Interview: Jason Reitman and Mackenzie Davis on “Tully”

Posted on May 4, 2018 at 8:00 am

For I interviewed Jason Reitman and Mackenzie Davis, the director and title actress of “Tully,” a new film written by Oscar-winner Diablo Cody (“Juno,” “Ricki and the Flash”).  An excerpt:

Jason, I loved your montage that so bittersweetly evokes those numbingly exhausting first months of motherhood. Tell me how you put that together.

JASON REITMAN: I’m so happy you asked about that! That’s something that was on our call sheet every single day and it was really important to us that we get that right. There are so many movies that examine and portray parenting and it often comes across as slapstick. Parenting is one of these odd taboo subjects in a time when we share our most intimate details. We will describe what medication we’re taking but we still won’t share the intimacies and struggles of parenting in a real way. So we gave a questionnaire to twelve mothers and asked them to give us anything they were willing to share about the first three months of being a parent. It was through these questionnaires that we got these odd details like putting the baby on top of the dryer and the amount of moms and dads that drop their phones on their babies. We were constantly shooting it and there was an editor who worked only on that montage throughout the film.

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Actors Directors Interview

Labor Day

Posted on January 30, 2014 at 6:00 pm

Labor Day film stillOn the surface, “Labor Day” feels like would-be Nicholas Sparks, a syrupy romance about two people with damaged hearts finding a healing love in a picturesque setting. But like a pretty chocolate candy with a filling that turns out to be surprisingly sour, this film based on the novel by Joyce Maynard is poisoned by Maynard’s trademark narcissism and her notion of love that never progressed beyond pulp-infused fantasies.  For Maynard, the only purpose of perfect love is to be endlessly worshiped by everyone, including a hunky guy who can literally and metaphorically clean her gutters and change her oil and also bake overripe peaches into a swoon-worthy pie, no measuring cup needed.

Youch.  Maynard, the empress of TMI, is a gifted writer who endlessly plumbs her favorite subject — herself.   The New York Times Magazine cover story in which she attempted to define her generation at age 18 led to a book contract (Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Up Old in the Sixties) and a series of fan letters from J.D. Salinger that invited her to drop out of college and move in with him.  And all of that led to a series of non-fiction and thinly disguised fictional stories and books about her dysfunctional parents, her marriage, her divorce, her children, her sister who is not as close to her as she would like, her beautiful homes and wonderful cooking, more more more on her children (the three she gave birth to and two more she adopted until the adoption did not work out and she found another home for them), more on her divorce, the first breast implants, the second breast implants, the removal of the implants, many splendid pies and many not so splendid relationships including a famously reclusive author and an intense correspondence with a prisoner that was one of the inspirations for this story.  The primary themes of her writing, lurking just under the surface tone of intimacy and comfort, are her fantasy of being utterly adored and the pain and never-ending sense of surprise and disappointment of discovering, over and over again, that she cannot seem to find it.

Those themes can be and have been turned into compelling stories, even literature.  But that requires a level of self-awareness that is utterly beyond Maynard, or, apparently director Jason Reitman, who wrote the screenplay based on her book.  Compare her novel, To Die For, based on the real-life case of the young wife who persuaded her 15-year-old lover and his friends to kill her husband, to the far superior movie starring Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix.  Thanks to screenwriter Buck Henry (“The Graduate”) and director Gus Van Sant, one key difference is that the film version slyly tweaks her story.  The film has some perspective on its clueless, narcissistic, chocolate spider of an anti-heroine (a sizzling portrayal by Kidman), while Maynard’s version seems to suggest that it sure would be nice to be so loved that you could talk someone into killing for you.

And that brings us to this story, in which Adele (a game but pasty-looking Kate Winslet), a depressed and fragile single mother, is unreservedly loved not just by her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and by Frank (Josh Brolin), the escaped prisoner who takes her hostage (but in the most gentlemanly way possible, performing all kinds of handyman chores, teaching her son manly throwing skills, being kind to a kid in a wheelchair, and making the gooey, luscious, no measuring cups allowed pie).  Even (spoiler alert) the ex-husband (Clark Gregg) has to chime in as well with the ultimate fantasy of the wife left for the babysitter — a confession that the ex-wife was just too beautiful and deep and all-around fine for him to handle.  The narrator is the now-adult son (Tobey Maguire), looking nostalgically back on end of the summer of 1987, when his efforts to cheer up his mother included a “Husband for a Day” coupon book.  Maynard has said this was inspired by a gift from her own son.  The film conveys no understanding that this might be evidence that she should be more careful about boundary issues (even worse is her sex talk) or that it is parents who should care for children, not the other way around.

