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December 14, 2009

Juno's Reitman finds himself an unintentional existentialist

Debuting in 2005 with Thank You For Smoking and following it up in 2007 with Juno, director Jason Reitman established his fondness for unconventional quirky characters and black satire. He is an open-minded director, preferring to explore an idea or a story or a character rather than tell us. He’s a classic case of “show don’t tell.” With Up in the Air, there is a new level of sophistication in his direction which even he himself will admit is a sign of his maturity. Reitman continues to sympathetically explore antiheroes as well as grapple with a little something called growing up. He sat down for a college round table at a very lovely hotel in downtown Chicago to discuss George Clooney, existentialism, Giordano’s pizza, and how comedy and drama are not genres but techniques.

Jason Reitman: Alright. I’m ready for you guys. Hit me with your tough stuff.

Daley Junior: Alright, I’ll start. It seems that you made a trilogy of films that overlap with a lot of different themes.

JR: Really?

DJ: It’s not the typical trilogy in terms of one full story.

JR: Not like the Rodriguez trilogy.

DJ: Or Star Wars.

JR: Yeah, it ain’t Star Wars. Well, it’s similar to Star Wars. Actually, it’s a lot like Star Wars.

DJ: But in terms of themes, whether it’s living in the shadow of something, like for example the unexpected child in Juno. Or even Clooney’s character could lose his job. That’s always looming over him. Or even the choices we make and maturity. Do you see a connection with all that, even though the look stylistically are sometimes different from each other?

JR: I guess the only kind of continuity between the three films is one: They were all directed by the same guy. And the other is, I like taking main characters on who are not traditional main characters, and taking a unique point of view on them. My three films were about the head lobbyist for Big Tobacco, a pregnant teenage girl, and now this one is about a guy who fires people for a living and believes in the idea that life would be better alone. And my perspective on these characters is fairly open-minded. And I think traditionally directors would have taken a more straightforward approach to those three characters, certainly with my first and third films. Their point of view would be that these guys are negative characters. And I just simply don’t have that point of view.

DePaul University: Kind of going off that in terms of some themes, I think you mentioned maturity, some people have called this your “mature film” or “growing up.”

JR: Yep.

DU: Is this a big step for you? Do you see it that way? Is this a step for you in your career or is it just another good movie that you’ve done?

JR: I think this is a step. I think there’s a certain level of sophistication that wasn’t in Thank You For Smoking, certainly. And when I watch the three films, which I do all the time I think with my first film that there was nowhere as much directorial control as there was with this film. This film deals with the grey area a lot better than my first film does.

Chicago Maroon: I guess going off of that a bit about growing up, age is at play a lot in the movie, especially with Natalie and Ryan and then the couples with the age difference. I was just wondering, I guess, at what point do we grow up? Because the film seems to sort of address that.

JR: That’s an idea that I’m constantly thinking about. And Juno was basically a movie devoted to that question: When do we grow up? Specifically because we’re living in an age where 13-year-old girls grow up way too fast and 30-year-old guys never grow up. I don’t know. There is no real answer to that question. But it is something that concerns me and I am happy that you pick up on it. And then the question is: Does growing up matter? Or does George need to grow up or is that just who he is?

CM: Well it’s also interesting for me for Vera Farmiga’s characters because she is married with children and I think she kind of mentions that about growing up [to Clooney’s character] and it’s like, has she really, if she’s defining it as like having children and being married in that sense?

JR: Yeah, I don’t think there really is such thing, is the truth. And we all have to kind of define our own existence by what makes us happy and what gives us purpose.

Northwestern University: Going off of that, it’s funny how it just kind of worked into my question—

JR: [Adopts reporter voice] What gives you purpose and defines your existence?

NU: Well, going off of that it’s hard to miss the existential allusions in the film. You know, the line “Making limbo tolerable” and “You’re isolated. No, I’m surrounded.” How much did existential writers, I saw a lot of Camus and Sartre, play into your writing of the screenplay?

JR: I’ve never read any existential writing. I’d simply write from my heart. And I don’t read nearly enough. I was an English major and I listened to most of the books on tape as an English major.

DJ: Abridged or unabridged?

JR: Abridged. I’m a disaster as an avid reader. If you knew the score on my English SAT you’d wonder how I could possibly be a writer.

