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An Awkward but Productive Conversation with Jason Reitman

Charlize Theron and Jason Reitman on the set of "Young Adult" Photo Credit: Phillip V. Caruso Ė © 2011 Paramount Pictures and Mercury Produc
by Dan Lybarger

Last week, I had the pleasure of talking with four-time Oscar-nominee Jason Reitman. But for 15 minutes, I was terrified. Thatís because I wasnít supposed to talk with him at all.

I had been told Iíd be interviewing actor-comic Patton Oswalt (Ratatouille, Big Fan) about starring in Reitmanís fourth directing effort Young Adult, which opens wide on Friday. Iíd been digging through Oswaltís rťsumť, which included everything from books to comedy albums to voices for the video game series Grand Theft Auto trying to find something a reporter from Cleveland wouldnít think to ask. When the publicist told me Oswaltís flight to Chicago had been an hour late, I calmly reviewed my questions until I received another call informing me, ďWeíve got Jason Reitman for you.Ē

All of my preparation was now useless.

The second before Reitman got on the line became terrifying and protracted. Having enjoyed his movies since he debuted with his clever adaptation of Christopher Buckleyís novel Thank You for Smoking, I wasnít sure if I should tell the man on the other end of the phone that I had prepared for the wrong person. It was also intimidating because Reitman is the son of director Ivan Reitman, the man responsible for Ghostbusters and Kindergarten Cop.

For better or worse, Reitman and I decided to go for it.

Having seen his other movies, the teen pregnancy movie Juno, the unemployment drama Up in the Air and his new black comedy for Oscar-winning Juno writer-director Diablo Cody Young Adult, I at least knew enough about Reitman and his work as a writer-producer-director to come up with enough questions and comments to fill out the 15 minutes. I just had to make them up as we went along. It didnít help that Google Voice, the tool I had used to record the conversation, prevented Reitman from hearing my early questions, so he had to call me back on a different line to make the conversation worth the remaining time.

The film we were discussing, Young Adult, stars Oscar-winner Charlize Theron as a woman who fits neither word in the title. Mavis Gary (Theron) is around 37, and she doesnít behave like a grownup. Mavis makes her living ghostwriting teen romance novels (hence the title), but she doesnít realize that real world romance doesnít work like her books. Itís unlikely that her high school flame (Patrick Wilson) is going to leave his wife (Elizabeth Reaser) and infant daughter for a relationship that ended two decades before. Oswalt plays a former classmate who tries to talk her out of her doomed pursuit.

Despite the technology failures and my now worthless research, Reitman was consistently polite and open. Somehow despite being off my game, Reitman still revealed a few things about himself and his movies that casual viewers might not catch.

I was told that Iíd be talking with Mr. Oswalt, but this is an honor.

I can give you a decent idea of what Patton Oswalt would say. You just ask me the questions, and Iíll answer as Patton.

How do you make a character like Mavis palatable enough to watch for two hours?

I guess I never saw that as a challenge because I find Mavis palatable in general. I find complicated people are more interesting than nice people.

One of the things I like about the film is that you and Ms. Cody donít provide much of an explanation for how she got to the way she is.

I think that speaks to the intelligence of Diabloís writing. She doesnít overstate things. She drops enough hints and puts enough ideas in there so that nothing has to be said too explicitly.

How did you decide that this would be the kind of film that you tend to gravitate toward?

Whatís that?

Your films are comedies, but they donít fit neatly into the genre.

I guess I like complicated protagonists. I like characters who are not obviously likable. I like humanizing them. This was a screenplay that I read and immediately jumped for it. We were shooting it very shortly after I said yes.

Iíve noticed in your movies that you usually use the buildings well. In Juno, youíve got that scene where Ellen Paige is going from McMansion after McMansion until we get to Jenniferís Garnerís house. In Young Adult, you did something similar with Charlize Theronís apartment.

It was really important. Iíve made three movies now, and theyíre all very dialogue-based, and I was excited to make a movie that opened in silence. There was eight minutes where there was basically no dialogue, and we really got a look into what a writerís life is. Being a writer myself, I have a pretty good sense of that. Itís quiet and can be a little depressing. Sometimes to feel like youíve accomplished something, you literally have to go to Office Depot. Itís something.

I appreciated what you said about the Juno shots. The Juno shots really just came just out of needing a way to establish the neighborhood and trying to come up with an interesting solution, and thatís what we came up with.

Did you have to do anything to make upstate New York pass for Minnesota?

Sadly, with the homogenization of this country, finding urban sprawl anywhere is not that hard.]

No, it isnít (laughs). Weíve talked about how complicated Mavis is, but as I was watching, I couldnít wait for Ms. Theron to say something more tactless or do something potentially more self destructive. Is there any way as a filmmaker that you built the suspense for how low she might sink?

