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Highlights from Director Jason Reitman’s Q&A at Wake Forest

— by ALEXA MILAN —

I’m as passionate a movie lover as they come, but I’m from Greensboro, N.C. I don’t exactly have a ton of opportunities to go to film festivals and conventions or to meet my favorite actors, writers and directors. So imagine my delight — and by delight I mean overwhelming excitement — when I learned one of my favorite directors would be the keynote speaker at Wake Forest University’s Reynolda Film Festival in Winston-Salem.

With a famous comedy director for a father, Jason Reitman could have become another example of Hollywood nepotism. But with only three movies under his belt, he’s proving he’s not banking on his dad’s name to bring him success. The four-time Academy Award nominee (twice for directing, once for screenplay and once as a producer) has made a name for himself with “Thank You For Smoking,” “Juno” and “Up in the Air,” and the affable director gave fans some insight into his career and future projects during a 90-minute discussion and Q&A last weekend at Wake Forest’s Wait Chapel.


On growing up with the guy behind “Ghostbusters”

After addressing up front that yes, George Clooney is probably the most handsome man alive, Reitman gave the crowd some background about his childhood. Reitman’s father is comedy director Ivan Reitman, who was at the helm of films like “Ghostbusters,” “Stripes” and “Kindergarten Cop.” Reitman opened his speech recounting his days growing up known as “Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman,” but said growing up with a filmmaker for a father shaped who he is more than anything else.

From being on the set of “Animal House” when he was just 11 days old to his first kiss in “Kindergarten Cop,” he was constantly surrounded by the world of film.

“I found myself being directed by my father on how to kiss a girl,” Reitman said. “I’m making out with this girl and realizing, ‘This is kind of strange. She has to make out with me.’ It took me years to finally kiss another girl.”

Though filmmaking seemed a natural career path, Reitman decided to go pre-med in college because he was terrified of what people who think of him if he tried to become a director.

“I was well aware of how people thought of the children of famous people,” Reitman said. “Most likely you were a spoiled brat who had no talent and likely had an alcohol or drug problem.”

But his father convinced him that being scared wasn’t a good enough reason to not pursue his passion, and Reitman transitioned into filmmaking.

“My father became the first dad in Jewish history that said, ‘Don’t be a doctor. Be an artist!’”

Reitman’s first short film was a “kidney transplant comedy” called “Operation.” From there, he continued writing and directing short films until he got into the Sundance Film Festival. He made a few commercials, and turned down the chance to direct “Dude Where’s My Car” twice. And all the while, he was focused on bringing a book called “Thank You for Smoking” to the big screen.


The one movie he really wanted to make

Reitman’s agent asked him what kind of movies he wanted to make, and rather than answering with a genre, he replied that he wanted to make one movie, “Thank You for Smoking.”

“When I was 18, this woman, one of the smartest women I’ve ever met, gave me ‘Thank You for Smoking’ and said, ‘This book was meant for you.’ Strangely enough several years later she went to prison… but she was right. It was like love at first sight.”

Mel Gibson held the rights to the book at the time, which had spent years in development hell. One draft was a romantic comedy. A draft by “Pulp Fiction” writer Roger Avary was full of explosions. But Reitman brought it back to the heart of the book, a biting, hilarious satire about a slick tobacco lobbyist. Gibson called Reitman from his plane to tell him how much he loved it, but it wasn’t enough to get the film made.

“Nobody would make my movie. Everyone was like, ‘This is a great writing sample. You really should write more.’”

Many bad commercials later, he began adapting “Up in the Air.” A third of the way through, former PayPal COO David O. Sacks and a group of investors told Reitman they wanted to finance “Thank You for Smoking” and gave him $6 million to make the film.

“Nepotism kind of failed me. Some Internet dudes from Palo Alto started my film career.”

