Trevor Hogg profiles the career of director Jason Reitman...
Trading the doctor’s stethoscope for the director’s chair, Jason Reitman found his accomplishments being weighed against those of a famous Hollywood filmmaker. “Recently, I’ve been thinking about how my work and my father’s work compared,” reflected Jason about Ivan Reitman, the man responsible for the comic mayhem of Stripes (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984). “The best way to describe it would be if we were musicians, my father wants to play your favourite song, but he wants to play it better than you’ve ever heard before. I want to play a song you hate, but I want to play it so well that you like it.” There is also an innate difference between the two men. “We’re different people,” observed the young moviemaker. “My father is the child of a Holocaust survivor, basically, a refugee. He’s a completely self-made man. And look, I grew up in Beverly Hills and I’ve always been very fortunate. It’s easier to be satirical when you grow up not having to worry about where your next meal’s going to come from.”
Influenced creatively by independently funded pictures such as Bottle Rocket (1995), Slacker (1991), and Clerks (1994), the aspiring director came up with innovative ways to finance a series of six comedic short films; he created and sold ad space for desk calendars which were distributed to all of the dorm rooms at the University of Southern California, formed a jewelry company with an ex-girlfriend, and secured corporate support from the Ford Motor Company.
The first short film, Operation (1998), dealt with an organ transplant; the subject matter was undoubtedly influenced by Reitman’s aborted attempt to pursue a career in medicine. H@ (1999), depicts a bank robbery, while In God We Trust (2000), the soon to be damned main character escapes Heaven and heads back to earth in an attempt to redeem himself. The afterlife tale was the Montreal-native’s first critical success as it won the Short Film Award at the Austin Film Festival, as well as the Aspen Shortfest’s Audience and Jury Awards. In Gulp (2001), the owner of a new fish races against time to save his pet. Next for the director was a four minute comedic documentary called Uncle Sam (2002). Two years later, Jason Reitman returned with Consent (2004) which was co-written with his wife Michelle Lee. In the story, which won the Jury Award for Best Short Short at the Aspen Shortfest, two lawyers negotiate the possibility of their clients having a sexual relationship.
The filmmaker was also developing his skills in the world of advertising, which served him well when he was making his feature length debut with Thank You For Smoking in 2006. “I’ve been directing commercials for the last five years,” stated Jason Reitman when the movie was released, “so the actual set experience wasn’t that intimidating.” Adapting the satirical novel written by Christopher Buckley, which details the exploits of a tobacco industry lobbyist was not a daunting task for the rookie director. “When I read the book,” explained Reitman, “I thought it read a lot like a movie – there were all these wonderful characters – and much of the screenplay is literally cut-and-paste, particularly the stuff with the M.O.D. [Merchants of Death] Squad.” However, there were some changes required. “The two big things I did were that I took Buckley’s narration, which would normally never make it into a movie, and turned it into Nick’s voiceover, and I basically, created the character of Joey, Nick’s son.” The addition of Joey proved to a stroke of brilliance as the mentor relationship between father and son humanized what was essentially a despicable opportunist. It also helped having the role of Nick played by Aaron Eckhart. “He has this unbelievable ability to be subversive and charming at the same time,” marveled Jason Reitman of his leading actor.
The biggest challenge initially for the filmmaker was dealing with his cast. “The idea of coming to the set and looking in the eyes of people like [Robert] Duvall or [William H.] Macy or Sam Elliott or Maria Bello – actors I am fans of – and directing them and giving them advice on how they are supposed to make their performances better – that was insane at first,” remarked Jason Reitman. “Then you do a scene and notice a couple of things and you say, ‘You know what would be better,’ and then you start directing.”
Shot over 35 days, Thank You For Smoking came in on budget and on schedule, however, there is something rather unusual about the production. Despite the title of the picture, none of the performers light a cigarette. “Had the characters been smoking, the audience would constantly be trying to read into what I meant by that.” Reitman went on to add. “For me this is a movie talking about political correctness and personal responsibility.”
Lacking a distribution deal, Jason Reitman took his satire to an international film festival in Canada. “At Toronto, there were 300 films there and I had an indie film that I had no idea was going to sell,” recounted the director, “At the time, there were people threatening lawsuits and since I just wanted people to see it on the screen, I was really scared. As soon as that passed, it got really exciting because there was a lot of real interest in the film.” The screening went so well that a bidding war erupted which saw Fox Searchlight usurp the rights over Paramount Classics, to distribute the movie. The positive public and the critical response resulted in Reitman receiving nominations from the Writer’s Guild of American for Best Adapted Screenplay, and from the American Cinema Editors for Best Edited Feature Film - Comedy or Musical.
For his 2007 sophomore effort, Jason Reitman turned to a story about teenage pregnancy composed by a screenwriter who gained notoriety writing on the internet about her life as a stripper. “A very good friend of mine is friends with the guy [Mason Novack] who discovered her online,” stated the filmmaker on how he became acquainted with Diablo Cody and her script Juno, “so he got a copy early and he gave it to me.” The hip tale, which made the hamburger phone trendy again and is filled with snappy dialogue, comes from a real-life experience. “I had a friend when I was a teenager who got pregnant,” explained Cody, “and that situation kind of inspired this in a way because I went through that experience with her.”
