Labor Day: Interview Jason Reitman

The book Labor, written by author Joyce Maynard, was published in the summer of 2009 and quickly reached the NY Times Best Seller list. This unconventional tale is both suspenseful and emotionally gripping.  People Magazine noted that Labor Day “…affirmed Maynard’s reputation as a master storyteller…showing her to be a passionate humanist with a gifted ear and heart.”

Producer Helen Estabrook, Jason Reitman’s partner at Right of Way Films, read the book upon recommendation from a friend and like so many others, the characters and their journey resonated with her.  She also thought it had all of the elements of a great film.

“At its core, it’s a coming of age tale intertwined with lost and found love that evolves over a six day period within the confines of a complex situation. I thought the complicated, mesmerizing relationship between Adele, Frank and Henry and the increasingly high stakes were compelling and very cinematic,” Estabrook says.

At Estabrook’s suggestion, Reitman read the book himself and agreed it would make an excellent film.

“I’ve always been attracted to stories about characters who do inexplicable things,” says Reitman. “And I’ve always been excited, as a director, to tell a story in which the audience is going to wonder why something is happening or why something is not happening. The harder it is for an audience to believe a character would do something the more I want to tell that story.  It’s a great storytelling challenge, and a writing and directing challenge, to create an environment in which characters would to things that you would never do yourself but in a way that you would finally understand,” Reitman says.

Reitman approached Joyce Maynard. “I was thrilled, of course, and I felt lucky that I could put my story in the hands of Jason Reitman. I was very familiar with his work and he seemed like an ideal director for this project,” says Maynard. While “Labor Day” is only Reitman’s fourth film as a director, Maynard believed that this and his relatively young age were assets.

“The book takes place in 1987 but it’s the story of a now grown man, looking back over this weekend that changed his life when he was a young…and Jason’s about the age of that man now,” explains Maynard.

Writing Labor Day was a unique experience for Joyce in that she completed the novel in an ambitious 10 days and didn’t know how it would end – until it did.  “I think from the very beginning, I saw it as a movie. It was a movie that was playing in my head and I wrote it very fast, a record for me, because I wanted to know myself how it was going to turn out,” Maynard recalls.

Adele and Frank are exceedingly complex with tragic histories that play heavily in shaping who they are but as they get to know each other, it becomes clear that each is a tonic for the other.  Theirs is a quiet, subtle but palpable affection and it required exceptional and nuanced actors.

“This is a movie where every flinch matters,” explains Reitman. “I needed actors who had so much of the DNA of this cast already within them that even if they’re standing doing nothing, if they’re just basically breathing, you feel the characters and frankly I don’t know any better actors than Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet at doing exactly that…at making you feel something even when they are ostensibly doing very little. It’s one thing to be able to act and say things and be able to move people through their dialogue, however, it’s a whole other thing to be able to just stare someone down and create empathy, whether you’re supposed to be terrified or heartbroken and Josh and Kate, not only can do that but they had this great chemistry from day one,” tells Reitman.

The opportunity to explore Adele and all her sensitive intricacies with Jason Reitman and Josh Brolin appealed to Winslet.

“The film came with Jason Reitman attached to it and that is tremendously enticing to any actor. The idea of working with Jason and Josh was irresistible,” Winslet explains. “And it is such a beautifully written script, very simple in many ways but also complicated. Everything is small but everything means a huge amount in this film, such a complex set of emotions.  The story itself is really very beautiful and pure and I was very much drawn to that and how these two people, against all odds, meet and are thrown together in ways that quite literally change both their lives. There’s something very powerful about that to me,” Winslet says.

Josh Brolin was drawn to the unusual but compelling relationship between Adele and Frank. “I read the book first and I really loved it.  You’re never sure if what Frank is doing is a manipulation or if it’s organic and true, which makes the experience much more interesting,” Brolin recalls

“I think it’s a wonderful structure. You get to know the characters at different times in their lives, see their reactions. You see a very vulnerable young Frank and also you get to see him after 18 years of prison and how that affects him. He almost wants to go back in time to re-inherit his young heart. He wants to be soft again. Adele wants to return to happier times too.  You see the consequence of their past, they’re both traumatized and constantly fighting with that while slowly embracing the gift that has been given to them in the present, this chance meeting that could change everything for them,” Brolin says.

Arguably, one of the most critical characters was that of young Henry Wheeler. Thirteen-year-old Gattlin Griffith had only done small roles in film and television, most notably opposite Angelina Jolie in “The Changeling,” but his castmates and the filmmakers agree that he more than held his own.

“The true discovery of this film is Gattlin Griffith…” explains Reitman.  “Deciding who was going to play Henry really was the hardest casting decision of my life.  Gattlin is so naturally talented and skillful. He has an understanding of how to be a cinematic actor that is almost written in the code of his DNA – he has an ability to do everything and nothing at the same time. He can just step into a close-up and with a couple looks, make you feel so much. He has incredible instinct and utterly understood how to relay all that emotional nuance on screen.  I felt like I was watching LeBron James – he had the physicality and skill and natural talent. I was so lucky to have put him in this movie,” asks Reitman.

Another casting challenge was finding an actor to play Young Frank. When the filmmakers took one look at newcomer Tom Lipinski, their search was over. Lipinski bears such a striking resemblance to Josh Brolin that even Brolin himself was taken aback.

Lipinski was thrilled to work with Brolin and to follow his movements and mannerisms to deliver the most accurate performance possible. “I was definitely nervous about it but he (Brolin) immediately put me at ease and made me feel incredibly comfortable,” says Lipinski.

Coincidentally, Brolin had recently filmed “Men in Black III” where he played a young Tommy Lee Jones so his insight into the process was invaluable in assisting Lipinski. “I was asking him about mannerisms or what would be a good way that we could echo behavior back and forth and having just come off playing Tommy Lee Jones in “Men in Black III,” he’d already been through the whole process before and was able to open a real window into how we can approach it and he was really generous. We had a long conversation about small quirks and little things we can do to sort of tie it all together,” explains Lipinski.

Much like the roles of Young and Older Frank, another character that we follow from a young age through adulthood is Henry.  While he has the least time on screen of any of the cast members, Adult Henry narrates the story of  “Labor Day.” For Reitman, this required a strong actor that could credibly portray grown up Henry, both on screen and off.

“The movie literally needed a voice that was intelligent and thoughtful and interesting…” says Reitman. “When I looked at Gattlin Griffith’s face and I imagined him growing up, I thought about the most captivating voices of the current generation of actors and there was no one that held a candle to Tobey Maguire and I just hoped and prayed he would say yes. Tobey has this unusual voice that is simultaneously very adult and intelligent but also there’s something very youthful about it, even in his casual speech. Tobey often sounds as though he’s realizing some great life mystery or learning something in the moment even if he was just kind of ordering a burger,” Reitman jokes.       “When I imagined applying that great voice to the narration of this film, I knew it would just expand the story and become this wonderful connective tissue that drew us back to why we were watching.”

As an admirer of Reitman’s past films, Maguire was excited to join the cast.  “I’ve long respected Jason’s talent as a filmmaker,” says Tobey Maguire. “So I was thrilled he asked me to consider the part. Jason is one of our most distinctive directors, and he has a wonderful eye for the nuances of inner lives and human drama. That all makes for an uncommonly clear vision for the stories he wants to tell, and a style of filmmaking which feels completely his own.” adds Maguire.

Although Maguire and Griffith do not share screen time, Maguire spent a little time with his younger iteration and enjoyed their brief encounter.

“I hope we get to see more of his work in the future,” Maguire reflects, “Gattlin is a great kid and an engaging young actor.”