Jason Reitman is keenly aware of what makes audiences squirm. This is a director who has tackled the cigarette industry (“Thank You For Smoking“), teen pregnancy (“Juno“), the recession (“Up in the Air“) and what happens when gruff escaped convicts break into a family’s home and make pies in the sensual manner of the pottery scene from “Ghost” (“Labor Day“). His newest film, “Men, Women & Children,” which opens wider release this week, continues in this vein, with its frank depiction of the ways in which the internet intersects with our own sexuality.
Similarly, Reitman was willing to address pretty much anything in an interview with the Playlist. He talked about the disappointing reception for “Labor Day,” what it was like to cowrite his current movie with another writer, and how involved he was with the festival darling “Whiplash” (he has an executive producer credit). It’s refreshing to ask questions and have them answered in such a head-on manner. And no matter what you think of his movies (or how much they make you squirm), you can understand the intelligence and curiosity that drives all of Reitman’s features. Read on below for more about what it was like working with Adam Sandler, the legacy of “Young Adult,” and whether or not he’d reteam with his noted collaborator Diablo Cody.
What initially drew you to this material?
You know, it’s always so hard to answer that question because it’s all gut instinct. You read something, and there’s a reason that you just jump in, and those reasons aren’t going to really reveal themselves until years later. It’s only now that I’m going, “okay, I think I know why I made ‘Thank You for Smoking.’ ” I would have to make something up to tell you why I was drawn to [“Men, Women & Children”], but the writing was fantastic —the insight into human sexuality and the way the Internet has changed our love lives and the way that Chad [Kultgen], the author, found his way into twelve different mindsets. All that rang so true, and it just hit me in the gut in the way that I thought, I need to tell this story.
You’d never co-written anything before, but this script was co-written. Was it hard doing that?
It was an absolute blast. I’ve known Erin [Cressida Wilson] for a while now, and she’s a good friend and a great writer and certainly not a prude. At Sundance about a year and a half back, I ran into her in a hallway at the Marriott and said, “oh, there’s a book you have to read.” She read it immediately. That was January, and I think by March we were writing.
I was going to ask you about that, because you’re working at a very fast clip. What is that about? Is your approach to just keep going onto the next thing?
I just love making movies and I guess there’s a part of me that wants to make movies while they still make movies.
Right. There might be other places for movies.
Right, but that would be a different thing. I grew up in the same world that you grew up in, going to the movie theater god knows how many times. I love the theatrical experience and I like creating work that plays in movie theaters. I’d like to take advantage of that.
Was it hard convincing Adam Sandler to be a part of the movie?
Adam and I met a few years ago, we saw eye to eye on a lot of things and we immediately wanted to collaborate on something. We were working on a few ideas and while writing this movie, it suddenly occurred to me he’d be so perfect for Don. Certainly he was nervous about this movie in the way that anyone would be: it’s a really tricky role. It’s a movie that opens with a man using his son’s computer to look at pornography, and later on goes on to use Ashley Madison. I think any actor would be a little trepidatious. But we’d have these really thoughtful conversations about what the movie was about and what it meant and particularly what his closing scene meant. And he had so many interesting things to say, and his questions were great, and then finally he would come as prepared as any actor I’ve ever worked with. He knew the scenes in the screenplay as well as he knew the scenes in the book. He’d bring up little moments in the book and say, “do you think we should be doing that beat?” And they were never done for selfish reasons and were all really smart, thoughtful points, and it was just a pleasure. I really hope that he and I get to work on a lot together.
The movie is tricky because it walks a fine tonal line between melodrama and just straightforward drama. Did you find that tricky? How did you walk that line?
I’ve got to be honest: I think the tone of the book really found its way into the movie, and also I don’t think I ever look at scenes as comedic scenes or dramatic scenes. I just go, “okay, here’s the truth at this moment,” and then I judge myself on the ability to capture that truth. Perhaps on some scenes, they do a better job than others. But I find most things simultaneously dramatic and funny. You know when you’re in a movie theater and someone’s finding [a scene intended to be dramatic] hilarious and they’re laughing? That’s often me.
You recently called “Labor Day” a “misguided affair” in retrospect.
