Jason Reitman, the Oscar-nominated director of last year’s little movie that could, Juno, is also a second-generation Hollywood director, the son of Ivan Reitman, who produced Animal House and directed comedy classics such as Ghostbusters, Meatballs and Stripes. The Reitmans recently sat down with each other (and surrounded by 150 curious movie fans) during the Los Angeles Film Festival where father and son had an intimate conversation about their illustrious and budding film careers.
Here are some excerpts from their trip down memory lane.
Jason Reitman: I'm actually going to ask you questions that I’ve never asked before, which is tough...What was the moment that you realized “I can do that” as a filmmaker?
Ivan Reitman: I didn't realize that there was such a job directing. It was about a year after we came from Czechoslovakia, we escaped. I was about 5 and a half. I had a thing about films even back in Czechoslovakia. I had a slide projector with Disney cartoons and in the evening we were escaping and I was putting on three pairs of pants and three shirts… all of our possessions were going to one suitcase… In fact, I remember taking the slide projector and trying to get it to fit into the suitcase and my parents taking it out. When I went to college there were no film courses. I entered university in the late ‘60s and I just wanted to get a general arts degree. I thought I was going to do music. In fact, my original desire was to compose music for movies. Once I got into the university I decided I was just going to be active and that meant joining all of the clubs. And the first club I joined was the Drowned Society and I directed my very first semester. [The play] was called An Evening with Carl Sandberg...There was [also] a film club at school and they were making short films and I became part of that club. I made my first film during the third year I was in university and it was called Orientation about the first days of a freshman student at university. It really has two or three scenes that had since evolved into scenes that were in Animal House.
Jason Reitman: How did Animal House come into your life?
Ivan Reitman: I started producing films in Canada for small amounts of money. The first one was something called Canada Girls and the budget was something like $12,000 and it starred Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin. As a result of that I knew my voice as a director was comedic. [The publisher of National Lampoon] said, “We have this little show we'd like to produce and would like you to produce it for us. It's called the National Lampoon Show” and I said, “Yes!” And the National Lampoon Show turned out to have all the actors about a year before Saturday Night Live-- John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis. It was the first time I got to work with this astounding level of talent. You could see that they knew they were the best things out there… I thought if there was a movie that was based on anything from that show then I could get to produce it and hope to direct it. Lorne Michaels, a fellow Torontonian, comes around and hires most of the cast except for Harold Ramis. So I go to Harold Ramis and I say, “Why don't we develop a movie based on this show?” We wrote about 15 drafts of it over a two-year period and we kept saying, “This could be the funniest movie ever made” because what we thought in our young arrogance is that no one is speaking this language-- the language of my generation, which was the Baby Boom Generation.
Jason Reitman: You told me something very interesting once… just keep making movies. You have to make movies that are in your heart because the truth is that you really don't know what is going to be a great success or your greatest failure.
Ivan Reitman: I think one of the problems with sort of the commercial forces of things particularly when you've had success is you start to get this weird double thing that starts to happen and everyone starts to throw a lot of stuff that you… so you have more opportunity, but at the same time you're getting more and more worried…My concern is that you don't get sidetracked in much the way that I did... although I'm very proud of the movies that I made, I wish I made more of them and I wish I was more free of the system. My sense is that you shouldn't be too worried. You should just go out and direct wonderful films.
Jason Reitman: What films are you talking about?
Ivan Reitman: There was a minute that I had Rain Man in my hands and Sydney Pollack had it and he just didn't understand how two guys could be in a car for the whole movie. He kept complaining about that to the studio and kept trying to find something else in the script, which was perfectly wonderful. I was working with Dustin Hoffman at that time on something and he kept saying, “You should read this Rain Man script. Sydney is never going to make it. You should read it.” I finally read it on a plane trip and I started to cry and I said, “Wow, this is a great script. I should direct this!” Finally, Sydney passes. I get a call from our mutual agent, now the infamous Michael Ovitz, and he said, “Okay, Sydney's passing. I know Dustin wants you, I'm going to talk to Tom Cruise and see if he's interested in you. Why don’t you go meet the studio and see if you can talk him into it.”… They said, “It’s so refreshing to actually have someone at once actually direct this movie!” (laughs from audience). Literally by the time I got back to my office from United Artists, I got a call from Ovitz who said, “You're not going to believe this, but Sydney has been thinking about it and thinks he wants to work on it for 30 days.” And I had been putting aside developing Twins, another kind of brothers movie and I thought it was time for me to do that kind of film—something that was comedic, but much more serious in its tone and intent… Just in the midst of preproduction, I'm at a light in the Valley and who should pull up right next to me but Sydney Pollack. I said “Hey, how’s Rain Man.” He said, “I just decided I'm not going to do it.” And Barry Levinson got it and won the Academy Award. And the two movies came out within two months of each other.
