Men, Women & Children: Interview with Director Jason Reitman

“Men, Women & Children” looks at concurrent and often intersecting events in the lives of seven families which meant fourteen principal characters from two generations – the parents and their children.  Early on, Reitman had several adult actors in mind, performers who could inhabit and embrace the film’s unvarnished, occasionally awkward, often funny and embarrassing situations but who could also understand Reitman’s underlying compassion for the human condition.

“Some of the actors read the book. Some of the actors only read the screenplay. I think the unanimous response is that Chad’s writing is a very accurate portrait of where we are right in this moment. That if we allow ourselves to stop apologizing for what embarrasses us, we can’t help but say this is who we are,” Reitman observes.

The underlying ridiculousness of who we are – connected by so many devices and yet miles apart – and our often misguided approach to solving our perceived problems even as we ignore the greater issues – ultimately have an off-kilter comedic aspect, something not lost on Reitman. In fact, that innate, weird but real humor informed his casting.

Reitman says, “My favorite way to deal with the heavy stuff is with humor because I think that’s the easiest way in and it’s the way that allows us to say the most.  If you start speaking dramatically about things, then you get too caught up in the political correctness and emotions.  When you come to the tough stuff with humor, somehow it opens up a conversation that allows you to go deeper and talk about the darker stuff, the stuff that embarrasses us.  That’s why I’ve chosen a lot of comedic actors who are willing to be as honest as possible on camera.”

Casting Adam Sandler

Reitman approached Adam Sandler early about playing Don Truby, a married man who uses the internet to find an escort because the spark in his marriage is nearly out.  It’s a role that is light years away from any character Sandler has played.

Reitman recalls, “Adam and I had talked about doing something together in the past and I couldn’t imagine a better Don Truby. So I sent him the script which began a two month conversation.  It’s a very tricky role and he had to tackle very difficult, private, honest moments on screen so of course we talked a lot about it  – the meaning of his character and his actions. Frankly, I don’t think I have ever had as many talks about a character as I had with Adam and it was a pleasure to build that character with him,” Reitman says.

On taking the role, Sandler says, “I was scared immediately but knew it was an incredible script.  I called up Jason and told him it gave me a stomach ache and he liked that.  It took me awhile to say, ‘All right, I’m going to give this a shot.’  It was definitely intense to be Don Truby but now that I’ve done it, I’m glad I was in,” Sandler says.

He adds that some of the movie’s themes and predicaments intrigued and frightened him as a parent.

“The internet and social media present too many opportunities – the stuff that is out there can shell-shock a grown man, let alone a 15-year-old stumbling upon it.  I have kids and I am afraid of what’s out there, in that respect. I think one of the movie’s points is how numb and detached everyone is getting and that used in the wrong way, what can it do to your soul, let alone your relationship with your family and friends?” Sandler observes.

For Don’s wife Helen, bored and trapped by what has become a tedious and certainly unfulfilling marriage, Reitman called on actress Rosemarie DeWitt.

“I loved the script and then I read the book which I found to be shocking and rough and mesmerizing. I was attracted and repelled at the same time but curious and excited because I think the story is incredibly profound,” she says.

Reitman says the role required DeWitt’s fearless artistic integrity and her idiosyncratic but flawless acting choices.

“Rosemarie doesn’t know how to have a wrong moment.  Her honesty is piercing. Every little move she makes, the kind of stuff that other actors can’t get away with are all the things that make her performances perfect. What’s exciting about Rosemarie is you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next second. Whether she’s going to go into dialogue, where she’s going to take a beat and every little gesture matters, from thumbing her eyebrows or moving a piece of hair, or a little look, she just has a unique way of approaching a line or a scene that adds weight to everything she does,” Reitman says.


Jennifer Garner

There was only one actress that Reitman had in mind to play the role of overly protective Patricia Beltmeyer, mother to fifteen year old Brandy. Reitman recalls, “I was flying to Cleveland to see my father and sitting in front of me happened to be Jennifer Garner who I’d worked with on ‘Juno.’  I’d always thought she’d be perfect to play Patricia.  I hadn’t let anyone read the script yet and I handed her my iPad and said, ‘Here’s the next script, and I’d like you to play Patricia.’  She read it on the flight and told me she was in.”

Garner remembers their plane ride together eight months before she began work on “Men, Women & Children.” “There was never a question of me doing this movie.  When I handed his iPad back to him, I said, ‘this is really great.’  There was never a moment when I wavered,” she explains.

Much of her interest and confidence in the movie stemmed from her faith in Reitman.  She believed that the material played particularly well to his strengths as a filmmaker.