I was misquoted. I don’t think it was a misguided affair. The marketing was misguided. I’m really proud of that movie and it was … kind of a huge stretch for me as far as filmmaking style and technique. But I think what occurred to me afterwards —and it actually didn’t occur to me, it occurred to my father, he made an interesting point— I brought this up in that interview and it’s come up a couple of times, is that I was interested in making a movie about this boy’s coming of age. But what was marketed was a romance between Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet, which seemed really sappy, and the trailers were sappy and the response followed suit. You know, Josh and Kate, are not in the last ten minutes of the movie. I made a film about a boy and [my father] was 100% right.
[editor’s note: It does not appear that Reitman was misquoted; see the original interview]
It seemed to me that you were almost going for an Amblin type thing with that movie. Wasn’t there an “E.T.” poster on the wall?
Certainly, I was trying to capture what it was like to be 12-13 years old at that time, which is basically [how old I was in the] late ’80s. I was tying to recapture the things that I had in my life at that moment, but the tone was “broken human beings with crazy pasts.”
Do you feel like “Young Adult” was overlooked? Why do you think that was?
You know, the quote I go back to on “Young Adult” comes to this test screening we had. We had this focus group after the screening, and one girl said, “I don’t know why Jason Reitman wants me to feel this way.” I loved it at the time and thought that was hilarious, but on top of that, what I’ve come to realize more and more is that that’s a very interesting point of view, which is: why does the director want me to feel this way? Because I understand why a filmmaker wants to make you laugh. That makes sense. Someone wants to make you laugh, you laugh. We can understand why someone wants to scare you, and we can understand why you go to a drama and are overwhelmed with emotions. But I enjoy making people feel uncomfortable, and I think there’s something really off-putting about movies that make you fell uncomfortable. In the same way that there’s something about music that makes you feel uncomfortable, and “Young Adult” is as much a horror film as it is a comedy. I dig that.
I think that’s interesting, but certainly there’s going to be a lot of people who watch it in real time and are trying to figure out, “wait, I think I know how he wants me to feel and I don’t know why he wants me to feel that way.” So the immediate response is going to be uncomfortable confusion, and hopefully given time you’ll start to think “oh that was kind of interesting.” You’re tasting something unusual that you don’t normally taste, and you come to dig that. That’s been my experience with that movie: in the moment, some people dug it, and some people were like, “I don’t know what this is.” When I talk to directors and actors, “Young Adult” is their clear favorite of my films. I don’t think ten years from now people will go, “Oh wow, I didn’t realize “Labor Day” was a such a masterpiece.” But what it has taught me is that I can’t really gauge what a movie is in the moment. To bring it round back to [“Men, Women & Children”]: film criticism has become a tweet. The moment the movie plays, people are writing about it and there’s no digestive period. The most important movies in my life are the ones that I’ve watched and watched again and have changed for me over time. Not films that I instantaneously loved the moment the credits rolled. And I have to kind of come to realize that there’s going to be an instantaneous reaction to my work, but that actually don’t mean nearly as much as how people feel down the road.
I think “Young Adult” will certainly have its day down the line.
I think it already has. People dig the movie and I’m proud of it. People whose taste I really trust dig it and they know why I made it and I know why I made it.
Are you and Diablo Cody cooking anything up now?
She’s working with Jonathan Demme on a film right now with Meryl Streep that I think is going to be incredible. She and I don’t have anything in the hopper right now, but god knows I can’t wait until we do.
What’s coming up? Are you going to dig into any old projects? “Labor Day” was something you’d developed for a while beforehand, right?
I’m adapting a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, who wrote “The Descendants.” It’s a book called “The Possibilities” and I’m in the midst of that, and we’re developing a couple of things and we’ll see what comes.
You also executive produced one of my favorite movies of the year, “Whiplash.”
It’s been just a wonderful part of my life, but I really have no right to take any credit for [that film}. My producer Helen Estabrook found that script, and we immediately loved it and she put together the money to make a short film version. So they went off and made the short, it won Sundance, and then in the interim year they put together the money to make a feature and it went back and won Sundance again. [Director] Damian [Chazelle] is such an astonishing talent, and that film just rocks audiences in a way that I haven’t seen a movie do in a long time and I’m very proud to have my name on it.
“Men, Women and Children” is in limited release now and expands this week.