Please note that there were two press conferences that took place for this film during TIFF. One was held by the festival while the other was held by Paramount. This article is based on the one held by Paramount.
Jason Reitman’s hotly anticipated new film Labor Day made an appearance at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and we were there to see it. The film stars Josh Brolin as Frank, a fugitive on the run in rural Massachusetts who interrupts the lives of the young and impressionable Henry (Gattlin Griffith), and his deeply depressed mother Adele, who is played by Oscar-winner Kate Winslet.
Based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day is an emotional, and romantic chamber piece drama that takes place over the course of one long summer weekend. It’s the most honest and earnest effort yet from Reitman, who made a huge impression with his 2005 debut feature, Thank You For Smoking, before wracking up more praise and accolades directing films such as Juno and Up in the Air.
We were lucky enough to get to see and review the film early, as well as sit in on a press conference featuring Reitman, Brolin and Griffith that took place during the festival. Without going into spoilers, the stars left nothing off the table, explaining their approach to the creative process, relationships, love, and yes, pie. The film is set for limited release this Christmas Day, before going wide January 14th, 2014. Until then, enjoy this sneak peek at an early awards contender!
What about this period piece do you think resonates with today Jason?
Jason Reitman: The only reason it is a period piece is because we needed the flexibility to move backwards and forwards through time. While I wish I could say it has a relevance to now, I think it could easily have taken place now. But it needed to take place in ’87 just so we’d have the flexibility to move forward and have [Gattlin’s] character speak about his childhood later on.
Jason, how did you choose to approach the presentation of the character backstories?
Jason Reitman: In the book, each of their backstories is told as a solid chapter, where it’s “this is what happened to Frank, this is what happened to Adele,” and as a storyteller I thought, while that works well in a book, there’s no way in a movie we can stop for two ten-minute flashbacks. So we decided to tell the Adele flashback as one piece, but I thought it would be more interesting if we just got these glimpses of Frank’s story. And as soon as I thought of that as a screenwriter, I realized there’s all these little moments in Frank’s backstory that strangely relate to things that are happening in the movie along the way, and if you could somehow pepper them in throughout the movie, so they are constantly acting as a visual metaphor for the other things that are happening inside the house at the moment, that could be interesting.
Josh what did you bring to the development of your character?
Josh Brolin: I think it’s all there. [Jason] has placed it in a way that’s more in tune with the character and elusive. “Who is this guy? What are his real motives? Is he going to fall in love? Is he just taking advantage of them?” You’re not positive, you know? That was my experience on [No Country for Old Men] too, when people were like, “well who killed him?” and then they saw the movie three times. It’s not wrapped up.
Jason Reitman: We’re looking for box office. [laughs]
Josh Brolin: It’s making you work, and that’s a really good thing. It doesn’t happen very often.
Josh, how did you balance Frank’s tenderness and danger?
Josh Brolin: You intellectualize him purely out of fear in the beginning. Once you get into it, you try to visceral-ize it as much as possible, so [Jason’s] tweaking it more than I am. Once I’m inside, I can’t really see it. I know how I feel, but there’s a reason he chose me to play the part, because I come across, I don’t know, as more intimidating than I necessarily am.
Jason Reitman: If you play his eyebrows one way it’s really intimidating. But if you bring them up a little it’s way more tender. [laughs]
Josh Brolin: My father was 6 4”, my mother was 5 2”, and I proportionally came out being able to play this role.
Josh, what did you think of the unlikely relationship between Frank and Adele and what it said about human nature?
Josh Brolin: When it comes to chemistry, there’s something you really can’t deny. I know some people have said “could something like this really happen?” and I think when you have two people that have come from such isolated situations, one being Frank physically, and then [Adele] since her divorce – she’s become totally agoraphobic – you put those two together, and there’s such need of human connection. It’s just two magnets, they’ll figure it out. It’s almost undeniable at that point.
Gattlin, how did you choose to modulate your performance as Henry.
Gattlin Griffith: When I first went to the audition, I was screaming, I was doing all this other stuff, and Mr. Reitman was like, “you need to take it down.”
Jason Reitman: You tell him 20 times, but he’ll never call you by your first name. [laughs]
Gattlin Griffith: Yeah, as a kid, I’d always go out for Disney auditions, and stuff like that, and they’d always say “you’re nice, but you’re not funny.” As Mr. Reitman always said: underreact. Underact, rather than overact, and that’s kinda how the whole movie was planned out.
Was the scene with the pie in the book?
