Jason Reitman on making ‘Men, Women & Children’
Aspen Film co-director Laura Thielen introduced Jason Reitman’s new feature, “Men, Women & Children,” at Aspen Filmfest on Wednesday with a slight apology, saying, “If you’re here with your parents or your children, I’m sorry.”
The film, which closed the festival and opens in theaters nationwide on Oct. 17, indeed raises awkward questions about how we live now — how we parent, how we grow up and how we fall in and out of love. It’s an ambitious undertaking from the director of “Up in the Air” and “Juno,” focusing on how technology is shaping relationships today. It follows 12 characters — a group of high schoolers and their parents — in interconnected storylines, with an ensemble cast including Adam Sandler as a porn-addicted father, Rosemarie DeWitt as his wife looking to the Internet to find an affair and Jennifer Garner as an overbearing mom monitoring her daughter’s online life.
Reitman was scheduled to attend Wednesday’s screening, but was grounded in Los Angeles by Aspen’s midweek snowstorm.
“I did not set out to make a film about the Internet,” he said in a phone interview after the Filmfest screening. “I wanted to make a film about relationships in the modern age. You can’t do that without speaking about the Internet. That’s how we communicate, and our sexuality is so tied to the Internet.”
Based on Chad Kultgen’s novel of the same name, the film is alarming — but not necessarily alarmist — in its portrayal of its characters’ screen-bound lives. It is most striking in its use of silence and its innovative approach to visual storytelling. Along with scenes of teens texting each other while in the same room and of crowded high school hallways of kids looking down at devices, the screen is often filled with a character’s face overlaid with what’s on their computer, as they quietly search a porn site or pro-anorexia forum, chat or play a video game. In one scene, a blinking cursor in a text box sits devastatingly beside a characters’ tear-strewn face.
At a climactic moment, as a character’s online misdeeds catch up with her family in real life, she says, “I thought if I never talked about it, I wasn’t doing anything wrong.” The price of not talking, perhaps, is the film’s real subject.
“If you were to film someone’s life, it would be eerily quiet,” Reitman said. “It would just be the sound of tapping on a keyboard, tapping on glass. Certainly when I started thinking about how I was going to shoot this film I thought, ‘Okay. Half these scenes are of people communicating with a device, not another human being.’”
Reitman addressed that storytelling problem by setting up the movie’s visuals like a desktop display. But getting that right turned out to be more complicated than he imagined.
He didn’t want to do screen replacements and he didn’t want to have actors fake it during filming. So he and his team story-boarded the entire film with combinations of characters and screen action. He had a tech team build sites that look like the ones the characters use in the film — Facebook, Porn Hub and Ashley Madison among them — and made them interactive so that the actors were actually navigating the Web in real time as their characters are in “Men, Women & Children.”
“We had software guys build new sites that look like the sites they’re navigating, but we actually made them navigable,” Reitman said. “We built the Internet that all the actors used. The Internet is a location in the film, and we spent as much time building the Internet as we did building other locations.”
The film opens with a shot of the Voyager 1 satellite in space — evoking another epic about technology’s toll on humanity, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” — and uses the unmanned spacecraft as a unifying image throughout the Earth-bound action, which is narrated by Emma Thompson. Reitman worked with the London-based team behind last year’s groundbreaking space drama “Gravity” to get the space shots right.
“It’s the most technically complicated film I’ve ever done, by far,” he said. “When I read the book, I was like, ‘All right, it’s people on the Internet. People talking in living rooms.’ Then step-by-step I realized there’s a cop-out way to do this, with screen replacements — or we build it and try to make it as close to an experience as people have online as possible.”
Mercifully, the film doesn’t attempt to hammer a message or lesson into viewers’ heads. But it does invite a lot of questions. Reitman hopes it will start a conversation about all the issues we’re not talking about right now as technology reshapes our lives.
“My hope is that you see yourself in some of the characters,” Reitman said. “And perhaps there’s something on your mind about your marriage, your girlfriend, your kids, your parents that you haven’t articulated and you’re nervous to talk about, and the film gives you access to your own secrets and your own relationships. … My take on the Internet is not that it’s bad or it’s good, but that it’s curious. We don’t fully understand it yet, and it’s changing our lives dramatically.”
Reitman, 36, has a career-long relationship with Aspen Film and a lifelong connection to the local resort. His family (his father is director Ivan Reitman) skied Snowmass in the winters when he was a child. And he began his career with short films that screened here at Aspen Film’s Shortsfest, starting with “Operation” in 1998. He praises Aspen Film, Thielen and co-director George Eldred for encouraging him from the outset.
“Laura and George made me feel like a filmmaker very early on,” he said. “My first short played Aspen when I was 20 or 21, and it made it eligible for the Oscar.”
By playing his shorts here in the years leading up to his feature debut — 2005s “Thank You For Smoking” — he developed enduring relationships with other up-and-coming filmmakers, he said.
Of Aspen Film, he added, “They have such good taste and they’ve identified so many great young filmmakers that I’ve since seen pop.”
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