"I don't want to make films that give you the answer." - Jason Reitman
Sunday, March 5, 2017 @ 1:30 pm - Hammer Theatre Center
Early in his career, Jason Reitman established an amazingly simple credo: “I don’t want to make films that give you the answer. If there is a message to my films-and I hope there isn’t-it’s to be open-minded.” Using this approach, Reitman, not yet 40, has created an impressive body of work, surprisingly within the Hollywood system, which is unusual. His screenplays and direction are masterful examples of subtle poignancy. Ever since his much-lauded debut as writer and director of Thank You for Smoking, Reitman delights and challenges audiences with films that are maverick-like and bold in their adherence to straightforward storytelling, rich with memorable characters, laced with wry humor. He continually muses on the human condition and what it means to be alive, expressing his views through lives of ordinary people, albeit with a finely honed edge.
Reitman began to write and direct his own short films after enrolling at USC. He likes to take contemporary subjects and present them as believable slices of real life, in all their baffling complexity and humor. But writing or adapting those stories and bringing them to the screen doesn’t just happen. Reitman has always worked hard on craft. Once he decided to make films, he got busy, reading voraciously and writing as much as possible, if not always, he admits, well. He’s a firm believer in working the process and in the digital revolution that enables fledgling filmmakers to write, shoot, edit, and distribute their films for next to nothing. By plunging in, writing badly and directing badly, mistakes are made and learned from. Via the process, one learns how to tell stories and find a voice.
Following Smoking, Reitman suffered no sophomore slump. Juno was both wildly successful and critically acclaimed, garnering four Oscar nominations, including Best Director. It’s an honest, straightforward, and funny story. But the humor is not his primary focus. He adheres to advice his father, the director Ivan Reitman, gave him just before Jason started shooting Smoking. He said, “Always remember: it's not your job to be funny. Your barometer for comedy is nowhere as good as your barometer for truth.”
With his adaptation (with Sheldon Turner) of the Walter Kirn novel Up in the Air (2009), Reitman took on corporate down-sizing and presented a unique, not unsympathetic, perspective on debonair hatchet man Ryan Bingham (George Clooney). But to get just the right feel of the story, he tinkered with the book, trying hard not to damage the novel’s heart. It was a writing problem that resulted in a fair number of differences. Reitman added the two female characters Natalie (Vera Farmiga) and Alex (Anna Kendrick) who could represent challenges to Bingham’s satisfied loner ideology. Several more plot elements (a wedding, Anna’s push toward online firing, Bingham’s firing “rehearsals”) were also added as further pressure on Bingham’s solitary life conceit.
The huge downturn in the economy also prompted an unanticipated major script change. Reitman had originally written the firing scenes as satirical. But with so many people out of work, with many more layoffs imminent, he felt it inappropriate to present this new stark reality so glibly. In a 2009 interview with NPR, he said, “When I started writing this screenplay we were in the midst of an economic boom, and by the time I was finished we were in one of the worst recessions on record. There was no way I could use the original scenes I had written.” He eventually decided that he would use real people who had been fired for those scenes, which are some of the film’s most powerful.
As Reitman grows and further matures as an artist, he continues probing the human condition, now with a greater sensitivity. Most recently, in Men, Women, & Children he explores 21st Century life, where everyone is connected in cyberspace, yet isolated in reality. “What I’m interested in at the end of the day is just people and how they interact.” Luckily, for audiences, one can be certain Reitman will continue to scrutinize our humanness and deliver his unique creations with a rare intelligence and wit.