Jason Reitman arrived fully-formed, with his thumb on the national zeitgeist like few other directors since the turn of the 21st century. Thank You For Smoking took on our country's fraught relationship with corporate lobbyists, Juno was a hipster drama with actual heart, while Up in the Air played to our deepest fears about the financial crisis. Already on his sixth film—following Young Adult and Labor Day—Reitman is still fascinated by our cultural insecurities and damaged psyches. His latest, Men, Women, and Children dives into our obsession with social media, and the IRL personal cost that a digital existence can cause.
Here, the 37-year-old four-time Oscar nominee discusses the film's critical reception, Adam Sandler's deeply emotional performance, and how people will look back on the Internet in the years to come.
First off, what resonated about the book and why did you decide to adapt it into a film?
The author Chad [Kultgen] was discovered by the same guy who discovered Diablo Cody, so even when we were doing Juno we were talking about this writer with really strong voice. He showed me his book, Average American Male, which I really loved, and then I got Men, Women & Children, and I just thought it had a really smart approach to how the Internet changed our love lives. It featured characters who ranged in age, gender, and point of view, and gave a very authentic look of what’s it like to be a parent or a child in 2014.
Was it something that you had already thought about in your own life—how you were interacting with social media and the digital world?
I mean, not really. At least not on a conscious level. I find that it’s more of a subconscious response to a piece of material that resonated with something that I’d been wanting to say but couldn’t find the words for. Then, boom, I find the book, and I made Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air, and it’s like, “Oh, that’s what I’ve been feeling, articulated so much better than I could ever put it.” That was the same thing with Men, Women & Children. It’s only once I’m reading it and I go, “Oh, yeah, this has been on my mind.”
Emma Thompson is the voice of Voyager, looking back down on people as though we are animals in the wild.
Why the decision to frame it with Voyager and Emma Thompson’s narration?
I heard this Radiolab story about the Voyager and the Golden Record, and it’s clearly an extraordinary story. It immediately occurred to me that in the 1970s you cobble together this technology to launch this spacecraft, and often we put this message in a bottle, this desperate attempt to make contact with something we don’t even know exists. It represents that human instinct to connect, even in the most farfetched circumstances. I thought, what an interesting parallel, to show that attempt to make contact and then jump to 2014, where we’ve been given all of this technology to stay in contact with each other and we’re making an odd use of it.
It also gave me the opportunity to look back down on Earth from the stars, to kind of look at humanity as a whole, allow this narrator to come in and start discussing people, although as though Emma Thompson is the voice of Voyager, looking back down on people as though we are animals in the wild.
Many of the characters go through some seriously terrible things due to their interaction with social media, but Brandy’s (Kaitlyn Dever) character—aside from her relationship with her mom—is able to express herself. Do the positive sides of the Internet interest you also?
Well, I mean I’m amongst one of the first generations of parents who don’t have any sets of rules for how to be a decent parent when your kids are online. When I grew up, there were general rules about R-rated movies and how much TV to watch, and where you could take the car. I feel just as lost as any other parent right now as far as not really knowing how to negotiate my daughter’s Internet time and Internet usage. It’s not that I want to be an overbearing parent, but I also recognize that there are things that she could see at 10 or 12 years old that she doesn’t need to see or experience yet. She’s going to see them.
We won’t really figure this out for 30, 40, 50 years, but it’s kind of an interesting moment. We’re in the transition moment. You have one generation where the Internet arrived at our feet, and the you have another generation who’s grown up with nothing but the Internet. And that’s totally fine, it’s probably for a good reason. They’re going to figure it out and do just fine, but it makes this kind of interesting juxtaposition between a group of adults who are floundering online and a group of teenagers who are perfectly fine.
What do I find positive about the Internet? Plenty. I mean, it gave birth to the Arab Spring, it’s the reason why we know what was happening in Ferguson, and created sort of a nation-wide conversation about police brutality and racism. It’s a place where people are meeting and falling in love on a daily basis. There’s plenty good about the Internet, I use the Internet constantly, I’m on my phone constantly and there are tons of apps I use. I use Twitter. I find it both fun and extraordinarily informative. I also see it as an enormous transition moment where we’re a little bit lost and we’re figuring out our way. It’s like in 2001: A Space Oddity, the Monolith just showed up and we don’t quite know what it is.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the film is Adam Sandler’s performance, and every once in a while he show what an amazing dramatic actor he can be. He did that in Punch-Drunk Love and this film, too. How do you cast and convince him to do the film?
He and I started to talk a few years ago and just saw eye to eye on so much that it just made sense that we would make a movie together. We started talking about a bunch of different ideas, and in writing the script, we were just talking about Adam, and opening and closing the movie with him, searching for pornography to use in the film, and this intense scene with Rosemarie DeWitt—the most important scene in the film—the omelet scene. I sent him the script and he was obviously a little nervous about it, there are some tricky scenes to do in there that would require a lot of exposed vulnerability, and we talked about it for at least a month.
