Jason Reitman has carved up a successful career as a director in a relatively short period of time. He won instant acclaim for his feature debut “Thank You for Smoking” and to prove he was no fluke, his second feature, “Juno”, won over critics and audiences alike. Reitman has also used that clout to turn to producing and his latest, “Jennifer’s Body”, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival as did his third directorial feature, “Up in the Air”, starring George Clooney. Paul Fischer spoke to Reitman in Toronto for this exclusive interview.
Question: As a producer, you seem to have very different sensibilities than as a director. I mean, your films as a director are very sort of personal, and have this particular sensibility that one associates with you. What do you look for that is different as a producer than you look for as a filmmaker? Or that you create as a filmmaker?
Reitman: Well, for me, it’s a completely different approach. As a director, I’m looking for stories that I personally want to tell, and that are in my voice. Because of that, there’s always going to be a continuity between my work. As a producer, I really want to basically be there as a bodyguard to the director, writer, and actors. And make sure that that director’s voice gets to be told in as honest a way as possible. I don’t expect my voice to be seen in a movie that I produce.
Question: How do you avoid that? I mean, how do you avoid standing back?
Reitman: Well very early on with Karyn, I talked to her about that. I just was very frank, and said that – “I’m gonna have ideas, but they’re just ideas. And I’m here to protect you. So first and foremost, if you ever feel like you’re not getting what you need, you just let me know. And otherwise, every once in a while I’ll say, ‘You might want to think about doing this.’ And you can take the suggestion and throw it away.”
Question: Why do you think Karyn was the obvious choice for this, given the unfortunate experience that she had on the previous film, and the kind of attitudes, I guess, that Hollywood has to filmmakers who are perceived as having made a failure?
Reitman: Well, having grown up in this business, and watched many directors my entire life, including my father, I know that there are ups and downs. And one – you know, it’s not necessarily right to judge a director from a moment when they’re down. And two, there’s actually an enormous benefit to getting someone right after something like that, when they really have something to say. I look at Karyn as the extraordinary storyteller behind “Girlfight”, a very personal storyteller. And when she came in and talked about this film, she got it. She understood the tone, the look, and most importantly, the relationship between these two young women. Which I think is one of the reasons why the film is so unique. That’s what Diablo does best, at the end of the day. I think – you know, people, unfortunately, associate Diablo with very witty dialogue, when what she – her real gift is understanding complex human relationships and that’s something that Karyn appreciated most about the screenplay.
Question: It’s a film that could have gone in all sorts of directions, depending on how it was gonna be made.
Question: Do you think had this not been a studio film, that it could have gone even further than it did, in terms of its depiction of sexuality and violence? Because it seems to –
Reitman: I don’t know. There are enough films out there trying to push limits. There’s enough films out there that are trying to push the audience as hard as they can, just to see what they can get away with. And I’m not that big a fan of that. I think that – the reason why people think of this movie as nostalgic, is that it harkens to a movie from 20, 30 years ago, when horror films were warm, and they embraced you. And —
Question: Like a “Carrie”.
Reitman: Yeah. “Carrie”, “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. I mean, you know, the movies I basically grew up on.
Question: Were you surprised that Diablo came up with this script?
Reitman: No. She loves horror films. You know, I’m almost surprised this is not her first movie.
Reitman: She loves horror. I mean, it’s – you know, kind of so instinctual to her.
Question: It has her sense of humor all the way – running all the way through this, as well.
Reitman: It has a sense of humor, but it also has kind of her complex, unusual narrative. You know? It’s a tricky narrative. All of her narratives are like that. They do not follow any – you know, traditional structure or form. And it may be less noticeable, because there are certain horror ideas, which are in every film, including this one. But I find the structure of this one unusual.
Question: What challenges were there in casting these two main women?
Reitman: The hardest thing, at the end of the day, is for people to do Diablo’s dialogue. It’s tricky, smart stuff, that you have to make sound authentic. And not everyone can do that. In fact, very few can do that. And my hat’s off to both Megan and Amanda, because they both knew how to do it.
Question: You’ve grown up in the business. Was it inevitable that you would follow in your Dad’s footsteps?
