Interview: Director Jason Reitman on His Passion for Honest Stories
by Alex Billington
October 27, 2014
It has been a while. So, how are things? Over the many years I've been running this website I've had a few amazing chats with Jason Reitman. I first met Jason way back in 2007, interviewing him for his second film Juno at the Toronto Film Festival. That was followed up with the legendary gondola interview from the Telluride Film Festival, where Peter Sciretta from SlashFilm and I talked with Jason about making Up in the Air as we slowly rode a gondola up the mountain and back down. It has been five years since I've sat down for a formal interview with Jason, despite meeting up at film festivals for Labor Day last year and Men, Women & Children this year, but as always it's so much fun to talk with him. Here's our latest chat.
Jason's last two films, Labor Day and Men, Women & Children, are much more sensitive than his others. I could tell there was something different about his work compared to the first few times we met up, and it was my goal to get into that topic further. What happened? Why did he tell these stories? And what does he make of the response so far? I gave the film a very positive 8.5/10 review at TIFF, however Men, Women & Children was panned by critics at release and has been performing quite poorly at the box office. It doesn't seem to bother Jason, as he was just as jovial and open to talking as he always been before. Let's get into it…
My first question: you've been out promoting this movie for a month or two, on yet another publicity tour. You've probably answered every possible question about Adam Sandler you could ever possibly answer…
Jason Reitman: I haven't.
Jason: I do answer questions about Adam Sandler, but I find myself answering way too many questions about the internet. That's what bums me out.
I was going to ask: what have you not been asked? You had that great pie chart for Up in the Air… You understand this process more than anyone.
Jason: Here's the thing. All people want to talk to me about is the damn internet, which is something that doesn't even interest me that much. I think the internet is an interesting location. But it's certainly not the topic of the movie as far as I'm concerned. It's not what I went to make a movie about.
I made a movie about what it's like to be alive in 2014, falling in love, falling out of love, being a parent, being a child, and all the normal themes that I like. But the fact is if you make a movie about 2014, you are going to be just shooting people looking on their phones, because that's all people fucking do. If you look at people in the airport, at school, in the car that's all they're doing. So much so that in Singapore – have you heard about the pedestrian internet walking lane? You know what I'm talking about?
I think I heard of that as a joke, but I didn't know it would be real.
Jason: It's this serious thing [read an article here]. They are going to have a lane for walkers who are on their phones so that they don't bump into everybody. Somehow, in the midst of all this… I think people have made the presumption that somehow I'm making a movie whose subject is the internet and whether or not it is good or bad, which I have no take on whatsoever.
I think that's been the main frustration of doing press. It's not the Up in the Air problem of just answering the same question over and over, which is a reasonable question. It is answering a question that somehow points to the fact that people are interpreting the film differently than I had expected them to.
Isn't that always the case with film, though? You make what you know inside you are making, and then you have no idea how people are going to respond. And then you put it out there and see how and if they respond in the way that you made it. We've connected a little bit on this previously… You know that I am actually getting what you set out to do in your film.
Jason: Look. Young Adult, it wasn't immediate. Young Adult there was an immediate reaction… you got Young Adult right away. There was a lot people who were like, "What the fuck is this?" And then within a year or two it was like, "Oh, that's a really cool film." It's like, "Alright. Thanks. I wish you had been there when it was in theaters, but fine!" [Laughs]
Certainly on other films there's been a question of is Juno pro- or anti-abortion or what are the views on teen pregnancy and stuff like that? This one [Men, Women & Children], more than anything, I think there's been this presumption that somehow it was an internet takedown movie. I use the internet like crazy. It's just not my point of view.
You mean as in your own personal life you are not…
Jason: Yeah. I'm not a huge social media guy. I'm not on Facebook. I'm not on Instagram. But I use technology constantly. And I'm always on my phone. What I'm interested in at the end of the day is just people and how they interact, not whether the internet is good or bad.
That's what I admire about it, the way everything plays into it… I didn't see it as a movie about the internet so much as how the internet affects us, which is what you are saying it is.
Jason: Yeah. Well, it's: what does it mean to be in love in 2014? What does it mean to try and parent your children decently in 2014?
