By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire February 5, 2014 at 12:0PM
Since first making a splash with his feature directorial debut "Thank You For Smoking," filmmaker Jason Reitman has been on a roll with critics and awards voters, garnering a steady stream of acclaim for his follow-up films "Juno," "Up in the Air" and "Young Adult." It seemed like his good fortune was going to continue when it was announced his latest, "Labor Day," was selected to premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, where Oscar hopefuls screen before making their way to the Toronto International Film Festival. Yet despite some positive early reviews (including one from Indiewire's own Eric Kohn), Paramount decided to move its wide release from Christmas Day to the doldrums of January, and the majority of reviews that followed were less than kind (go here for Criticwire's roundup of nasty takedowns). Did Reitman make a major misstep with his first earnest drama? We'll let you be the judge -- the film is currently playing in theaters nationwide.
In "Labor Day" (based on a novel by Joyce Maynard and written for the screen by Reitman) Josh Brolin plays an escaped convict who finds refuge in the home of a depressed single mother (Kate Winslet) and her son (Gattlin Griffith). As police troll the town, Brolin's character gradually reveals his true colors and falls for his new "family" in the process.
Indiewire sat down with Reitman in Toronto last September to discuss the reactions to the film, whether he sees "Labor Day" as a change of pace, and how he's evolved as a director of actors.
Yeah you left me in tears, so thanks for that.
My pleasure, I’m here to steal your tears.
Since it first premiere in Telluride, everyone's been going on about how this marks a huge change of pace for you. Do you see it as a change?
Yeah -- it’s really funny. It’s like being at your bar mitzvah. Everyone’s like, "Oh, you’re a man!" and you don’t really feel different from one day to the next. I can’t help but look, and at least view a certain maturity through all of my movies, certainly in "Up in the Air" and "Young Adult." What this film has is just a different pastiche. I mean, it’s a more classically shot and cut film, and it uses a shooting style that people associate with a different era, and the music is very different. But I don’t know, I felt like for the bulk of this field, that this was the most accurate way to tell the story.
It’s a weird thing making movies because there’s usually one moment in your life, whether it happens young or late, where you get a sense of how people see you. Oh, that’s how people see me, they see me as that guy. And that happens every time you make a film.
You make a film purely instinctively, you have a sense of what’s right, you finish it, you put it out into the world, and all of a sudden, having worked on it for years, people go "Oh, you’re now this and this happening in your life obviously and why did you do this?" I wanted to make a movie.
Despite being based on a book, "Labor Day" still plays like an extremely personal film. Am I totally off base?
Yeah. First of all, I was 13 in the late '80s, so I kind of saw myself in that boy. Joyce, the author of the novel, somehow nailed the mindset of a 13-year-old boy trying to understand his own sexuality, while observing his mom with this man. There were so many details in the book that got right into the head of the boy that I just don’t know how she could possibly known without having been a 13-year-old boy, and that made it very personal for me.
And again, part of the interesting process in talking to journalists is you start to understand more about yourself because of the way they look at your film. Someone brought up there was a similarity with "Up in the Air," there was an importance on immediate relationships between strangers, and she was 100% right about that. I never thought about that before. That’s true, it’s a very personal story for me, and I’m a big believer in the intimacy of strangers.
Well I think there are certain things you tell people you don’t know. It’s much easier sometimes to open up about everything that’s going on in your life with someone you never met. That’s what I love airplanes, ‘cause you’ve got this immediate relationship with the window and the aisle. It’s sometimes very hard to open up to people you know best.
As you do with press.
You mine some incredible performances in this film. Josh told me that that he’s never felt so emotionally vulnerable on set.
[laughs] Well, that’s because he wasn’t allowed to wear any prosthetics and he wasn’t allowed to do an accent. You know, he loves to hide, and he’s terrified of being a handsome leading man. But that’s who he is -- it’s in his DNA. And it was exciting to watch him to do that, play exposed and not have anything to latch onto. And that’s my favorite things as a director, I think, with an actor, take away some of their security blankets and truly let them to be exposed. That’s how you see George [Clooney] in "Up in the Air," that’s how you see Charlize [Theron] in "Young Adult," and that’s certainly what you see Josh in this movie.
Well what kind of atmosphere do you create on set in order to make your performers so comfortable?