Jason Reitman: Oh, that scene times 20! The history of the pie is this: Joyce Maynard, the author of the book, when her mother became sick, she said “I don’t want to watch my figure anymore.” And Joyce made a pie for her mother every single day. And she became a brilliant pie maker. Everyone she knew would ask her “how do you make a pie?” and she would start teaching them. She found that she was very good at teaching how to make a pie, and taught people around the world how to make a pie. The second time I ever met her, I went to her home in the valley, she taught me how to make a pie, taught Josh to make a pie, taught Kate to make a pie. Josh made a pie every single day!
Josh Brolin: Usually the teamsters ate it.
Jason Reitman: He’s a picture of masculinity, but when you show up at his cottage, and he’s wearing an apron, and he’s thrilled, over the moon by the crust he achieved that day, or the juices that were able to come out, it’s a very different side. And he would give the pies to everybody, and at first, it was really charming. Like, “oh wow, Josh made me a pie!” By the end of the shoot it was “oh fuck, he made me a pie! Can you take this? Josh made me another pie.” [laughs]Next
Gattlin, how did you approach playing a character that changes greatly through the course of the film?
Gattlin Griffith: Henry was kinda like me at the time. It’s a coming of age story of a boy turning into a young man. I was 13 at the time, and as soon as I read the book I kinda connected to him, I felt what he was feeling. I didn’t have to be the man of the house as much as Henry, but he was trying to figure out who he was. He was sensitive, I was a little emotionally unstable as well back then.
Jason Reitman: You grew out of your clothes also.
Gattlin Griffith: I did.
Josh Brolin: I love that he says “back then,” whereas Jason and I, it was like four minutes ago.
Jason, do you think the at times tense tone of the film indicated that you were looking to try something new?
Jason Reitman: I don’t say we tried to do anything different. I read this book, and I fell in love with it, and I wanted to be very true to what it was, and I made a conscious decision to work with the same people I always worked with. But each of us knew we had to grow, and I had a conversation with my cinematographer, who I’ve known since I was 15 years old, my editor I had known since I was 17, my production designer, my costume designer, and we talked about what kind of movie we were going to have to make if we were going to accomplish this. For weeks we’d watch movies at my house, and we’d point things out. I mean, we watched Body Heat just to analyze sweat –we spent two hours talking about how sweat looks on hair, how it looks on clothes, should it be damp, should it be sheen. This was a very technically complicated movie for me and very different from everything I’ve done, but I don’t look at genre as, “oh I want to do one of those.” I don’t aspire to do a sci-fi film, I want to do personal films, and it’s really the ingredients underneath that interested me in this.
Jason, how did you come upon the book?
Jason Reitman: My producer, Helen Estabrook, found the book, and told me “this is very different from anything you’ve ever done but I know you’re going to love it,” and she was 100% right. My initial conversation with Joyce was similar to my initial conversation with Walter Kirn and Christopher Buckley, and it was “I’m the guy they hired to f*ck up your book.” A book and a movie are very different things, but in this case, I really wanted to emulate the experience of reading that book. It wasn’t just a piece of source material that I was going to use a few things here and there from. I wanted the movie to feel the way I felt when I read it. When I sent her the script, she had a few thoughts. I remember one of her notes was very funny, she said “on the east coast, we don’t call highways The 91, we just say 91.” On the west coast, you hero-ize your highways, you call them THE 101. It’s just a road.
Why did you cast Gattlin?
Jason Reitman: He has remarkable eyes, doesn’t he? It’s the main reason I cast Gattlin. The whole movie is through his eyes. You’re watching three people in a house, and you’re trying to figure out why everyone is doing what they’re doing, and even though there’s no logical reason that you can say “this makes sense,” you just feel like it does, that they should be together. And the person you try to figure that out through is Gattlin. And you needed to be able to do that without words, and that’s what was so remarkable about his audition: his ability to do everything with his face. Typically young actors rely on not just what’s on the page but all the stuff thrown in on top of it, and Gattlin has an ability to be still – to look at the room, and his mother, and this man, in such a complicated situation, and he makes the movie make sense for us.
Jason, how did you choose to portray some of the more intense moments in the film?
Jason Reitman: I wish I had a good answer to this. This goes back to a piece of advice my father gave to me before I made my first film, and he said, “look, your job is not to make things funny, your job is not to make things tense. Your job is to find truth on a daily basis.” You have to write a screenplay that you think is funny, or think is tense or dramatic, but once you get to set, the whole job is “does this feel honest to you?” And at that point, you rely so much on your actors, and on this one, perhaps more than ever. I was in a world, a type of genre that I had never really played around with, and I had actors that I couldn’t just write a bunch of dialogue to explain things away.
I had moments like the one on the stairs, where [Josh] and Kate are sitting on the stairs, and you put your hand around her waist, and she sets her head on your chest, and she slowly closes her eyes, and you guys do it in a way that I could never really direct you to do so. You just had to understand the moment of what we were trying to say there. And at that point, it’s not me directing you guys, it’s me learning from you guys, and I think that’s where the tension came from, it’s through the relationships that they build.Previous Next
Jason and Gattlin, what do you think Kate brought to the film?
