Jason Reitman is a hard filmmaker to pin down. He’s made six features, and when a director has made that many films, it’s usually not terribly difficult to find themes or ideas that tie a filmography together. Besides generally following smart but naive characters, you can’t really do that with Reitman’s pictures. The element that comes closest to defining Reitman’s body of work is his passion for self-reflective stories. After his past two divisive efforts, Labor Day and Men, Women & Children, it’s obvious his voice and interests go beyond one story or one specific idea.
What’s missing from those films, for starters, is Reitman’s comedic wit. That’s not to say they don’t have his sense of humor, albeit in much smaller doses, but they wear a more serious face than his earlier work. Critics certainly aren’t used to this side of Reitman. “It feels like the snarkier I am, the more the critics like it,” Reitman tells me with a laugh. “I mean, you gotta make films in your own voice. When you start trying to please people, you’re never going to win.”
His first four films did in fact please a majority of critics, considering they all scored over an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes. Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, and, to a lesser extent, Young Adult, were embraced by both audiences and critics. After all that success, Reitman faced his first critical and box office failure earlier this year with Labor Day.
Many viewers simply couldn’t get past the setup: a romance between a charming, manly and all around great prisoner on the run (Josh Brolin) and his hostage (Kate Winslet). To Reitman, that’s not what the film is about. “My dad pointed out stuff on Labor Day recently that was a fascinating realization,” he shares. “He told me, ‘You were making a movie about a son, and I don’t think anyone else realized it.’ He was right. There was a reason why Josh and Kate disappeared for the last 10 minutes of the movie. It’s a story about the son.”
This isn’t the first time a project has taken on new meaning for Reitman. He spent seven years adapting Walter Kirn’s “Up in the Air,” and his feelings toward that story constantly evolved during that time. Then, there’s the movie he’s reevaluated the most since its release.
“Definitely Young Adult,” Reitman offers. “There was always a part of me that wanted to end the movie earlier. Remember the scene towards the end at the breakfast table? Mavis (Charlize Theron) is crying and Matt’s sister (Collette Wolfe) says, ‘You’re better than all these people. Fuck this town.’ Charlize is like, ‘Thank you. I needed that.’ The monster is reborn. The sister says, ‘Take me with you.’ A part of me always wanted to end right after Mavis says, ‘You’re good here.’”
Young Adult, written by Diablo Cody, ultimately ended with Mavis Gary staring down her beat up Mini Cooper. Instead of fixing the apparent damage, she hops in her car and drives off, accepting the damage and herself. Reitman eventually got to cut that ending – which he admits he likes – when trims were suggested for TV time. He calls it his “redux.”
Mavis Gary remains his most compelling character study to date, but at the time some saw it as a misstep for Reitman. While the 2011 film scored plenty of positive reviews, many were turned off by such a destructive force. “When it first came out people were, like, ‘Huh?’ People just didn’t get it,” Reitman says. “Now, people all the time tell me it’s my best film. It’s the one movie when I talk to directors or actors they instantaneously bring it up.” Will Labor Day go on to find similar acolytes in the future? Maybe, maybe not. “There’s no way to comprehend the reaction to your movie. Juno was beloved the moment it came out, but then fell out of favor. You just have to keep swinging.”
Reitman knows all too well the highs and lows a filmmaker faces, thanks to his father, Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters).
“One of the ways I’m really lucky is I grew up the son of a director. I’ve had the experience of watching a filmmaker over the course of 30 years making movies,” he says. “Some of his movies are the biggest hits of all time, some are films that didn’t land. My father kept swinging. I see why he made certain films, why certain things didn’t land, and how things were misinterpreted. All you can really do is keep making movies.”
If Jason Reitman knows one thing, it’s how he feels about his movies. The day we got on the phone with the writer/director he was showing Men, Women & Children at the Mill Valley Film Festival in San Francisco. When I ask if he’s nervous screening the film, he responds, without missing a beat, “No.” He doesn’t say that arrogantly, but, at this stage of the process, he doesn’t see it as his film anymore. To Reitman, his “kid is going off to college.”
Will the kid succeed? Fail? Or just get by? These aren’t questions that scare Reitman as much as they used to.
“On my first film, it was completely independent,” Reitman says. “It needed to be sold. You show up at a film festival with an undistributed film, all you’re thinking is, ‘I hope someone buys this. It’d be sad if this is the last group ever to watch this movie.’ Once you make a movie with distribution, it’s a big thing of, ‘Oh my God, is this good? Is this bad? Is it the last movie I’ll ever make?’ I’m at the point where I don’t think this is the last movie I’m ever going to make, unless I die. I know it’s the movie I wanted to make, and that’s that.”
After his first movie Thank You For Smoking, Reitman’s career could’ve gone in a very different direction. He was offered several high profile jobs, but lucky for him, he’s never had to consider a work-for-hire gig. “I try to say this in the best way possible, but: I grew up in Beverly Hills,” he says, again, with a great sense of stolid self-awareness. “You know, my father grew up the child of a Holocaust survivor, where they lived above the dry cleaners. I grew up in Beverly Hills, the son of a famous director. I’ve never had to worry where my next meal was going to come from. The thought of having to make movies to amass some fortune was never a necessity or on the map for me.”
Reitman has been telling personal stories since day one. Earlier this year on the WTF podcast with Marc Maron, he said he was angry at the time of making Thank You For Smoking. Reitman sees his films as representing where he’s at in life. “During the making-of Thank You For Smoking it was a lot of: ‘Stop telling me what to do. Stop telling me how to live,’” he recalls. “You can feel that in the film. The film feels like a young person ripping their wrists out an adult’s hand. I had also just become a father when I made Juno. You can feel the trepidation about childhood and parenthood in that film.”
At this point in the 36-year-old filmmaker’s career, he doesn’t have to worry much about people telling him what to do. He’s proven himself a bankable storyteller, even after the failure of Labor Day. He’ll continue to tell stories that speak to him, including his bleak adaptation (co-written by Erin Cressida Wilson) Men, Women & Children. While it is a movie about how the Internet and cell phones dominate our relationships, Reitman sees it as far more than a PSA shouting, “Internet bad!”
Like his other films, Reitman made Men, Women & Children for a reason.
“There’s a lot going on,” he says. “Look, I’m a parent, I’m divorced and single for the first time since I was a kid. I’m understanding dating in the modern world. I’m also fearful for the dating my daughter will do. It’s not an accident a filmmaker wants to make a movie.”