“When I read it, my first reaction was that only Jason Reitman could pull this off because he is a master of tone and of depicting real life in just enough of a heightened way that there’s plenty of funny and equal amounts of heartstring-tugging. This movie is particularly suited to his talents. And he never wants you to ‘play’ anything. He never wants a fake moment in a scene; he encourages you to be as real as possible which is great for this film particularly because there are tough moments. He never exploits them, he just depicts these real world scenarios in a way we can take them in, digest them and have a great conversation about them. There’s a new pressure on kids right now that everything has to be public.  That everything has to be posted right away as it’s happening moment to moment.  It’s terrifying as a parent to look at and think, ‘how we will navigate this?” Patricia takes it to the extreme; she doesn’t trust her daughter at all, which is the real problem. But underneath, she is a loving mom and a very, very real human,” Garner says.

It is that humanity that Reitman knew Garner could embody.

“Patricia is kind of a cousin to the character Jen played in ‘Juno.’ There is something uptight about her. There’s something very appropriate about her. And she frankly, as much as we want to make fun of the character of Patricia, at the end of the day we can’t help but wonder if she’s right. She’s the character who wants to censor her daughter, who wants to censor the entire world, and that clearly is wrong at face value. But the more you think about it, there’s so much information available to children right now that you start to lean in her direction and wonder if she’s the only sane person in the room. And frankly, Jen knew how to find that balance of crazy and sane, of overly protective and loving,” Reitman says.


Judy Greer

Reitman cast Judy Greer as fame-fixated single mother Donna Clint, whose symbiotic relationship with her daughter Hannah is one of the film’s more controversial and poignant.    He says, “What Judy’s character does in this film is so tricky and picks such a deep wound that only someone with her kind of levity, fragility and frankly, her likability, is allowed to get away with doing these things and still be funny and so lovable.”

“I’d wanted to work with Jason since his first movie “Thank You For Smoking,’ which I auditioned for, but didn’t get,” Greer laughs.   She continues, “And the second thing I found really fascinating was personally, two years ago, I became a stepmother to two teenagers. We did a table read and then I read the book and I freaked out.  I started really watching my kids, seeing them texting on their phones and I couldn’t even imagine what they were saying.  It really opened up my eyes.” Greer says.

The subject matter also had personal resonance for Dean Norris who plays play Kent Mooney, a man whose wife has recently left him in a dramatic, painful fashion and now he has the responsibility of solely raising Tim, his teenage son also trying to make sense of her departure and of the world in general.

“It certainly was a big deal for me to work with Jason Reitman and it’s a role that means something to me because I have kids. And navigating the whole internet thing and how that changes the dynamic and affects their lives, which will be completely different for them than it was for people of my generation.  Kids today have complete access to levels of information – good AND bad – that I didn’t even know existed when I was their age.  Not to mention that it affects the ways they interact – texting and sexting. And all things, good and bad, can be broadcast immediately. So that affects how you do things, how you relate and certainly my character gets a crash course in that,” Norris says.

Reitman particularly relished casting Norris as a man who is emotionally raw and trying to make sense of the new reality of being a single father.  “What I loved about working with Dean on this movie is that we’re showing a vulnerable side to him that’s never been seen on screen before.   I mean we all know him from ‘Breaking Bad,’ but this is different. There’s a sweetness, a tenderness.  We’re watching a man fall in love and it’s exciting to see a guy, who you know, you expect to, punch a guy out, fall in love.”

While Reitman knew who he wanted for the adult cast, finding seven young actors to honestly and believably portray the teenagers featured in the story, required a more extensive search. It was not entirely unfamiliar territory for Reitman.

“It’s my second time working with a group of very talented young actors. And it’s very exciting to watch a group of 18 to 22-year-olds bond this way. To have them come together on a film, live with each other, spend their weekends together, come to set as a group and supporting each other, learning what it’s like to become professional actors at the same time, it was exciting and gratifying to watch that and be part of it. These young actors taught me so much more about what this film was about. Often they would tell me what music they’d be listening to. What devices they’d be using to do that, what apps they liked. They were a constant reminder of what it is like to live in the moment, in this PARTICULAR moment.  They were a delightful group,” Reitman says.


Ansel Elgort

The role of philosophical, deeply depressed Tim Mooney went to Ansel Elgort, who had just finished filming “Fault in Our Stars” and “Divergent” and impressed the filmmakers so much that they offered him the role during his audition.  After his mother abandons him and his family, Tim retreats to a dark and quiet place, foregoing football, which had previously defined him. Instead, he religiously plays a massive multi-player online role playing game.  It not only occupies his time, it provides an escape from his escalating disaffection and growing belief that everything and everyone in his life is irrelevant. He finds solace in the anonymous company of the online players even as that removes him more and more from his family and friends.  The normally sunny Elgort found it challenging to disappear into Tim’s malaise, which was part of the role’s appeal for him.