What gets in the way? And what happens to get in the way is the internet?
Jason: No. I don't even think it gets in the way…
Should I just forget the internet entirely?
Jason: Well, no. I think that it's just one of the basic functions of our lives now. And it does plenty of good and does plenty of bad. But the good and bad is really just a reflection of us. There was cheating before the internet. There was anorexia before the internet. There was pornography addiction before the internet. It's just created a new location to entertain all these things.
I think that the internet is a reflection of us. It's a reflection of our curiosity. It's a reflection of our desire. And it has become somehow the holder of our secrets, or so we think. And it's brought up lots of questions about intimacy and privacy. But frankly, the film, at the end of the day is about: should husbands and wives be honest to each other? Should young people fall in love traditionally? I don't know. I feel like it's time old ideas just set in 2014.
I like that description. If only that was in the marketing.
Jason: Right. I actually don't mind the marketing on this film. I'm really proud of the two trailers for this film, unlike on like Labor Day where I thought the marketing was for a film that literally was not onscreen.
No. This one, what I feel like is I think people feel personally about the internet. They love it, and they've taken the film as an attack as though I was attacking a close personal friend or their religion. I don't know. It's funny, this presumption that I'm like the mom who thinks that rock 'n roll is the devil.
I found that Labor Day and Men, Women & Children are much more sensitive than your past films. I mean that in a good way.
Jason: Yeah. [Laughs]
It's great because there is a lot of emotion in all your films, but I feel like there is a greater amount of emotion in these two. They handle that emotion in a much more delicate way. What made that change? Was there something or is it just the stories?
Jason: Like in my own personal life? I got divorced….
Well, as much as you can identify the things that have made you change your filmmaking sensibilities.
Jason: It's so hard to say, because who knows what my next film will be and how cynical it will be? I don't think it's a singular direction. I don't think it started on one side and went to the other and that's kind of it. And it's funny, because I always thought of Men, Women & Children as deeply cynical and funny. And somehow in the directing, I suppose, it was more earnest. It's weird. I watch Men, Women & Children and I kinda laugh throughout it. So when I think of audiences taking it all deeply serious, it's kind of like, "Really? You don't find that funny? Alright…"
I don't know. It's hard to identify something like that in the moment. And perhaps 10 years from now I'll look back and go, "Oh, alright. I guess these things were happening to me, because of that I leaned this direction." I could probably do a better job talking about what was going through my head making Thank You for Smoking and Juno than I can do right now going, "This is what's in my head right now." You gotta remember, this film came together so quickly.
I originally heard you were going to shoot these last two back-to-back. Is that wrong?
Jason: No! Wrong, yeah! Like Lord of the Rings?
It was a story from a mutual friend of ours, that was what I heard, one right after another.
I'm just curious about the timeline of your work…
Jason: I'm trying to think how he thought that. Maybe he thought Young Adult and Labor Day would be back-to-back. I finished Young Adult… I finished writing Labor Day, I went and made Labor Day. It was going to be more back-to-back and then I waited a year for Kate Winslett to make Labor Day. Then while Labor Day was waiting to come out… with Erin [Cressida Wilson], I wrote Men, Women & Children.
But they've been just the traditional one follows the other. They just happened quickly. I made six movies in nine years. It's been a lot.
Are you happy with the results? I don't dare ask such a question, but for you…
Jason: No, no. If you would have asked me like 10 years ago, "Alright. These are going to be your six movies in the next decade." Fucking A! I mean that's an awesome group. They are all personal. I can look at each of them and go, "Oh. I did every one of these films for the right reasons." Whether one connected more than another, it's like these are all six very personal films and very unique films and different.
It's funny, because I've had films offered to me that have done very well that I haven't done. I wouldn't change any of my movies out. They are all the movies I needed to make. And I loved making each one of these. I loved the people I made them with. I'm proud of the résumé. I don't think I'd change it.
Good to hear. I always think of Fincher and he hates watching his films.
Jason: All of them?
He'll immediately say, "I can see that I should have cut two minutes off of this scene." Most directors tell me that no film is perfect because that's an impossible goal.
Jason: Of course, yeah.
