The director talks with TheWrap about learning how make a film without snappy dialogue.
A version of this story appeared in OscarWrap: Director/Best Picture/Screenplay/Animation.
Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day” is drawn from the Joyce Maynard novel about a single mother who finds herself falling for the escaped murderer who has taken her and her 13-year-old son hostage in their home over a hot, sticky Labor Day weekend. A quiet film that is both contained and restrained, at least if you don’t count a steamy pie- making sequence, it represents a big change of pace from “Thank You for Smoking,” Oscar-nominated “Juno” and “Up in the Air.” In “Labor Day,” Reitman has crafted a romance about people who have every reason not to be together but who somehow, some way decide that they have to be.
A lot of the audience won’t know how to deal with Kate Winslet’s character, because she makes decisions that seem baffling.
I’ve always been drawn to characters who make inexplicable decisions and drawn to confronting the audience with tricky decisions like that. The first movie I ever made, I hero-ized the head lobbyist for Big Tobacco. And it’s been that way with every film. Pregnant teenage girl. Guy who fires people for a living. Woman who’s trying to break up a marriage. Like, these are my heroes. And in this film, the idea that a woman makes such a tough decision based on the complexity of her needs and desires and her vulnerability, that I find way more interesting than a traditional kidnapping movie.
So what appealed to you about Joyce Maynard’s book?
I find that a very difficult question to answer. I read it, and I saw the movie in my head. It challenged me in a way that I liked. It was different from everything else I’ve read. It’s only after the fact that I go, Oh, I was around 13 years old in 1987, and my father was off making movies, and I spent a lot of time with my mom. And sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to have had a dad who could have taught me to use tools and throw a baseball. And I made questionable decisions in my life that were based on desire, and I can’t really explain them. But I realize all that stuff through these interviews more than anything.
The first thing a lot of the reviews said was, “This doesn’t seem like a Jason Reitman movie.”
Right. I’m not sure if that’s a compliment.
I don't know exactly what constitutes a Jason Reitman movie, but I think it has something to do with smart people talking fast and being funny.
Hah! [laughs] Look, I had to really grow up as a director to make this movie. Not because it's any more mature than “Up in the Air,” frankly, but because it was a completely different cinematic language. It felt like making my first movie all over again. But I didn’t hire new people; I went back to all of my old collaborators and said, “All right, we’re all going to have to grow to make this film. Production design is going to be much more complex. The cinematography is going to have to be languid and beautiful, where before it’s always been sort of modern and hip. The editing style’s gonna be all over the place, all this flashback work to build this kind of dream environment.” And then with the actors — it’s just what you said about the talking. I have to learn to tell a story and direct actors without it being about snappy dialogue.
How did you prepare for learning a new cinematic language?
I held about two weeks of screenings at my house with my crew, and said, “All right, come to whatever you're available for. We’re going to watch movies that will set us up for this film.” We watched “Stand By Me,” “Running on Empty,” “Tree of Life,” “Night of the Hunter.” We watched a ton. We watched “Body Heat” just to see how they did sweat in that film. We’d sit, we’d talk about it, we’d watch films, everybody would pipe in.
What was the biggest challenge?
I think the challenge was building so many scenes in the same place in a way that told the story without getting boring or repetitive. And telling a story with a bunch of techniques I’d never done before. And shooting in the same house was really tough. How do you shoot in a kitchen the 20th time? How do you do a whole movie in a house?
Normally on a film set, on my other films, I would say, “Why don't you say this, this, and this?” And I’d write dialogue quickly for people. There’s none of that. I couldn’t just say, “Here’s a snappy comeback.”
I had to use a lot of restraint. And I really relied on Josh and Kate, and their ability to tell a story through their movement, through their looks. When Josh puts his hand around her waist, and Kate starts to slowly rests her cheek onto his chest, and she slowly closes her eyes — these are the things that I would never know how to direct. They taught me.
Josh's character is quite a guy: He fixes things around the house, plays catch with the boy, bakes a mean peach pie — he's pretty much the perfect man, if you ignore the murder conviction.
He’s the perfect man for some people. But if you ever wanted to be with me, then you definitely don’t want to be with that character. I’m Jewish and verbose and I don't know how to use tools. But for some girl in the word, I’m the right guy.
Look, I think one of the ideas of this movie is that here are three very specific puzzle pieces that need three other specific puzzle pieces. This is a movie where you introduce the three characters, and at first you have no idea why they should be together. Your instinct is, why the fuck is she taking him home? But they need each other. Somehow, instinctively, they know that. And it’s a movie about coming to realize why they’re the perfect fit.