Every week we’d get on the phone and talk more about what the movie means, what the closing scene means, what was the intention behind a lot of the scenes, and finally one day he was just in. At that point, he was so devoted to the making of this film in a way that I’ve never quite experienced. He would text me on his off days and ask me how other actors were doing, it’s just unheard of.
Look, the point is to come up with your own conclusions. That’s kind of the point of all my movies.
Without going into spoilers, I guess you could see you see that closing scene as sort of hopeful or infinitely depressing. Which way do you fall on it?
I mean, look, you’ve been asking all kinds of questions that a director would never want to answer, but now you’ve come to the one that I’m absolutely never going to answer! [Laughs.] I mean, come on, man. Look, the point is to come up with your own conclusions. That’s kind of the point of all my movies. I don’t really have a take on this, I don’t have a stand on this. What I see is an interesting moment, and that’s been that way since Thank You For Smoking.
I like movies that can tell conversation, and deal with issues that are heated issues and deal with things that are completely unresolved for me. I don’t really see any point in making a movie about a resolved issue, and that certainly goes for this film. There’s a scene where you have two people, discussing whether or not they should be honest with each other. That’s a real conversation with every couple, married or not. Would you be better off knowing everything or are you better off having secrets? The Internet brings up this question in an enormous way because the Internet has compelled us to share our secrets.
Some of the criticism of the film is that you seem to be making a statement about the perils of the Internet. But I think that ambivalence does come through a little bit.
I know, it’s weird. I’ve heard some of that and it is so confusing to me. You have to understand how confusing it is to a filmmaker, when I write and direct something and to hear people think that I hate the Internet or I think the Internet is somehow dooming us. I don’t think anything of the kind. I feel like that’s such a simplistic view of the film. I’m not quite sure what to do with that.
Well, let's talk about the visual look of the film. On paper it's a movie with people just staring at screens the whole time, which sound insanely boring, but you were able to pull it off visually in a really neat way. How did you actually execute it?
Even in writing the movie Erin [Cressida Wilson] and I realized that half the scenes we were writing were just people sitting on phones. That’s not very cinematic. We had to come up with a way to make this visually interesting and also informative. At some point in this process, I was looking at my desktop and for whatever reason I just suddenly thought, “What if the background image on my desktop was the film playing? Everything on top of it, the icons, the windows, the tabs: they could all move around on top of this film playing. That would be something that we’re all kind of used to looking at. That would be a way to integrate all the information that’s happening on peoples’ devices into the movie.” So you’re watching what they’re looking at and their faces simultaneously.
As time passes, we’ll actually think a lot less about what this movie says about the Internet, because this movie doesn’t really say anything about the Internet.
What it did, which was great, was that it allowed us to follow that cursor and watch their faces simultaneously, so you could see Rosemarie DeWitt making a decision as you watched her cursor move slowly toward the reply button. You could watch the face of Ansel Elgort as you see the photos of his mom getting engaged again, flipping in front of him. It was an exciting device, but it required a lot of prep and a lot of work. It made the movie the most technically complicated movie that I’ve ever made. We had to board every shot out so that there was negative space in the right areas around all the actors, so that we could fill those things in and also put production design in. We also had to build the Internet in advance because we didn’t do any screen replacements.
When you’re looking at a screen in the movie, over someone’s shoulder, they’re actually using the Internet, but they’re using an Internet that we created on software that we built, that was running with a certain amount of lag time to replicate the Internet, and with searchable, actual webpages that we created with photos, ads, links, and everything. It seems simple but it took so many months to build that in advance of the shoot and during the shoot. We spent as much or more man-time building the Internet as we did on building the physical locations.
Have you thought about how the movie is going to age, since technology changes so quickly?
When the book was written, all the kids were on MySpace. I suspect that within two years, this film could look faded. Strangely, that’s what excites me about it. I feel like we’ve made a portrait of 2014, which hopefully is what I’ve done with each of the films. I mean, with Thank You For Smoking looked at cigarettes when we made it, and Up in the Air looked at the recession when we made it. I’d like to think that this will serve as a snapshot of this moment, this transitional moment. As time passes, we’ll actually think a lot less about what this movie says about the Internet, because this movie doesn’t really say anything about the Internet. What this movie talks about is human relationships, human intimacy in the landscape of the Internet, in the location of the Internet in 2014. My guess is that as time passes, the way we portray the Internet will simply become nostalgic and the way we portray the people will rise to the surface.
It's similar to the Golden Record in Voyager, right? That's sort of a time capsule in a similar way for 1977.
Seriously! Great point. I'm going to say that in the future.
Nathan Reese is a News Editor at Complex. He tweets here.