Reitman: Well, I did, so it’s hard for me to say it wasn’t. But – there was a moment where I didn’t want to. Or, you know, I thought – I thought I was gonna be a doctor for a little while. And I went pre-med, because I was terrified of becoming a director. I did not want to live in my father’s shadow. And I just presumed if I became a director, I would live in his shadow, I would constantly be compared to him, and people would think of me the way they think of all other sons of famous directors. They would think, ” Here’s someone with no talent and no skill, and probably has an alcohol or drug problem.” So. [LAUGHTER] You know. It really wasn’t until my father actually took me aside and said, ” You’re a storyteller. Stop being so scared.” And he has to be the first director – first father on record who convinced their son not to be a doctor, but rather a film director.
Question: And a Jewish father, too.
Reitman: Yeah, no kidding. It boggles the mind.
Question: [LAUGHTER] Are you surprised by your own success as a director?
Reitman: I believe in myself, but I am fortunate to have gotten to the place that I am so quickly. I’ve always had a plan to try to get to this place. To be able to make the movies that are in my heart and to be able to do them without giving as much up as possible. And I started directing short films and commercials, and five years in I finally got Thank You For Smoking made. And since then, things have moved very quickly, and I’ve been very lucky.
Question: How has it been to navigate the politics of Hollywood?
Reitman: You know, my solution has been to make films as cheaply as possible. That it’s – the hardest thing to do is make a movie when everyone is scared. And that’s when you have to compromise the most. So if my goal is to be uncompromising, then I have to make movies for an appropriate budget. And so far, I’ve made – my first two movies for $6 1/2 and $7 1/2 million, and I made my third film for $25 million. But that was me really blowing the bank, you know?
Question: That’s still cheap by Hollywood standards.
Reitman: Yeah, exactly. So I’d like to continue to make movies for a responsible amount of money. And I’m hoping that by doing so, I will never have a fiasco. And – and that will be my way of navigating the politics.
Question: How is Up in the Air different from its predecessors?
Reitman: My most personal film. It answers more personal questions. I think each of my films asks personal questions. Stuff that I’m kind of mulling over my mind. But this one’s the most so. And it’s the most dramatic, by far. It’s the most emotional, by far. I mean, when you see it, you’ll – you know. I think that’ll make sense. And it’s the ballsiest. I mean, look. I’ve made two movies about – the first one was about the head lobbyist for big tobacco. And the second one was about teenage pregnancy. I don’t shy away from tricky topics, but this one, I think, is the ballsiest one I’ve made.
Question: And it’s the first time you’ve cast a big movie star in the lead role. Does that make your choice as a director very different, when you go to that level?
Reitman: Yes and no. It gives me an 800-pound gorilla in my corner when I want to make sure that my creative freedom is protected. That said, after Juno, my creative freedom’s kind of assured. It doesn’t really change, because working with George Clooney is no different from working with Ellen Page. They’re both professionals, they’re both extraordinarily generous with they talent, and keep a very relaxed, friendly set. And I – I’ve been very lucky.
Question: What are your priorities, now as A, a producer, and B, a director?
Reitman: My priority as a director is to maintain. To kind of stay in this place, where I get to make the movies that are in my heart, and make them in an uncompromising way. My goal as a producer is to make – to make movies, but to not interfere with my directing career. And when I do make movies, to – you know, protect the visions of directors, and help bring to screen films that otherwise would not be brought to screen. You know, I don’t really do it for the money. And – I do it for the love of the game. So, my job is to make sure unusual films get to market the way they were supposed to be made.
Question: What are you working on, in both those?
Reitman: I’m producing a film with the Duplass Brothers, who made The Puffy Chair and Baghead. And I am gonna adapt a Joyce Maynard book. And I’m working with Jenny Lumet on a screenplay as well right now.
Question: So, you’re not particularly busy at all. Just slacking about and doing nothing.
Reitman: You know, it’s funny. I don’t have an extraordinarily large roster. I mean, if you look at Judd Apatow, he’s got 30 movies he’s working on. But I like to keep a certain pace up. And – you know, so far, if it’s an odd-numbered year, then I’m gonna have a film in the Toronto Film Festival. And I’d like that to continue.