A film evolves through collaboration into the final result of what it is. But I like to discuss maintaining your vision and how to lose that for the sake of the film or not lose that for the sake of making sure you maintain your voice as a director.
Jason: I don't know, I don't go back and watch them. They'll be on TV once in a while and I'll see a scene and be like, "Oh, yeah. That's wild. That actually is the scene that I imagined. That's kinda cool." He's right… You can't look at a film without thinking, "Oh, shit. I should've just done that." Although on Up in the Air I don't think I would have changed a frame. I am very happy. I made one decision in Up in the Air that I still hem and haw about, but literally one in the entire movie. But Thank You for Smoking I go back, and I'm like, "Oh, why did I shoot that? And why did I do this? I should have done that…" That's just because it was my first movie.
Getting back to Men, Women & Children, where did the pale blue dot framework come from?
Jason: Dude, you have to read that book! It's gnarly as fuck. He's a great writer. I mean as a young guy… You'll read Average American Male in one night. And never let your girlfriend read it. It's awesome. So in the book, Tim is obsessed with pale blue dot. At some point, Helen Estabrook, my producer, who produced Whiplash, she pointed me to the Radiolab. You know that show Radiolab on NPR?
Jason: It's great. They did a whole piece on the golden record and how that came about. They did a great job explaining the story. It just hit me that that same instinct to create this message in a bottle in the 1970s… To cobble together the technology to fucking launch that thing into space, and that instinct to connect with something that we don't even know exists is so ironic when you think about our inability to connect with the people right in front of us and the amount that we lie to each other and the way we stumble over ourselves and get our own ways.
And then we're given this technology that makes it even easier to just meet strangers or be closer and share things with people. And yet, somehow we always kind of bow out and share our secrets with the people we're not close to and we're more dishonest with people we're close to. I think there's an interesting irony there that I'm curious about. So I kinda leaned into that.
I personally think it really works well in the context of the film.
Jason: Thank you. It's funny. I haven't read any reviews on this film, so I don't know if people are shitting all over the pale blue dot stuff and Voyager stuff.
They kind of are…
Jason: Oh, that's a shame.
But I got what you were going for, which I think is that idea of the bigger picture of what's happening relating to the smaller picture of a person on this planet. I don't want to talk about the other reviews, but I was very curious about how the pale blue dot played into this movie and why you decided to use that.
Jason: Yeah. I thought that was interesting. And I thought it was interesting to be in the voice of Voyager looking back on humanity. I thought there was something cool about that.
I love the speech. I'm just glad to see it was used in the movie.
Jason: Oh, cool.
Speaking of the reviews, you gave a really great quote to Indiewire recently, regarding the negative reviews: "If everyone hated it, that would be bad. If everyone loved it, I would almost have to question it." It's having both good and bad that is better than all one or the other.
Jason: Yeah. I mean the reaction to Young Adult was incredibly mixed. That means I'm pushing people's buttons. Some people like it. Some people don't like it. And within each group there's probably people, for fair or unfair reasons, that think what they think. But I don't want to make easy movies. If I can make tough movies, awesome. Am I going to fall on my face every once in a while? Certainly. But I want to make unsafe films. I want to create challenging scenes.
The scene I'm most proud of, get away from all the space stuff or the metaphors, whatever you think about the internet, but one of the scenes I made this movie for: Sandler and Dewitt at the end. He's making eggs and they're talking about whether they should be honest with each other. For me that's a reason to make a movie. That's a tough fucking scene. You have a character that opens by going onto his 15 year old son's computer to look at pornography and then ends with him having this crazy scene with his wife.
So that's kind of the challenging stuff that will make some people uncomfortable. Yeah, maybe five years from now I'll look back and say, "Gah. What was I thinking with all that Voyager stuff?" In the meantime, I quite like it. I think it serves as a really nice metaphor. It was an exciting process to actually work with the guys. It was the Gravity team that I worked with to do that stuff. They were badass! It was just fascinating to do that process.
A final thank you to Jason Reitman for his time and to Paramount/Strategy PR for arranging.
Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children is playing in select theaters now around the country. Read Alex's review from TIFF, and check your local listings for availability. Thanks for reading. Find more interviews.