Juno: Director Jason Reitman on Making his Oscar-Nominated Film

In the comedy “Juno,” Ellen Page plays Juno MacGuff, a confidently frank teenage girl who calls the shots with a nonchalant cool and an effortless attitude as she journeys through an emotional nine-month adventure into adulthood.

Quick-witted and distinctively unique, Juno walks Dancing Elk High’s halls to her own tune, but underneath her tough no nonsense exterior is just a teenage girl trying to figure it all out.

While most girls at Dancing Elk are shopping at the mall, Juno is a whip-smart Minnesota teen living by her own rules. A typically boring afternoon becomes anything but when Juno decides to have sex with the charmingly unassuming Bleeker (Michael Cera). Faced with an unplanned pregnancy, she and best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) hatch a plan to find Juno’s unborn baby the perfect set of parents courtesy of the local Penny Saver. They set their sights on Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), an affluent suburban couple who are longing to adopt their first child. Luckily, Juno has the support of her dad and stepmother (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney).

As Juno moves closer to her due date, the veneer of Mark and Vanessa’s idyllic life starts to show signs of cracking. While fall becomes winter and winter turns to spring, Juno’s physical changes mirror her personal growth. With a fearless intellect far removed from the usual teen angst, Juno conquers her problems head-on, displaying a youthful exuberance both smart and unexpected.

“Juno” would not have made it to the page in the first place if it hadn’t been for the team of filmmakers who worked tirelessly to bring her to the big screen. It started with producer Mason Novick who, while surfing the Internet, discovered an Internet blog penned by Diablo Cody. He was immediately struck by her humorous writing, hailed for its singularly feminine, ultra-contemporary and utter candid nature.

“As a movie producer I read a lot that is supposed to be funny but is usually pretty terrible,” Novick explained. “So every day for about six months I read her blog, and every day it made me laugh. So, I called her out of the blue, and said, ‘I’m a producer, I live in Los Angeles, I read your blog every day and it makes me laugh. Have you ever thought about writing a screenplay’ And she said, ‘I’ve thought about it, but I’ve never, you know, never really done it.'” But what she had already done is write a book, “Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper.”

Novick sent a “Candy Girl” draft to a New York book agent who in turn sold it to Gotham Books. “By then we were talking about Diablo adapting CANDY GIRL for the screen,” Novick recalls, “and I pointed out that she would need a sample screenplay so the studios could see that she could do it. A couple of months later she called and said ‘The sample script’s ready,’ and she sent me “Juno.” I read it in one sitting and I was blown away. The script we are shooting today is pretty much the script I read back then, which almost never happens. The story and the characters just all popped off the page.”

Diablo Cody is thrilled that Reitman chose to bring her script to the screen. “I didn’t expect it,” she said, “which is why I was so incredibly thrilled when I heard he was interested, because “Thank You for Smoking” showed what a talented, self-assured filmmaker he is. I just knew that when I handed this over I was going to feel this wonderful sense of security, and that’s been the case. I don’t know what appealed to him about this script, but I’m really glad that it did.”

Novick says the film is ripe with feelings and situations that are current and relevant in today’s world. “Diablo really taps into how kids talk, and how grownups talk around kids, and she nails specific characters in their own worlds without it ever feeling phony. “It’s her voice that makes ‘Juno’ a teen movie that doesn’t talk down to teenagers.”

Ellen Page

Casting is always a crucial component of successfully translating a script to the screen. With “Juno,” the filmmakers had a tough task of finding the right actress to step into Juno’s complex shoes. The fit had to be perfect for audiences to not only know who she was but also to welcome her–flaws and all–with open arms. Reitman knew that Ellen Page, known to indie audiences for her ferocious performance opposite Patrick Wilson in the controversial Hard Candy,” was the right choice for such a major challenge, even if she makes it look easy.

“When you have great actors you want to get in there and let their faces tell the story. Ellen in particular does unbelievable, subtle little things with her face. I can give her 120 notes on each take and she hits all of them perfectly,” Reitman explained.

“A lot of actors are good mimics, or they are method actors and do a lot of research, or they are naturally very charming,” noted Reitman, while comparing Page to Meryl Streep. “What’s different about Ellen, is that she knows what Juno would do, say or feel at any given moment, and she can turn it on and off like a light switch. It’s incredible to watch.”

At first glance, the Lorings Juno picks as the lucky pair to adopt her baby may seem like the cookie-cutter suburban couple with two incomes, a beautiful home and respectable values. However, there are underlying characteristics to their stories, which only helps to add to their appeal and complexity. Jennifer Garner’s character, Vanessa Loring, is the apotheosis of post-feminist consumerism, a woman who finds power and liberation in her career and measures her success in the acquisition of goods and, even, a child.

Defying Conventions

“I like that the characters defy convention and are people who make personal, as opposed to political, choices for themselves, just like in real life,” Reitman said. “Feminism has paved the way for Vanessa’s career, but ultimately Vanessa wants to be a full time mother,” he said. “A lot of women today who want to be mothers are really conflicted between that desire and everything they’ve put into their career, and I appreciate that the conflict is made even trickier because of politics.”

Although “Juno” is a realistic look at contemporary teens, the film also gives two really talented, high profile, thirty-something actors, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, to paint an emotionally rich portrait of a couple struggling in a complicated marriage. The house that Reitman and his team have chosen for the couple, Mark and Vanessa Loring, is located in the gated community of the posh suburban subdivision Glacial Valley Estates, which Reitman establishes with a cheeky montage of drive-by shots of houses that all look the same.

