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Young Adult - Jason Reitman interview

Jason Reitman

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JASON Reitman talks about some of the challenges of making Young Adult, the film that reunites him with screenwriter Diablo Cody for the first time since Juno, as well as working with Charlize Theron and why he feels there’s a need for comedies that make people feel uncomfortable.

He also reflects on his own lucky career in general as well as the opportunities it has provided, including putting on star-studded, one-off live script readings of classic movie screenplays.

Q. I’ve read that all your films are emotionally autobiographical….
Jason Reitman: [Laughs] Yeah! It’s so funny, you say something and you realise that people actually read it! So, what does that mean?

Q. Well, what was it about Young Adult that reflects you?
Jason Reitman: Oh, all the embarrassing things. Her narcissism, her selfishness… the films are kind of apologies.

Q. The films are? How so? Is it you apologising?
Jason Reitman: Yeah, I work best when I’m looking at my own character and looking at my own flaws and analysing them and kind of putting them up for judgement. It’s kind of the best fuel.

Q. Do you take people’s reactions to the films you make more personally in that case?
Jason Reitman: No and the reactions are always to filmmaking more than they are to the characters. It’s not like people watch them and go: “That guy’s a dick!” They watch the film and it’s either effective or it isn’t. It either moves people or it doesn’t. Or they either appreciate being made to cringe or they don’t.

Q. I also read that you feel there is a need for films that make people feel uncomfortable?
Jason Reitman: There’s something fun about it. I mean, it’s fun to make people laugh. And I certainly spent some time learning how to do that. But getting people to feel uncomfortable without using horror… we’re not slicing up bodies on screen like a Saw movie. So, to get them to feel uncomfortable is… Ricky Gervais makes me feel uncomfortable in that similar way. It’s an unbelievable technique to make you laugh and feel a little dirty at the same time. It’s a lovely combination.

Q. How important was it to keep Charlize’s character likeable to an extent?
Jason Reitman: Likeable was never really on my agenda. Honest was on my agenda. It was important to me that she be a complete character, a complete human being. She says and does some awful things but she’s pretty broken and she’s pretty vulnerable and in that sense she’s very relatable. And I thought, in that sense, as long as I treat that honestly then it wouldn’t matter how dark she got. It’s hard to find someone completely unlikeable if you relate to them. Right?

Q. The scene on the lawn that kick-starts the third act contains the sort of revelations that go some way to explaining that back-story…
Jason Reitman: Hopefully it wasn’t too much like: “Here’s the key…” I think we’re all more complex than that. I don’t think anyone is set off by any one defining moment.

Q. Charlize and you seem to have found each other at exactly the right time. Did you have that sense?
Jason Reitman: Yeah, it was just kind of magic. I met her. My other movie pushed, I got the script, it just all kind of came together in a lovely way.

Young Adult

Q. What do you think she brought to the role of Mavis Gary?
Jason Reitman: Bravery. I mean she brings a sense of bravery and honesty to everything she does. She’s unflinching in every portrayal, whether it’s a serial killer [in Monster] or even early on in her career where she’d be the love interest. There’s something truthful in everything she did and there was a lot of power in that. But for this one it would have been so easy to turn Mavis into a caricature and I think in the hands of really any other actress that’s exactly what would have happened. And that’s why I only wanted to make it with her. Her instinct is to make it real. There’s things that Mavis said which are: “How can you make that real? Who would say that?” But she finds a way and in doing so you have to start thinking about her as a person instead of a character. And that makes her harder to judge. You’re more inclined to go: “OK, well people are complex.” With a character you can just say: “I don’t like him.” But with a person not so much.

Q. How has your relationship with Diablo Cody evolved since Juno?
Jason Reitman: It’s wonderful. It’s evolved only in that we’re both growing up. When I look at this movie versus Juno I think this movie is just so much more mature. It’s just two people who have gone through some big things in their lives and you see that reflected in the filmmaking and the storytelling. But she and I get along great and she sends me things. She’s such a good writer and I really just hope that continues forever.

Q. So, you’d be looking to collaborate again?
Jason Reitman: Oh yeah. My ideal version of my future is every four or five years, she writes something new and we collaborate and there’ll be kind of a trajectory of our voice, our harmony and singing together.

Q. What’s that collaboration like?
Jason Reitman: Well, it’s not much of a collaboration in that she writes a brilliant script, she gives it to me and then I go and direct it. On this, the overlap period… there was two weeks where we worked together. She had written it. I don’t know how long it took her – not very long usually – and we worked together for two weeks and then I went off and made it. I then showed it to her when it was done. So, it’s not that we’re not great when we’re working in a room together; we’re actually great when we’re in a room together because we have a very good short-hand and lead very similar lives. It’s more that, for whatever reason, the way she thinks and writes translates very well to how I direct.

