The CS Interview with Jason Reitman on Labor Day

ON has been talking to second-generation filmmaker Jason Reitman for many years, going back to his very first movie, an adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking that quickly got him out from under the shadow of his famous filmmaking father. Reitman jumped right from that into his first teaming with Diablo Cody for Juno, then continued his run of successful adaptations with Up in the Air, starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick.

Ever since then, Reitman has bounced between adapting novels for his own films and working closely with Cody, directing her script Young Adult as well as producing the horror film Jennifer’s Body, but it’s always something special when he goes back to one of his adaptations.

Following suit, Reitman is back in adaptation mode, this time tackling Joyce Maynard’s Labor Day, a story that takes place over a sweltering summer in 1987 in which single mother Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) and her 13-year-old son Henry encounter a mysterious man named Frank at a supermarket who turns out to be an escaped convict. He takes them hostage with plans to hide out in their house, but the three of them soon fall into a pattern of coexistence that none of them could have expected.

Having interviewed Reitman five or six times over the years, what made this particular interview special was that it was on Reitman’s home turf of Toronto, where the film was premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. Most of Reitman’s films have debuted there going back to Thank You for Smoking.

It actually was one of the rare face-to-face in-person interviews I had a chance to do last year, and the filmmaker had made an incredibly generous donation to a fundraiser that was started for me back in April when I was diagnosed with leukemia and didn’t have health insurance. I always enjoy talking to Jason about his movies, but I wanted to thank him for that as well. Reitman really came through for me and it’s something I don’t take lightly, but before we got to the interview, we spent a little time talking about my improving health and about the upcoming stem cell transplant that I would be undergoing which he was fascinated by. I’m glad I have a chance to talk to you here in Toronto, because I remember a few years back that I talked to you for “Jennifer’s Body” literally an hour after seeing “Up in the Air” and I was dying to talk to you about the latter and I didn’t get to do so for months. Back then we spoke, I think you had already jumped onto the idea of adapting “Labor Day” and I believe it was a fairly new book at that time?
Jason Reitman:
I got it in galleys. My producer read it and loved it. I read it and fell in love with it, I was ready to make it and frankly, I waited for Winslet. I asked her to do it. I asked Josh, he was in, I asked Kate and she said “yes,” but I couldn’t get her for another year and that’s what led me to making “Young Adult.”

CS: Because Diablo already had that script ready…
Yeah, so I waited in this year. “Alright, I’ll go make ‘Young Adult’ and come back and make ‘Labor Day.'”

CS: What was it about the book you loved? I don’t know how many interviews you’ve done so far, but I’m sure you’ve already heard that it seems like such a different movie for you, so was it very intentional that you decided you wanted to do something very different than your other movies?
Not intentional, I mean, really not intentional. It was just that I fell in love with this book and I wanted to try directing this, but I wasn’t in a zone of “Okay, now I need to spread my wings and fly.” I didn’t feel the need to try and make a different kind of film. It just felt like I really wanted to make this movie, this is the correct way to make this movie and it’ll be an interesting experiment and changing my filmic language. We’ve talked about this before, but all the people I’ve worked with literally since I was a kid, a teenager. My cinematographer, he and I met when we were 15 years old, my editor I’ve known since I was 17, so these are people that we’ve developed a style together. We watched a bunch of movies and went, “Alright, we’re going to have to change everything on this one, and everyone stepped up in a really wonderful way.” No, it’s not like the rest of the films will look like this. My next movie will probably look and feel way more like “Up in the Air.”

CS: What was really interesting, and I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, but the Rolfe Kent score was very different.
We really worked hard on that.

