Following an insightful, humorous conversation between Young Adult screenwriter Diablo Cody and stars Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt, the film’s director Jason Reitman sat down for a press conference in New York City.
Reitman’s fourth studio film, following his Oscar-nominated Up in the Air, and his second with Cody (they first collaborated on 2007’s Juno), Young Adult delivers what audiences have come to expect of Reitman: a darkly comedic character study accentuated by phenomenal performances.
The director discussed how the subject of a struggling 30-something solitary writer hits home, his special working relationship with Cody, and how hosting movie nights at his house led to casting Oswalt.
Can you talk about the casting process? Did you have Charlize and Patton in mind?
I was only going to make this movie if I could make it with Charlize. I had read the script and I thought it was phenomenal, but I knew how tricky this character was and I knew how easy it would be to misinterpret this character. You know, on the page she was written perfectly. She was nuanced and complicated, and she wasn’t just some mean girl. She was a woman with deep wounds that, like anybody, wanted to be loved and was searching for her place in life, who really only knew how to find it by going back to high school, to the last moment where things kind of made sense to her. And it’s one of those things that in the hands of the wrong actress would just be a mean girl. I knew Charlize would never judge the character, would make her emotionally complicated, would turn into a complete human being. And on top of that Charlize has this great talent that only a few actors have … where they can change their nature without dialogue … without physicality. There was no reason for me to attempt this movie without her. And really after that I just needed Patton Oswald. I needed someone who was going to be the accessibility point to this movie and I think this movie works because of Patton Oswalt. I think the audience strangely sees the movie through Patton Oswalt. He says the things that everyone in the audience wants to say and his rare combination of like brilliant comedy, but also his pathos, his ability to go to these really sad places makes the whole thing work.
We’ve just been talking about Hugo, where we’ve heard so much about how Scorsese gives a set of films and homework to his cast to get into the movie. Were there other films that you had your cast see or reference with this film?
[Laughs] I love that Scorsese probably screens these great Italian films for his cast and the only thing I ever sent Charlize was Season 1 of The Hills and Laguna Beach. Oh, yes. Following in the footsteps of giants. I have a movie night at my house every Sunday night. and it really came out of my own embarrassment of the amount of films that I had not seen. So what I did was, every Sunday night I show a classic movie that you’re supposed to have seen that I have not seen and I just invite my friends and say, ‘Hey, here’s a moment for us all to stop being embarrassed and start seeing these films.’ And it started a couple of years ago and we watch films like – and now I’m going to embarrass myself for all of you – Cool Hand Luke … Patton … Say Anything. I had never seen Being There until two years ago. I told you, it’s humiliating. I watched all of Michael Ritchie’s films. So it’s a wonderful evening for me to kind of share with my friends where we all get to see those films for the first time as adults and then we get to talk about them, and Patton has been a regular at that. When I went to do the table read for this film, I called on friends at first – and Patton is a friend – and I said, ‘Hey, would you read this role?’ And watching him do it was just so – he was so perfect, and then when he read it with Charlize they had this unbelievable chemistry.
Standard practice is that once the cameras roll, the writer is out of the picture. How is it different between you and Diablo?
With Diablo, I don’t know, we get along so well and we trust each other so much, there’s never been a question of whether or not she was going to be on set. So when she could be on set it’s great. I put her to work, you know. I say, you know, I need this, I need a line, I need a scene and she does it. But there’s also enough trust that if she’s not there, she knows I’m not going to screw up her script. And I’m a writer myself and I strangely feel as a writer on set, the job is to be a tailor. It’s to, you know, and I know Sorkin would be pissed if I said this, but if an actor can’t say the lines, in my opinion it’s not the actor’s fault. If you put on a pair of clothes that don’t fit, it’s not your fault, it’s the clothes fault. And the clothes should be tailored and that’s how I feel about dialogue.
With the possible exception of Juno, a lot of your leading characters are well skilled in the art of self-deception, and none more so than Charlize’s character here. I wonder what attracts you to that kind of character in your work.
I think everyone deceives themselves. I guess … I like characters that don’t change because I don’t think people change, or they very rarely do, or they do by a tiny percent. I think people have revelatory moments and they learn things, but most often they don’t change off of those things or they change for five days. I remember I told my therapist – I’m in therapy, [laughs] I’m Jewish — I said, ‘I’m worried that if this works I won’t be a good writer any more.’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re only capable of about five or 10 percent improvement.’
This year we’ve seen Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher, and now this movie. It seems like it’s a lot of women behaving badly. I wonder, is that something in the zeitgeist?
I don’t know. Women behaving badly is, excuse me, I’m not trying to be rude, I think is just kind off a cheap term, and look, I’ve always been interested in making movies about women. They interest me far more than men. And I’m interested in honesty in filmmaking and I think the darker moments are far more interesting than the cheerful ones. And I guess that’s my approach.
What was really your message to women? Mavis seems like – as a writer, as a single woman – she’s sort of not part of the normal society. Society doesn’t really accept imaginative women on their own … and I was just trying to picture a man in this role, going back to find an old girlfriend. He’d probably be seen as romantic, right? But a woman is sort of pathetic.
First and foremost: I don’t have a message in any of my movies. You know, if I have a message – and hopefully there’s a continuity of that in all my films – it’s think for yourself and come up with your own opinions. That is the core theme of Thank You for Smoking, and since then hopefully people draw their own conclusions and that’s always been kind of the case. On Juno, pro-life people thought it was their movie, pro-choice thought it was theirs, and I’ve certainly got a variance of opinions of where George Clooney goes at the end of Up in the Air, and that makes me happy. I’d rather inspire the conversation than tell you what to think. So on this movie I’m certainly not saying this is my message to women. And as far as how we treat her life, I thought it was a fairly true and – I’m speaking to a room of writers – point view on what it’s like to write, which is it’s a really lonely existence, man or woman. Often it feels like a trip to Office Depot makes me feel as though I accomplished something today. And being a writer is tricky in that your sense of accomplishment is always so varied. Is it by page count? Is it by that you wrote something special? Will anyone ever read this? Will anyone ever see this? And I don’t think that changes, no matter how much success you have. Every time I write I feel like this is awful, no one will ever see this or if they do …they’ll never hire me again. So I think you really capture the truth of a writer’s life in those first eight pages, which became the first eight minutes of this movie and that got me excited because I never, I don’t believe I’ve seen it portrayed quite that way, which is alone.
Regarding Charlize’s character: Was there ever any point in thinking about tone and dialing it, like dialing it forward, dialing back? Was she ever too ugly or dark?
Yeah, there were a couple times when on set she would say something that was so mean that we just had to cut the line of dialogue. I mean you can’t, you know — the audience is just going to hate her for no reason and it all of a sudden is actually out of character and dishonest because it’s just so mean … for no reason. All of this always goes back to a piece of advice that my father gave me and he literally gave it to me the night before I started shooting Thank You for Smoking. He said, ‘Always remember: It’s not your job to be funny. Your barometer for comedy is nowhere as good as your barometer for truth.’ And the only thing you’re trying to achieve on set is honesty. You look at a performance, you look at anything – the way people interact, the location, the way you’re shooting it – does it feel truthful? Because you’re not going to be able to tell if it’s funny. And that plays into is this too mean because if it’s so mean that it feels other worldly then it’s not right.
Young Adult opens Friday nationwide.