You know, itís funny (pauses). I guess I never saw her character being that abnormal. I think that everyone has a little Mavis inside them, and maybe itís stuff we think and do not say, and maybe she has less of a filter, the way that young people strangely do. There was nothing conscious. I think Diablo wrote a great script. I understood that character very well, and I kind of had a feel for it.

And you do feel bad for her because sheís written this series of books, and she hasnít received credit for them.

I think Mavis as a character who is constantly searching for authenticity.

Do you think there is anything a parent can do to prevent our kids from thinking that life ends after high school?

I donít know. My daughterís only five, so I havenít thought about her moment of getting out of high school yet. I donít think I have a proper answer to that question.

Maybe itís good that you donít because wouldnít it be better to think of what kind of questions a situation like this poses rather than proposing a solution.

Like in my films.

In a lot of your films, you donít prescribe an answer. In Thank You for Smoking, you donít propose a better solution for lobbying.

Right. I certainly donít like telling the audience what to think. Iíd much prefer creating an environment that pushes the audience to think, and Iíd like them to come up with their own conclusions.

You donít really seem to have an agenda here, although Mavisí cultural diet could be expanded a bit from what we see on her TV. Itís not the sort of thing Iíd enjoy. Iíve done a poor job of keeping up with the Kardashians.

Thatís very funny. I, as well. Iíve never kept up with the Kardashians. I have no idea what they are up to.

One thing that has been noticed is how well Ms. Theron and Mr. Oswalt perform opposite each other. Was thereÖ

There was unbelievable chemistry from the moment they met each other. They went to my house to do a table read. There were just kind of sparks from the top. Watching them together made me understand how much of a romance this movie was.

During the scene where she takes off her dress, it seems that itís much more emotional than erotic.

Itís a really vulnerable moment, huh?

Yeah, because sheís really hurt that nobody wants her the way they did 20 years before.

Thatís funny. I really didnít see that. I saw a woman who is so striking but at the same moment is so vulnerable and is exposing herself to a guy who really understands her. Sheís got a gut feeling that this guy is right for her, but we know theyíre not going to wind up together. And that thereís this passing intimacy thatís heartbreakingly short.

My favorite scene in the movie is where theyíre in the garage together and since heís spent years distilling this homemade whiskey, so heís savoring each drop, while sheís downing them like Pabst Blue Ribbon. The way theyíre drinking tells you so much about their characters.

Thatís a scene we figured out on the day, in the doing. That whole thing about sipping came from being on set and working with the actors. It really is kind of the magic of filmmaking that youíre trying to capture a magical moment, and you finally do it on camera, and then you move on, and thatís it forever. Itís about those little moments.
You sort of explode the myths of small town living because the people in the town have moved on, but she still wants to be where she was.

I notice you donít ask many questions. You more make comments.

Iíve been told I do that. I apologize if itís a bit distracting.

Itís funny.

Iím trying to use it to project a comment from you, and also my thinking about the film isnít quite what you had in mind.

Thereís a problem with that. Iím the exact wrong director for that because I donít care if I think youíre incorrect because I donít think thereís any incorrect response. So for me thatís just more interesting. For me itís like, ďThatís an interesting look. I like that point of view.Ē

You do sort of have a niche market for your films. Unlike with your dad, I donít expect to see a Ghostbusters. Do you ever worry that you might get pigeonholed into being seen as making ďJason ReitmanĒ films?

No, but I really think my movies are really different from each other, but maybe thatís just because Iím making them. Maybe from an outside perspective theyíre similar. Theyíre all inexpensive. But dramatically, theyíre so different, and what they intend to do is so different. The first one (Thank You for Smoking) was a really dark satire; the second one (Juno) was warm and was supposed to make you fall in love. The third one (Up in the Air) was supposed to make you question your existence. This one is supposed to make you really uncomfortable.

You have this attractive woman with Theron, but the more time we spend with her, the more eerie the film seems to get. Would that be fair to say?

I think anything would be a fair thing to say. Iím being told you have time for one more question, or comment. Your choice.

(After stumbling for words for almost a minute), in your previous film you worked with some actors from here in Kansas City, like Erin McGrane. Whatís it like working with regional actors on your projects?

I love it. I think that the percentage of talented people, talented actors, has been the same everywhere I go from L.A. to New York, to the Midwest, to Canada. And what I like is for people who know how to be natural, people who know how to be authentic. Itís a rare gift, but you can find it everywhere. Whatís nice about finding it somewhere like, letís say in Kansas City, is that you get a unique voice. You get someone who isnít spending all their time in Los Angeles or New York. I really loved shooting in the Midwest. I look forward to doing more of that. All of my work is set in the Midwest. I grew up in Beverly Hills, but all of my movies are set in the Midwest.

link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=3336
originally posted: 12/14/11 09:59:24
last updated: 12/14/11 10:59:21
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