One of the most fascinating filmmakers to emerge in the world of cinema in the past decade, Jason Reitman likes to explore individuals who struggle to deal with the realities of their life. The son of famed comedy filmmaker Ivan Reitman, Jason Reitman has carved out his own distinct voice by meshing both humor and drama in his films. His most recent film, Labor Day, was a major departure of sorts from the type of works the filmmaker had become known for. However, as he ventures out in new directions, it is clear that Reitman has the ability to tell engaging stories regardless of the genre.
Born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada on October 19, 1977, Reitman was the first of three children his father Ivan and mother Genevieve Roberts would have. Being the son of a highly successful director, he was introduced to the world of film from an early age. He had small roles in many of his father films during the late 80s and early 90s. However, it was only when Reitman took a job as a production assistant that he learned the bulk of the filmmaking trade. Unlike his father, who dwelled in comedies, Jason Reitman was more interested in films that were offbeat and focused on stories about grounded individuals. His time at the University of Southern California, where he studied English and Creative Writing and took part in the improv group Commedus Interruptus, taught Reitman how to effectively write both comedy and drama.
Early Short Films
In 1998, Reitman premiered his first short film Operation at the Sundance Film Festival. Another short, H@, followed a year later and, along with his work in commercials, attracted the attention of several film producers. After twice turning down the chance to helm the stoner comedy hit Dude, Where’s My Car?, Reitman decided to perfect his craft with the short In God We Trust. The 16-minute short centered around a guy stuck in purgatory trying to do whatever he can to go to Heaven. The short not only showcased a unique sense of style, but also an offbeat humor that would become common in Reitman’s work. The film’s cinematographer, Eric Steelberg, became one of Reitman’s regular collaborators throughout his career. The short can be seen here.
In 2001, Reitman made a short film to promote Ford’s new line of cars, entitled Gulp, which revolved around a guy trying to both save his fish and find his car. The short, like Reitman’s previous shorts, is another stylized comedy that showcased Reitman’s love of quirky humor. The short can be seen here.
After making a short called Uncle Sam in 2002, Reitman made one more short film in 2004, which he co-wrote with his wife Michele Lee, called Consent. The film focused on a young couple whose blind date is about to get more intimate. However, before the passion commences they each bring in their lawyers to deal with various consent forms. The short can be seen here.
Thank You for Smoking (review)
After honing his craft through commercials and short films, Reitman’s first feature film was an adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s satirical novel Thank You for Smoking. The story revolved around a tobacco lobbyist, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), who struggles with both being a good father to his son and maintaining the profitability of the tobacco industry. Naylor is given $50 million to create an anti-teen smoking campaign but still wants to ensure that he conveys a message which will still give teens a choice to take up smoking if they want.
Naylor not only has to navigate his way around obstacles such as a senator and an ambitious reporter, but also wrestle with his own conscience as well. This is especially true when he is given the task of bribe an ill man who was once the famed Marlboro Man. Through Naylor, Reitman is able to explore the types of characters who are not instantly likeable yet still manage to display qualities that make them endearing.
With a budget of $10 million, and an ensemble cast that included Robert Duvall, Katie Holmes, David Koechner, William H. Macy, Maria Bello, Sam Elliot, Rob Lowe, Adam Brody, and J.K. Simmons, the film made its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2005. Thank You for Smoking played the Sundance Film Festival the following January to a flurry of rumors regarding Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes’ husband at the time, demanding that a sex scene involving Holmes be cut from the film. The rumors proved to be false and the film garnered a positive response from audiences at the festival. Thank You for Smoking received a theatrical release in March of that year through Fox Searchlight and made $24 million domestically and another $15 million worldwide.
The success of Thank You for Smoking opened up several opportunities to work in the realm of television. Reitman directed two episodes of the American version of The Office and a few sketches for Saturday Night Live. It was around that time when Reitman came across a screenplay written by an unknown writer named Diablo Cody. The story was a year in the life of a pregnant teenager who, while dealing with growing pains in her own life, decides to give her baby up for adoption.
