Jason Reitman is in a different place than he was during the release of “Up in the Air,” when he pushed and pushed to gain entrance into the Oscar club. It crushed him on Oscar night when adapted screenplay went to Geoffrey Fletcher for “Precious.” Was Reitman too young, too overexposed? When he jumped into his next feature with “Juno” collaborator Diablo Cody, “Young Adult,” he took a witty midwestern plunge to the dark side. Charlize Theron went with him, and could land a Best Actress Oscar nomination. And so could supporting actor Patton Oswalt, the unlikely object of her attention.
Anne Thompson: Diablo Cody has a very strong voice. Did you ever want to mute or delete or say, ‘you went too far here?’ Or did you say, ‘let’s go for it?’
Jason Reitman: No, no. I love Diablo’s voice and I love how gutsy she is in her writing. It’s gutsy to sit down and write this script. The script is basically un-makeable. You know what I mean?
AT: Yes! A normal studio, ordinarily, would say, ‘forget this.’
JR: Yeah. And she knows this business now. If you were completely naive, maybe you’d write this and you wouldn’t know any better. But she knows better. She knows how un-makeable the film is, particularly the way it ends. And she wrote it. And she wrote the character without compromising, from start to end, on who she was. She never tried to excuse her behavior, she said, ‘no, this is a broken, traumatized human being who wants to be loved and makes horrible mistakes and treats people horribly,’ and that’s why I loved it. And that’s why Charlize loved it.
AT: Mavis looks back to her glory days in high school as the prom queen, and still manipulates people with her beauty; she’s twisted about it.
JR: And that’s what’s so brilliant about Charlize. She is the most beautiful human being I have ever met. So intimidatingly beautiful that the first few times I met her I felt like a 12 year old.
AT: She’s also very tall.
JR: Yeah! She’s in heels. She received a Gotham award two nights ago with Patton Oswalt and she wouldn’t let him go, she’s just holding him next to her. And finally he just said, ‘I feel like I’m the award you just won.’
AT: And he came up to her armpit.
JR: So for someone as beautiful as her to change her nature so that we actually believe that she’s incapable of intimidating people with her beauty, and that people just feel sorry for her, is amazing. The fact that she took this character which could so easily be a caricature, just a mean woman who is nasty—you see actors do this all the time. They play a really mean character and they overdo it just enough to let you know, ‘I’m doing a character, I’m not really like this,’ but she is able not only to do it without compromise but to show how broken she is the entire time without using dialogue, without clothes, without body language. There’s nothing that she does where she’s signaling to you, ‘by the way I’m a broken human being.’ She does it with her nature. Very few actors know how to do that, and she does it just effortlessly.
AT: Did you use the dog to make her more sympathetic?
JR: Oh, I tried to do the opposite. I picked a Pomeranian. It’s the only dog that genetically is always smiling. No matter how cruel she is to this dog, all the dog gives her back is a smile. This woman is treating the dog so badly, and that’s exactly what she would have in her life—someone who is incapable of not smiling at her! No, the idea at the end is that she goes and grabs the dog and is kissing the dog and that’s it. That’s the only relationship she has. That’s what’s heartbreaking about this love story. Because her story with Patton Oswalt is a romance. One person’s broken on the outside, one person’s broken on the inside. I told her at the beginning, I said to her, ‘you know how when two people are in love at the beginning, they often say, ‘oh, he loves all the same things I love.’ These are two people who say, ‘he hates all the same things I love.’ (Spoiler Alert) And that’s who they are for each other, and still at the end, when she wakes up the next morning and his arm is over her, it’s the same with the beginning of the film, she feels trapped. And the dog is literally the only thing that must go with her to be sometimes fed and barely kept alive.
AT: So convincing Charlize to do this, how tough was that?