DU: But I think that existential stuff is there, because I’m in a film philosophy class right now and my professor was like “I just saw Up in the Air and I wish I could just take the class to see it when we cover existentialism.”

NU: Yeah, there’s so much of it.

JR: Wow! Maybe I’m an existential guy.

DJ: You’re an alien.

JR: And I just don’t know it. You know, I find directors don’t really know what kind of directors they are until journalists tell them.

DJ: Well now you know.

JR: You just kind of make movies instinctually. And you make movies from your heart. I think the director who would go in thinking they’re making an existential film is the director who would make a shitty film. You can’t go in with a plan like that. You simply have to have a need to tell a certain story. And you tell it instinctually. And after reporters tell you. Or anyone who sees the movie tells you what it is, after it’s done. Which perhaps is an existential idea.

NU: And an existential answer.

DJ: Well now I’m lost because you guys got philosophical and I got crap over here.

JR: No, no, ask me what it was like to work with George Clooney.

DJ: Did he prank you at all?

JR: Uh, no. You’re not the first person to ask. But no, there were no pranks on set. Which I’m almost disappointed about.

DJ: I started the question though because I did see the one picture in the Entertainment Weekly Fall Movie Preview. It was you with your ear up against a wall and Clooney is right behind you. Was there some sound that you couldn’t hear?

JR: Yeah, I was trying to figure out—was that in a magazine?

DJ: Yeah, the Fall Preview.

JR: Yeah, we were in this conference hall and I couldn’t tell where this sound was coming from and I put my ear against the wall. [Laughs] Yeah, later I found out he was behind me, taking it just as seriously as I was.

DJ: Well I guess my real question is about Clooney, if it makes you happy.

JR: What’s it like to work with George Clooney? Is he as handsome as they say?

DJ: I’ll take your word on it. But the thing is, Clooney himself, he has directed a few movies too. How was it directing him?

JR: Great! A lot of actors become a pain in the ass once they become directors. George doesn’t. He always knows when it’s his job to act and all he does is, he’s an actor who thinks like a director. Which means when you’re trying to get something out of another actor, he’s helping you get it out of them as well. If there is a car alarm going off, he’s trying to deliver his lines in between the honks. He’s constantly aware of everything that’s going on and working within that.

DU: Well, I want to talk about the rest of the cast for a minute. You’ve had great ensemble casts in all of your movies. Continuing that with this one, what is it like, that process of going about finding the perfect mix of people that will really work in the movie?

JR: I write for my actors. So the process begins while I’m writing the screenplay and not during a casting period. So eight or nine of the actors, I wrote their parts for them. George, Anna, Vera, Bateman, JK Simmons, Zack Galfianakis, Sam Elliott, Amy Morton.

DU: Danny McBride?

JR: Danny McBride. You know, so I’m picking those actors as I’m writing. And it makes it a lot easier for me to write and the accuracy rate a lot higher when they try to do the dialog.

CM: So now I want to go off both of their questions. So you’re saying the parts were written for the actors. There is obviously the George Clooney parallel to his own life. How did he feel about that?

JR: I like when actors have to go through a sort of self-examination process in the playing of a character. I like when actors pull from their real life. I don’t need an actor to be playing the complete antithesis of themselves. I don’t need someone who grew up in Downey [CA] who is now playing a 17th century monarch. It just doesn’t do it for me. I like actors being themselves on-screen. And certainly when George first read the script he said, “I can see where people are going to draw connections between me and this role. And I’m ready to stare that straight in the eyes.” And that’s kind of the last we ever talked about it. It was just kind of understood.

CM: It’s just interesting because of the ending and the betrayal, which hurt so much, but I’m just wondering: Where is Ryan going after he lands?

JR: It doesn’t really matter, and I’ll tell you why: He’s a fictitious character. He doesn’t exist. I have no fucking clue where he goes. Part of me thinks he goes to Sbarro and grabs a pizza. And then there’s part of me that thinks he goes to Starbucks. But I don’t know. Honestly, I think I ended the movie on clouds because I wanted to throw it back to the audience. Half the audience thinks one way and half the audience thinks another. That’s perfect.