Gathering his group of collaborators, including cinematographer Eric Steelberg, Reitman got the support of actor John Malkovich and his producing partners Lianne Halfon and Russell Smith to make the $6.5 million film. After giving the script to J.K. Simmons, who immediately signed on to play Juno’s father Mac, Reitman filled out the rest of his supporting cast with the likes of Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, Michael Cera, Allison Janney, and Olivia Thirlby. Though Thirlby auditioned to play the titular character, she was ultimately given the role of Juno’s best friend Leah. For the role of Juno, Reitman chose Canadian actress Ellen Page after seeing her in the 2005 thriller Hard Candy.
The six-week shoot took place in Vancouver in early 2007 with little rehearsal time as Reitman wanted to keep things fresh and lively. This helped to ensure that the cast maintained the upbeat rhythms of Diablo Cody’s stylized dialogue. The snappy dialogue and quirky soundtrack, featuring the Moldy Peaches, the Kinks, and Cat Power to name a few, had some comparing Reitman’s work to that of filmmaker Wes Anderson. Juno made its premiere at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival where it was a massive hit. The film became a major critical and commercial success as it grossed more than $230 million worldwide. Juno garnered four Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, and a Best Actress nod for Ellen Page. The film’s only win came in the Best Original Screenplay category, which cemented Diablo Cody as one of the writers to watch within the industry.
Up in the Air (review)
The massive of success of Juno came as a major surprise for Reitman. Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to replicate that type of success, he decided it was time to move towards something a little more serious. With the economic crisis in full swing, and people getting laid off at an alarming rate; Reitman’s next film was told from the perspective of a man, Ryan Bingham, whose job it was to inform people that they were being fired.
Based on the book by Walter Kim, Up in the Air saw Reitman a handling a much bigger budget, at $25 million, and working with Hollywood heavy weight George Clooney in the lead role. The supporting cast included Anna Kendrick as Bingham new protégé Natalie Keener, and Vera Farmiga as Bingham’s traveling lover Alex. Through his interactions with both women, the audience gets a good sense of both the emptiness in Bingham personal life and the complexities of his job. To further emphasize the harsh nature of Bingham’s work, Reitman incorporated scenes or real life people given their testimonies on what it was like to lose their jobs.
The film screened at the Telluride Film Festival in September of 2009, as sneak preview, and made its official world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival days later. Up in the Air received rave reviews at both festivals and was another commercial and critical hit for Reitman. The film garnered five Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress nods for Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. Although the film walked away empty-handed, Reitman’s hot streak elevated him in the eyes of many as one of the top filmmakers working at the time.
Young Adult (review)
With a trio of successful films under his belt, Reitman decided to take a step back from ambitious projects in order to do something smaller. While planning for another film, which was ultimately halted, Reitman read a new script from Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody. The script revolved around a 30-something unlikeable divorcee, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), who has made her career ghost-writing a series of young adult novels. Learning that her former high-school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) has become a father, Gary sets out to steal him away from his new family life in hopes of getting back together.
Reitman and Cody both knew that the key to the film’s success would be how they conveyed the overall disconnect and delusions that Gary felt. Reitman used music from the 1990s, most notably the song “The Concept” by the Scottish power-pop band Teenage Fanclub, to create a sense of Gary’s need to cling to the past. By setting the film in Minnesota, Reitman was also able to explore the dreariness of American suburbia and how it impacted Gary’s crumbling career and personal life. The inclusion of actor Patton Oswalt, as Gary’s former classmate who is partially disabled, allowed the film to further emphasize the fact that Gary needed to grow up and come to terms with some harsh truths about herself.
Skipping the festival circuit, Young Adult premiered in December 2011 under Reitman’s new deal with Paramount Pictures. Though it didn’t reach the critical and commercial heights of his previous films, the film still did modestly well in the box office. If nothing else, Young Adult showcased Reitman’s growth as a filmmaker and his willingness to take risks.
