Jason Reitman isn’t nervous about talking about his latest big screen drama, but Jennifer Garner seems a bit daunted being the only actor on hand to talk about the ensemble drama Men, Women, & Children (opening in Toronto this Friday, and expanding across Canada over the next several weeks) on behalf of her incredibly stacked cast.
“When I was told that I was going to be the only actor here with Jason, I’ll admit that I freaked out a little bit in my head,” Garner joked before getting down to business during a sit down with press for the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. “There was a part of me that was thinking, ‘Man, I really need Adam Sandler for this.’”
Garner, who plays an overprotective mother trying to shield her daughter from the dangers of the internet in Reitman’s film, has little to worry about. She has a natural rapport with Reitman even when they don’t necessarily agree on the questions they’re answering. Plus, they have a history that works in their favour. Having worked previously on the Oscar nominated Juno, Reitman passed along his adaptation of Chad Kultgen’s novel (co-written with Chloe and Secretary writer Erin Cressida Wilson) on a plane ride while both were on the way to the set of father Ivan Reitman’s previous film, Draft Day, which also co-starred Garner.
The film places the focus on how the connected world of the internet serves to make personal connections in the real world even harder. Garner’s on screen daughter, played by Kaitlyn Dever, has been hiding a crush on a boy she really likes (played by skyrocketing young star Ansel Elgort). The boy she like has quit his star spot on the football team while dealing with his mother’s sudden departure to be with another man. Meanwhile in the same small Texas town, a couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt), a struggling single mother (Judy Greer) unwittingly exploits her daughter’s attractiveness under the guise that it will help the young woman’s modelling career, and a cheerleader with anorexia (Elena Kampouris) fights to get noticed by her peers.
Reitman and Garner talked to us about the film’s darker elements, how people who seem like villains can actually be sympathetic, and the pros and cons of internet culture.
What was it about Chad Kultgen’s book that made you want to adapt it for the big screen and how did it differ from other adaptations that you have already done?
Jason Reitman: I really fell in love with Chad’s voice as a writer when I read his book Average American Male, and his approach to the internet was very frank and at the same time passed no judgment. What happened with his books, and with anything I ever thought about making into a movie, I thought about how he was, as a writer, responding to questions that he didn’t have answers to. I saw that as an opportunity to approach a lot of things that had been on my mind.
Jennifer Garner: And really the film is only a fraction as frank as the book is. (laughs) The book is SO much darker. I think it really gets to the heart of the darkness some people have within them.
JR: You know, I don’t think I see the darkness in people, and I don’t see that in book, for whatever reason. You know how if you ever listen to a prostitute talk about how they get through their job and they say, “Well, I found the John’s ear attractive, so I just focused on that,” I think that’s what I do with books.
JG: (laughs) I have actually never heard that one before, but that last sentence actually explains you quite a bit.
Jennifer, did you see that darkness in your character here? Because for a great deal of the time she starts off fairly rigid and is one of the few characters whose actions progressively get worse over the course of the film.
JR: Well, first you should probably tell them how I got the script to you.
JG: Well, Jason and I were on an airplane at the same time together, and then all of a sudden I see this iPad come up and over from behind me, and Jason says, “I’m working on this, would you take a look at it for me?” And I’ve leaned on him a lot since we made Juno together, and he’s been a kind of younger mentor to me professionally, so I thought “Oh great! I’ll give him a few notes and then return the favour.” Then after I read it he said, “I’d kind of like you to play Patricia,” and I said, “Oh, hey, that would be great!” (laughs) That’s how it happened.
JR: It all happened mid-air!
JG: Mid-air between Los Angeles and Cleveland.
JR: It’s a great way to try and get an actor to do your movie, you know? Just trap them in a plane.
JG: So, yeah, I definitely have a lot of love for Patricia in my heart, but I see what you’re saying. I definitely see what she does wrong, and I definitely don’t judge her. I think being a parent is really hard. A lot of times when you’re trying your hardest and you’ve decided under absolutely no circumstances will you let your child be hurt by X, Y, or Z, that’s when you fail the hardest. I think that every day you have a chance to screw up at being a parent, and it’s a huge opportunity for her to see if she’s really doing the absolute best she can. She has taken this device and villainized it so much in her mind that she has just decided that everything about it has to be a black and white issue, and we all know that’s just not the way that the world works.