Reitman landed a stellar cast — Aaron Eckhart, J.K. Simmons, William H. Macy, Maria Bello, Rob Lowe, Katie Holmes. But he was most excited about working with Sam Elliot, an actor best known for his many cowboy roles. In one scene, Elliot’s character was required to pull a shotgun on Eckhart. But Elliot thought that was too excessive. He wanted a rifle instead.

“I asked if he needed anyone to show him how it works and he was like, ‘Um, no. It’s my gun.’ My first and last actor to bring his own rifle to set.”


‘A teen pregnancy comedy written by a former stripper from Minneapolis’

As editing was winding down on “Thank You for Smoking,” a friend of Reitman’s told him he had to read the script for “Juno,” by an unknown writer named Diablo Cody.

“He goes, ‘It’s a teen pregnancy comedy written by a former stripper from Minneapolis.’ Perfect! And it was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. Beyond the quirkiness, it was original in every one of its storytelling decisions.”

But the people who owned the rights weren’t sold on Reitman at first and hired another director. Reitman went back to adapting “Up in the Air,” and about a year later found out the director had left the project. It was down to him and two other directors, and he got the job.

“I did something kind of unusual. I wanted to just say to the studio, ‘This is my cast.’ They wanted Jeff Bridges or Hugh Laurie to play the father. But I brought Ellen Page, Michael Cera, J.K. Simmons and Olivia Thirlby to a sound stage and shot 40 pages in one day with a black backdrop, edited it together, sent it to the studio and said ‘This is my cast.’ And they went for it.”

Reitman shot the film for $7 million, expecting it to play at a few film festivals. It went on to gross more than $230 million, and Reitman was nominated for an Oscar.

“It blew up in a way none of us expected. It gave me the kind of freedom I never thought I would get for decades to come.”


‘The hardest days of shooting I’ve ever done’

After the success of “Juno,” Reitman returned to adapting “Up in the Air.” In the years since he began work on the screenplay, Reitman changed as a writer, and America changed along with him.

“When I started writing ‘Up in the Air,’ we were in a tech boom, and by the time I finished the screenplay, we were in one of the worst recessions on record.”

Reitman was making a movie about firing people at a time when unemployment was on the rise and layoffs were a major fear for new and veteran employees alike. His father told him he had to find a way to address today’s economic struggles in the film because years down the road, it could be a film people turn to as a reflection of life in 2009.

“The worst-written scenes in the movie were the firing scenes. I didn’t have enough life experience to write these scenes correctly. I was talking to my casting director and she said, ‘Why don’t we just cast real people, people who have just lost their jobs.’”

Reitman and his creative team placed an ad saying they were making a documentary about job loss and were looking for people to interview. They set up a camera in small room and spoke to each person for 5-10 minutes about what they felt when they lost their jobs and what they wished they could have said.

“The days of shooting this were the hardest days of shooting I’ve ever done. I’ve seen some of the greatest actors struggle to be in the moment sometimes. And these people with no acting experience, the second they heard the words, their eyes glazed over. They said heartbreaking things, the kinds of things I would never be able to write.”

Reitman said “Up in the Air” might be the most personal film he’ll ever make, which made choosing a follow-up project all the more challenging.


Hostages and home-wreckers

Up next, Reitman will direct another adaptation. “Labor Day” is a coming of age story based on a novel by Joyce Maynard about a 13-year-old boy and his mother who willingly take an escaped convict looking for a place to hide into their home. Reitman wrote the script, and he said it will be the next film he directs.

But first to hit theaters will be “Young Adult,” another collaboration with Diablo Cody that Reitman recently completed. He said it may be the most unlikable film he’ll ever make, about a writer (Charlize Theron) who returns to her hometown intent on rekindling a relationship with her married high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson).

“It’s not in a charming ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ kind of way but in a ‘Greenberg’ or ‘Rachel Getting Married’ kind of way. We had a screening of it recently and a girl in the focus group said, ‘I don’t know why Jason Reitman wants me to feel this way.’ So get ready for that fun! But don’t worry, ‘Juno’ is on DVD. You can always watch that afterward and feel good again.”

. . .

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