Labor Day (review)
Prior to making Young Adult, Reitman had been working on an adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel Labor Day before issues held up the production. The story involved a boy and his agoraphobic mother being held hostage by an escaped convict during the Labor Day weekend of 1987. The film was not only Reitman’s first period piece, but also his first attempt at making a serious romantic drama.
For the principle leads, Kate Winslet was cast as the agoraphobic Adele Wheeler and Josh Brolin accepted the part of the escaped convict Frank Chambers. Reitman got Alexie Gilmore, James Van der Beek, and Clark Gregg to fill in the prominent supporting parts. In the key role of Adele’s son Henry, Gattlin Griffith played the 13-year old version while Tobey Maguire portrayed older version who narrates the film. By telling the story from Henry’s perspective, Reitman allows the audience to witness how the romance of two damaged individuals ultimately shapes Henry’s journey into manhood.
With the production set in Massachusetts, Reitman and his team worked hard to give the film a distinct 80s feel. Aside from the 80s props and antiques, cinematographer Eric Steelberg added a naturalistic look to the overall production. These details were as pronounced as the film’s overall melodrama. Labor Day made its premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival to mixed reaction. While Winslet’s performance, and Reitman’s risk taking, was praised, some felt the melodrama was overwrought. This varied response continued when the film hit theaters in earlier this month. Unable to gain momentum with audiences, Labor Day became his most disappointing feature to date.
Men, Women, & Children
Jason Reitman’s next project will be a return to comedy with an adaptation of Chad Kultgen’s novel Men, Women, & Children. Reitman and Secretary screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson co-wrote the screenplay which explores families at their most dysfunctional. Slated for a late 2014 release, the film’s cast includes Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, J.K. Simmons and Emma Thompson. Though little detail has been given about the project, it will be interesting to see if Men, Women, & Children gets both Reitman and Sandler’s respective careers back on track.
With five feature films under his belt, and one on the way, it is clear that Jason Reitman is a filmmaker whose films offers a unique take on individuals in a state of transition. Whether he is tackling comedy, drama, or a mixture of both, Reitman is clearly someone who has made a name for himself within the industry. Though he’s still in the early stages of his career, Jason Reitman is an important young filmmaker who knows how to tell compelling stories.
© thevoid99 2014
Though Labor Day was a misstep for the guy, I feel like he’ll get back on the boat and soon be surprising us more and more. Nice post!
I don’t think it was a total mis-step but rather something for Reitman to try and do something different. Even if it wasn’t a total success.
I agree. I’m glad he at least did make that step and see what he could do, in terms of stretching himself out, but it didn’t quite work as well as it should have. Still an interesting choice for him, though.
Really interesting post, great work! Only seen a couple of the guy’s stuff but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen.
He’s already making a name for himself and I’m sure he’s got more to come.
I think he’s a really talented guy but Juno just really irritated me. But that was more because of the script than the direction
Diablo Cody is polarizing as her language isn’t for everyone though her stories are still better than what is happening in most mainstream films. Yet, her directorial debut from what I heard wasn’t very good.
Great write-up here. I agree with your assessment of all the films. I too didn’t think Labor Day was a total disaster. I liked that he went for a tone so completely different than anything he’d done before. I definitely respect that.
I’d rather have a filmmaker trying to take risks and do something different than do something that they’re hired for with not much input for them to do.
I’ve only seen a couple of Ivan Reitman’s films, but Thank You for Smoking is brilliant and hilarious, and Up in the Air is quite good. I’m not all that interested about Labor Day for some reason, but I might rent it.
Ooops I meant to say JASON not Ivan, d’Oh! 😛
I would rent Labor Day though I wouldn’t expect something great about it.
Ah, Juno is really one of my all-time favorite films, and Ellen Page did so amazing in it, too. Still have to see Labor Day…
It’s worth checking out though it’s a very different film from most of Reitman’s previous works.
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