Jason Reitman’s been having a rough year. Coming off a string of critically acclaimed films: “Young Adult,” “Up in the Air,” “Juno” and “Thank You For Smoking,” the Oscar-nominated golden boy seemed like he could do no wrong. Then “Labor Day” happened. The intimate and very serious character study, a first for the filmmaker, came out in January and was greeted with the most negative reviews of his career (this writer liked it) and middling box-office. All eyes were on Reitman to return to his former glory with his follow-up “Men, Women & Children” when it premiered in Toronto last month. Unfortunately critics were, for the most part, just as harsh (Indiewire’s Eric Kohn said “the movie falls short of its big ideas”). Couple that with last week’s poor box-office for the film’s first week of release, and it’s safe to confirm that this wasn’t the comeback “Labor Day’s” dissenters had hoped for.
Based on Chad Kultgen’s novel of the same name, about technology and its effect on family dynamics, “Men, Women & Children” boasts a starry ensemble fronted by Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt, Emma Thompson, Jennifer Garner and Ansel Elgort (the breakout star of “The Fault In Our Stars”). Indiewire spoke with Reitman on the day of the film’s stateside release about why the source material spoke to him, and what he makes of the film’s detractors.
With its ensemble cast and timely topic, “Men, Women & Children” harks back to your earlier films. It’s about as far removed from “Labor Day” as you can get. Did this feel like a return to your roots in a way?
The only thing I’ll say is that “Labor Day” was certainly outside of the comfort zone and was an attempt to try a different shooting style in a different environment. This certainly falls into the world I made prior to “Labor Day” in that it’s examining people in this moment dealing with intimacy and communication and sexuality—the normal things that I’m interested in.
Normal things. [Laughs]
Well, normal things for me.
Is that specifically what appealed to you for optioning the rights to the book? Those elements that you explored previously in your works?
The book just struck me. Falling love with a piece of material is kind of like falling in love with a girl, you can’t really explain it. It just happened as a connection. When I read the book I read it over night. I was immediately drawn to these characters. And I found it to be somewhat profound to have that much access to all these personal lives that were so well portrayed in the novel. Young, old, men, women, getting married, divorcing, and falling deeper into the internet. It all felt so real.
Did the book explore a lot of fears and anxieties that you yourself had prior to reading it, or was it the book that opened you up to them?
I guess I just saw myself in a lot of the characters, in their deep search to connect with the people around them. I think that subject has been around forever, but there’s something new about the way we fall in love and break up now and the way we parent our children now. Chad just kind of nailed it in that book and I was hoping to explore it in a similar way in the movie. In a way, hopefully, without judgement.
It’s interesting you’re talking about the characters but not so much about the technology, which serves as the barrier to everybody connecting. Why is that?
I guess I see the technology as the location. So, I don’t know. Like when I did “Thank You For Smoking” I didn’t talk about cigarettes just because cigarettes were a location to talk about freedom of choice and the nanny state. “Juno” at the end of the day is not really about teenage pregnancy, it’s just a location to talk about the moment we decide to grow up. Here, the internet is a nice location to talk about human intimacy and our fears of being honest with each other and our curiosity and our desires. But at the end of the day the internet isn’t good or bad, it’s just a thing.
The way you incorporate text messages into the film is pretty seamless. How did you go about visually mapping your approach out?
It was complex and arduous. [Laughs] Very early on I realized I had to come up with a visual way to tell this story and not always be cutting to a computer screen. At some point it just hit me that if I thought of the film plain as the desktop image of your computer and every tab, window, and icon could float on it, we could move everything around that surface and use the moving of windows and icons as cutting points. We could then watch people react to the things they were looking at. You could see a cursor hang over a button and see a person weighing a decision. You could see someone typing, you could see their emotions about what they were typing. You could see someone stumble upon a photo and immediately see a reaction and look at the photo and look at them react simultaneously. And what I didn’t realize was that I thought there would be a learning curve when, in reality, we are so trained now at multitasking and observing three things at once and looking at a computer screen with many windows open and flipping between apps that this would be a very natural way to actually watch a movie.
In doing this, we had to board out the entire movie in advance knowing where to create negative space so that these windows, tabs, and icons could then sit and float and be revealed and expand and subtract.
It sounds like a nightmare for the DP.
No, it becomes a joyful process. In all my films, Eric [Steelberg] and I go to the locations in advance with stand-ins and we board out the movie with a camera. I take my camera and I take a still of every shot in the film and I lens each one and I know literally what every shot and every lens is going to be in advance.
Here we just had this extra process of OK, now how do we figure out this extra thing not only for shooting but for editing because through the process of becoming a visual storyteller, you learn what can cut to what, but you’re used to tracking people. You’re used to tracking his face here, his face there, looking this way, being in front of him, behind him, three quarter angle, on which lens, but you’re not used to also tracking iconography on screen. So, what happens when you’re in a wide shot and there’s a window on the right and then you cut to a close-up but the window is now minimized on the left? Is your eye going to track the person from left to right or the window from right to left. Can you both things simultaneously? And we had to figure that out in the moment.
There was a year of making the movie and there was a year of doing this visual treatment.
Which also involved building an internet of our own. We had to create new websites. Every time you’re on Facebook, every time you’re on Twitter, every time you’re on PornHub, every thumbnail, every description, every comment, every photo, every ad — because we built the internet for the movie. It wasn’t just screen replacements. We built a usable internet using our own software so that the actors could interact with their computers. So they could actually search on the computer, so they could actually hit buttons and get to new pages and things would load in a realistic way. So we had to create local networks that only our computers were on so things would load at a normal speed, not too fast and not too slow. Everything was clickable, searchable. We had one person whose job alone was to create PornHub. It was to create pages of thumbnails and descriptions.
For your R-rated movie.
Yeah, exactly. So how do you put thumbnails that look like something realistic—because remember the way you see the internet, you look at the internet so much that you notice it as well as you’d know your own home. If anything looks out of place or looks different, you’re going to notice.
It sounds like you need to make a sequel to get full use out of this crazy maze you folks created.
[Laughs] But, that’s how it is every time you make a movie. Every time you make a movie, you’re building something for the first time. Whether it’s “Labor Day” and we’re building 1987 or it’s “Up in the Air” and the airports need to look 100 percent precise and the airplanes and the air travel and hotels and the cars; filmmaking is such a detailed-oriented process. This was just the most complex movie I’ve ever made.
Given all the time you spent making “Men, Women & Children,” how has the critical reception affected you? It got a pretty divisive response out of Toronto.
I mean there’s no real reason to read it. I’m not sure how I could benefit from it. I know why I made the movie. If people are divided, I suppose that’s good? I guess that lets me know that I’m doing the right thing right?
If everyone hated it, that would be bad. If everyone loved it, I would almost have to question it. I think about “Young Adult” a lot and the response to that film. People really didn’t know what to make of that movie when I made it. And then it just kind of grew on people and then people started to realize why I made it.
This movie, it’s funny—for the people who think that I’m somehow trying to make a comment on the internet, one, they’re wrong. [Laughs] I just have no interest in commenting on the internet and I don’t think that’s what the movie does. Two, that seems to bother them. That I’d be presumptuous to make some sort of judgment on the internet and I would agree with that. If I was that presumptuous, it would be pretty lame. But, I wanted to make a movie about people. I wanted to make a movie about our most personal moments. Our private moments. Secrets we keep. That’s the stuff that interests me.