CM: I actually really liked the ending that way. It leaves me wondering where he is going, which is why I like it.

DU: I would have been shocked if you’d said, “This is what you’re supposed to think.” I haven’t met an actor or director yet who’s said “This is what you need to think about my movie.” Or “This is what you have to know.”

JR: You’ve never met an actor who said that?

DU: No.

JR: Yeah, you’re not supposed to. It’s supposed to be a mirror. You’re supposed to just see yourself in it.

NU: Going off the Entertainment Weekly, you were quoted in that movie as saying “This movie makes travel almost erotic.”

JR: Did I really? I said that?

DJ: I took it out of my bag today. I could have brought that.

JR: That doesn’t sound like me. “Erotic”?

CM: Intern transcribed it wrong, maybe?

JR: Wow. We’ve all gotten off on air travel. I mean…I see, it was probably a joke I said that you’re writing down as a serious comment now.

NU: No, I’m writing it down as a joke, don’t worry.

JR: Oh, thanks.

NU: All of Northwestern will think you’re a funny guy.

JR: You should put it in italics. I don’t know. I actually do not think that travel is erotic. What I do think travel is is the last refuge for those who like being alone. I’m someone who likes being alone. And I find movie theaters used to be a place where you could unplug from the rest of the world. And that’s not quite true anymore because of cell phones. But with an airplane, you get up there and that’s it. It’s you and the person sitting next to you. And I like getting into those conversations with strangers and being unplugged from the rest of the world.

DJ: You’ve sort of made it a habit to not, in your films, [to] not completely evoke—it’s like you share a name with another famous director, but your movies don’t evoke the images of—it’s like “Today I did something”—and in a way, similarly, Ryan is keeping his family at arm’s length, but in the end it is about family. And I’m just saying because you do share certain things, you do some darkly comic stuff, but you seem to be, for better or worse, making a film all your own. And was that philosophy of sort of separating yourself from family and following your own path inspiration and sort of what drew you to this?

JR: Um, a lot of the family stuff is sort of my own creation in this script. And I’m not close to all of my family, and that probably is well-reflected in the movie.

DU: I guess I want to end by asking if you had a favorite moment or experience on the set making this film? What will you carry with you or remember?

JR: Um, let’s see, favorite moment: Shooting that scene with the two women talking about what they look for in a man was a really great scene to shoot. I really loved the dialog in that scene, and I was really proud of it, and it just went great. The Sam Elliott scene, shooting that was pretty great. Seeing that come to life and seeing Sam Elliott deliver that dialog was pretty fantastic. Generally just each week having a new actor come in, because of the design of the movie. One week it would be Jason Bateman and another week it would be Zack Galfianakis and another would be Danny McBride. So it was each week another actor would ship out and another would ship in and that was really nice.

CM: So you’ve talked about enjoying travel. Spring boarding from Twitter, which I will avoid your pie chart by the way.

JR: [Big laugh]

CM: I’ve been studying that.

NU: Great pie chart.

JR: Thanks.

CM: Seeing your airport codes posted, guess I’m wondering how you’re enjoying your press touring, and especially: How was Giordano’s?

JR: Oh Giordano’s was awesome. As usual. I actually once did a mileage run at the end of the year because I needed miles to retain status. And I flew to Chicago and back and literally the only thing I did was grabbed a pizza, grabbed a Giordano’s, and flew back. Barely got it through security, everyone wanted to steal it. But it’s been generally good. I really like traveling. I’ve done about 14 flights in the last 14 days. That’s aggressive. And takes its toll. But for the most part I like traveling. I’ve done international as well in the midst of this. It’s been heavy. Alright, so this is the last of the last. Make it good.

NU: I’ll try. What is it that draws you to create movies that are sort of in between genres? Like in between comedy and drama?

JR: Generally my favorite movies are unclassifiable. And I think my films to a certain extent are unclassifiable. Certainly this one. Is it a drama? I don’t know. It’s pretty funny. Is it a comedy? It’s pretty dramatic. I tend to think that comedy and drama are just techniques. They’re not genres. And I want to move an audience. I want them to have a full experience. I want them to laugh and I want them to be moved and I want them to experience a certain amount of danger, and that requires using a collection of techniques. And I hope to make as many films that are unclassifiable as possible.