Ivan Reitman on No Strings Attached and Why His Last Few Films Could Have Been Better
After spending the last five years out of the director's chair (during which time he produced no fewer than eight films including Disturbia, Hotel for Dogs, Chloe, son Jason's Up in the Air, and Trailer Park Boys: Countdown to Liquor Day), comedy veteran Ivan Reitman has gone back to the basics. For Reitman (Stripes, Animal House) that means taking the time to personally shepherd his scripts, making movies about people who talk like real people, and as in his latest film No Strings Attached, it means sex jokes. Lots of sex jokes.
Reitman's got the latter in spades in the raunchy, R-rated dating comedy about two 20-something Los Angelenos (Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman) who become friends with benefits only to discover that being strictly casual sex buddies is actually kind of difficult. Directing from Liz Meriwether's lively script, which made headlines on the 2008 Black List under its original title, F***buddies, Reitman tempers the fickle sensibilities of a generation's collective romantic ADD with the assured hand of an old-school pro.
Reitman, who's currently getting the gang back together for another Ghostbusters call, spoke with Movieline about No Strings Attached, being influenced by director son Jason Reitman, weirdo Hollywood sex fathers who aren't the Reitmans, that Judd Apatow kid and his R-rated movies, and why some of his last few films were "not as good as I can do." And though it figures into the film's last act, no, he hasn't tried Purple Drank.
Liz Meriwether's script really did use the language of pop culture-obsessed 20-somethings well. Because in real life, we do talk about things like Lil Wayne's drink of choice, drunk texting, and tampon jokes. How did you acclimate yourself to her zeitgeist-skewering script and the social dating particulars of the Facebook generation?
Well, I pitched this idea to Liz Meriwether three and a half years ago, so it sort of generated from me initially. It was just clear to me that this was going on, with this mistaken idea that it's possible to have a purely sexual relationship without any kind of emotional commitment coming into play. It's part of the kind of way I think each generation of twenty year-olds thinks, and that's sort of the joke that I've made about the Summer of Love and the free love era. We all had a version of thinking how we could change the romantic rules of engagement. And the language changes. It's changed amazingly in the last six or seven years because of the growth of social media. It started with just texting, which was a huge thing, and then emailing and tweeting and then Facebooking, and all these kinds of things sort of made people think this was a sort of shorthand to a simplicity to romance. And there really isn't one. Or that it was somehow possible just to have the joy and fantasy of sex without commitment with the same person. And it's pretty tough. I think it's fine for a few times, but...
So you planted the seed that grew into No Strings Attached. How did you, Liz, and your producer-star Natalie Portman collaborate over the course of the film's gestation?
Liz came back and she has this extraordinary ear and eye for the contemporary language of her peers. She was extraordinarily observant in a very funny way, and she came back with a first draft about five or six months after that, which was about as funny as anything you could read. It wasn't really a movie yet; it was a series of funny incidents and characters, but it was clear to me that there was this remarkable movie within it. And we worked together for three years at converting that to a film. That process makes you think about what's going on around you, and the fact that I'm older and sort of outside of it -- and have been in a committed relationship now for almost 40 years -- was kind of an interesting perspective to look at it all from. I wasn't concerned about being modern; I have a real good feel for music and for how it shifts, and I had these great partners. I had Natalie Portman and Liz Meriwether and Ashton Kutcher, all these people who are defenders of the culture of today. And I wasn't going to be arrogant about it. I was going to bring whatever my skills were to the very contemporary subject matter. I mean, it certainly has been done before by various people, and I thought I was ready to do it.
Natalie mentioned how your seasoned filmmaking instincts led to a rejiggering of the ending of the film that offered a more personal, face-to-face conclusion than what was originally scripted -- as if generational attitudes towards communication informed differing filmmaking instincts.