Inside this particular McMansion, the two curved staircases that greet visitors under a vaulted foyer lead to the upstairs bedrooms, one of which serves as Mark Loring’s “special room,” where he screws around with the guitars he used to play in the rock band of his faded youth.

The only actor who appears in both THANK YOU FOR SMOKING and JUNO is J.K. Simmons. In SMOKING, Simmons played Nick Naylor’s hardass boss at the Institute for Tobacco Studies and in JUNO he plays another tough character as Juno’s dad Mac. But while Mac seems to have a gruff exterior, he is complemented with an endearing side, which Reitman said reflects the real nature of Simmons.

“Every director has an actor he wants to cast in every movie he makes,” Reitman offers, “and J.K. Simmons is that actor for me. We connect, we speak the same language. He’s made a career playing the guy who said, ‘Mr. President, the missiles are in the air.’ He’s played so many tough guys that casting him as the perfect dad really worked for this one. In real life J.K. is a big teddy bear, a family man, and it was exciting to have the opportunity expose that side of him.”

People who have seen both films will likely notice the importance Reitman places on paternal relationships. SMOKING’s Nick Naylor is deeply concerned about how he appears in the eyes of his son; in JUNO, the title character often finds comfort in the arms of her father.

Rapport With Father

“My father and I have a wonderful relationship,” said Reitman. “He has shared so many life lessons with me and I am very grateful to him for that. I try to model my life after his. I can’t help that the same dynamic might play into the parent-child relationships in my movies.”

Both Allison Janney, who plays Simmons’ wife and Juno’s stepmother, and Reitman have noted separately that she appeared in two of his father’s productions, SIX DAYS, SEVEN NIGHTS and PRIVATE PARTS. Of Janney Reitman said: “I’m a longtime fan. I loved her in AMERICAN BEAUTY and on THE WEST WING. She can do anything.”

Look of Film

“The movie has seasons–autumn, winter, spring–that really resonated with me when I read it,” Reitman said, “because they mirror the three trimesters of Juno’s pregnancy.”

When asked about his use of color in the film–the rich burgundy and gold of Dancing Elk’s track uniforms, the foliage in the wide shots that nearly pulsate with the warmth of AUTUMN or the hysteria of SPRING, Reitman points out how color can inform character. “I used a lot of rich browns, tobacco colors, for some important characters in SMOKING, so as to contrast them against the white-hot whites of Hollywood, a land that was so foreign to Nick Naylor. The liberal senator from Vermont wore green, and so on,” he explains.

Talk of the color palette Reitman has employed for some early scenes in JUNO–Juno in her little red hoodie, walking through a world of somber greens and browns,” as Reitman puts it, “brings him to reveal a rare flash of uncertainty he faced when shooting that scene in which Juno appears to contemplate suicide. That was a moment in the screenplay I wasn’t sure about. What is this doing here, right at the beginning of a comedy I’d thought, but when it came time to shoot I knew I had to show total confidence. We needed the right tree and we needed a really, really long licorice rope, so those things got made, but inside I still wasn’t sure. But one idea from Ellen changed everything: she bites through the licorice and all of a sudden it all made sense. One moment Juno thinks her life is over, and then the next she becomes a kid again–and that sets up a lot of decisions she makes in the film. She played it as a girl at end of her rope and then makes people laugh.”

For production designer Steve Saklad, who worked with Reitman on THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, JUNO was a chance to create the interior spaces of three different sixteen year old kids, create the space for Juno’s off-center, salt-of-the-earth parents who have years of history in every piece of decoration in their house, and to create the world of Vanessa and Mark Loring, knowing that Vanessa has probably read every home magazine and tried to copy what’s in them as best she could.

Costume designer Monique Prudhomme put similar thought into Vanessa and Mark Loring’s wardrobe, particularly as it applied to the first time Juno and her father–and the audience–meet the couple. Vanessa’s clothing is simple and very tasteful – but with a certain anal-retentive quality. She is dressed conservatively and with precision, white cuff, collar- she’s very angular. Jennifer Garner has a beautiful jaw, and it’s very interesting to work with, because she brings a certain sternness to the character, especially at the beginning. That’s why we put Jason Bateman in a similar kind of conservative blue sweater, which compliments Vanessa’s: he is being told who to be, someone he doesn’t want to be: this is the conflict of the Loring house. Later, audiences might notice that his clothes get closer to the way Juno dresses.”

When the camera takes you outside, on, say the track at Dancing Elk High, you can almost feel the fresh, cold air in your lungs. As Juno navigates the lunchroom and halls of Dancing Elk High, the camera follows closely behind, creating a sense of claustrophobia, particularly as we get deeper into her pregnancy.

The habits of real-life teenagers informed at least one of Reitman’s choices. On a location scout at another high school, the filmmaker observed a couple of students hanging out in the hall, sitting inside a trophy case and chatting between classes. The image inspired Reitman to situate Juno and Leah in the same way for a scene that Cody had originally written as a walk-and-talk.

On the day this scene is shot, a visitor notices that the trophy case is not dissimilar to a number of diorama-type images that punctuate the end of “THANK YOU FOR SMOKING.”

Any discussion of the look of JUNO wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the opening title sequence, created by a company called Shadowplay studios. The sequence was put together by hand-painting frames shot with a high-speed still camera and assembling them into a stop-motion animated montage. Shadowplay also created the memorable titles inspired by vintage cigarette packaging for THANK YOU FOR SMOKING.

“I met those guys at a film festival in Japan in which we both had shorts playing,” Reitman said. “Their fantastic movie was called THE SKY IS FALLING and we found ourselves sort of touring all the short film festivals as if we were the class of 2000. I love their work.”

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