Spinning Platters Interview: Jason Reitman on “Young Adult”

by Jason LeRoy on December 9, 2011

Charlize Theron and Jason Reitman on the set of YOUNG ADULT

On Wednesday we chatted with Patton Oswalt about his scene-stealing turn in Young Adult, the unnerving black comedy opening in San Francisco today. And now we’ll check in with its director, Jason Reitman. In the six years since his beloved feature debut, Thank You For Smoking, Reitman has become one of the most celebrated and in-demand directors in the film industry. In addition to earning back-to-back Best Director Oscar nominations for his second and third features, Juno and Up in the Air, he has established himself as one of the few filmmakers who can create acclaimed character-based films that also resonate with mainstream audiences at the box office. But with Young Adult, his second collaboration with Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody, he is taking a bold and risky step away from the accessibly charming and likable protagonists of his earlier films.

After touring the world for six months while promoting Up in the Air, Reitman, 34, is taking a much more scaled-back press approach this time around. After an unconventional six-city pop-up screening tour that brought Reitman (along with Cody, Oswalt, and star Charlize Theron) to the Sundance Kabuki a few months ago and a press junket in New York, he is pretty much done after this quick stop in San Francisco (“It’s a 45-minute plane ride [from Los Angeles],” he explains). Reitman is perhaps still a bit burned-out from his Up in the Air press tour, which he documented for a featurette on the Blu-ray/DVD. And he isn’t shy about articulating what chafes him about the process of talking to the press about his films.

“I understand why you guys need to ask the same questions every time,” he explained while generously offering me a huge bowl of french fries, “because you know what people want to read about. And I’m gonna have to say it. But if you know what you’re going to ask, and I know what I’m going to say, and you know what I’m going to say, then we’re doing dialogue – right? It’s a scene. Now we’re just acting in a scene. And there’s something kind of crazy about that. Like, if you think about a crazy homeless person, that’s what they’re doing. They’re just saying the same thing over and over and over and over. It’s a little manic. And I’m doing the same scene, but I’m just doing it with different people. So let’s see how the scene goes this time.”

This was the first time I’d participated in an interview in which the proceedings were thoroughly deconstructed by the interview subject before we’d even begun, so that was a bit daunting. But with that said, I think we actually managed to surprise Reitman with some questions he hadn’t heard yet. Below, we chat about the necessity of awards season, the influence of the Kardashians on Young Adult, and Reitman’s protective feelings toward his most despicable protagonist yet.

This is your fourth film, and your third consecutive awards-season-courting film. Do you ever think about making a just-for-fun film that seems less likely to send you down this arduous path?

I’ve been really lucky. It’s a big function of how these films get noticed. It’s easy to make fun of the awards season. It’s easy to say, “You give people trophies and they’ll show up for anything.” But that’s what convinces people to see these films. Otherwise they wouldn’t. You can’t advertise Young Adult as this uncomfortable experience about this woman who treats people like shit, and be like, “Come on down!” There has to be a reason. And when people start talking about Diablo’s screenplay and Charlize’s performance and Patton Oswalt’s performance, all of a sudden it’s, “Well, I need to see that, I need to check out what that’s all about.” It’s like Natalie Portman in Black Swan. People were like, “God, that film seems a little uncomfortable, but I heard I gotta see Natalie.” And then people go see it, and then they love it. Once they’re there, they really enjoy it. That’s part of the process.

Do you deliberately set out to make awards-season films, or do they just turn out that way?

[laughs] I don’t go after this process in my filmmaking. I want to make small personal films that push the audience, and it seems like the best time to release those kinds of films is at the end of the year.

Can you picture yourself trying to make a more mainstream summer-type movie in the future?

Not really, no. I don’t see a reason to make one. I think there are people who are really gifted at it, and they’re doing a good job of it. The stories that I want to tell, the things I want to explore are far more subversive and personal.

There has been such a glut of lazy suburban satires over the last decade or so. One of the things I love about Young Adult is that rather than adding to that pile, it instead satirizes the kind of person who probably really enjoys suburban satires.

That’s interesting! That’s really funny. I never thought of it that way.