Q. How are you as a writer? Are you ever as frustrated as Charlize’s character gets in the film?
Jason Reitman: Oh yeah. Writing is a pain in the ass!

Q. How do you overcome that? And do you ever eavesdrop other people’s conversations for inspiration?
Jason Reitman: I don’t but I definitely… if I’m talking to somebody and I think they say something kind of brilliant I’ll always ask. I’ll say something like: “That’s kind of great, do you mind if I use that?” I always get permission and then I’ll email myself the line and hold onto it for use.

Young Adult

Q. The film makes several nods to the notion that everything seems part of a franchise now, whether it’s books and films or shopping outlets. Do you find that frustrating?
Jason Reitman: Well, the homogenisation of America does have something kind of sad about that. That said, I got here to London and when I saw a Starbucks I got excited. So, you know… I’m disgustingly American in that sense. If I was visiting the Great Wall of China I’d be thrilled if I saw a Starbucks [laughs].

Q. But does that make it harder for a film of this size and nature to get made?
Jason Reitman: Oh, absolutely! Yeah. I mean making a movie that makes the audience feel uncomfortable… yeah, that’s hard to do.

Q. Does your past track record make it any easier?
Jason Reitman: It’s easier if you have movies that have made money and it’s easier if you have a movie star.

Q. Your films do also tend to be synonymous with award nominations at the very least…
Jason Reitman: Well, awards nominations equal money, and I think that’s the thing. If you can get nominated for things… like Charlize’s performance right now is getting really lovely recognition, it stays in the theatres longer, it convinces people that there’s something there to see if they didn’t kind of get it before, and I’ve been the beneficiary of that.

Q. You also seem to be a great equal opportunities filmmaker in the sense that your films are as strong for providing women with roles as they do men…
Jason Reitman: You know, I do that selfishly. I want to tell original stories and there’s more stories about women that have not been told than men. It’s kind of a simple equation.

Q. You’ve mentioned the bravery of Charlize’s performance and yet she’ll say it’s simply more refreshing to have someone prepared to write that kind of role for her. She dismisses the notion of bravery…
Jason Reitman: You know what? I don’t think she realises what she’s doing. She’s not going “I’m going to be brave”. And by the way, when we talk about brave, there’s people who just finally got out of Iraq who are pretty fucking brave. This is a different usage of the term. But she doesn’t realise, I don’t think, in the moment how unique her gutsiness is when she plays roles so unflinchingly. I think, for her, it’s just the only way she knows how. But in comparison to how most actors work it’s very brave. Look, I’m sure she has a very similar comment to how I work and given the chance to do a script like this, yeah I’d fucking do it in a heartbeat but that doesn’t make me brave. I’m opportunistic. But she is brave in the way that she kind of exposes herself on camera.

Young Adult

Q. So, do you don’t see yourself as a brave filmmaker having tackled things like unemployment with Up In The Air, teenage pregnancy with Juno and smoking with Thank You For Smoking?
Jason Reitman: I see myself as a lucky filmmaker. I really am lucky. I made Juno for $7 million, it was built to play film festivals, so the idea that it came out and was a hit… and a hit that made a tonne of money, the kind of money that makes people think you know things you don’t, the kind of money that makes it easier to make your next film… that’s lucky. We came out at Christmas against There Will Be Blood and families were deciding at Christmas whether they wanted to see There Will Be Blood or Juno.

There Will Be Blood is a brilliant film but it’s not exactly a Christmas movie. So, all of a sudden our box office went up. Is Juno a good movie? Yeah, I’m proud of it. But if Juno comes out on another day, in a different year, at a different time and against something else, who knows… I could have a very different life. I’m very lucky that I get to make the movies that I make.

Q. But you have to make them in the first place, which is where the bravery lies…
Jason Reitman: You know, I’m proud of the movies. I think I did a good job. I’m not trying to take anything away from my work. But I see a million movies that nobody sees, movies that are much better than the work that I’ve done. Have you ever seen Nicole Holofcener’s film, Please Give? Oh, I think it’s a masterpiece but nobody saw it. Beginners, from this year… brilliant movie! But nobody saw it. It was in theatres something like nine months ago but people are only starting to wake up to it because of the awards buzz surrounding Christopher Plummer. So, what if Beginners was coming out right now, instead of when it did? How different would that guy’s life be? And how different would it make his approach to his next film? And he didn’t do anything different [to me]. He just made his film, a brilliant film… so, I’m lucky. I won’t say I’m not skilful but I’m really lucky.

