Nick Flynn talks about the book about the movie about the book of his life
Robert DeNiro insisted on meeting Jonathan Flynn, despite Nick Flynn’s warning that his father is not the same guy he’d written about in his memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. He had lost some basic faculties, grown quite frail and surrendered much of his narcissism to old age.
“When DeNiro got there, my father was completely animated and held forth for two hours,” Flynn explained at a talk last night with director Paul Weitz and writer Christopher J. Farley at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, following a screening of Being Flynn, the film adaptation of his book in which DeNiro plays Jonathan Flynn.
“And when I tried to interrupt him at some point,” Flynn the younger continued, “he was like ‘Let me speak, you wanton fucking goonball.’ And Paul [Weitz] and I both wrote ‘wanton fucking goonball’ in our notebooks.”
In Being Flynn, Jonathan, homeless, loutish, and having only recently reunited with his son after 18 years, hands Nick a pen. It was a gift, from a father to a son, an urging for Nick to fulfill a destiny his father had mandated for him—to write; and another form of proof that Jonathan’s prodigious talent—talent squandered or unrealized over the years—not only existed but bore witness in his son.
Nick took his cue and wrote a memoir about his long absent, terribly delusional, alcoholic father.
And now he’s written another, about making the movie based on the book about his long absent, terribly delusional, alcoholic father—it’s called The Reenactments.
“You have a movie about your life, a book about the movie of your life,” moderator Farley asked Nick. “At what point did you decide you wanted to write a book about the movie of your life?”
“Being on set there’s a lot of downtime,” Nick said, starting with a quip, as he often did at first before circling back to the weightier answer. “Most of the things I write about, they’re within the realm … there’s some precedence for them, like Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which is about trying to understand your parents, the struggles and things that we all [deal with]. But this one, having Robert DeNiro play your father, that’s something I don’t know many people …”
“That’s cool, man!” someone yelled from the audience.
“That’s cool, yeah,” Nick said, brushing off the enthusiasm. “Tobias Wolff is the only other person I know that had that happen, so people ask the question and it’s a long answer. It took a book to answer it.”
Nick’s life is cool. It's cool in the way that, having lived through a series of lousy, unfortunate experiences—his mother’s suicide, his father’s abandonment, his own addictions—he's made it to the other side. And it's cool because he wears it with humility, not like a reformed badass but like a person who is appropriately fazed by his good fortune, can be depicted on screen in a uniform of a black leather jacket and grimy knit hat without irony, and is only awkward and pent-up when he thinks about his parents.
Asked by Farley about the most harrowing day to be on set, Nick had an answer ready.
“It was the Julianne Moore scene. We had her for four days. The first two days into the shooting it was a very eerie experience. My mother’s dead, as you all may know, and there was a node in my consciousness where I knew I would see Julianne Moore play this role, but also there was another part of me who thought I’d see my mother again.”
In the book, Nick describes this dissonance as operating just like a mirror-box—a contraption used among amputees that, but reflecting the remaining limb curiously helps the brain to process the lost one.
Writing seems to be Nick’s way of remembering his vanished or troubled family, and by doing so, he is also fulfilled some unspoken promise to give Jonathan Flynn what he always wanted—attention.