Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters and Dave are four of Ivan Reitman‘s films that have stood the test of time. When Reitman was on top of his game, the now 67-year-old filmmaker hit grand slams. I’m not using these sports metaphors because his latest film, Draft Day, includes the NFL Draft, but because, like athletes, some directors have hot streaks and cold streaks. For an array of reasons, slumps happen.
Reitman’s lasted 18 years.
After Dave he directed Junior, Father’s Day, Evolution, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, and Six Days, Seven Nights. A few of those films had glimmers of hope that Reitman hadn’t lost his touch, but during those years, only as a producer was he making quality movies. People generally focus on the films that proceeded Dave, not Old School, Up in the Air, I Love You, Man and Private Parts, and one of those acclaimed films he came close to directing.
“It was stupid,” Reitman says, on why he didn’t direct Private Parts himself. “I was doing three movies at once: Space Jam, which I was sort of directing, but I wasn’t officially directing; Father’s Day, which I shouldn’t have directed, because we never got the script right; and Private Parts. Private Parts was the one I gave up, and I shouldn’t have.”
Reitman is self-aware of the fact he wasn’t making movies liked he used to. He knows which movies work, which ones don’t. He had hit a creative roadblock, but he eventually got some of his touch back with No Strings Attached. “I think it did,” Reitman says with a smile believing that rom-com rejuvenated him as a filmmaker. “I got lost in producing and was pushing too hard on three or four films in a row which didn’t live up to what I had been doing the rest of my career.” Reitman’s last high-concept comedies, Evolution and My Super Ex-Girlfriend, felt like attempts to recapture the magic Reitman once achieved. Sadly, as Reitman pointed out, they didn’t reach the bar he set for himself.
He desperately needed a back-to-basics picture, which is exactly what he made five years after My Super Ex-Girlfriend. “It was great to start again and relax on No Strings Attached,” he says. Reitman acknowledges the 2011 romantic-comedy wasn’t embraced by critics, but he remains proud of it. “I think one day people will look at it from a nonprejudicial standpoint. Who — who was my star on that movie?” Punk’d host Ashton Kutcher, of course, easily giving the most at ease and convincing performance of his career. “People were down on Ashton. Guys, in particular, hate him. He’s terrific in that film, but nobody gave him or me credit for how good he is.” At the end of the day, it was financially successful, but best of all: it marks a pivotal turning point in Reitman’s career which he’s followed up with Draft Day.
The Blacklisted script follows Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Kevin Costner), playing the Cleveland Browns’ GM. It’s a big day for Weaver: he finds out he’s going to become a father and the NFL Draft is approaching. He has an uphill battle, both professionally and personally, to fight in a short amount of time. To Reitman, it’s not a “sports movie,” but a “suspense movie.” Because of that, he needed to go to new places as a filmmaker to amp up the tension, and one of those places was the use of split screens.
So far the movie has received a mixed reviews from critics, similarly to No Strings Attached. This kind of response isn’t new for Reitman when it comes to the projects he’s fond of. Even some of his classics, including Animal House, which he produced, were met with occasional tepidness. “Ghostbusters got a few great reviews, but a lot of mediocre reviews. I mean, Time Magazine basically dismissed it in a capsule review,” Reitman reminds us with a laugh, using his right thumb and index finger to illustrate how small the review was. Very small, to be exact. “It wasn’t even worthy of a full review! But it became the most important movie of that year. They still refuse to go back and look at it. A number of publications were like that. You just have to live with it.”
Despite those dismissive reactions, Reitman still gets excited about showing his work to audiences. “I learned to love test screenings through comedy,” Reitman exclaims. “The most important thing a screening does is make you a virgin to your material — it allows you to see it in a fresh way.” After the “30 or 40 screenings” they did for Draft Day, Reitman didn’t have to change much. From the start, he believed in the material and his two leads, Costner and Jennifer Garner. According to Reitman, sometimes a movie is so clear from the beginning, which was also the case for Ghostbusters. “The first screening of Ghostbusters was three weeks after we were shooting, with no effects,” Reitman recalls. “There were effects from what we did in-camera, which was quite a bit, but nothing from post. Still, it was a spectacular screening. We didn’t need to do any additional shooting. It was all there.” How many effects-heavy filmmakers can say that today? Most likely, not many.
The 1984 classic has an unforgettable energy, which, to Reitman, is key. “When I watched the scenes with Denis Leary and Kevin Costner, I knew it was working. It’s not even about comedy, it’s about energy,” Reitman says, before comparing that feeling to another, albeit different, duo. “I had that feeling watching Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzennegger. DeVito is a great comedian. Arnold, certainly, is not. The energy was right, though.”
Those scenes between Leary and Costner is where Reitman thrives: real characters in real situations.
Reitman finds making a movie like Draft Day far more enjoyable than high-concept comedies. When it comes to the latter films, not only are they technically difficult, but he also has to make an unbelievable world believable. Reitman doesn’t have to do that with Draft Day.
The special effects side of filmmaking Reitman has down. What still proves itself as a challenge is what one would think would be old hat for Reitman. “Comedy is much harder,” Reitman says. “You hear all these cliches about it, but the pressure on everybody involved, from the actors to the directors, is pretty intense.” Draft Day has a sense of humor, but in the way Dave did: a drama with a comedic backbone. Most comedies today, according to Reitman, get cold feet when it comes to the challenges comedy presents. “Today there’s a tendency to overplay those scenes. You see that more and more in contemporary comedies where scenes get blown out of shape, where everybody is stretching and ad-libbing to some comedic effect. People will forget what was funny initially because it doesn’t sound funny the ninth time. You try new things past the point where it’s not effective as it first was.”
We’ll see how the Draft Day director tackles that issue himself with his next film (rumored to be Triplets). While a sequel to one of his lesser films, Twins, isn’t exactly enticing, if he approaches it with the same tenacity he’s showing today, maybe he’ll make a comedy that doesn’t overplay scenes, blow things out of shape and ad-lib the movie to death.
Draft Day is now in theaters.