Q. Have you stuck to your principles though? Rather than starting to take anything for granted?
Jason Reitman: I try to be as grateful as possible. And I just try to keep my head in my work. What I’m trying to learn to do more is enjoy the movie while I’m making it instead of after it’s done. That’s hard to do. I did a little bit more of that on this film. I enjoyed the process.

Q. Was Up In The Air a part of that learning process?
Jason Reitman: It was after Up In The Air. I realised that Up In The Air was such a special film for me and I really only kind of enjoyed it after the fact. I realised that as I make each subsequent film I want to stop and take it in while it’s happening. Up In The Air was very personal and a real joy to make, but I never stopped to think about that. I just took it for granted that I was having a great time making it.

Q. How much do you enjoy working alongside people of the calibre of George Clooney and Charlize Theron?
Jason Reitman: Well, George and Charlize are very similar in the way that they work in that they’re easy and a delight. They’re funny, hard working and not combative. They look great on-screen, they’re good to their fellow actors… everything you want in an actor are those two. Just easy.

Q. How do you enjoy giving someone like Patton Oswalt a higher profile?
8Jason Reitman:* Oh, it’s fun. I mean it’s fun to give someone a debut role at 42 [laughs]! But in America, he’s pretty well known for his stand-up and other things he does in comedy. But I guess I don’t see it much differently. I saw that Charlize and Patton had great chemistry; they’re both great actors and I was thrilled to work with both of them. I don’t feel emotionally different about the casting of them.

Young Adult

Q. How did you enjoy working with Patrick Wilson because he’s a fascinating actor?
Jason Reitman: He’s really interesting. Patrick Wilson is so gifted and he gives such a stealth performance in this film. I realised that really only once we were done. I was so in awe of him. He holds the movie without commenting or reacting. And that’s so hard to do. Any normal human being would react to Mavis. They’d either slap her or show they were interested, or something. But he finds a way to do neither and I think that’s pretty astonishing. And I think he’s amazing.

Q. But coming back to the point about the film having heart, it comes from Wilson. His line – ‘you’re better than this’ – is an amazing line to deliver at the moment that he does…
Jason Reitman: Yeah. But that’s what beautiful about his relationship with Beth [his wife]. It’s really strong. It’s not a movie about being caught. Those two are great for each other and really strong and even if she saw him, she would have understood what was happening. I guess you don’t usually see that kind of couple on-screen. It’s kind of cool.

Q. Can you talk about the reading project that you’re doing. You had Steve Carell and Natalie Portman do live script reading of The Apartment
Jason Reitman: Yeah, and Pierce Brosnan. It was amazing, just amazing.

Q. How did you hit upon that idea of bringing a script reading to a live audience?
Jason Reitman: I had done one of my own table reads of my own scripts and thought: “Why don’t we do this all the time with great scripts?” And my buddy, Elvis Mitchell, took over the film project at LACMA, the LA County Museum of Art, and I suggested the idea of taking classic screenplays and getting a cast together in front of an audience. He loved it. So, the first one we did was The Breakfast Club, then it was The Apartment and last week we did The Princess Bride, which was amazing. We had Goran Visjnic, Paul Rudd played the lead, he was amazing, Fred Savage came back as Fred Savage and Rob Reiner, the director, played the grandfather, and Cary Elwes, who played Westley, played the bad guy. It was amazing. It was a crazy night. Patton Oswalt played Vizzini. It was just amazing.

Q. How much of a kick do you get out of putting something together like that?
Jason Reitman: I love it! It fuels me like you can’t even imagine. It just makes my heart swell. I love it And you get to hear a movie that you know every word of through new voices and new rhythms. And an audience gets to watch it happen and come together live. It’s so special.

Q. There are no rehearsals?
Jason Reitman: We show up at 6.45pm, we’re on stage at 7.30pm, we play to a house of about 600 people and we have a screen behind us that shows location photos of every scene.

Q. And it’s one night only for each presentation?
Jason Reitman: One night only.

Q. How many will you do?
Jason Reitman: Six of them. We’ve done three.

Q. Would you think about bringing it over here?
Jason Reitman: This is a long way to go. We’ve talked about maybe doing one in New York. But it would be pretty great. It’s a big movie though. Let me try to do New York first and then maybe London. But of course it would be awesome

Read our review of Young Adult