JR: Charlize approached me at one point and told me she wanted to make a movie with me, which was so flattering. And then I read the script and realized, the only person I want to do this with is Charlize. She’s the only person who’s ballsy enough and right enough to do this. So I saw her at a restaurant and I said, ‘I found this script for us.’ So I sent it to her, and I think she was definitely intimidated by it the first time she read it. She hadn’t made a movie in three years. For this to be her first role back, it’s a gutsy choice. And finally the way she put it, she said, ‘let’s jump off the cliff together.’
AT: At the Gothams Charlize said you were an extraordinary actors’ director. How did you help her?
JR: I wish I could take credit for her performance, but it’s hers and hers alone. I’ve been very, very lucky in my career, in my life—from day one. When aspiring directors say, ‘what’s your advice?’ First I say,’ be born the son of a famous director. It’s invaluable.’ I had an ex-girlfriend who took me to see ‘Citizen Ruth’ and said, ‘you have to keep an eye on this guy Alexander Payne. He’ll be very important to you.’ And another friend who gave me a copy of the book ‘Thank You For Smoking’ and said, ‘just read this.’
When it comes to casting, I’ve been so lucky. I’ve worked with unbelievable actors who make me look better than I am and take the written word and make it honest. They’ve given me the greatest gift as a director, which is trust. What made my relationship with Charlize wonderful is that at the end of each day, we’d talk about what was right and what was wrong. She trusted me.
AT: You and Charlize abandon the glamor aspect that we see in a lot of studio movies. Charlize is showing us what women look like when they’re not made up. She really went for it.
JR: Well, she did all her own makeup. She would be like, ‘do these look messed up enough? They should be messed up more, right?’ She’s the one that said, ‘we should make my hair look really thin, and we should add this little hair piece that I’m going to pull out. And we should make my breasts look misshapen by using these cutlets and when I take the dress off I want them to look like one’s higher than the other.’
AT: It seems she’s deconstructing what she’s learned.
JR: Yeah, and again, in a really tough way as an actress. Because she’s not doing it with extensive prosthetics that say, ‘oh I’m playing this specific character.’ She’s using herself. She’s using the hairpiece that she uses herself. She’s using the type of chicken cutlets that she uses for…never mind. No, she uses herself. It’s so hard to look at yourself onscreen just to start with. But when you play a character that looks exactly like you and is doing these awful things and there’s no signal that you’re anyone other than exactly what’s onscreen, that’s a very brave performance. It reminds me of what George did for me in “Up in the Air.”
AT: After “Up in the Air,” you had done an enormous number of interviews here and on the road. How has it been different this time in terms of the promotion?
JR: It was really hard. I was on the road for six months. It started with the Tellruide Film Festival in the beginning of September and it went to the Oscars which were a month later than normal because of the Olympics, so they were in late March. And I worked on publicizing that film every day. Parts of that are great—you go on the road, you go to wonderful places, and that’s lovely. But for six months, you forget that you made a movie because you’ve begun selling yourself. It’s a weird process and it gets a little gross.
When I approached this one, I asked someone very dear to me right before I made this movie, because I was nervous about it, and she said, ‘up until now you’ve really wanted to build a career for yourself and you have. You’re an artist; go make art.’ And that was the last piece of advice that made me want to make this film. So I’ve tried to approach this circuit the same way. I just really want to share this movie with people.
So instead of playing film festivals that felt divisive—we did a secret screening series where we went to six cities and invited people to come down to a really great theater—in Toronto it was the Lightbox, in Chicago it was the Music Box, in Austin it was the Alamo, in San Francisco the Kabuki, here at the New Beverly, the best theaters anywhere. We invited them to this screening but we didn’t tell them what they were going to see.
AT: A true sneak preview.
JR: A bunch of people showed up at the movie, and then Charlize, Diablo, Patton and I would come out and introduce it, and then we had a local artist create a poster for each city. So a San Francisco artist created a one night only rock style poster—October 18, at the Kabuki. Wildly different art. It’s just been lovely. I feel like I’ve really gotten to share this film with film fans.
AT: What kind of responses have you been getting?
JR: It makes people uncomfortable. My favorite response I ever got to this film was at a test screening. A teenage girl in the focus group said, ‘I don’t know why Jason Reitman wants me to feel this way.’
