Screenwriter/Director Jason Reitman at NAB 2010
Screenwriter/Director Jason Reitman during Filmapalooza at NAB 2010, sharing some of his thoughts and experiences regarding independent film.
During Filmapalooza’s celebration at NAB 2010, independent filmmaker Jason Reitman took the stage for a one hour conversation. Well known for his feature directorial debut “Thank You for Smoking” and his award winning follow up films, “Juno” and the highly acclaimed George Clooney vehicle, “Up in the Air”, the screenwriter/director admitted that he tried his best to stay out of filmmaking. The son of famed director, Ivan Reitman, Jason feared being seen as a talentless, spoiled brat with drug or alcohol problems from Beverly Hills, so although he enjoyed using his Dad’s video camera, he entered pre-med and decided to become a doctor. “No one questions why you became a doctor,” he said, but then he discovered that medicine was not his passion. “It turns out I just didn’t want to help people,” he laughed. So, he decided to put his fears aside and follow his heart. Sharing some family history, Jason told us that his grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, who came to Canada with nothing and that his famous father had at one point discovered submarine sandwiches in Montreal and thought about turning that into a career. “My Dad is the Marco Polo of Foot Long Subs,” Reitman joked. His grandfather, however, prevented Ivan from making the choice to become a sandwich shop owner and told him, “I think you have to find something that has magic in it.” That magic was becoming a storyteller and it’s a love that Jason came to realize he’s inherited.
Just three days before the start of the new term, Reitman switched his major and began studying his craft at USC. Because of the late date this involved going to the school administrator and pleading, “Help me come home.” It was at this point in his life that he discovered independent film and began finding his own path. He watched indies and realized that the directors who made movies like “Pulp Fiction” were different from the filmmakers he’d seen growing up. “I wanted to be Quentin Tarantino so badly,” he admitted.
Reitman became familiar with film festivals, especially Sundance, and realized that while others were taking this route in order to break from obscurity, it allowed him to be obscure. ”Nepotism failed me. People presume so little of you,” he said. Still his career didn’t take off overnight.
His first feature film “Thank You for Smoking” was based on a Christopher Buckley novel that he developed into a screenplay before making it into a film. The book was given to him by a woman who went to prison he related and at the time the rights were owned by Mel Gibson. “Projects get drowned in money in Hollywood,” he noted. Writers are hired and paid well for scripts that studios decide they don’t want he explained, noting that there are books sitting in studios that are dead and not being produced. A woman working in the TV department helped Jason rescue “Thank You for Smoking”. After meeting with her, he wrote the first 30 pages of the screenplay on spec, which met with approval. “Mel called me from his plane,” Reitman recalled, relating that half of the 30 minute conversation was spent talking about digital filmmaking and the other half about the script. He added that in some ways it’s easier to get a first film done than a second one because “once you’ve made a feature you’ve established yourself.”
Following the success of his first film, Reitman went on to direct “Juno”. Admittedly, he prefers directing his own material. He said that in order for him to want to direct someone else’s script, “I have to be desperate for it.” He received the screenplay, which was described to him as “a teenage pregnancy comedy written by a former stripper” and found himself still standing in the doorway reading it 15 minutes later. He was interested and came on board when the original director was fired. By that time “Thank You for Smoking” was already a hit. “It was a wonderful experience,” he said about “Juno”, filled with discoveries like writer Diablo Cody and actress Ellen Page. The film cost seven million to make and earned 230 million and numerous awards. He finds it intriguing that his first two features have totally different types of fans, a fact he refers to as an attitudinal kind of thing.
