Monday, March 15, 2010

Interview: Jason Reitman

Jason Reitman wears a gray skullcap and red plaid shirt. Together with a week's worth of dark stubble and an unlined, sharp-angled face framing penetrating eyes, he could easily pass as a slightly older, slightly more focused student on the campus of DePauw University, about an hour west of Indianapolis.

But at 32, Reitman has already achieved a reputation as one of Hollywood's top filmmakers. Despite the comic undertow of his three feature films -- "Thank You For Smoking," "Juno" and last year's "Up in the Air" -- there's a sobriety to his movies, as well as a consistent personal vision lacking in most of Tinseltown's hired guns.

Reitman is at Depauw to give a talk Monday evening to students and faculty at Kresge Auditorium titled, "Finding Your Place Up in the Air."

Speaking to media a few hours before while munching on peanut M&Ms, Reitman laid out his notion of being true to your own voice and how he approaches making movies -- which turn out to be one in the same.

How does he feel about the performance of "Up in the Air" at the Academy Awards? He pulls no punches: "Well, we went zero-for-six, so kinda shitty ... If you went 0-for-6 shooting in basketball, you probably wouldn't be thrilled."

He's never had to face someone like Ryan Bingham, the cool corporate heel played by George Clooney in the film: Reitman has never lost his job. But he has had to fire people, and says it isn't a fun experience. His method is to just be as truthful with the person getting axed as possible.

The son of comedy director Ivan Reitman ("Ghost Busters"), Jason bristles slightly at suggestions he achieved success at such a young age through nepotism. He points to his hustling days directing commercials, music videos and short films. While studying film at University of Southern California, he started a business distributing calendars to students as a way to make money to finance his nascent cinematic efforts.

But he also clearly has affection for his father, citing his advice as the best he ever received: "He said, 'Don't worry about it being funny. Your barometer for comedy is nowhere as good as your barometer for honesty. So when you're on set, don't ask yourself if this is funny, because you don't know. Sometimes people will laugh on set; sometimes they won't. Ask yourself, does this feel real? Is it truthful? Is it authentic?'"

Reitman has been giving these talks at universities and other venues almost since the start of his feature film career. He likes to encourage young(er) people to be true to their own voice, whether it's in filmmaking or any other vocation.

He does admit that he's not quite so forthcoming in these talks as Kevin Smith -- Reitman says he admires the "Clerks" director -- who's been known to answer any and all questions, even about his showbiz rivalries and sex life.

An avid film-goer, Reitman says his only financial indulgence after two hit films in a row was building a theater in his home with a 12-foot screen. Saying he's "never been interested in the silly stuff" of fame and fortune, he pointedly contrasts himself with Brett Ratner of the "Rush Hour" movies, who built an entire nightclub in his house.

Tiptoeing through the area of the unspoken Hollywood law against bad-mouthing other people's movies, Reitman says he does this with his friends all the time, but thinks it wouldn't be good manners to be in your face about it.

"You have tact -- don't just go out and be a jerk. My fellow filmmakers, we talk about other movies all the time. Like would I go to another director and say, 'Hey, you movie sucked!' I wouldn't say that."

After someone (me) pointed out that there are no other directors in the room, Reitman deigned to express his disappointment in Tim Burton's latest effort.

"I didn't like 'Alice in Wonderland.' I just didn't even know what it was trying to say. I liked the original 'Alice in Wonderland,' I thought this was just kind of ... a hodgepodge of shots."

He says he's not a big fan of the recent push to distribute movies in 3D -- for practical as well as artistic reasons. "As a storytelling experience goes, I preferred 'Avatar' in 2D to 3D. Some of that has to do with my eyes. My eyes just can't focus well in 3D. For some reason, things come across soft and my eyes feel strained... For me, there hasn't so far been a movie that has been enhanced by being 3D."

Reitman doesn't fret about box office tallies, other than the freedom monetary success allows him to pursue the artistic kind. "I've never really worried about what's going to be commercially successful. And I've been fortunate so far in that what tends to interest me tends to interest other people."

As for the future, Reitman is working on a screenplay adaptation of Joyce Maynard's novel "Labor Day," about a 13-year-old boy whose life is changed by an encounter with an escaped convict.

"I think about my career and the movies I want to make over time. Absolutely. I would like there to be a continuity of personal (themes) throughout all my work. I don't know if I'll be able to keep that up. But that's my aspiration. I don't have to see myself in (my films), but I do want to explore something that I'm feeling -- most often a question that I have. I'm looking for the answer, and sometimes making the movie helps me find it."

Did he get any answers out of "Up in the Air?"

"Yeah. They're not satisfying answers, but they are answers. The biggest answer I got in 'Up in the Air' is that there are no answers, which is an answer in of itself. Life is very complicated. And you will never know if you made the right decision or not in life. And there is a value in living alone, and there is a value of living connected. That's it."

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