Henry has outgrown his clothes, so he has to cajole Adele into a rare trip to the store.  There he is sized up by Frank, bleeding and wounded, who grabs a hat and sweatshirt from the rack and tells Adele that Henry has agreed she will give him a ride.  He tells her to drive him to her house, and then he tells her he will just stay until dark.  But pretty soon he is literally and metaphorically oiling her hinges.  Politely tying her up just to preserve her deniability in case he is found, he takes a few ingredients he finds in the kitchen and whips together a succulent chli, feeding her almost tenderly.  And then a neighbor comes over to drop off some ripe peaches, and they make every attempt to do to pastry what “Ghost” did for a potter’s wheel.  Unfortunately, it does to pastry what the many spoofs of the potter’s wheel scene have done instead.

Hunky as he is, we are never in thrall to Frank as Adele and Henry are.  His handyman perfection and meaningful glances are just too over the top and the backstory, when it finally comes, does not satisfy our need to understand and forgive him.  The entire last third of the film involves so many bad decisions — no, not just bad, catastrophically imbecilic — that we lose our sympathy for just about everyone involved.

Parents should know that there are some disturbing images of a bloody wound and a homicide and an off-camera very sad death of an infant.  There are sexual references and references to adultery and non-explicit situations.  Characters are in peril and there are some uncomfortable family interactions.

Family discussion:  What did Frank and Adele understand about each other?  What could Gerald have done to be a better father?  Why did Henry want to stay with his mother?

If you like this, try: the books and movies from Nicholas Sparks and “The Bridges of Madison County”

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Based on a book Family Issues Romance

Up in the Air

Posted on March 9, 2010 at 8:00 am

To the list of the biggest lies of all time (“The check is in the mail,” “I’ll still respect you in the morning,” etc.) this must now be added: “All the answers are in your packet.”

No, they aren’t. Many answers are in the packet you get handed after someone tells you that your position at work no longer exists, but they do not tell you anything about the questions you care about most: Will I get another job? How will I pay my bills? Did anything I did here mean anything at all?

Most people in that position will not be asking questions about the person who is handing them the packet, but “Up in the Air,” based on the novel by Walter Kirn, he is our hero. Close enough, anyway, as he is played by George Clooney, whose sleek movie star glow and perfect tailoring give his character a surface perfection that contrasts with his struggle to hold onto his freedom and make sure nothing holds onto him. For him, being a professional brought in by corporate management to fire people in massive layoffs is the perfect job, each relationship with an almost-immediate ending.

Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who is most at home away from where he lives. Even the most generic of hotel rooms has more personality than his apartment, too personality-less even to be considered spare. The 290 days he spent on the road last year were the ones where he felt most connected, most authentic, most at home. In his apartment, he feels rootless. What he loves about travel is the thousands of micro-encounters, all encapsulated into tiny predictable pieces. His affinity points at hotels and airlines gets him an extra “Nice to see you again, Mr. Bingham!” with a smile as fake as Bingham’s assurances that the answers are in the packet. But it is the very fake-ness of it that makes Bingham feel at home because he understands it and it understands no more about him than he wants it to.

At one point in the movie, his sister, who is about to be married, sends him a cardboard cut-out photograph of herself with her prospective husband so that Bingham can take pictures of it in different locations for a scrapbook they are creating instead of the honeymoon trip they can’t afford. Reitman creates a nice, understated contrast between the artificiality of the “travels” by the cardboard duo and Bingham and his fellow road warriors.

Bingham is not the first person and certainly not the first movie character to think that he can get through life with maximum efficiency, with as little weighing him down or holding him back as possible. He has systems for maximizing momentum and minimizing inertia from a small group of impeccable and virtually identical suits to the formula for getting the most out of frequent flier miles. When he finally meets a woman (Vera Farmiga) who speaks his language — their flirty banter about who has more prestige points and which hotels have the best amenities is more delicious than a warm chocolate chip cookie at your check-in — part of what makes it fascinating is that neither Bingham nor the audience can tell at first whether this is just one more frictionless encounter or a connection that will make him re-think his attachment to being unattached. Farmiga matches two-time Sexiest Man Alive Clooney’s rhythms perfectly, and watching these two glossy creatures circle and parry is one of the great cinematic pleasures of the year.

