ABOVE: JASON REITMAN ON THE SET OF MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN
Men, Women, and Children, the sixth feature film from writer and director Jason Reitman, is not, he assures us, about the Internet. Based on the book of the same name by Chad Kultgen, and adapted by Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson, the film follows a group of 15 year olds and their parents in present day Texas. There’s the sensitive football player interested in a life beyond sports played by Ansel Elgort; the anorexic former fat girl (Elena Kampouris) who just wants to be noticed by her older crush (Will Peltz); the mature-looking school beauty who forges her identity through sexualizing herself (Olivia Crocicchia); and the solitary girl with a tough exterior (Kaitlyn Dever), slowly suffocating under the watch of her overprotective mother (Jennifer Garner). The parents are in no better shape: Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Don Truby (Adam Sandler) are looking for sexual— and emotional—acceptance outside of their marriage; Kent Mooney, the football player’s dad (Dean Norris), doesn’t know how to relate to his son after the departure of his wife; and Donna Clint (Judy Greer), somehow finds herself pimping out her daughter (the beauty) by selling provocative photos of her via her website.
“I think of it as using Internet as a location to discuss what it’s like to be alive and in love in 2014,” explains Reitman over the phone. “Think of a movie like Modern Romance with Albert Brooks and how significant that opening scene with that telephone is—he’s on a telephone that’s not a cordless phone and he’s stuck there, walking around his apartment holding the phone—and how much that becomes part of the architecture for what’s great about that scene,” he continues. “I want people to look back at Men, Women, and Children and go, ‘Oh, that’s right. That’s exactly how it was when we were on Facebook and Twitter and Ashley Madison was a thing and all the kids were using Snapchat,” he continues.
EMMA BROWN: Men, Women, and Children is narrated by Emma Thompson. When did she come into the process? Did you think of her straight away?
JASON REITMAN: It was pretty early—probably earlier than you’d think. Erin Cressida Wilson, who I co-wrote the script with, and I knew we wanted to include all this rich narration, the third person narration of the novel. When we started thinking about who that voice could be, it needed to be thoughtful and witty, but also kind of naughty. Emma Thompson brought all of that simultaneously. There was always a kind of flirtation in her intelligence and her ability to say dirty things. We would start imitating her as we did the narration.
BROWN: Did the cast members get to hear her narration or was it all recorded afterwards?
REITMAN: No, she actually recorded it all in advance in about an hour, an hour and a half. We went down to the studio, kind of a rock studio in Hollywood, and she threw the whole thing down at once. She’d never seen the movie. We had the recording on set so every once in a while we’d play it for the actors so they could know what’s going on.
BROWN: You’ve talked about how, when you start working on a film, you never know how it will turn out—whether it will be a “Ghostbusters or a Junior.” Is there a moment when you do know?
REITMAN: It changes. There’s a moment when you’re reading a book and you’re like, “I should make this into a movie.” Then there’s a moment where you’re on set and it’s either working or not working. And then there’s the edit and it’s like, “Is this movie actually coming together?” This was a very hard movie to edit together—there are so many storylines. The first cut was, I think, three and a half hours. And then finally people start talking about it and the ownership of the movie changes. It stops belonging to me and it starts belonging to the audience.
BROWN: Is there a golden moment in between when you finish the film and you first screen it?
REITMAN: No. Sadly, no. When you finish a screenplay it feels like that and maybe when you wrap, but once you’re editing you’re mixing, at that point it’s slowly slipping out of your hands.
BROWN: Is this film about the children, the adults, or both?
REITMAN: I wish I had a good answer for that. Certainly you have this generation that’s grown up with the Internet, [which] almost makes it their movie. That said, the most important scene for me is probably the closing one with Rosemarie DeWitt and Adam Sandler, when they’re having a discussion about whether or not to be honest with each other. That, for me, is the reason to make the movie. That’s the most provocative question—would a marriage be better with complete honesty or secrets? On day one, we’re always so honest and so open with each other; we’re able to reveal our secrets. And the further you go in a relationship people clam up a lot. Five years, 10 years, 15 years in, you don’t want to make waves, you don’t want to start a fight. Instead of sharing things with the people you’re closest with, it somehow becomes easier to share it with strangers—the person who’s sitting next to you on a plane, someone you meet online. What is it about that relationship that forces people to open up except to the person who’s laying next to you in bed?
BROWN: What do you think the answer is?
REITMAN: I think we’re scared. I think that’s the honest answer. There’s something about that initial flirtation that allows us to be brave. The further we get in, the higher the chance of getting hurt. It prevents us from being honest. It prevents us from being close. That’s where this stuff starts. I don’t think people cheat on each other because they need someone so profoundly attractive that they can’t help it; I think it happens because we become scared to be honest in our existing relationship and so we find an outlet. The Internet provides us with a very interesting outlet to reveal our secrets online, to follow our desire, to follow our curiosity. It becomes a profound relationship.
BROWN: You don’t think that there is pressure to put forward a false front on the Internet?
REITMAN: Oh, no I do. Certainly when people build their Twitter feeds and their Facebook identity and assemble their Instagram galleries, you’re getting a version of a life. But I think there are also people and communities that are there waiting for the misunderstood souls.
BROWN: Is there a bigger generation gap now because of the Internet?
REITMAN: Certainly. The life I grew up with generally resembles the life my parents grew up with. The life my daughter is growing up with does not resemble my life as a seven-year-old whatsoever.
BROWN: The generational gap between teenagers in the 1950s and their parents is well-documented in film—the inability of these two generations to form communicate because of the different social environments in which they were raised. Do you think this new generational gap will have similarly harmful effects?
REITMAN: Yeah, it already is. You have a generation of parents who don’t quite know how to parent their kids in the realm of the Internet. They feel like they’re supposed to somehow monitor everything their kids do online, which is impossible. I’m not sure how much you can get through that, except to acknowledge that the world’s different and to trust that, just as each previous generation has found a way through, this generation will find a way too. Ansel Elgort actually made a great point to me; he said, “To not grow up with the Internet and to suddenly have access to everything is a daunting thing because it makes you want to go find everything. But to grow up with the Internet and to always have access to everything, it actually becomes easy not to look. When you grow up with everything, you don’t need to go look at everything. It becomes far more reasonable.”
BROWN: How did you come across Ansel Elgort?
REITMAN: We were looking so hard for this young actor, who needed to be big—big enough to be a football player—and in comes this 6′ 4″ kid who looks like a young Marlon Brando and could really, really fucking act. He just knocked me out. This was before The Fault in Our Stars had come out. This was before Divergent had come out. He just crushed his audition. I look at my producer Helen Estabrook and we each sighed from relief because we knew how much of this film was going to be on his shoulders.
BROWN: You just did another live reading of American Beauty with the cast of this film at LACMA. What made you choose American Beauty?
REITMAN: We did it once before at Toronto and it was terrific. It’s one of my favorite scripts. I think it’s one of the best scripts ever written. I’d already chosen to open the season of the Live Read of LACMA with American Beauty. I was going to cast it when I realized that, “Wow, I have every character I need within the movie I just made.” One of the fun parts about doing a live read is the archeological process where you go through and you really start to see the stitches [of a script]. You get to see how it was put together. You get to read, not only the deleted scenes, lines and dialogues, but all the narration that sets the table for these locations and props and actors. You get to learn what goes into a masterpiece.
MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN IS NOW PLAYING IN THEATERS.