But I love that she has faults. Jason and I talked a lot about making sure that she never becomes a caricature, and how not to just make her blanketly evil in the movie. I think it all came from a place of love. I love the moment that Jason wrote where she seems to be at her worst and she tells her daughter that she loves her and her daughter responds with “I love you, too.”
It seems like with Patricia, there’s an underlying backstory that could show why she’s the way she is that never get expressly brought up. Did you guys ever talk about what brought Patricia to this point or was it something you ever thought about?
JG: I don’t think you really need to have a backstory when you’re dealing with someone as hyper-vigilant as that.
JR: Yeah, I’m strangely not a believer in backstories in general. I think when I meet somebody new, I presume that whomever they are is the result of a million different things, and I don’t think it’s necessarily one traumatic even that can turn them into that person. It’s this weird course of events over the course of a lifetime that makes people who they are. I don’t think that I’ve had a traumatic event that defined me.
As a father, I haven’t had that kind of a moment with my own daughter yet, and I am terrified of it happening. I fear every time she asks me for a phone. I keep hoping we can make it to ten years old without getting her a phone. That would be amazing. But that doesn’t come from trauma, that’s just an awareness of where we’re at.
When I was twelve, I biked down to the magazine stand and put a Penthouse inside of a Mad Magazine, and I had about five minutes to memorize those few pages because they would have to last me a year. And the concept that now at ten years old you can go online with whatever your curiosity was and not only could you answer that question, but you could also answer every other question that you never wanted answered in the first place.
The characters in this movie are all fifteen years old, and when I was fifteen, it was all about movies, movies, and movies, and that was about it for me. Cineplex was kind of in its infancy and my parents would drop me off and I would just go watch three movies a day. I was a rich kid, so I paid for all three of them. (laughs)
JG: Today you can really stumble upon anything you want these days that you never asked about.
JR: Exactly! It’s funny now, because fellow parents come to me now and tell me that the scary line that their kids come to them and say now is: “Um, so I saw something on the internet…” and THAT’S the worst opening to any conversation you could have with your kids. (laughs)
But for the most part, Patricia is pretty unsympathetic…
JR: (taken aback) Really? I think she’s incredibly sympathetic.
JG: (taken aback by Jason’s answer and looking at him) Really?
JR: That’s so funny. It’s so weird that you would say that and even weirder that you seem to not agree! (laughs) I find so much humanity in both roles that I have cast you in.
JG: Oh, no! I can see that, but with this and Juno people just come up to me all the time and ask…
JR: Do they ask if I have it in for you?
JG: (laughs) I don’t think they put it like that.
JR: (jokingly) There’s a real darkness in Jen Garner. (both laugh) But no… it’s interesting because I think there’s something incredibly hopeful in the two roles that I have cast you in. There’s something earnest about both roles, and there’s something to be found in those characters where everything in your world is falling down around you. In both films, I think I surrounded you with characters who are – and bear with me because I really am articulating this for the first time – all vaguely embedded within the complexities of the modern world, and you are kind of this earnest sign of hope. It’s easy to mock someone that’s earnest and hopeful, and both films do that at the outset. But by the end of each film –whether it’s when you’re on your knees with Juno and you feel the baby kick for the first time or at the end of your journey here – you can see in your eyes that sense of hope. You re-experience things that you have forgotten about in both cases. No matter what you’re hit with in humanity, your characters will always find a way through. There’s a sense of humanity that’s unbreakable.
So, yeah, I disagree. I see your characters as powerful, sympathetic characters that are going up against a very callous world.
JG: But do you think that there’s a possibility that Patricia could be like Vanessa from Juno further down the line?
JR: Yeah. I mean, I am clearly typecasting you. (laughs)
JG: I think that there’s a throughline in that.
JR: Yeah! Absolutely! And it’s not that I don’t believe you have range. (laughs)
JG: Well, I guess if you have to be typecast by anybody… (laughs)
Jennifer, what are your fears about the internet and how would you avoid becoming someone like Patricia?
