One year, when he was at the Sundance Film Festival, director Jason Reitman ran into his screenwriter friend, Erin Cressida Wilson, in the hallway of a Marriott. Sundance is basically a fishbowl overflowing with show business types, and chance encounters between creative friends occur constantly. Rarely do they end up being so productive, though. During the course of this particular stop-and-chat, Reitman remembered a previous conversation with Wilson about sexuality and the Internet, and he also thought of a book he’d recently read–one he couldn’t get out of his mind. Within two months, the two were writing the screenplay for this month’s Men, Women, and Children together. Although it’s the first film Reitman has worked with a co-writer on, it’s by no means the first time his admiration for a book has lead to a film. Rather, his ability to translate that literary excitement into a visual medium is the most consistent throughline in his career so far.
At this point–post-Oscar nominations and multiple nine-digit box office hauls–Reitman has producers scouting books for him, in some cases long before their pub date. Before he got in at the galley stage on Joyce Maynard’s Labor Day, though, the director was pursuing the rights to novels such as Thank You For Not Smoking and Up In The Air. (He has deviated from adaptations only with Juno and Young Adult, both penned by Diablo Cody.) While as a screenwriter, Reitman takes plenty of liberties from the source material–for Up In The Air, both Anna Kendrick’s and Vera Farmiga’s characters were Reitman inventions–finding inspiration in books has helped him find his way as a filmmaker.
If his latest work, Men, Women, and Children, has a literary feel, perhaps it’s because the film is narrated in clean, British omniscience by Emma Thompson–and also because the audience is reading much of the time, thanks to the inclusion of onscreen text messages. Less a film about the Internet than one which faithfully depicts the constant digital presence in life at this moment, Men centers around a group of high school students and their parents, and the connections they make and un-make. The sprawling cast includes Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Ansel Elgort, and in an increasingly rare non-goofball role, Adam Sandler. As the film expands from limited release to additional theaters, Reitman spoke to Co.Create how he began directing adaptations and how it’s affected the way he reads books.
Jason Reitman grew up on movie sets. The son of Ivan Reitman, who directed Ghostbusters and many other seminal hits, Jason knew what the inside of an editing bay looked like–and what goes on inside of one–well before he was a teenager. There wasn’t much of a question as to whether he’d grow up to make movies, but it took a long time before he began to figure out what they’d be.
“I didn’t always know what kind of movies I wanted to make,” he says. “The short films I started making in college were way more broad comedy. I think my tone and style back then was just plain funny and that’s slowly become more sophisticated over time. What I really learned from those short movies is that you make mistakes. In the same way that you look at your early writing and you see the way that you’re trying to copy other writers and you see the way that you’re trying to find your voice or you try to be too wordy with things, too cute–it’s all that shit, except in terms of film.
“You notice you’re trying to emulate other filmmakers. You’re shooting stuff that doesn’t cut together. You’re trying to get the audience to feel something but you’re only forty percent there. What hopefully happens is over the course of honing your ability to make the audience feel something, over that time, you’re also having enough of a life that you develop something to say. So by the time you know how to make a movie you have an actual reason to make a movie.”
After graduating from USC with an English degree, Reitman directed commercials for about seven years. During that time, he continued to make short films and tried to decide what his first feature would be.
“I remember the woman who gave me a copy of Thank You For Not Smoking,” he says. “She told me, ‘This book was written for you.’ And she was right. It was love at first sight. I just started reading the first two sentences and I was hooked. And for years I would look at other scripts and other books and I’d be like, ‘It ain’t Thank You For Smoking. I just can’t do it.’ I knew in my gut that Thank You For Smoking was supposed to be my first movie. I would reread the book and rethink the script and just hope that one day I was gonna just get it.”
As sure as Reitman was about wanting to adapt Thank You For Not Smoking, he had to wrestle with the idea of writing original screenplays first.
“At the beginning of my career I wrote about five screenplays–all original, all horrible,” he says. “That was my education in screenwriting. There was a romantic comedy, there was a science fiction film that took place hundreds of years in the future when the population was split into half the people who were alive during the day and half the people were alive at night. I wrote a Tarantino-esque heist movie, I wrote a Se7en-esque kidnapping movie, and they were all part of my education. And then right when I was writing the screenplay for Thank You For Smoking, I wrote a more grounded sci-fi film that was kinda cool. And my career was either gonna start with the sci-fi film or Thank You For Smoking and it turned out to be Thank You For Smoking, which sent me in this direction.”
That film also established the template for what kind of people would populate his work, whether adaptations or films like Juno. “Everything I’ve done since then has had similarly challenging characters,” Reitman says. “How do I make a hero out of a tobacco lobbyist or a pregnant teenage girl or a guy who fires people for a living or a woman who’s trying to ruin a marriage or, in the new film–take your pick–a guy who is using his son’s computer to look at pornography? I like to say that as far as my father and I go, my father wants to take your favorite song and play it as good as you’ve ever heard it. I want to take your least favorite song and play it so good that you’ll like it.”
Because of his career path, there are a lot more considerations that hang over the books Reitman picks up these days than there are for most readers.
“When I start reading something now,” he says, “the first question is: ‘Would I direct this?’ Now that that’s out of the way, ‘Am I enjoying this?’ But there is that initial moment, every time I read anything, of just ‘Huh, I wonder if this is…’ You know when you’re single and you meet someone and there’s that first moment of, ‘Are you someone I’m gonna know for a moment or maybe even know for the rest of my life?’ and then you get past that kind of one left or right decision and then you can keep going? That’s what reading a book is like for me. It’s like, ‘Are you going to be a book that I read and put down a week from now or am I gonna be obsessed with this book and the words in it and the definition of every chapter for years?’ And it’s an interesting thing to pick up a book and think about that this is something, like Men, Women, and Children, which was sent to me and now it’s going to be something that’s part of me for the rest of my life.”
This was the big question that faced us upon writing the movie, ‘Wait a second, half of our scenes are not between two people talking in the same room.’ It’s really un-cinematic. And we need to somehow convey all this information. We take for granted that when someone is looking at their phone they’re receiving so much information all at once.
So at some point I was looking at my computer’s desktop and I realized that if I thought of the desktop image as the film plane and all the icons and windows that float on top of it that this would be something that an audience would be used to. And I shot a bunch of texts that I had with a buddy of mine and I sent them to Garrett Smith, who does all my opening title sequences and is the most graphically inclined person I know.
It just became kind of a back and forth dialogue, where we tested all kinds of ways of putting graphics on screen and editing between shots. It was a lot of trial and error, because it’s tricky to not only read a bunch of stuff onscreen but to track between edits the movement of a character from one side of the screen to the other as you move all the graphics around them.