Was that conscious discussion between you and Diablo about choosing to depict suburban life with greater respect and less condescension?

No, I think that’s a really interesting point though. And I think far too much credit is given to writers and directors as far as what they were trying to do when they set out to make a film. I think most artists in general, whether they’re writing songs or making movies or whatever, are following some sort of instinct and they don’t even know why. When I read a script and I want to make it, I don’t go, “Oh, this will be my comment on…” I read it and say, “This speaks to me and I want to make this.” I don’t even know why yet, and in making it, I’m going to start exploring why. A lot of times you don’t even know why until people start watching it, and you start to hear a similar response to the finished film that you had to the screenplay in the first place. The way other people start to articulate it, you’re like, “Oh, that is what I felt, I just never put it into words.”

Is it a different experience directing your own script versus someone else’s? The two times you’ve worked with Diablo, have you been involved with her scripts from the beginning?

Both times Diablo wrote a complete screenplay, and I worked on it for a little bit. We worked on it for a couple weeks, and then went and shot. I wish I could say that there’s something really different about it, but there isn’t. At the end of the day, I need to feel really personal about the project, and it needs to feel emotionally autobiographical. When I read Juno and when I read Young Adult, I saw so much of myself in those screenplays that I knew how I was going to tell those stories. I’ve had other scripts come to me that I adopt that need a director where there just wasn’t enough of me. There was nothing for me to say there. And they were great scripts, but I wouldn’t be the right director because I’d just be making a rudimentary version of a great screenplay. Whereas with Juno and Young Adult I looked at them and thought, “That’s me on the page, and I know how to do this.”

How easy or difficult was it to convince Charlize to do this film?

When she first read the script, I think it intimidated her in the right way. Then we had a conversation about it, and she came around and finally said, “Let’s jump off the cliff together.” That’s a really exciting thing to hear, because then you know you need each other. It lets you know you’re doing the right thing, and it means you’re gonna be able to rely on each other. And I felt that trust throughout the entire process.

And where did the creative relationship go from there? Was there an ongoing collaborative process?

There wasn’t much. As soon as you have an understanding of who the character is, I don’t think there’s that much to do except just keep it in key. Early on I sent Charlize a bunch of DVDs of reality TV shows, like My Super Sweet 16, The Hills, and Laguna Beach. And that became her primary research. She just watched those.

Is that what informed the decision to have some form of Kardashian-related programming always playing in Mavis’ apartment?

Yeah. I kinda wanted the Kardashians to be the soundtrack of the film. I think that there’s something really disturbing about the popularity of reality television and what it says about everyone who’s watching it, and what we value. This is a movie about a woman who’s trying to go backwards down the highway of her life, and that’s what these shows seem to be doing all the time.

Speaking of which, this film has such a minimalistic soundtrack. Was that the direction you wanted to move in from the beginning?

I wanted this film to feel hyper-real. It’s such a tricky character that could so easily be misinterpreted as a “character,” not a human being, so it was very important to make every decision based on what will make the mood real. So, we shot the film in digital. We shot most of the film hand-held. We shot entirely on location except for a couple of things. We tried to make the color palette very real. We tried to cast actors and extras who looked and felt very real.

When it came to music I worked with Rolfe Kent, who I always work with, but is really great at doing minimalist scores; very few instruments, stuff that doesn’t tell the audience what to think much, stuff that is just intelligent and has weight. And when it came to the songs, I only wanted songs to play if there was a reason. So if she’s in a car listening to a song, great. If she’s in Macy’s and there’s a song playing over the speakers, great. But otherwise, keep it clean. I wanted the audience to feel so right next to her that by the time she has that breakdown on the lawn, you felt like you were a town person, you felt like you were just there with her friends and family, watching someone you knew as she grew up have a complete meltdown in front of you.

I was thinking today about why I’m having such a hard time thinking of easy comparisons to make to this film, and I realized one of the big differences between this and most films with such a prominent high school pretext is this doesn’t have any flashbacks.

That’s funny!

This would have been such a completely different film if it had flashback sequences. Was there ever any discussion about shooting a flashback?