CS: I was surprised, because there’s so much tension built into the score and so much he’s doing there and I think maybe there was one moment in the entire film where I thought “Okay, that’s Rolfe Kent.” But everything else was surprising, because you could have gone with a different composer who does more dramatic scores…
Right. I thought about it for a moment, but he and I have a really good working relationship and I said to him early in the shoot, “Listen, I want to do something really different. Instead of sending me melodies…” because usually you build. He sends a few different melodies—”Oh I like that little idea, expand on that.” This time, it was “Send me sounds that are hot. I want sounds, not music, just sounds.” And he would send me Emails and one would be called “Scorching.” One would be called “Boiling” and they all had those names. I’d be like “Oh I like ‘scorching,’ try something with ‘scorching,’ try something with ‘warmer.'” And that’s how he built this score, just with sounds and then the melody was the last thing that went into the score.

CS: This is also the third book you’ve adapted, so did you have any kind of contact with Joyce at all?
Yeah, from Day 1. Every author I’ve ever worked with, I’ve reached out and immediately said, “I love your book. I’m really excited to work with you. You have to know that a book and a movie are two different things and I’m going to make some changes.” But on this one, I frankly didn’t. The book and the movie are so similar. What I really wanted to do, which is a new thing for me, was emulate the experience of the book cinematically. Really give the audience a feel of “This is what it was like to read this book.”

CS: Even though it’s about an ex-convict taking this mother and her son hostage, it never seems dark or cynical, it seems almost tender in some ways.
It’s very romantic.

CS: Was that something that you were captivated by when you read the book? Do you consider yourself a romantic?
I am a romantic, but it’s funny. I think it’s only in these conversations that you ever look back and go, “Oh, this is I guess why I did these things,” but you never ask about that in advance in the same way you don’t go, “Why are you going on a date with her?” “Well I’m going on a date for these five reasons – I feel like she has these five qualities…” No, I want to date with her because she’s hot, and I think filmmaking is similar. It’s like why do I want to make any one of these films? I have this instinct to do it that I haven’t analyzed. I just know that I want to make the movie. It speaks to me. It’s like we click, we have chemistry. I want to make it. It’s only really after and it’s funny because you make a movie and you do these press runs and it’s through these rounds where you’re like, “Oh, I guess this is why I wanted to make it. What the f*ck does that say about me?” It’s like seeing yourself in your decisions.

CS: Maybe it’s because we’re in Toronto I feel that it hasn’t been so long since I’ve seen you. You generally do a movie every two years with a couple things thrown in between. You’ve spent a bit more time developing this particular script, because you had that extra year to wait for Kate and did another movie. Some filmmakers might wait 10 years before they find something they want to do, but you generally jump right back into something.
I’ve made five movies in eight or nine years. It feels tight and it’s certainly more than some other directors, but I wish I could make a movie or two a year – I wish there was a way to speed the process up. I’m envious of that moment Soderbergh was just talking about…

CS: Well, I think Soderbergh would have just kept going and going from one movie to next, literally filming and post-production, and hopefully this won’t be too long a break for him before he gets the itch.
That’s unreal.

CS: You already had Kate and Josh on board, but let’s talk about casting Gattlin Griffith as Kate’s son, because he’s right in the middle of everything and it must have been tough to cast a young actor who could handle dramatic scenes with just the three of them.
Really tough. And it’s the there of them through his eyes, that’s the other thing, so you’re never really looking at the situation from Kate’s point of view, you’re never looking at the situation from Josh’s point of view. It’s all Gattlin watching these two people and going “Oh, my poor Mom. Is this guy dangerous? But maybe it would be nice for them to be together. Maybe I shouldn’t trust him.” The movie is always feeding off that, but he’s never saying these things. We’re hearing from him as an adult, but we’re always looking at his face. What is his face saying? That gives us information on whether we should trust the situation or we should be fearful. It’s a remarkable face.

CS: How did you find him?
We auditioned in L.A. and New York. We looked at a whole bunch of kids. It came down to two kids and Gattlin had the ability to just hold still and say so much and that’s a very rare quality for any age, to find an actor who you can just be on them. Josh is like that. You can just be on him. I think that was the revelation of “No Country for Old Men,” is so much of that movie is just Josh going “huh” and you get everything.