JG: Well, my fears are so vast concerning social media and the internet, but you just can’t let that control your life. I remember once I took a parenting class, I don’t even remember which one it was, but someone said to prepare your child for the road and not to prepare the road for your child. I always thought that meant that if they had a rough time at say a basketball game or something that you would teach them that lesson instead of going directly to the coach and yelling at them. Now, I’m starting to see this role as a great example of how something like that can get twisted around. Hopefully, this film can start that conversation with some people and their kids. It’s always about building trust slowly and having firm, clear, and reasonable boundaries set.
And I mean, a lot of that probably comes from when I was younger, the most rebellious thing I did was have a lot of really adult friends that I talked to and matured with. When I was younger I had a lot of friends who were gay and working in theatre in West Virginia, which is almost like being Amish in a major city and when you’re in proximity to adults who can act like adults in the face of the community around them, you just learn a sense of perspective. You pick up a lot about people and they way they interpret life. Often times when I watch a movie and I see people taking on difficult roles, I always wonder what they had seen or learned about that helped them gain that perspective.
JR: I don’t think I could have put it any better than that, because nowadays if you’re too afraid in some way to answer a direct question from your kid, they’re just going to go online and ask a friend, or a stranger, or a website. The reaction that we’ve been getting from teens and adult on this are that they both understand that irony. You have to be willing to answer tough questions in any conversation.
It’s hard to make a film about the internet when it’s this always changing and growing thing. We’ve only barely tapped into what the internet is capable of in terms of bringing people together, and sometimes in the case of some of these stories, further apart. We’re you ever concerned with hitching yourselves to a particular year and something that can be seen as potentially becoming dated quickly?
JR: I think if we ever approached this like we were making a movie expressly about the internet, then yeah, I think to a certain degree we would have felt like failures. I was never attracted to the specific things that it seems like my films are about. Thank You for Smoking was never about cigarettes. Juno was never about teen pregnancy. They were movies about people, and those things served as specific instances and situations and devices to look at people within those situations.
The thing about the internet, is that when you think about it, it IS an actual location, and with this film we spent just as much time creating the location of the internet as a place where the actors could interact. More time and money and effort was spent in terms of creating that sense of location than into any of the actual sets or locations we shot in. As soon as you spend enough time focusing on the people and the choices they make, then everything becomes relatable. We’re really using the internet to ask questions that people have been asking since the beginning of time.
You say you are drawn to material that doesn’t really provide answers, but do you think that people will come away from this seeing it as a cautionary tale?
JR: I think if they do, they do. I just don’t want to pretend like I’m a filmmaker that has all the answers. I think it’s presumptuous when a storyteller, or an author, or a director says they have the answers. I kinda always call bullshit on that. That’s not a reason to make a movie. Well, it is if you’re making a documentary sometimes, but if you’re making a fictional story, hopefully you’re doing it because you have similar questions as the audience, and this is your opportunity to try and figure some of it out.
Since you guys are a bit older and you’re working with a lot of younger actors who have grown up around the internet specifically, were you ever shocked or taken aback by some of the things your co-stars might have known going in?
JG: What was most shocking for me was talking to them about how we spend so much time talking about how the internet builds a sense of community that it leads to a culture of people who essentially live within that community. Whether it’s a video game or social media, they spend that time there. Like the Tumblr page that my daughter has in the film, that’s now where she gets all of her validation because she isn’t getting it anywhere else. That’s where she can be the most true to herself, and what’s most shocking to me was talking to people about how that just happens to be what’s normal right now. And sometimes that goes to the extreme, in the case of the story here that deals with the girl dealing with anorexia.
JR: For me, when I was reading the book, that was the first time I had ever heard the term “thinspiration.” I didn’t know what it meant, but that’s heartbreaking. It represents us at our most vulnerable self and being openly terrified about the people in our real lives and how they perceive us; the idea that this girl is too scared to go to her parents, friends, or person, and that she can’t say “this is how I am feeling right now.” Instead, anyone can go online, you can go online and find a community that can okay any point of view, no matter how fucked up you are, you can find any community of people online that will say, “Hey, man, I get it. We’re with you.” That’s a scary community and a sad state of affairs. There’s really horrific stuff.
