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February 1, 2010

Q&A with Jason Reitman

Award Winning Alum Returns to Campus

By Jimmy Kelly

It’s awards season in Hollywood and among the big names earning praise are a number of Trojans - Jason Reitman ’99 is one of those names. It’s been three hits in a row for Reitman with Thank You for Smoking, Juno and now Up In The Air. A major Oscar contender, Reitman (and co-writer Sheldon Turner) recently won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay among the 6 Golden Globe nominations the film received.  In addition, the film has been recognized with nominations from the DGA, WGA, PGA, 3 SAG nominations, 6 BAFTA nominations and every critics group from Kansas to London has saluted Rietman’s efforts. 

On Thursday, January 21, amidst heavy rain, Reitman returned to campus to drop in on a class he himself took not long ago, CTCS 466: Theatrical Film Symposium, taught by noted film critic and historian, Leonard Maltin.

Maltin, now in his thirteenth year at SCA, just missed out on having Reitman as a student, but reflected on the significance of Reitman’s return to Norris.  “He sat in this class,” said Maltin. “I’ve had so many filmmakers tell me how gratifying it is having sat in the middle of this auditorium to come back and sit on the stage and present their film.” 

Reitman’s enthusiasm was clear during his Q&A with Maltin after the screening of Up In The Air.  The filmmaker joked with the audience and spoke candidly about a number of subjects, including his approach toward the complexities of character, the long list of older films he needs to catch up on and an Outback Steakhouse commercial he regarded as one of the worst things he’s ever directed.

Before his appearance at Norris, Reitman dropped by the new SCA for a tour with Dean Elizabeth Daley and a few questions with SCA Relations. Along the way, Reitman looked back on his journey from growing up on the lot with his father, Ivan Reitman, to proving himself as a filmmaker and finding his own voice at USC.

Highlights of the Q&A

On the challenges of making what Roger Ebert calls “smart, edgy mainstream films” as opposed to “smart, edgy indies.”
“I want to make the type of movie that’s frankly not made anymore, a film that is more expensive than an independent film, but is not a large scale, broad studio film. It’s a thoughtful film, it’s a film for adults, but it uses studio money. If you’re going to do that, you have to keep your budget low enough and you have to make sure people actually want to see it at the end of the day. It doesn’t have to make $100 million, but there’s a responsibility to, first of all, the people who are paying for your film and to the people who may want to see it.” 

On what led Reitman to Up in the Air.
“I thought I was reading a book about myself.”

On growing up in Hollywood’s backyard.
“I’m of the last generation that grew up on a studio lot. A studio lot that was a private lot that felt like a family. I think if you were a kid now on a studio lot you’d be on the backlot of basically a corporation that sold off its lot just so it could rent it back to its studio. I really grew up in something wonderful and it was the last breath of something wonderful. I grew up watching stories come together. I grew up in editing rooms, I grew up on sets, I grew up in writer’s rooms.

“It’s funny, people always presumed I had an enormous advantage being the son of my father and they think that it’s because I could pick up the phone and get any studio head to just make my film; it’s the opposite of the case. The reason I had a huge advantage is because I watched my father attempt to make movies and when he hit walls, I watched how he improvised. I learned that filmmaking is an imperfect science and that your greatest moments of storytelling come when you face challenges and you know what to do.”

The origin of Reitman’s first film at USC, Operation.
“I created a desk calendar company here at USC and I distributed desk calendars to every dorm room here at USC, so if you live in a dorm room here, I’ve actually been in your room before. I used the money I made from the calendars to fund my first short film. I shot it around here, I shot at the Vagabond Inn on Figueroa, I shot in the [USC Keck School of Medicine] and it premiered at Sundance. I was the youngest guy at Sundance. I was just a kid there, it was great.”

One thing Reitman knows now that he’d tell his former self, just starting out at USC.
“The most important thing is to discover your own voice. We waste so much time trying to tell other people’s stories when you need to figure out what your own stories are and how you can tell them.”