By this time, Reitman was also working on the script for “Up in the Air”, which earned him a Golden Globe in 2008, along with Sheldon Turner. Based on the book by Walter Kim, the adaptation took awhile and both the world and Jason’s life moved in different directions in the interim. “I finished my screenplay and so much had changed since I started writing it. I was single and living in an apartment. By the time I finished, I was married. I was a father. I had a mortgage.” The economy had also changed from a period of prosperity to “one of the worst recessions of all time.” After turning down the job of directing “Dude, Where’s my Car?” twice, Reitman found financing for “Up in the Air”. His benefactor was David Sacks, who used some of his funds from the sale of Paypal to create a production company, Room 9 Entertainment. Sacks also purchased the Uma Thurman overdose house used in “Pulp Fiction”.
On location filming in Detroit took a week and was mostly at the airport where Jason also stayed during the shoot. “They spent 1.4 billion on one terminal and 1 billion on the next terminal,” he told us before mentioning a tunnel located there. “I’ve never tried drugs, but it can’t be as good as that tunnel. It’s phenomenal,” he enthused. Another point of interest at the airport was a hotel that reminded him of one in the orient. “They have these giant bamboo trees,” he remembered.
Reitman also had lots of advice and input to share with the audience. “Directing is like trying to write poetry in a hurricane. It’s insane,” he related. In order to deal with the craziness he recommended filmmakers take the time to develop their talents, build a team they trust and enjoy the process. He believes in choosing relationships over resumes and asked, “Who do you want to be standing next to when it’s awful?” He also suggested, “Get the bad stuff out of your system. That’s the most important writing.”
Another topic discussed in detail is the changes and developments that have happened in the filmmaking industry since Reitman got his start. He described how in the last 10 years with the success of the internet people’s tastes have widely changed even extending to areas like pornography. He joked that people no longer wanted scripted porno, but now prefer a more homemade look resembling movies taking the film festival indie route. “It’s all hand held. There’s no make up. There’s no lighting and people dig that and I think that’s great. That’s actually such a great sign for cinema. I think we want to watch stories that are told this way even while watching porno and I think that’s great,” he enthused. Jason commented that years ago even if filmmakers had video cameras, they had no way to edit or to distribute their films, but that’s changed now. Then he added, “My last short film I shot at home. I edited it on a stolen copy of Final Cut Pro and it got me a couple of million hits online.”
He went on to say that as long as filmmakers can acquire the tools, there’s nothing preventing them anymore from making movies. “It’s funny. I speak to a lot of colleges about filmmaking. This is one of the primary ideas I say the most. There are no more excuses. It used to be that yes, you could sit down and write a novel, you can sit down and paint a painting. but you can’t just sit down and make a movie and because of that there was this kind of barrier to entering. But, that actually doesn’t make sense anymore. Now you can just go, just make a movie and that transition happened as I began to make films. My first short film was called “Operation”. It played in the Sundance Film Festival in 1998. “I remember I got to Park City and this guy handed me a business card and said ‘We will put short films online.’ I remember thinking like ‘Fuck off man. C’mon.’” At that time the technology wasn’t advanced enough, so the idea of having a short film online seemed crazy and Jason wondered who would want to see it. During the next 13 years he watched the concept evolve adding ”that really excites me cause I’ve always loved short films.”
In fact, the Oscar nominated director/screenwriter remembers his early days well. “I made five short films over five years as I was becoming a director. As I was learning my way, I went to countless film festivals, film festivals that showed shorts and some film festivals that only showed shorts and I always felt as though I was part of the class of 98 or the class of 2000, in a way like you guys are part of the class of 2010,” he said
“You’ll always be part of this class and there’s something exciting about that. The people you meet while you’re here. The people you may work with for the rest of your life, the same way that I’ve met people that I work with to this day at those film festivals.” Reitman went on to say that the guys who have done the opening titles in all three of his features were animators that he first met at the Aspen Shorts Fest. “We stayed friends and when I went to make “Thank You for Smoking”, I said I’ve got this idea to have these sort of dancing cigarette pack logos and they just went at it and it’s beautiful,” he related. Summing up he told the aspiring filmmakers, “This is an exciting moment. It ultimately never will be as good as it is right now.”