Jason Reitman: Gattlin had a really interesting relationship with Kate. She created a bond with you that Josh and I were not even privy to.
Gattlin Griffith: I remember the first time I met her, I was a nervous wreck. I was star struck. She said, “are you nervous at all?” and I said, “yeah, a little.” She said, “don’t be, I’m here for you, everyone on this set is going to be your friend, and they’re going to be there for you.” And from that day on, I knew that I could count on her, and ask her questions, and she gave me a lot of tips too. I never told you (Josh) this, but in our first scene together, I was so intimidated by you. It was in the grocery store, and you were bleeding, and you were really in character, and between takes we’d walk our separate ways, and I’d walk over to Kate and say “he’s so intimidating!” She said, “listen honey, you need to just take that intimidation, and you need to use that.” It was stuff like that that she would tell me all the time, and that formed our relationship I think.
Josh Brolin: Did Kate and I have a similar way of working?
Jason Reitman: You dicked around with each other a lot. [laughter] It was a lot of laughs, it was a light set.
Josh Brolin: I usually do the opposite, in how much to reveal to you guys, because there’s a nice romance and a mythology that’s always Josh, and Kate, and Gattlin, and this thing, and they created this world, and they created this bubble. For me, especially with a drama like this that’s so laconic and subtle in its behavior, I kind of make an ass of myself on the set. A lot of his direction came as “please stop moving and f**king around and just do the work.” [laughter] I found it very important to keep things light, because then I feel that we have a place to go, and when we go to that place, it becomes much more reactionary and dynamic than if I just live in this kinda dark hole of being in prison the last 18 years. That’s a very selfish thing of mine. With Kate, I got to use the Academy Award thing often too. I’ve only been nominated – she got the award.
Jason Reitman: We both talk about it.
Josh Brolin: “I’m sorry, is this an Academy Award question? I’ve only been nominated, so I’m not sure” [laughter]. But you get to the place. She and I are like brother and sister personally, we just got it right away. And she’s an amazing amazing person who’s not intimidated by anything or anybody, which is really nice to be around. Gattlin was her first child, and I think I sorta became her second child [laughter]. And then when it comes down to it, you’ve done enough of the work to where you pop into that place and completely lend yourself to it, and then you pop out.
Jason, do you think the chemistry was natural or manufactured?
Jason Reitman: I’m a big believer in chemistry in every definition of the word, in life, and in performance. There’s a few things that I need to do right at my job, or it’s never going to work, and a lot of things I can screw up, but you have to pick the right actors, and they have to have chemistry. I’ve been very very fortunate about that. It’s instinct, it really is, I wish I had a good answer for that but I don’t know. I met with Kate, I met with Josh, I knew that they completely understood the DNA of who these people were. They’re two actors who understand how to approach vulnerable, broken characters without judging them, which is really hard to do. That is a much rarer trait than you think, and I suppose because of that commonality, I thought these two are going to bond. But really, at the end of the day it’s an instinct, it’s a gut feeling that two people are going to respond to each other. And I’m very happy that they did.
Josh, what do you think is the key for a man to have chemistry with a woman?
Josh Brolin: Everybody likes something different. In my experience of life and women, you can get sucked into it as a man, the hero aspect of things. And if you start to actually believe the hero aspect of things it can really muddle things up. I think initially, when you’re with a woman you start to pick up on the vulnerabilities and the insecurities. I was in a relationship, I was just thinking about this the other day, I went to this woman’s house for the first time, and within five minutes I was on the floor playing with her cat. Uncomfortable for her, but also at the same time, she thinks “wow the guy’s taking incentive, how great.” It becomes about instinct, and how you’re playing off each other, and it’s something that’s not really intellectual. This guy, wants to save her in a way that’s exactly what Gattlin’s character is going through, but in a completely different way.
What about love makes for compelling storytelling?
Jason Reitman: I really don’t know if I have an answer to that. It’s an excellent question, probably because it’s completely cofounding. I think storytelling in general is self-discovery masquerading as entertainment, so the best stories are the ones that are bound to confound us the most. Love, while the most wonderful thing on earth, is also probably the most confusing.
Josh Brolin: There’s no mastering it. It’s a close parallel to parenting: the minute you think you’ve got it, something else comes along, and you feel one way one second, “I can’t imagine not being with this person,” and then the next day it’s something else. It’s a journey unlike any other.
That concludes this interview but we’d like to thank everyone for participating. Be sure to catch Labor Day when it hits theatres on December 25th, 2013.Previous