In one respect, Bingham harks back to the iconic American cowboy, alone in the wilderness. In another he is the essence of 2009, in the one sector of the American economy that is benefiting from the catastrophic avalanche of failure that will forever identify the end of this milleneum’s first decade. Co-screenwriter/director Jason Reitman (“Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno”) shrewdly puts Bingham in the middle between his tantalizingly silky no-strings counterpart and a spooky, Scrooge-like vision of another aspect of himself. A young, ambitious newcomer (a superb Anna Kendrick) to his office has an idea about how to save money by being even more ruthlessly efficient. Why do all that flying when you can fire people by video chat?

Reitman continues to populate his films with characters we want to know better and actors who make even small parts into gems of poignancy and meaning. Melanie Lynskey, Danny McBride, Jason Bateman, and J.K. Simmons are irresistible, but there is also a mosaic of reactions from the newly terminated that is even more unsettling when you find out that these are real-life survivors of lay-offs, recruited by Reitman for what they thought was a documentary about the impact of the economic crisis. And be sure to stay through the credits for another telling real-life moment.

“Up in the Air” is very much of its time but it is also one of the best films of the year for its sympathetic and layered understanding of the issues that affect us in good and bad economic times and its recognition that it is here, in these stories, where the questions left unanswered in the packet are explored.

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Based on a book Drama Romance

Interview: Diablo Cody and Ellen Page of “Juno”

Posted on December 12, 2007 at 8:00 am

The author and star of this year’s most popular and critically acclaimed independent film talked with me about “Juno,” a smart, funny, touching film about a pregnant teenager who decides to give her baby to a childless couple. This is the first screeplay for Diablo Cody (born Brook Busey), whose book and blog about her life as a stripper first brought her to the attention of Hollywood. Ellen Page’s astonishing performance in “Hard Candy” as a young girl who turns the tables on a predatory pedophile showed her to be an actress of formidable range and talent. There could not be a better match of performer and material and it was clear that they have become close friends.
NM: I am a big fan of your director, Jason Reitman, who wrote and directed Thank You for Smoking.
EP: Working with him in the kind of atmosphere he creates is just lovely, awesome. He is extremely assured, he knows what he wants, but he is also unbelievably collaborative. And he has an enormous heart, only good intentions, there’s only goodness with Jason.
DC: I agree on all counts. It’s very rare actually. It’s very rare that you meet somebody who has that incredibly sharp mind and is also incredibly compassionate. You don’t see those qualities paired in a lot of people, and Jason has that elusive combo. He is a great filmmaker and has a keen comic timing, which is something that is evident in his first movie as well. Juno is a movie where he really wears his heart on his sleeve as a director. As a writer it was amazing to work with him because he is such a generous collaborator.
NM: It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Ellen, you seem perfectly cast as the stunningly self-possessed but very vulnerable heroine. I was especially moved by the scene where she finally lets go and sobs.
EP: Ever since first reading “Juno” and Juno kind of entering my life, I immediately fell head over heels in love with Diablo, the script, with Juno, I became obsessed. With regards to that scene, Juno definitely hides a lot in what she projects as herself in her kind of sarcastic wit and what have you, but the reality of the situation is that it is a bit of an extreme situation, even though Juno in the film deals with it in such a refreshing way. There’s the kind of relationship she hasn’t had with her mother, literally abandoned by her mother, as she develops this connection with the baby that is growing inside her along with Vanessa’s love for that, when it all starts falling apart, it’s absolutely devastating for her. In that moment, when she’s alone, she allows herself to experience that devastation at that point.
DC: Ellen is such a strong actor I’ve seen that people sense a connection between her and every character she plays. I like to believe in my heart that she has a special connection to Juno, but that’s just talent, baby.
EP: I think the reason that Diablo’s script is so awesome and people are connecting to it is so many elements of it are completely unexpected and that is so refreshing. People, especially these days, are afraid to take risks. Mind you, every year, it is the people who do take those risks who are successful, the people who have had those really long careers are the ones who have dared to have a sense of integrity and individuality. And I think that’s something Diablo really did with this script. So you have Jennifer Garner giving an incredible performance, just outstanding. And Allison Janney and JK Simmons, it’s full-on pandemonium extravaganza of awesome individuals.


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