CS: I’m really amazed by actors who can do that. They do really well with the dialogue, but sometimes they know when not saying something is better.
And that, by the way, was a whole new job for me. All my movies have been about people who talk talk talk talk talk… I mean they talk for a living, and this is a movie where the important moments are Josh and Kate sitting on the stairs and he puts his hand on her waist and she slowly puts her head into his chest. And that’s this movie, as opposed to one of my other movies, which are monologues.

CS: I was curious about working with Kate… was she aware about the book before you contacted her?
I’m not sure. I got it really early, but she read it and fell in love with it. The extraordinary thing about Kate is the amount of preparation. Maybe you’ve heard this from other directors before, but she comes with the entire script charted, not only for her dialogue work, her character work, her hair, her wardrobe… how her hair is going to slowly fall over the course of the weekend. She’s truly a film actress, not a theater actress. She gets how a film is built, she understands how lensing works, so she becomes a true collaborator.

CS: What’s the significance or importance of the film taking place in 1987? I’m assuming the most obvious answer is that’s when the book is set.
Well, the movie flashes forward so I think part of that is that we just need the character at a certain age in the future, and that’s why, but it’s certainly one of the reasons I was attracted to it. I was around 13 years old in 1987, so that was a way in for me. I looked at that boy and the amount of time he spent with his Mom…. I get that.

CS: I’m sure this is one of those questions you only ever get from press and never think about otherwise. But do you generally feel like you get a lot more scrutiny from critics towards your movies especially a movie like this one which is so different? I imagine you haven’t done a ton of press for this yet.
Oh, ’cause the last ones have been all right?

CS: They’re all good, but like I said, this one is different and it’s being seen through the microscope of your previous four films.
No, I mean, so far, it’s just taken people a beat. I guess it would be if I suddenly decided to wear a completely different outfit. I’m suddenly wearing a tuxedo everywhere. (laughs) It would take people a beat or two of “Oh, you’re wearing a tuxedo now. Why are you doing that?” (laughs) So I guess that’s kind of how I feel but then people go “Okay, it’s a movie and you get them to the next stuff.” But it is interesting though, because you’re right. There’s this question of “So why?” and I would think that every artist wants to try different forms. Even though that wasn’t my intention, it’s nice. When Axl Rose did “November Rain,” it was like “Dude, what’s with the piano?”

CS: But when a movie like “Labor Day” shows up at Toronto, the immediate thought is “It’s the new Jason Reitman movie” first, rather than it being Kate Winslet’s return or being an adaptation of Joyce’s book.
I think that finding this connective tissue between my films is probably trickier than finding the connective tissue between someone like Wes Anderson, where it’s so clear that all of his films exist in one very specific world. I think the connective tissue on my movies has to do with the characters and their choices and it’s only when you step back and look at that. You set aside cinematography and music and editing style and look into the core of who these characters are and what they’re doing and you get into the inexplicable decisions that bring us to certain places in our life and unheroic heroes. I mean, I think that is the commonality in my work.

CS: The next movie you mentioned is a little more towards what we’ve seen from you before, a little more cynical, a little darker…
I think it’s just more modern. When I think of “Up in the Air” and “Young Adult” specifically, I think of them as fairly modern films as far as who their protagonists are, the way that the stories are told, the way they use music and editing. “Men, Women and Children” is very much in that vein.

CS: What was it about the original source material that got you interested in adapting that one?
It just had a jarringly refreshing point of view and as “Thank You for Smoking” dealt with the concept of choice and freedom and as “Up in the Air” dealt with the concepts of companionship and loneliness, “Men, Women and Children” deals with sex and the internet in a way that I don’t think anyone has.

CS: There’s already been a bit of chatter around this movie and you working with Adam Sandler and making him legit again. Is this something you’re going to start pretty soon?
I certainly hope so. I actually don’t know, but my intent is to make it soon and I’m really excited to work with him. So far in the conversations that he and I have had together, I’m really impressed by his intent and his desire to deal with really complicated ideas.

Labor Day opens nationwide on Friday, January 31.