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Directors on Their Teams: Jason Reitman on ‘Labor Day’

Jason Reitman wrote and directed Paramount’s “Labor Day,” which he says was a big departure for him and for his team, most of whom have worked with him on previous films. As he told Variety, “I had brilliant collaborators who all grew with me. I didn’t reach out to a whole new crew. I went to everyone I’d worked with from Day One.” The story tells of a woman (Kate Winslet) who’s emotionally closed off. Near the start of the movie, she and her son (Gattlin Griffith) encounter a stranger (Josh Brolin) who demands to go home with them. They comply. Reitman says, “That’s one of the trickiest scenes I’ve ever had to direct. It’s a polarizing scene. There are people who go for it and there are people who completely reject it. And that’s kinda fun for me. It lets me know that I’m working with interesting material. If it made ‘perfect sense’ and it was easy, it wouldn’t be the right movie for me.” Here Reitman talks about his collaborators on the film.

Art Direction: Steve Saklad

The house is a fourth character. Steve Saklad has been my production designer since my first film and he’s extraordinary. We searched the entire state of Massachusetts for that house. My location manager has never looked at that many locations looking for one place. For weeks we would just drive down the street, knocking on people’s doors. The house we found was perfect but it was very modern. Steve brought it back to 1987. And didn’t do the normal “movie” stuff. We went to the city and applied for permits, we redid the plumbing, we added extensions, we rebuilt that house. We built that kitchen from scratch and then had to age it through different eras and to fill Adele’s life. It’s a really tricky thing to have this woman be a shut-in but not a freak — that fine line, you have to pick it up in details. Sacklin and his team went to every thrift store, every auction to fill that place. He did an extraordinary job.

Music: Rolfe Kent

This was a very different approach for him. With any composer, the first thing they do is send you melodies. Then it’s “I like that one, expand on that one.” On this film, we did melodies last. I said ‘I want you to send me sounds. And I want them to be hot.’ He would send me emails and one would be called ‘boiling’ another would be ‘simmering.’ Each one had a different name describing how hot it was. And once we had the sounds, we would start to layer the sounds and it was only at the very end we added melody. That opening sequence, through the woods — I’m so proud of him. It’s a very tricky thing as a composer who’s used to creating melodies to look at the title sequence of gorgeous trees and say ‘I’m gonna create these drones of real instruments and not-real instruments.’ He has a studio full of African and Asian drums and he would just fill the soundscape and we would pick out different sounds.

Cinematography: Eric Steelberg

Eric and I have known each other since we did our first film together at 15. We made a series of films that had a very specific look. Then we looked at this and said ‘We both have to grow by decades to make this film.’ We watched a lot of movies together. We did photoboards. I can’t draw, so I don’t do storyboards. We went to the house a month, two months before we shot there, to figure out scenes. When you’re in a confined space like that, you don’t want to do the same shot twice. I never want to see the same shot twice in a movie. And when you’re filming in the same kitchen, the same living room, the same dining room, over and over, it’s a really hard thing to do, so we spent weeks in this house with stand-ins and our digital SLR’s with the lenses marked off and we’d go and figure out every movement and every shot in the house. And on Day One, everyone in the crew got a packet and it had a photo shot in the location with stand-ins. We mapped out the whole thing. In my office, we had cards on the wall, with every shot in the film. We were not doing a superhero film where you need to figure this stuff out. This was because we had a zillion flashbacks. For a movie that takes place in five days in one house, there were 300 scenes and Kate had 50 costume changes. The movie is constantly moving backwards and forwards. I am astounded by how much he grew through it.

Actors: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin

(Casting Kate Winslet) was such a no-brainer to anyone who’s seen her films. Her ability to play so contained and so emotional and never judge her characters. It’s a tough thing to play broken and vulnerable and not be weak and not be a dismissed character. She makes those characters beautiful and sexual. I don’t know another actor who does that. I don’t know what I would have done if she’d said no. I met with Josh and I didn’t know what he would be as a person. I expected him to be a much tougher person. He’s actually a lovely, easygoing, funny guy. We’ve become close friends. He’s intent on being a character actor. I was encouraging him to be a leading man. He doesn’t love doing it. The idea of just being a muscular, intense, handsome man — a hero — that’s the biggest stretch for him. I do zero rehearsal. On the set, I tell the actors, ‘This is where we’re gonna be, this is where you’re gonna go.’ That’s about it. I’ve learned to say less and less. As a first-time filmmaker, I used to say so much. With each subsequent film I’ve learned. I have had the great luxury of working with brilliant actors and I’ve learned to let them do their job, let them do what they do well. And usually the big direction I give is ‘Do it over, but bring it in a little, don’t do so much.’

Producer: Helen Estabrook

My producer Helen Estabrook read the book (by Joyce Maynard), loved it, and we got it while it was still in galleys. She said, ‘It doesn’t contain any of the stuff you normally respond to, but you are going to absolutely love it.’ And she was right. I loved it. We reached out to her, we got the book and I did an adaptation.

Script: Jason Reitman

It’s a very new thing for me to make a movie where there’s so little dialog. My characters usually talk a mile a minute; two of my characters actually spoke for a living. So to have characters that are quietly falling in love through glances and touches is a whole new language for me. And that’s two things these actors do brilliantly. Josh and Kate can sell things through looks. The scene that pulled me into the book, which I think works similarly in the movie, is when he ties her up and makes chili and feeds her. There’s such a complex set of ideas going on there: Does she want to be tied up? Is he tying her up for any reasons other than the ones he’s saying? What does it say that he is an amazing chef? How does the boy feel about seeing his mom get tied up? What does it feel like to the boy watching his mom get fed? The ideas set off so much in my brain, that was a biggie. And the pie-making scene, that was another big one. That is the theoretical sex scene of this movie. Those were the two big things that pulled me in. It was intended to be my followup to “Up in the Air.” I asked Kate and Josh to do it, both said yes, but Kate was unavailable. So in the meantime, I did “Young Adult.”

Directors on Their Teams runs Monday through Friday. Wednesday: Asghar Farhadi.

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