In his latest film, Men, Women & Children, director Jason Reitman explores the different ways in which technology influences our lives. Based on Chad Kultgen’s book of the same name, the film follows a handful of characters, looking into the way they use the social media, texting, and more to express their sexuality, raise their kids, and connect with others.
We talked with Reitman about adapting the book, the difficulties of portraying sexuality on-screen, and what comes next for him.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the origin story of this movie? How did it come about?
Jason Reitman: The origin is that Mason Novick, who discovered Diablo Cody, gave me a copy of Average American Male, Chad Kultgen’s book, years ago, and I loved it. And when Chad wrote Men, Women & Children, he actually gave me the book when it was still in galleys and [I had a]similar reaction. It was just something so raw and so real and so honest about his writing and his approach to human relationships and when I ran into Erin Cressida [Wilson] at Sundance, not this last January but the previous, it just hit me, I was like, “Oh, I know she’s going to respond to this material.” I sent her the book. She loved it. And there was a moment where she was just even going to write it herself and then I said, “No no no, we gotta write this together,” and by March, we were in a room writing together.
I read where you all broke the book into quadrants?
Yeah, we broke it into four pieces. She took the first and third, and I took the second and fourth. And then we adapted those quarters, swapped them and then stitched them together, and then we realized we’d somehow missed chapter five in all of that. I went and adapted chapter 5 and then we added it. I’ve never co-written with anybody so this was all experimentation.
Would you go about it that same way again in the future?
Yeah, with the right person. Erin and I just get along famously, so I think it would be a lot of fun to work with her again.
How involved was the author, Chad Kultgen?
Chad was pretty hands off while we were starting the screenplay but then, as with every author, I gave him a copy of the script and he had really good thoughts and definitely made changes. Throughout the process, I used Chad as an expert on the modern-day digital life. I’d reach out to him with questions about how role-playing games work for Tim Mooney’s character, particularly about making sure that we were current, because the book was written I think four maybe even five years ago. In the book, they’re all on MySpace, for example.
When you sat down to adapt the book, was there a specific element of the story or even a scene that you knew absolutely had to make it to the screen?
Oh my god, there’s so many scenes that I love in the book. A lot of it is just the voiceover. The voiceover, a lot of it comes from Chad’s narration and I knew that I wanted that. I love the meeting where Jennifer Garner has that meeting at her house and she’s explaining the way the Internet works to the fellow parents at the school. I love the kind of heartbreaking scene between Travis Tope and the girl that he attempts to sleep with. I love the whole book. People say it’s hard to pick a favorite; it really is hard to pick a favorite here.
What was maybe the most difficult element to translate from book to screen? I saw where you talked about the porn content and how certain things are much easier to read than watch.
Yeah, certainly there’s a tricky thing about taking sexuality in a novel and translating it to screen. There’s all kinds of things that we are comfortable to read and imagine in whatever filter you want to put it through in your brain, where when you see something, it’s just there. It’s burned in.
Trickier than that, frankly, was just, “How do we portray what is essentially a non-visual element, which is someone texting?” It’s the least cinematic thing I can imagine—someone’s sitting in a room on their computer or someone sitting in a chair texting somebody and yet, if you imagine our lives as they currently exist, that’s about half of our time, maybe more. So the trick was, “How do we portray this without simply cutting between close-ups and shots of screens and shots of hands on keyboards?” The solution we came up with was to create this visual plane that existed over the film plane where we could see everything they were typing, everything they were looking at—tabs, windows on iPhones—that would almost act as though the desktop image of your computer was the film plane. And it seems to be working. People who watch the film don’t go, “I had to figure out how to watch all these things on top of the movie.” We’re so used to doing that; we’re so used to having five windows open on our computer or 10 apps going on our phone that the multi-tasking is natural to us.
I also read where you mentioned how this film marked the first time you had to talk to a young actor’s parents.
For the first time in my career, I actually had to ask, you know Elena Kampouris came in for our audition for the role of Allison, I said to her, “Alright would you mind stepping out and sending your mother in now?” And I had to have a long conversation about, Elena’s 15 years old, let’s talk about her character. Her character is anorexic and she is addicted to being a part of this pro-ana community and looking at thinspiration Tumblrs, and she has a kind of tough sex scene in the film, so it was interesting to have that conversation with a parent and that conversation with Elena herself.
I just want to be sensitive to her family and make sure that they understand what she’s getting into and make sure that we have an open dialogue. The last thing I’d ever want is for an actor or an actor’s parents to get to the end of the film and realize that there was concerns that never got brought up or conversations that never happened. So what I tried to establish with all the actors and when it came to the minors, their parents, that “Don’t even hesitate for a second; come and talk to me. If there’s something that’s on your mind about the tone of the film, what we’re shooting or whether it seems realistic.” I told all the actors—adults and young people—we’re trying to represent this unique moment we’re in where are lives are changing so quickly by virtue of our relationship with the internet, and if something doesn’t feel true to you, then come to me and let’s talk about a way to make this feel honest.
When viewers walk away from this film, what do you want them to take with them?
I’ve always hoped that my films don’t result in conclusions as much as they create conversation. I hope that people go to see Men, Women & Children with someone who’s important to them—whether you’re seeing it with your parents, your kids, your loved ones, you wife, your husband—and the film spawns conversation, that you walk out of it and you can’t help but want to talk about the things that are brought up in the movie and that this becomes a way to open up.
I have to touch on getting Emma Thompson to narrate this film, which might have been your smartest move.
Well it’s an easy thing to say, “I would like Emma Thompson to narrate my movie.” It’s more daunting, the prospect of her saying no. I’m very, very fortunate that she said yes. She had the perfect voice. We wanted to create this third person point of view almost a voyager, looking back at humanity like a documentarian looking at animals in the wild and taking this kind of cold but almost National Geographic look at the way we behave online.
I saw an interview where you mentioned how, compared to Labor Day, this film is more in your natural voice. How would you describe your natural voice as a filmmaker?
I guess my natural voice is more satirical, and it’s more based in the moment—modern reality, not a time piece—and is interested in the darker details of our fears and our desires.
What’s next for you?
I’m adapting a book called The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings, who wrote The Descendants, and working on another few things. I’m thinking about doing a pilot. It’s an interesting moment; we’re still figuring out how people want to watch movies. While I’m in love with the theatrical experience, I’m very intrigued by what Netflix is doing and all of this amazing work that’s happening on cable TV and yeah, I’m excited to explore all the ways that I can tell stories.
Men, Women & Children is in limited theaters now with a wide-release scheduled for Oct. 17.