Director Jason Reitman takes a career left turn with Labor Day, a melodrama seemingly far away from his earlier films.
8 Oct 2013 - 3:57 PM  UPDATED 23 Apr 2020 - 2:17 PM

When Jason Reitman stood before the crowd at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of his new film Labor Day in his native Canada, he issued a warning: “This is unlike any of my films you've seen before. We all had to grow up to make this film. If you came expecting a comedy tonight I apologise in advance.”

we've all made mistakes or inexplicable decisions based on our desire. I wanted to see a movie about that

Given the 35-year-old filmmaker is the offspring of the city's Hollywood success story, Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, a generous benefactor who even has Reitman Square named after him, it's understandable that Jason felt under pressure. He also knew that audiences were keenly aware of his past efforts, Juno, Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air and Young Adult.

“I want to dedicate tonight's screening to my mother who is here tonight,” he said referring to French-Canadian former actress Geneviève Robert, who sat alongside her husband, a beaming Reitman Snr., who co-produced Up in the Air.

“I get a lot of questions about my dad and I can't imagine why,” Jason mused, “but during my childhood, oftentimes my father was making a movie and my mother and I would spend so much time together. We'd sit in the car and talk about stories and frankly, I think she's the funnier Reitman and it's probably where my sense of humour came from. So tonight this is for you, mom.”

Away from the event, Reitman recalls reading Joyce Maynard's novel, which follows Adele, a traumatised housebound mother who, over a steamy American Labour Day weekend, falls in love with Frank, an injured murderer on the run. He immediately envisaged it as a film.

“I'd loved Joyce's earlier novel To Die For and Gus van Sant's film too, so I reached out to her like other authors I've adapted and we had a lovely conversation,” he recalls. “The second time I met her she was teaching me how to make a pie. She taught all of us how to make pies. When I sent her the screenplay she had some thoughtful notes and, ultimately, it's the closest adaptation I have ever done or probably ever will.”

A precise, exacting type, Reitman knew the actors he wanted to play the two leads, and after getting Josh Brolin on board he waited a year for Kate Winslet to become available. Even if both actors are playing against type, they relished the challenge.

Reitman admits that this moody sensual story was always going to be difficult to make, let alone to describe.

“What made the book so good and what made it something that all of us wanted to participate in, is it's about desire, something that's inexplicable and is too complex to put into words. Why does she take him home? Why does she let him tie her up? Why does that moment where he's feeding her mean so much in 10 different ways? Why is it so complex to ask her son to watch this moment? Why do we want love for these three people when perhaps she should be kicking him out or her son should be running across the street trying to find a way to call the cops? But we've all made mistakes or inexplicable decisions based on our desire. I wanted to see a movie about that.”

Hiring two of the best talkers in the business didn't make it any easier, especially since it was impossible to explain Adele's trauma as all is revealed at the end.

“One of the things I was able to rely on was that Adele is a really wonderful mother and she never wavered in the parenting of her son,” notes a heavily pregnant Winslet. “That is quite unique, I think, when you stumble across a female character who, on the surface, is so fragile and fragmented, yet she isn't munching on Prozac and she isn't wandering around with lots of terrible hair in her bathrobe drinking gin and being neglectful. She is absolutely able to put it together and to see that the most important thing above all else is her love for her son. The challenge was to really get the balance between those two emotional extremes—because they are extremes —and she did have to hide so much of everything that she had been through. That was really a kind of tightrope walk for me.”

Reitman was impressed that his actors came mentally prepared. “I don't really rehearse and I'm used to making movies that have so much dialogue, whereas this is a movie about looks, about glances, about the first moment two people touch each other and embrace. I relied on the brilliance of my actors to feel out those moments and the only directions I ever gave was to say, 'Less of this' or 'Less of that'. I can be very controlling but felt like I was hands-off here.”

Winslet recalls it differently, though was happy to be controlled. “Jason's so structured and prepared in what he needed from us I felt I could trust what we were stepping into every day.”

One of Brolin's major tasks was to learn to cook the pies that were so integral to Maynard's book. While he didn't make the chilli that Frank cooks for the tied-up Adele in perhaps the most unusual seduction scene to ever be filmed, he did perfect the art of pie-making, which is also beautifully realised. The deep-voiced Brolin recalls going to great lengths out of “abject fear” of not being able to do it well.

“In the screenplay Jason wrote, 'and then begins the greatest pie-making scene in cinema history'. Technically, you want to learn things you have to appear to be good at in movies and it's a long scene. I was at home making pies constantly.” He cooked them every single day.

“Josh is like a picture of masculinity,” says Reitman, “but you'd show up at his door and he'd be in an apron, he'd be so excited to tell you about the crust he achieved that day or the juices coming out of the pie. He'd give pies to everybody and it really was exciting at first, but after a few weeks at the very point you'd see the pie, you'd go running. Oh, it's another pie!” The burly teamsters, Brolin notes, never tired of them. They miss them.

Ultimately, Reitman says Labour Day is strangely similar to his other films. “They're all about atypical heroes, whether it be a pregnant teenage girl, a head lobbyist for big tobacco, a guy who fires people for a living or a woman who tries to break up a marriage. My big decision here was to work with the same family of filmmakers I've worked with from day one. I've known my cinematographer Eric Steelberg and editor Dana Glauberman since I was a teenager. I talked to both of them about how we were going to raise our game to be able to make a movie like this. In the weeks leading up to filming we watched tonnes of films and we would sit there and point out little things about a shot or design. We watched Body Heat just to look at sweat. We asked, 'How does sweat work on someone's hair? How does it look on someone's clothes? How does sheen look on someone's forehead?'”

Labour Day is ultimately an emotional, gut-wrenching journey made intensely watchable by the performances of Winslet and Brolin and the skills of Reitman, one of the best filmmakers of his generation. And he's very different to his dad.


Watch 'Labor Day'

Wednesday 29 April, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies (now streaming at SBS On Demand)

USA, 2013
Genre: Drama
Language: English
Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire
What's it about?
Depressed single mom Adele (Winslet) and her son Henry offer a wounded, fearsome man (Brolin) a ride. As police search town for the escaped convict, the mother and son gradually learn his true story as their options become increasingly limited.

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