Maybe it's true."

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As for De Niro? "He was very underwhelmed by De Niro," says the author, who also executive-produced the film. "He had Dustin Hoffman in mind for himself, so De Niro was not on his list."

Like the memoir, the film is a nonlinear telling of the story of Jonathan's life, entwined with Nick's own past. As it begins, Nick, played by Paul Dano, is lost -- having girl trouble, seeking a job, trying to write. Raised solely by his mom (Julianne Moore), he hasn't seen his father in 18 years, although he keeps a box of letters from him.

Nick finds a job in a Boston homeless shelter. Then he gets an out-of-the-blue phone call from his dad and helps him move. It's possible they won't meet again. But Jonathan's situation worsens -- he loses his job driving a cab -- and he ends up being a regular at the homeless shelter where Nick works.

The film is well-done, with moving performances by Dano, Moore and especially De Niro. It explores the issues of alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide, homelessness and mental illness while telling a good story that reaches for the complexities of real life. Nick struggles with addiction himself as he tries to come to terms with his mother's death and his father's troubles, not to mention figure out where he fits in to the whole mess.

"With this we had this opportunity to focus on...two individuals, one on one side and one on the other," says the author of his dad and himself. "You realize those roles are very fluid."

Focus Features is the third studio to pick up Being Flynn, which has been in the works since shortly after Another Bullshit Night in Suck City came out in 2004. Part of the reason for that, it seems, is that most major studios don't find homelessness, or homeless shelters, sexy.

But the film is an interesting window into a world that's invisible to many of us -- one made up of endless lines, check-ins, pat-downs, group showers and attempts to stay presentable, not to mention avoid freezing to death, getting robbed or getting killed. "I have a sense that a lot of people haven't seen the inside of a shelter before," says Nick.

Anyway, the time it took to get here wasn't wasted -- it's provided fodder for the book Nick Flynn's currently working on, about the making of Being Flynn.

Will they make a movie about the book about the making of a movie based on his memoir?

As Flynn told the packed house at the MFAH on Monday night, he's been told his latest effort is "unfilmable."


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