AT: I got angry at a friend of mine because he walked out of the movie—
JR: Dick! (Laughter)
AT: And I said, ‘you’re excoriating this movie, you’re going on and on about how uncomfortable you feel, and I’m not going to argue with you but you didn’t stay to see the resolution. That’s what makes the whole thing pay off.‘
JR: Yeah. It’s all the leadup to that pay off. In the same way that, again, in “Up in the Air,” I’m getting you to fall in love with them so you can have this moment at the door. It’s not about falling in love, “Up in the Air.” I’m tricking you to fall in love with this couple so that when you get to the door and you realize they can’t have each other, you go, ‘oh, it’s important to have somebody.’ And in this movie, I’m using a similar device. One of my favorite moments is to watch an audience get uncomfortable. And I find that people’s attitude about the movie changes 24, 48 hours after they see it. Because at first it’s a smack in the face, and some people get smacked. But a day later, maybe you start to look at it and think, ‘well I haven’t had that kind of theatrical experience in a while, maybe there’s something about that I can relate to.’ Diablo once said that this is our horror film.
AT: It is. You’re putting people through a kind of social torture, because all of us are anxious about social situations where we might do the wrong thing or humiliating ourselves in front of someone you love. It’s always excruciating. That’s what you show.
JR: And the monster’s alive at the end. Like a horror film! Like you think she’s killed, but she’s back. Patton has all sorts of theories about how this is a horror film. Like the wine stain is a blood stain on her dress. So I do think this is my horror film.
AT: Is this semi-autobiographical for Diablo?
JR: No. People ask that a lot. They asked that about “Juno” and they asked that about this. Her storytelling is just so personal—particularly because she’s a writer that focuses on teenagers. It’s funny. I think every movie is autobiographical in one way, and that’s emotionally. I think this is autobiographically emotional for her and for me. And all four of my films have been autobiographically emotional. And when people would ask George if he’s Ryan Bingham, I’d say, ‘are you crazy?! I’m Ryan Bingham.’ They look at Charlize and go, ‘are you Mavis,’ and I say, ‘no, I’m Mavis.’ I was not popular in high school, but I look at myself and there’s parts of me I wish were better. I see film as a much more interesting place to expose the parts of me that I’m embarrassed of.
AT: Was it hard to get financing. Was the studio resistant?
JR: We made it cheap. We made this movie for $12 million. We shot it for 30 days, the same duration shoot as “Thank You For Smoking” and “Juno.” So I cut my budget in half from “Up in the Air” and I cut my schedule for 20 days. Not because they asked me to, but because I knew. I always believed that you can make challenging films, but they should be fiscally responsible. There was no reason for this movie to be expensive. So once we came in with that kind of budget and schedule and it was Diablo and me working together again, and it was Charlize Theron, they went with us. And by the way, that’s the moment when I thought the studio was just as gutsy as the writer and the actress. And I was really proud of them and really grateful. It was Paramount. They said yes!
AT: Oswalt, who is as good a tweeter as you are, is very good here. Did you see “Big Fan?”
JR: I loved him in that, and I’ve been a fan of his stand up comedy for a long time. I had to make a split second decision of whether to make this film. I’d written a screenplay called “Labor Day” based on a Joyce Maynard novel, I was going to make that movie, it got pushed, and I had a window. And I invited a bunch of friends over to my house to do a table read of the screenplay. I said, ‘I just want to listen to the script from start to finish and hear and try to feel it and make sure my gut is right that I want to make this film.’ Because I had to make the decision quickly.
So I brought a bunch of actors over and Patton Oswalt was one of them. I really brought him over because he’s a friend. And he did it so well that 1) I knew I wanted to make the film, and 2) I knew I wanted him in it. I said, ‘you’re going to play Matt,’ and Collette Wolfe who played Sandra also came over and I was like, ‘and you’re going to be Sandra.’ Two weeks later, I held another table read at my house, and this time Charlize and Patton were together, and they had this chemistry right from the first moment. They were making each other laugh. It was like two people you’d see in public and think, ‘these two are going to fall in love.’ And it was the first time I realized that the movie was a romance. Just watching them read together, the way they were making each other smile.
