Director Jason Reitman has been riding high ever since his directorial debut in 2005, “Thank You For Smoking.” That picture brought him critical acclaim, and soon after he would become the director of two heavily Oscar-nominated films. 2008’s “Juno” earned itself four Oscar nominations including Best Picture, and “Up In The Air,” arguably his most mature effort to date, scored itself six Academy Award nods including Best Director and Best Picture. Not too shabby for a guy who was all of 32-years-old at the time.
For his fourth feature-length effort, Reitman has changed things up again. “Young Adult” teams him up once again with screenwriter Diablo Cody, and it’s an unflinching and raw look at a misguided 37-year-old woman (Charlize Theron) that is a far cry from the sweet and quippy tone of “Juno.”
While still comical, “Young Adult” is dark, at times almost bleak, and therefore arguably Reitman’s most challenging picture to date insofar as its lead is a self-destructive, narcissistic piece of work. And that’s putting it nicely. The film focuses on a YA fiction writer (Theron) who returns to her home in small-town Minnesota with the ultimate ill-advised plan: she’s looking to rekindle a romance with her ex-high school sweetheart, who is now married with kids. The Playlist recently sat down with Reitman to discuss “Young Adult,” his re-collaboration with Diablo Cody, and how he almost lost his lead actress to the sun-scorched desert of Australia and the new “Mad Max” films.
Diablo kind of derails your plans doesn’t she? You were going to do “Labor Day” next.
Jason Reitman: She derails [my plans] in the best way. Well, over the course of making “Juno” I became more mature and ready to direct “Up in the Air” and in the course of making “Young Adult” I’ve grown up even further and probably got myself more ready to make “Labor Day.” And it gave me the opportunity to direct a couple of really cool stories, so it’s the best kind of derailing one can have.
So you had a plan and then what happened? Young Adult came across your desk and you changed gears?
“Labor Day” got pushed and I had a window and all of a sudden I could direct ‘Young Adult’ and I loved the third act of it, I really wanted to be the director to do that.
You and Diablo are like BFFs now.
I have the rights to Diablo’s life [laughs] in a deal that really benefits me more than her. We get along so well and we trust each other so much, there’s never been a question of whether or not she was going to be on set. So when she could be on set it’s great. I put her to work, you know. I say, you know, “I need this, I need a line, I need a scene and she does it.” But there’s also enough trust that if she’s not there, she knows I’m not going to screw up her script.
Charlize was almost too occupied to make the movie, right?
Yeah, she was making “Mad Max” and then she wasn’t available. And thank god, it worked out [ed. “Mad Max” got delayed because of weather conditions in Australia] because I wouldn’t have made the movie without her. I was very conscious of the fact that I was not going to make the film if she was not going to do star in it.
There’s something hitting the zeitgeist here about 30-40-something adults grappling with adulthood. An arrested development like you see in “Greenberg” for a recent example.
Yeah, and there’s a cultural obsession about being young. I think I’m probably just a victim of the same fad, I just didn’t know I was in it.
Patton Oswalt it getting a lot of attention for his turn in the film. How did he become involved?
I was trying to figure out whether or not I wanted to make the film and I decided to have a table read. It was going to be a quick decision and I needed to hear the movie once and get a feel for what it was going to play. So I invited a bunch of friends over, including Patton, to do a read and he was wonderful in it and, and three things came out of the reading. One: I wanted to do the movie, two I wanted Patton to play Matt and three, I wanted Collette Wolfe to play Sandra. She was at the table read too.
Collete’s closing scene is amazing, it’s a small role, but such a disarming scene (minor spoilers here).
That’s a really important scene, if that scene doesn’t work then the movie is not worth making. And I needed Charlize and Collete to replicate the dynamic between two girls in high school where one depends on the other to build the other up. And I needed to surprise the audience who saw that Charlize’s character was about to make this huge change.
And they both had to do tricky moves in a very subtle way. Both of them had some big acting to do. Charlize needed to authentically look as though she was ready to change and then believed that she shouldn’t, that she was just simply confused in the moment and that she needed to go back to who she was. Collete needed to authentically believe in the idea that Charlize’s character was right all along. That somehow she was doing some sort of altruistic gesture by convincing her to stay who she was. But both had to be real, it couldn’t just be silly. And it was so much fun to shoot that day.
Some of the most powerful moments in the film are when Charlize doesn’t say a thing. Are you directing those moments?
No, I feel like when I direct an actor in sync, you don’t need to talk about those moments. We know what we’re there to do. The same way that you know, two athletes don’t talk about those moments. [LIke when] one hockey player knows the other is going to be in the position he needs to be to score. I would tell Charlize when I thought she was not on pitch but that was rare. This was a great working relationship.
How did you and Charlize find each other?
We met at the Oscars. She came up to me and told me she wanted to work with me, I couldn’t be more flattered, intimidated, and I read the script and almost immediately after I saw her at a restaurant and I went up to her and said “I found a movie for us!,” and she read it and it spooked her a little but in a good way. And we talked about what she would need to do to make this work and she took the challenge, which really excited me. I mean as a director there’s nothing cooler then an actor ready to jump off the cliff with you.
Finding the right tone couldn’t have been easy. The audience could have easily turned on Charlize and thought she was repellent.
Well nothing’s easy in directing. Getting an audience to feel anything is tricky. The scariest thing about making an audience not feel good is that they may just storm out and tell everyone not to see it. And that you don’t want. So you have to make the audience feel uncomfortable in a way that’s worthwhile and the script did that to me, so I was hoping the movie would do that to an audience.
How many adjustments did you have to make tonally? Was it ever too ugly or too dark?
It’s usually adjusting like, “This one line of dialogue is too much.” There was a line in the breakdown scene on the lawn that was like “Whoa, we did it, we shot it,” but I was like “This is too much.” There’s moments where her character went from being believably broken enough to say something so heinous. It made us think, “Is this just here to be funny or this is here to be mean?” And sometimes you realize a line has no good purpose.
Obviously some of it is meant to be nasty or mean.
Well, her character’s trying to be mean, but it has a source, which is her vulnerability, her brokenness, her inability to connect with people. That seems to be the source of all her issues. Once it just becomes a scripted line for the purpose of shocking the audience or making the audience laugh then it doesn’t fit anymore.
How do you think audiences are going to react to the film and Charlize’s, shall we say, difficult character?
I think it’ll be a mix. I think there’s going to be some people who really enjoy the experience of seeing a character they recognize in real life but have never seen on screen. Someone that reminds them of maybe some people they know, maybe a little of themselves.
They’re going to love Patton I think, who is our secret weapon on this film and who really is the reason this movie works at the end of the day. But, some people don’t want to feel uncomfortable. Perhaps they’re only going to finally understand the movie once they’ve had a conversation with a friend about it. You know this is the kind of movie where it’s not going to settle immediately. You don’t just walk out the door and be like “yeah, I want to go buy the T-shirt.”
I mean I like films that push that kind of conversation. It would be sad if someone just walked out and was like “Meh,” but I don’t think that’s going to happen, I think it’s going to create conversation.
Did you have trepidation like Charlize did initially? Was some of that challenge appealing?
Oh certainly. I mean in exploring a woman I’d never seen on screen, trying to make an audience feel uncomfortable, in a way that I’ve never done before. As for fear, I mean there’s certainly a moment of, “Oh fuck, can we do this?” But that’s that’s when you know you want to make something.
The fear is the direct appeal then.
Yeah. I mean why do the soft stuff?
“Young Adult” opens this weekend, December 9 in limited release and then goes wide on December 16.