Elgort explains, “I always try to find scripts that tell a good story, which this one obviously does, but also as an actor, I want be challenged by the character and Tim was quite a character to take on. He’s different than the other roles I’ve played and he isn’t at all close to who I am. I’m a bubbly guy most of the time. I really had to chill myself out and try not to smile because Tim is someone who’s in a dark place. I also liked that the adults aren’t any less vulnerable than the kids.  Everyone has their troubles.  I think what’s beautiful about the story is that you do see the parallels between the kids and the adults and how they’re actually going through similar things.”

Kaitlyn Dever immediately knew she wanted to play Brandy Beltmeyer, whose mother electronically monitors most of her life.  She remembers, “When I read the script, I kept thinking, ‘this is so real.’ I just fell in love with it. I really liked her dry sense of humor and the idea of juggling her own feeling of being trapped in a world governed by her mom and this other secret identity that Brandy creates to escape.

A relative newcomer, Travis Tope still can’t believe Reitman chose him to play Chris Truby, a high school JV football player that is addicted to online pornography.  Tope says, “The last thing I ever thought I’d play is a football player but by some miracle, Jason cast me anyway.”

“The situations these people find themselves in cannot be hammed up – they are dealing with sometimes super uncomfortable instances but in a realistic way which makes them funny – the humor comes out of the real life awkwardness of it all. And for sure that applies to Chris,” Trope says.

Olivia Crocicchia plays Hannah Clint, a sexually forward but perhaps inexperienced cheerleader who has bought into her mother’s dream of fame. Hannah is her mother’s daughter in every way, a willing vessel who will stop at nothing to become famous.  Hannah is remarkably self-assured and knows exactly who she is, in a soulless, even clueless sort of a way. Her pragmatic, naked ambition intrigued Crocicchia. “There are so many roles for girls my age that are either the bratty teenager or the girl in love and a role like this is normally reserved for an adult. She’s an exceptionally driven girl in every level, from her deep rooted desire to be famous to her goal to be the first girl in her class to lose her virginity – and even that is just to prove to the other girls that she is better than they are. It’s all about attention, which she loves and craves,” Crocicchia explains.

Though acting throughout his teens, eighteen-year-old Timothée Chalamet was attending Columbia University full-time when he heard about the role of quarterback Danny Vance.  Chalamet comments, “The script felt like an incredibly accurate portrayal of growing up in the 21st century.  I’m part of the first generation where my entire life will be online.  As I was turning the pages, I was saying, ‘true, true, true.’  Every kid in this has a relevant story. I personally related to the video game addiction and I have a lot of friends who struggle with pornography problems and that is because, as the movie so accurately shows, kids can go online as young as 11 or 12 and be given a view of sex they should NOT be seeing and certainly can’t process.  This was not like other scripts that get sent to 17 or 18-year-old actors and I was thrilled to be a part of it.”

Sixteen-year-old Elena Kampouris  had worked with Reitman before on LABOR DAY, and pursued the role of Allison Doss, an anorexic teenager who is so overcome by the disorder that she seeks support to perpetuate what is, basically, starvation, through like minded souls on the internet. Her severe body dysmorphia leads to reckless and ultimately life-threatening behavior.

Kampouris recounts, “My acting coach called John Papsidera, the casting director, and told him I was willing to fly myself out to LA to read.  I knew I had to bring Allison to life.  Flying out to LA seemed like such a big risk to everyone else but it was an investment I was willing to make. I thought the project was so raw and real, like a mirror to society that makes you uncomfortable and covers the way social media and technology affects us in a way that I had never seen on film before. Allison is an incredibly insecure girl with a lot of mental turmoil. She was such an interesting character which is why I wanted to play her so badly. When I researched anorexia, it was a whole new and disturbing realm for me.  It really helped me understand her and the whole high school experience rang true to me.  The competitive nature between the girls  – for someone like Allison, who is already down on herself, to be in that environment can bring up a lot of emotions and it motivates her to do things to make her feel better about herself that in the long run are not good for her.  She loses a significant amount of weight and instead of that being a red flag, it’s like a medal, it’s rewarding, people are noticing her so she thinks she needs to lose more.”

Kampouris’ unflinching and non-judgmental approach to Allison reflects all the young actors’ valiant       commitment to the material and to Reitman, something not lost on Jennifer Garner.

“Jason has a real knack for sniffing out young talent.  He did it in “Juno.”  In this film, you can’t believe how brave, how guileless and how open the kids are to just taking the chances they have in this film,” she says.

Tying the film together and linking the disparate characters and storylines, is the female narrator whose frank observations of the inner workings of the characters’ brains brings insight to their actions.  Reitman had one voice in his head: Emma Thompson.

Wilson says, “There was always going to be an outside voice of a person in the film.  So, I had in mind all the time while we were writing, that it was Emma doing it – it was written for her.”