Young Adult – Director Jason Reitman on the art of self deception

Young Adult – Director Jason Reitman on the art of self deception

Young Adult - Charlize Theron with director Jason Reitman
Charlize Theron (as Mavis Gary) discusses a scene with director/producer Jason Reitman on the set © 2011 Paramount Pictures and Mercury Productions

Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody are together again – well, movie-wise. For their first project, Juno, Cody won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and Reitman and the movie were nominated for Oscars.

Their new film Young Adult stars Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary, a writer of teen literature who returns to her small hometown to reclaim her happily married high school sweetheart Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). But when returning home proves more difficult than she thought, Mavis forms an unusual bond with a former classmate, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who hasn’t quite gotten over high school, either.

Regarding the casting process, did you have Charlize and Patton in mind?

Young Adult - Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) and Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) © 2011 Paramount Pictures and Mercury Productions

I was only going to make this movie if I could make it with Charlize.

I had read the script and I thought it was phenomenal, but I knew how tricky this character was and I knew how easily it would be to misinterpret this character.

On the page she was written perfectly. She was nuanced and complicated and she wasn’t just some mean girl.

She was a woman with deep wounds that, like anybody wanted to be loved and was searching for her place in life, really only knew how to find it by going back to high school to the last moment where things kind of made sense to her.

I knew Charlize would never judge the character and would make her emotionally complicated, would turn her into a complete human being.

I just needed Patton Oswald. I needed someone who was going to be the accessibility point to this movie and I think this movie works because of Patton Oswald.

I think the audience strangely sees the movie through Patton Oswald. He says the things that everyone in the audience wants to say and his rare combination of brilliant comedy, but also his pathos, his ability to go to these really sad places make the whole thing work.

The standard practice is that once the cameras roll the writer is out of the picture. How is it different with you and Diablo? Have you agreed to help her explore all of the phases of her life?

Young Adult - Patton Oswalt
Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) © 2011 Paramount Pictures and Mercury Productions

I have the rights to Diablo’s life, in a deal that benefits me more than her. (he laughs) Diablo and I get along so well and we trust each other so much, there’s never been a question of whether or not she was going to be on set. So when she could be on set it’s great.

I put her to work.I say, ‘I need a line, I need a scene,’ and she does it. But there’s also enough trust that if she’s not there, she knows I’m not going to screw up her script.

I’m a writer myself and I strangely feel as a writer on set the job is to be a tailor. I know (Aaron) Sorkin would be pissed if I said this, but if an actor can’t say the lines, in my opinion, it’s not the actor’s fault. Clothes should be tailored and that’s how I feel about the dialogue.

If I’m with an actor and they’re struggling with the words, then I tailor the words for the actor.

With the possible exception of Juno, a lot of your leading characters are well skilled in the art of self deception, and none more than Charlize’s character in this.

Young Adult - Charlize Theron, Richard Bekins and Jill Eikenberry
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), David Gary (Richard Bekins) and Hedda Gary (Jill Eikenberry) © 2011 Paramount Pictures and Mercury Productions

I think everyone deceives themselves. I like characters that don’t change because I don’t think people change, or they very rarely do, or they do by a tiny percent. We generally don’t make giant [leaps].

I remember I told my therapist, I’m in therapy, I’m Jewish! I said, ‘I’m worried that if this works I won’t be a good writer anymore,’ and he said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re only capable of about 5 or 10% improvement. (he laughs)

This year we’ve seen Bridesmaids, Bad Teacher and now this movie. It seems like it’s a lot of women behaving badly. Is that something in the zeitgeist, and do you think it’s a sign of progress or a step backwards?

I don’t know. Women behaving badly is, and I’m not trying to be rude, just a cheap term. I’ve always been interested in making movies about women. They interest me far more than men.

I’m interested in honesty in filmmaking and I think the darker moments are far more interesting than the cheerful ones. I guess that’s my approach. I don’t know why they made Bridesmaids or Bad Teacher. That’s certainly why I made this movie.

What is your message to women in this? As a writer and a single woman Mavis not part of the normal society. If this role was a man going back to find an old girlfriend, he’d probably be seen as romantic, but a woman is pathetic.

Young Adult - Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson and Elizabeth Reaser
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), Buddy Slad (Patrick Wilson) and Beth Slade (Elizabeth Reaser) © 2011 Paramount Pictures and Mercury Productions

Wow, there’s a lot in that question. That’s a great question. First and foremost I don’t have a message in any of my movies. If I have a message it’s to think for yourself and come up with your own opinions and I certainly don’t want to tell you want to think.

As far as how we treat her life, I thought it was a fairly true point-of-view on what it’s like to write, which is it’s a really lonely existence, man or woman.

I think you really capture the truth of a writer’s life in those first eight pages, which became the first eight minutes of this movie and that got me excited because I don’t believe I’ve seen it portrayed quite that way, which is alone.