The script caused quite an industry buzz in Hollywood and for good reason, believed Reitman. “There are parts of it that really spoke to my voice, and that was the kind of open-minded point of view to the subject matter that people are sensitive about. Teenage pregnancy is something that people usually dance around and Diablo just went up and said ‘hello’ to it. She's kind of fearless and so is Ellen Page and I dig that. That's what excited me about Thank You for Smoking and that's what I liked about this. A lot of it is just kind of remembering that feeling that I felt the first time I read it and creating that feeling in the film so people can experience what I experienced.” As for casting the Canadian actress as the title character, Reitman remarked. “I'd read the screenplay, had not really pictured anyone, and then saw Hard Candy (2005), and I was like, that's the girl.”
Along with grossing $213 million worldwide, Juno was nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Ellen Page), and won for Best Original Screenplay. The inaugural trip to the Oscars was a life-changing experience for Jason Reitman. “It was a dream,” reflected the director. “It lived up in every way [to what] I imagined. Now the daunting thing is, I'm 30 years old. It could very easily be my only brush with the Academy…kind of like an athlete's life where the good stuff happens early and then you just reminisce. That could easily be the case, and if so, there's something a little sad about that, but hey, I got to touch the sun. I think most people lose their way when they just try to make successful films and, hopefully, I'll try to make good films and some of them will be.”
With unlimited options available to him, Reitman decided to reunite with his Oscar-winning collaborator, but as a producer for her high school horror film Jennifer’s Body (2009). “There [is] a warmth to the film that doesn't exist today,” observed the moviemaker, “I chalk up most horror films today into two categories. They're either slice and dice sessions or they're really cold – this group of films that evolved from the movie The Ring (2002). When I think of Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), there was a warmth to those teenagers that I related to. They were not aware that they were in the middle of a horror film, and I really loved those characters and I empathized with them. That's what I read when I read Diablo [Cody]'s screenplay. It's a return to that.”
There was another element that attracted Jason Reitman to the project. “There's something really exciting about making a horror film that is written by a woman, directed by a woman [Karyn Kusama], and starring two young women [Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried], because horror's been generally made by guys since the beginning of time. Instead of a movie about a guy who's slowly picking off beautiful girls, there's a young woman who's going through a high school picking off every type of guy there is. There's something fun about turning the tables.”
When it came to discussing the outspoken Hollywood starlet who plays the demonic possessed cheerleader, Reitman had only complimentary things to say about Megan Fox. “I've seen auditions of people trying to do Diablo's dialogue and it's like falling off a cliff. It's tough dialogue, and she just nails it. She's mean, and funny and dangerous and sexy and everything you could ever want from her in this.”
With the release of his third directorial effort in 2009, Jason Reitman decided to sum up his career so far. “My first movie was a satire, my second was an emotional comedy, and this is a dramatic comedy.” Up in the Air stars George Clooney as a corporate hatchet man who flies from city to city firing people until the instillation of a video conferencing system places his own job and lifestyle in jeopardy. The director did not have to travel far to relate to the character found in the book written by author Walter Kirn. "I remember when I first started flying a lot, directing commercials, “ recollected Reitman. “I really got out there and could do extended runs of not being home. I loved that. I loved the idea I could be walking through an airport and if I made a last-minute decision, I could be on a completely different flight. But that shirks complete responsibility for having a life."
Adding two key female characters played by Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, along with the theme of downsizing enabled Jason Reitman and his co-writer Sheldon Turner to explore more deeply the nature of human relationships. "All of us have things to say and we just don't know how,” stated the filmmaker. “Movies are kind of my way of dealing with my inner questions. Are we an island or not? That's the simple, classic version of it. More than the value of being connected to the world, what is your responsibility to be connected to the rest of the world?"
On selecting a celebrity actor for his male lead, Reitman responded, “The real advantage of Clooney in this role is not that he’s a star. I think the advantage is that there are certain parallels in his own life that happened in this film. And with this movie, he is entering a world of vulnerability that he’s never approached before in any other film. I think it’s one of his best roles and he seems very proud of it.”
With the critical acclaim growing for Up in the Air, Jason Reitman stands to achieve something his father has never accomplished, an Oscar at the next Academy Awards. Despite the accolades, the filmmaker is moving ahead by forming a development partnership with billionaire Steven Rales. The mandate of Reitman’s new production company, called Right of Way, will be to create and package future projects in-house, such as scripts by Jenny Lumet (Rachel Getting Married) and the Duplass Brothers (Baghead). Also on the agenda for Reitman is the ninja comedy Bonzai Shadowlands as well as the American football picture Whispers in Bedlam.
“I love the tough stuff,” declared the second-generation film director. “I'm really attracted to movies about tricky subject matter, where it's dealt with in ways that are unexpected, that aren't too dramatic and precious.” To achieve this tricky balance a certain ingredient is required. “I find life pretty funny so it’s hard to imagine a movie with zero comedy in it; I like a healthy mix.” Considering his cinematic track record, one would have to think that Jason Reitman has indeed discovered the right formula.
Follow Jason on Myspace and Twitter, and check out the Up in the Air trailer.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.