We’ve never been as comfortable before with sharing our feelings, but once we get the chance to talk to complete strangers now, we do. That’s kinda sad.
Your film kind of plays with Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” analogy quite a bit in terms of showing how miniscule we are when compared to the internet or the greater universe, and I look at the poster and notice how the characters that represent Ansel Elgort and Kaitlyn Dever’s characters are kind of acting as a centre point. Did you ever conceive of the adaptation by building around a single story and working the rest of the storylines off of a single entry point or nucleus?
JR: There really wasn’t that intention, but when I look at it, there really is a gravitational pull towards Ansel and Kaitlyn. They have love the old fashioned way. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about hopefulness. When you see them out on a date together, they don’t have their phones out. They’re just sitting around at a quarry. When they have their first kiss, it’s a kiss that neither of them will brag about. There’s something beautiful about that.
And you have to remember, when I cast Ansel, I cast this innocent looking six foot, four inch dude. I wasn’t casting the guy from The Fault in Our Stars that everyone would fall for. That was a revelation that came much, much later.
But I saw all the stories evenly, and I’m always intrigued by who responds to what character. I think there’s something in all of them that makes you want to hope everything is going to be alright with them.
So after the making of this film and the tackling of this material, did either of you change how you interact with people online or on social media?
JG: Nope! Still not on social media. (laughs) And it’s not that I’m against it, I just honestly don’t know what I would have to offer. Personally, I don’t know what I have to offer to that and what I would be willing to give. I definitely don’t want to expose my kids on social media. I don’t really want to talk about my marriage on there. Really, other than that, I just see it as a time suck. (laughs) I just don’t want to feel guilty about not answering one more thing that I already probably answered somewhere else in some other way.
JR: I actually told all of the young actors in the film from day one that they were about to have this really special experience and make this movie together. Some of them had been in movies before, some of them never did one in their lives, which is great. I told them, “You’re all going to be in Austin, Texas making this movie, and you’ll be here for months, and you’re probably going to have the urge to Instagram things and share things, and I implore you to not do any of that. You’re never going to have this experience again. You’re all so young and no other movies are going to be like this. Just focus on what’s ahead of you. You will create memories that you’ll never share with anybody, and five or ten years from now, you’re going to thank me because those are the one’s you’ll remember the most because no one else will.”
They understood why I did that, and we kept up that understanding. That was until a few weeks ago when the trailer came out and they said “We saw the trailer! Can we tweet about that?” (laughs) And then I said, “Yes! Go crazy! Tweet away!”
It’s something I’ve really been looking at over the last three films and I have been learning about. Particularly on Juno and Up in the Air, I realized that I have been struggling to come up with stories from those films that I never shared with anybody. That made me really sad because for me those were really special experiences. It’s amazing how quickly – whether the movie succeeds or fails – just how much those memories seem to start belonging to everyone else. That’s the most personal way the film came across to me. Social media has become something we haven’t given a second thought to.
So as a filmmaker, I’m sure your relationship to the internet as a marketplace is a bit conflicted. So even though this is a studio backed film, do you think the internet has created a more risk averse environment or one that’s more fostering to great ideas?
JR: I think we’re at a point where Hollywood is just kind of confused at the moment. No one knows in ten years how anyone is even going to be watching movies anymore. Will people still be going to the theatre, or will they be streaming and downloading more? People like us are kind of caught in the middle when it comes to trying to tell unique and interesting stories, but the truth is that no one knows. People do get scared and a bit risk averse, for sure. I’m not even really sure if I have an answer for that, but I do know in my heart that I’m absolutely grateful that I have been able to make the movies I have been able to make and the stories that I’ve been able to tell.
JG: I mean, at times it can be easy to look around you and just say that the industry is going to hell in a handbasket, but then you come to a place like Toronto and to a festival like this and you just see the wide and diverse range of what’s out there, and I don’t think we’ve ever had a time like this before. You look around and think, “Oh, great! This kind of stuff is still happening!” But then there will always be those people saying, “Yeah, well, this isn’t making money.” But as long as it’s still happening, I’m okay with it.