It was an example of the kind of thing I would do with Liz, and then later with Natalie because she was a participant in the process. That was it; I was very open and comfortable with a lot of people talking about it because it was their story, really, more than my story. So I wanted to hear from them, but I could still bring classical filmmaking technique to it to make sure that it was going to land as a cohesive piece.
Are you as pop-culture savvy and plugged in as your characters in No Strings Attached?
A little bit. You have to follow your own interests, but at the same time you want to stay alive in society. You don't want to become irrelevant and unknowing. So I'm comfortable with social media and I have very eclectic, very broad tastes in music -- I always have, even when I was a kid. I'm fortunate to also have these brilliant children of my own. You know about Jason; my older daughter Catherine is one of the funniest actresses I've seen, she's sort of one step away from breaking out herself; and our youngest daughter just got married and is a nurse!
Speaking of being inspired by your own children, what was it about working with Jason on Up in the Air that encouraged you to return to this kind of filmmaking and make No Strings Attached?
It also [inspired me] to experience the joy of working with actors in real settings, where people are speaking like real people and finding the comedy in truthful situations. Just being really observant, which I found was the core of the three movies that he's made, and done so well. So that was very inspirational.
Now that I think about it, there is a father-son Hollywood relationship in No Strings Attached that bears a few things in common with your life. Ashton Kutcher's character is an aspiring screenwriter whose father is a celebrity. But he's also the worst father ever, so I imagine there's no autobiographical link there to read into... right?
[Laughs] No, please don't!
Still, the relationship between Ashton's character and Kevin's character is the type of bizarre relationship that I'd believe exists in this weird Hollywood universe, a place you presumably know well.
That's right. You know, you get to see things over the years. It is a place where both men and women try to stay young as long as possible, and one of the ways they do it is in their sexual relationships. People with power, like movie stars, get to do things that other people don't. I mean, men are usually accused of doing this more, or at least men of wealth of some kind, but it's a true reality. And I think it's actually a reality outside of Hollywood as well.
Every Real Housewives of Fill-in-the-Blank show proves this theory. What's your take on the success of the R-rated comedy, from the dawn of the Apatow era up to now, and how the genre has evolved? Where does No Strings Attached fit into the mix?
Well, his was an evolution of what I did originally, with Animal House and Stripes. So I think that no one owns it. But this [No Strings Attached] is really quite different, it's really a feminist-based R-rated film whose tonality is really different than the movies that Judd Apatow has made.
Considering your classic works in the genre, it's great to see you jumping back into these kinds of films.
It felt very easy for me, there was no issue, and I think it's about language. For a while I was doing these large family-based movies or science fiction films that really had to be aimed at the broadest possible audience. We knew when we started working on this that it was going to be an R-rated film; we didn't think as much in terms of the skin in it as much as the honesty of the language. And also the little things, like drinking or smoking pot. It was just going to be there, we weren't going to make a point of it. It was just the way the people that I know, the people that everybody in this movie know, act in a real way.
How much do you feel in any way like this is a reclamation of the R-rated comedy film on the part of the guys who did it first?
That's a lovely thing for you to say, and it's certainly nothing that I'm going to publicly say. [Laughs] But you know, I just wanted to make a good movie. I feel my last bunch of movies were not as good as I can do, and I wanted to relax. I took the time and, instead of working to make a good movie for other people when I was a producer, I decided to go back to the way I work, which is to really work on a screenplay myself until I'm ready to shoot it, and at least reclaim that right for myself as opposed to any kind off public thing.
When you look back on the films that you wish had turned out differently, what's the difference that you see between them and a film like No Strings Attached, to which you've been able to dedicate that essential attention?
It's just more personal in nature. One where every element was carefully cared over, by myself. And that's the way I'd always worked for the first 20 years of my career. Then I just sort of got into this producing thing more, and started directing like I was a producer. And I think that was the mistake I made; you know, you're sort of just doing work. I decided to lay that off and go back to the way I'd always done it.
No Strings Attached is in theaters Friday.