AT: You have been doing a series at the L.A. County Museum. Tell us how you came up with the idea for the table reads.
JR: Halfway through a table read at my house, I thought, ‘why don’t we do these all the time, and why don’t we do them with great screenplays?’ You know, with plays, you can see many iterations of a play, but you only see one iteration of a film, the one that was made. And when Elvis Mitchell started the film program at LACMA, I said, ‘hey, let’s do a show once a month where we bring out a bunch of actors and we read great screenplays. We’ll read the written word and I read the stage directions so people can hear for the first time what the screenwriters wrote and what became all the visuals of the film.’ So we started with “The Breakfast Club.” Last month we did “The Apartment.” We had Steve Carell as Baxter, Natalie Portman as Fran, Pierce Brosnan as Sheldrake—it was a phenomenal cast.
AT: Did anyone videotape it?
JR: No, we can’t.
AT: Because the screenplay is copyrighted.
JR: And we’re doing “Princess Bride” in December.
AT: And it’s sold out. Already. Without anyone knowing what it is.
JR: I grew up in the city and I have to tell you it gives me more pride to do that reading series than to make movies, because I’m involved in something in Los Angeles.
AT: So is the Joyce Maynard project happening?
JR: I start shooting in June. We start prep in March in Massachusetts, it’s going to star Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin—told you I’m lucky—and start in June. That one’s heavy. There’s not a joke in that movie—it’s very dramatic. It’s a movie about a woman in her late 30s who has a 12- year-old and she’s a shut-in. She only leaves the house once a month to basically pick up supplies.
AT: This is written by a woman who once lived with J.D. Salinger.
JR: The author, in real life, dropped out of Yale when she was 19 and moved in with J.D. Salinger and was his lover. She wrote “To Die For,” the Gus Van Sant/Nicole Kidman film. So the character, on one of these trips, a man comes up to her and says, ‘will you take me home,’ and she looks into his eyes and somehow recognizes that he’s just as broken as she is. She takes him home, finds out almost immediately that he’s an escaped convict, and it’s about the four days with the three of them in this house, and whether or not we should trust this love that’s happening or if he’s going to do something awful. And the kid’s trying to figure out, because he’s 12 and just starting to figure out his own sexuality, and now he’s watching his mom with another man, and right at the moment you believe in this love and you want it to happen, you realize there’s no way it’s possibly going to happen.
Audience: What’s it like directing something you’ve written as opposed to directing Diablo’s work. Is it a different pressure?
JR: No. I just feel like I’m entering the process at a different time. I used to joke that writing a screenplay and then directing it is like, ‘you have to meet the girl, date the girl, woo the girl before you get to sleep with her, and then if you don’t write the screenplay, it’s like someone else did all that work and you get to just sleep with her.’ Which is why I wouldn’t write and let someone else direct. That’d be like, ‘date her, woo her, and then—what? He gets to—what?’
I have to find a personal connection with the material. And that can happen whether it starts with a book, or whether it starts with an existing screenplay. I’m writing an original screenplay right now that just came out of notes and writing. I’m just entering the story and the process at a different point, and that moment when I kind of take ownership.
Audience: I’m wondering if the real name of Diablo is Diablo, which means the devil. What is her real name?
JR: Diablo is not her name. Diablo is a pen name she chose when she started writing a blog in Minneapolis. And she kept is as an author and then she kept it as a screenwriter. Her real name is Brook.
AT: What do you call her?
JR: I call her Diablo. It’s interesting. I met her as Diablo, I never met her as Brook. And when I see people call her Brook, I always think, ‘you are feigning a closer relationship and a history you do not have, because you did not know her when she was Brook, you only know her as Diablo.’ Her parents call her Brook. That makes sense. And when I’m with her in Minneapolis, people call her Brook, and that makes sense.