No. This is a movie where you’re given such a skewed vision of what the past was, that it would be really bad if we saw a flashback. There’s a great moment that Charlize did where she goes back to her childhood bedroom, and she’s going through and picking up little pieces of ephemera, and then she goes and picks up this little box of scrunchies. She puts one in her hair and she looks in the mirror and, I don’t know how she does it, but she does this thing where she just puts it in and she goes [imitates Theron’s facial expression] and she becomes a teenager. Just like that! For a split second. And then goes back to being her. And I think those, strangely, are the flashbacks in the movie. Because for her, she never left.

Diablo has said that you’re very protective of your characters. While you’ve been out doing Q&A’s on the pop-up promotional tour, have you ever found yourself defending Mavis against audiences that might hate her?

Yeah! Yeah, you’re right, I do. I love her. I find her so much more complicated and interesting than hanging out with Buddy and Beth [the married couple played by Patrick Wilson and Elizabeth Reaser]. I don’t want to hang out with the calm, collected, normal people! I like to be around the broken people. I consider myself a member of the broken people. So if someone tries to classify Mavis as just a bitch, I think that’s so simplistic and does not give credit to the fact that everyone wants to be loved and nobody has it figured out. Now: does she make a lot of mistakes and do horrible things? Yes. Some people do that. And they don’t do it for the wrong reasons. So yeah, I like her. I like her a lot. I want to hang out with her.

Tone seems like such a tricky balancing act with a story like this. Was that there in the screenplay, or did you find that in the editing room?

I find tone is a thing I pick up the first time I read a script. Everyone reads a script differently; if you gave the same script to 20 different directors, they’d make totally different films. When I read a script, there’s a tone that I see it in as I’m reading it, and it’s my job to hold onto that key and keep everyone in pitch throughout the film. While things do change in the editing room and you learn different tools and devices to manipulate the audience, I find that the tone is always there, that doesn’t change. The reason why you made a film never changes.

Is there a reason why you didn’t take this film out on the fall festival circuit?

It was such a different film for Diablo and I that I didn’t want to just throw it up there and have it viewed in the same lens. I wanted people to really get right from the onset, which it to say even in the way that we presented the film, that this was different. This is unique. This is a different step. You can’t go in expecting Juno or Up in the Air. And I seem to have done that. I can already tell in advance now that when people have started to see this film, they knew this was different, they knew it was darker, they had an impression that it was a movie that was going to make you squirm and make you uncomfortable. And I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that we started in the right place.

On another note, it had to do with what we were talking about earlier: I didn’t want to spend six months on the road again, and I didn’t want to feel like I was selling my film all the time. I wanted to feel like I was sharing my film with people who love movies. And when we went to the Kabuki and the Alamo and all those other theaters, all I ever felt was that I was sharing my movie with people who love film. That’s how I used to feel going to Sundance and Toronto when I was 19 as a short-film maker. It was a strange return to that moment, and it felt great.

Speaking of people who love film, I was at the Castro the night you participated in the Roger Ebert tribute

That was one of the great nights of my life.

I really enjoyed what you said about Ebert standing apart from a lot of critics because he genuinely loves film so much –

Even when he hates it! “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.” [laughs]

Oh, North. Do you have any other thoughts on how film writing can be done well?

I think that writing about film goes well for the same reasons that making film goes well, and it strangely has to do with not worrying about pleasing the audience. Filmmakers kinda go south when they’re worrying too much about pleasing an audience. It has to come from a true place. And writing about film comes well when it’s a true personal exploration of a film. When I read cinema critique and I can sense that the author is really trying to explain their relationship with the movie and how it made them feel, it’s great.

It goes south when you can tell that the writer is just trying to be cute and play to an audience and is so worried about making the audience think that the reviewer is clever or is just trying to be funny, or even worse, is creating an opinion about the film based on what they think the audience is going to think about the film. Then it goes south. And Roger Ebert is just a great writer. Take away whatever he writes about. He’s one of the only film critics to have a Pulitzer, and for good reason. So that’s what’s great about him, and [Kenneth] Turan, and all the greats. You never sense that they’re writing because they want to please their reader. They’re writing because you’re watching their journey through the movie.

Young Adult opens in San Francisco today.

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