Ivan Reitman: Jason was enrolled in medical school at Skidmore and he seemed to be very unhappy and we had a very good talk and you said you thought you wanted to change directions. And I said, “I think it's great. You should do whatever is in your heart.” At USC, he starts selling these desk calendars and his idea was to put all these calendars and every dorm room. He went to all the local vendors in the USC area and he sold advertising and he raised something like $9,000. I asked him what he was going to do with the money and he said, “I think I'm going to make my first short.” I was very pleasantly surprised. I didn't even know you wanted to be a director. It was very entrepreneurial and it made me extraordinary proud. How did that all occur?
Jason Reitman: I grew up basically seeing mostly studio faire and I'd go see three movies in a row… but I did watch a lot of independent films… one of the laser discs that you bought was Richard Linklater’s Slacker…There were a few films I saw that really got me excited about being a film director rather than a film fan. I saw lots of movies, I saw them many times. I saw Kevin Smith's Clerks. I remember standing in line for that and I remember thinking I was in the coolest place on earth at that moment. I saw Pulp Fiction at the UA Theater on Westwood Boulevard. I saw Bottle Rocket at Century City 14 for its like one week that it was actually in theaters, and of all those films really spoke to me. I said if I was going to make movies, I would want to make movies like this. This seems to be my sense of humor, this seems to be my voice…My first film was called Operation, a comedy about kidney stealing, and it played in five film festivals and played in the DGA theater in front of Kissing Jessica Stein and I remember watching my movie and thinking “I've made it—I've played Sundance, I played L.A. Film Festival.”
Ivan Reitman: With Thank You For Smoking, you actually sat down and wrote a screenplay for something that you were not hired to do.
Jason Reitman: My agent said, “What kind of films do you want to make?” And I said, “I want to make Thank You For Smoking.” He said, “That’s going to be tough. It's owned by Mel Gibson” (laughs from audience)... It was in development hell. It actually moved to the television department, many scripts had been written. I wrote 30 pages over the weekend and I sent it to them and I said, “This is what it could be.” And they liked the pages and they hired me. Mel actually called me from his plane. We talked for half an hour—the first 15 minutes were about the script and he thought it was ballsy and cool and the second 15 minutes were about digital filmmaking and how it was going to change the world. And he invited me to watch the new Star Wars film with him at the Skywalker Ranch and that invitation never followed (laughs from audience)…This was 2000, and for four years nobody wanted to make that movie.
Ivan Reitman: What did you do before that?
Jason Reitman: I started directing commercials. For four years I was doing one a month and I was making a living as a director, which was very exciting. One day I got a call from a guy named David Sacks, who is the creator of PayPal, and he and his partner sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion dollars and now he wanted to make movies. He loved the script and basically wrote a check for $6 million.
Ivan Reitman: How did you feel when you were finally on the set with real actors?
Jason Reitman: I love my actors, but the actors are almost props on commercials. The star is the product. I did Outback Steakhouse where the star is the Blooming Onion! It's a whole different ball game and that was a very unique film that every week someone new came to set… it was the hardest thing I've ever done and even though it was what every child wanted to do, even though I'd been dreaming about it for years and it was wonderful and it was fun, it was also exhausting and tough and scary. But it was wonderful.
Ivan Reitman: The screening really rocked and Thank You For Smoking became the center of a bidding war and it was quite famous there. One evening Paramount was very clear about buying it, but they didn't actually close the deal. Meanwhile Fox Searchlight came about that same evening and stole the movie away about four o'clock in the morning. It became the story of the festival and an interesting start to your film career. So why Juno?
Jason Reitman: I was writing my next screenplay when a buddy of mine called me and says I've got a great script for you to read. It's a teen comedy written by a former stripper… Usually most screenplays aren't very good, but 10 pages in I was like, ‘This is good, I'm actually going to enjoy this.” Page 30, I was like “This is great!”… I thought if I don't direct this, I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life. And then they hired a different director and for about a year he was going to direct the movie and I was truly heartbroken. It's very hard to decide what movie you should make and what movie you shouldn’t. If it makes you sick to your gut to think about someone else directing a movie, that's the movie you need to direct. It's like a girl… when you think about a girl with another guy and it really upsets you, that’s a girl worth keeping (laughs from audience). It broke my heart that I couldn’t direct it, and Brad [Silberling] and the producers went their separate ways and when they called me and said, “Do you want to direct this?” I was so excited to get that call.
Ivan Reitman: Were you surprised by its success?
Jason Reitmen: Absolutely! I knew people would like it. I remember saying this is a charming movie, it's funny, it's going to make people laugh. Everything that has happened has been a surprise—what happened with the music, what happened with the awards, what happened with the box office. The greatest moment, and I don't think I'll ever have another one again like this, was… I consider film festival audiences my audience. You always told me that you understood how the summer crowd thought. What I think about the film festival audience, I feel like I know them. I may be wrong everywhere else, but I know what’s going to make them laugh. So we brought it to Toronto and we got a standing ovation in Toronto.
Ivan Reitman: It lasted five minutes.
Jason Reitman: It went on for a while. It was so wonderful. You always know when you move people and that was the moment I realized when I moved this crowd and that was I think the most fulfilling moment I've had as a director.