I work with a family of filmmakers. I’ve known my editor and my DP forever, I’ve known them since I was a teenager. I’ve known my production designer, my costume designer since my first film. And I use people like my camera operator, my dolly grip, my gaffer, my key grip, These are people that I’ve worked with over and over and it’s a light easy attitude and a light easy atmosphere on my set, so hopefully what people pick up quickly is "we’re gonna joke, we’re gonna have a good time, it’s hard work but it’s loose." And Kate [Winslet] said, and I’m beginning to understand this after making the film, I have such a strict sense of what we’re about to do and I create such a strict guideline that there’s a certain freedom to operating within those guidelines as opposed of going deep into whatever you want.
What were some of the guidelines you set?
It’s hard to answer in a sound bite, but here's an example: Two months before shooting I go to every location with my camera and my DP and my stand-ins, and I take a photo of every angle of every shoot, within the location using stand-ins, so you can actually look through this whole booklet I created for the crew. This is the whole movie. So unlike a storyboard, which is a sketch of what should be, I’ll have a stand-in and I’ll say "Alright, you’re gonna come in through this door, and why don’t you stop and lean your shoulder there. And I have camera there and once they’re talking to you, click. And then you’re gonna move there and camera’s gonna move down and then sit down. Click. And then camera’s gonna move on the other side."
If you’re an actor, you show up to set, you realize what I’ve created and you’re like, "Okay I have to come in, do this, come over here, do this, and if I’m to believe what he has in the boards, sit like this." So of course there’s no rules, you don’t have to follow that, but it’s not as though they just go into the room and go "Well I’m gonna do this and sit in this chair and turn the lamp off." You know, they get that I have a very specific vision for how it’s supposed to go.
Yeah. So I don’t know, I never thought that it was restrained until I actually started hearing Kate talk about it and realize, oh I guess maybe there’s a strict structure to it -- even on a movie like "Young Adult," which seems, with the handheld camera, the way that it moves, that it must’ve been freewheeling. It is a handheld camera built into a structure where by the time you get to set, I figured the whole thing out and how it’s gonna cut.
Look, I don’t rehearse. When I was younger, I would give my actors way more direction before the day. We’d rehearse and then on the day I’d say "Don’t forget, your character is going through this and you come in here and you’re feeling this and you hit this moment." What I found by doing that was that I killed their instincts. And what I try to find was a happy meeting where I say, "Here’s the movie we’re operating in, but otherwise I’m not gonna give you direction for now. Know your lines. And see what happens."
And sometimes someone will just learn their lines. Kate doesn’t do that, Kate is very prepared, it works out great. But at that point, they come, they do the scene and they’re either perfect and I move on, or it’s completely wrong and at that point, I try to guide them and the guiding them and the directing them comes from understanding psychology.
Some critics have labeled "Labor Day" as a "woman’s picture," a "chick flick." What you make of that sort of labeling?
This is what I know. I’ve made five movies that really don’t fit easily into any genre.
The question I used to get was like, "Is this a comedy or is this a drama?" I guess by the very fact that they don’t know how to label it I know I’m doing the right thing. And I look for movies that don’t fit so easily into a genre, I look for things that challenge the traditional genre lines. I love that this movie’s romantic, at the same time, I think this movie’s challenging. It’s dramatic, it has harrowing moments. It’s thrilling, it has suspense -- all things that I was trying for the first time and I think this movie is great for women. But I wanted the audience, I wanted women to want Josh Brolin to come into their lives as much as I wanted men to feel like that boy who wants Josh Brolin to come into their lives and teach them to know what kind of a wrench a socket wrench was and throw a baseball and be a man.
Some critics couldn't accept that Kate's character would willingly let this convict into her home. She doesn't put up a fight. What's her reason, in your mind?
I don’t have a reason.
And I think that’s why I liked it.
I'll admit, I struggled with it a bit, but eventually I just let it go.
Which is fine with me. I think I’m not attracted to material that is so black and white. Well she did this for this and he did this for this reason and that’s why they’re together. I like movies that, in stories, explore inexplicable decisions. And look, to a certain extent there is a big question that's contained in the movie: Why do these two people need each other? And you slowly learn who they are in the back story and then you’re go, "Oh, got it." But more than that, I think that desire is complex, and certainly I’ve made very questionable decisions in my life that had no black and white answer, that if you watch this movie, you go, "Why the fuck did you do that?" And those moments are far more interesting than the moments that can be explained.
Did Kate need an explanation?
No. I think she understood that it was a gray area decision. Is he forcing her? Yeah, to a certain extent. Does she need him? Yeah, you know she does. Does the boy need him? Yeah, he does. What does she see in his eyes? I don’t know. Is there that magic moment or is it just desperation? It’s a mix of all that stuff, and it’s gonna be challenging for some people, I’m aware of that. But again, it let me know I’m making the right movie.
Challenging is good.
Challenge is good.