Audience: What were the opening credits all about? Nostalgia?
JR: Yeah, it’s definitely about nostalgia. This is a movie about a woman who is transfixed by one moment in her life when everything was working. I think most of us always presume that there will always be this moment in the future where everything makes sense, and we’re always striving for that moment, and this is one where she goes, ‘no, I know when it was. I was 17, and I was perfect.’ That tape is from that moment. In the screenplay, Diablo described a cassette tape with pink, yellow and blue geometric shapes, and I knew that tape. She and I are the same age, so the ephemera of our childhoods are exactly the same, and I immediately emailed her a photo of the Memorex tape she described, and it felt like we should be inside the inner workings of this machine, it just felt right to me.
Audience: What’s your process as a director?
JR: Directing is a really hard thing to describe. The night before the first night of shooting on ‘Thank You For Smoking,’ my first movie, my father was giving me all kinds of advice. It was really sweet because it was like, ‘this is your first day of high school.’ But one thing he said was, ‘don’t worry about if it’s funny or not. Your barometer for comedy is not good—nobody’s is. Your barometer for truth is very strong. You’ll know when something feels dishonest. So when you’re on set, don’t think, this is funny, this is dramatic, don’t think anything but does this feel honest. And if you apply that to every decision you have to make, you’ll be right more often than wrong.’
I think that’s what directing is. Directing is a reactionary job more than a creation job. The job is to react whether it’s moment one, the first time you read the script or see an article or read a book or notice something happen on the street and have an idea for a movie, and it just continues from there on in. You’re just reacting to dialogue, a performance, an audition, a headache, a piece of furniture, a piece of clothing.
And the question you have to be asking yourself, whether it’s conscious or subconscious, is, ‘does this feel honest?’ And you create this total line, and it becomes a matter of pitch. If you hear a chord, you know if it’s in tune or not. You have to develop an ear and an eye to ask, ‘is this performance in tune? Is this location in tune?’ And if not, ‘why?’ Is it because there’s too much light? Or is it because the color palette isn’t correct? Or would the character just stop in this scene, and you need to cut the rest of the scene, because the character would not say anything further? And it goes on until you’re making your final decisions in color and mix. I suppose that’s the best way I could describe the job.
Audience: For a kid from LA, you center a lot of your movies in the Midwest. Why Minneapolis?
JR: I have a strange fascination with the Midwest. I’m waiting to find out that my parents are actually from the Midwest. I grew up in Beverly Hills, up the street, and I just feel comfortable there. I’ve shot in Minneapolis, in Detroit, in St. Louis, in Omaha—they would say they’re the Plains, not the Midwest—and I love it. Strangely, we shot this movie in New York. Which just tells you how far the homogenization of this country has come, when you can shoot urban sprawl just about anywhere, including just outside New York City. We shot the first week in Minneapolis and then the rest in New York.
Audience: Was that J.K. Simmons’s voice as her boss?
JR: Yeah. The hardest day of acting all along. I emailed J.K. the dialogue and I said, ‘can you call my iPhone and just leave this as a message for me?’ And he called and left the message, I cut it into the film, and there it is.
Audience: (Spoiler Alert) Was there an alternate ending? The red car was such a part of where she was going, and then, at the end, she didn’t quite drive away with it.
JR: That was important. And it’s funny how many women I’ve met who drive Minis, particularly red Minis, who find this film hard to watch. It really speaks to the decision they make when they bought that car. It was important to me that the last face she stare at in the movie be the broken face of the Mini. She’s broken and she looks at the broken Mini, and it kind of winks at her, and she leaves frame, and that’d be the end of the film. Was there an alternate ending? We had thought about having more, but at a certain point there’s nothing more to say. For me, the movie ends once Sandra says, ‘take me with you,’ and she says, ‘you’re good here.’ Honestly, I thought seriously about just cutting to credits right there. But that seemed unusually cruel. There was tougher dialogue in the movie that we cut out to soften it up.