Ivan Reitman has been making comedies longer than almost anyone else in Hollywood. After a handful of shaggy guerilla efforts, his breakthrough came in 1978 with Meatballs, and within a matter of years he was cranking out classics like Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Kindergarten Cop. His first fans are now old enough to take their grandkids to his films, but Reitman's as interested as ever in making movies both for them and a new generation that could use a few laughs. And Reitman's latest flick, No Strings Attached, is raunchy, youthful and relevant both creatively and commercially.
Boxoffice spoke to Reitman and his screenwriter, newcomer Liz Meriwether, at the recent Los Angeles press day for No Strings Attachedand asked: how can a legend of comedy make an authentic youth movie? (Hint: make a joke about Lil' Wayne.)
Ivan, this seems like the first real relationship comedy you've done. What challenges did you deal with tackling this type of drama?
Ivan Reitman: It was a pleasure. Making this film was a pleasure. I think I got lost in making science fiction movies for a while. I think there's something about the power of a movie like Ghostbusters that sort of twists one's head a little bit, and I started to realize when I was looking back at the films that I'd made that really so many of them had science fiction elements to them, even a movie like Dave about a doppelganger, that it's possible that two men, one of whom is the president of the United States and the other guy gets to take over or Twins. Twins is really a science fiction movie. When I started working with Liz [Meriwether] on this thing I just loved the words. I loved the situations. I loved the comfort of being able to direct really fine actors in rooms where they just talked to each other and I really wanted to do that again. I think it's possibly even watching my son do that in his films. It sort of reawakened me to the real pleasure that a filmmaker can get from that. So I thank him for that. I suddenly had this extraordinary screenplay and I was able to find these wonderful actors, starting with Natalie [Portman] and Ashton [Kutcher]. It's a very naturalistic comedy that's, yes, raunchy and funny and it's broad at times, but it's really real people talking to each other about real things. I found that sort of very exciting to do and very satisfying.
How much of it was improvised?
Reitman: Improvisation is really just a directing tool. It's a writing tool. It's not so much that the actors get to say whatever they want, whatever pops into their head. It's an opportunity to write the last draft of the screenplay as you're working on it. You do a lot of takes, you do a lot of coverage and the actual locations, the actual props, the real performers doing the scenes informs new ideas. Ideas are coming from everywhere. Liz was on the set all the time. We had very smart producers and the actors were very smart about their own characters. These opportunities come up and it's sort of my job as a director to say, 'That really works, do that,' encourage that and then other times discourage things that I think take away from the spirit of the scene or the focus of a particular character.
The first sex scene was pretty unflinching. Can you talk about that experience and can you talk about shooting it?
Reitman: I didn't want to do anything particularly romantic and filmic. I was more interested in...we tease their relationship for the first ten or fifteen minutes of the film's preamble and here's this first moment that these two characters are going to be together. This is a movie that really starts with them having sex and then seeing what that relationship is going to evolve like and I just really believed in their chemistry. I believe that you can see it right here, just watching them, and it's very evident in the film. I thought, 'Well, I have something really powerful here.' They're clearly exciting to look at together and in every form there's something lovely about it and I just made it easy. I thought there was something much more powerful about watching really close their facial expressions than trying to go for anything else. By just sitting on it for a while and letting it go a little longer than maybe is comfortable would sort of give it the power that it deserves.
Why do you think that people are so interested in stories about relationships right now?
Liz Meriwether: I think it's sort of the way that relationships come together these days. I think in a lot of romantic comedies it ends with a kiss, and I feel like in modern day relationships, and maybe just my own experience, it starts with a kiss and then all sort of falls apart and then comes together. You're texting. You're wondering what's going on. There are no labels. I think that's what really is going on right now. I think a lot of the romantic comedies need to catch up with what's actually happening. Ours is the best.
Reitman: We started working on this, as I said, a good three years ago. It seems to be in the zeitgeist and over my career which has spanned all kinds of odd shifts I've sort of made it a point to sort of pay attention to that. It seemed like so much of romantic relationships today have to do with where the people are not in the same room. Whether it's texting or emailing or Facebooking there's a kind of distance between the participants. I think it's sort of shifted the energy of that first romantic meeting, where it's quicker, perhaps more desperate, more energetic in a whole different way and it's resulted in a situation where people seem to be sometimes more comfortable having a sexual relationship than an emotional one. It seems to be the way that things have generated. I think that's certainly a fitting subject matter for a film, particularly a comedic film.
Ivan, how familiar were you going into this with Lil' Wayne and his beverage of choice: Purple Drank? What other generational things did you pick up from Liz and possibly even your kids?
Reitman: Certainly this is not my generation. I'm of the Baby Boom generation and we thought that we invented free love starting with the summer of love. It's interesting how things have evolved. Liz Meriwether was very important in this process and I thought that it was very important for me to keep my mind and my ears open and my eyes as much as possible. I've never personally had a Purple Drank. But it sure sounded funny and it sounded right and it seems to be a perfect way to put Kevin Klein in the hospital.
This film is rated R. If you've got the R rating, why not go for more of that in the film?
Reitman: It's particularly for language and ideas. This is really not necessarily about how much nakedness or even sex there is in the film. I think audiences aren't even particularly interested in that. I think if people want to see pure sex they have the internet and extraordinary things are available. Its meant to be an honest comedy about sexuality and the great part of it is that it means the subject matter almost by definition is going to get you an R now even if there wasn't a curse word in the film. But we all use curse words an enormous amount it seems now, particularly people in their twenties.
You talked about developing this film for the past three years. How do you know that something like that is going to still work? How do you gauge that?
Reitman: That's the cliché about how hard comedy is to make, and then of course no one pays much attention to it at a certain moment in the year. But the fact is reengaging all the time. You're reevaluating all the time. The script and the piece that you're working on is not a static thing. It evolves. You get ideas. The hardest thing for everyone, for the writer, for the director and certainly for the actors is not to panic when they're doing a certain line for the tenth time because everything ceases to be funny after it's been repeated. The real trick for me as a director is to make sure that people don't start pushing because the harder you push as a perform there less funny it becomes. There's a tendency to start to look for extraneous ways to make something really by nature already funny, but not funny to you as a performer any longer, to try to refresh that. So there are various tricks about it, but comedy is a very delicate business, especially comedies that sort of attempt to do things in an honest way and in a very naturalistic way the way that No Strings Attached is.
Meriwether: That was some of the wonderful things about working with Ivan because he's obviously created some of the best comedies that have ever been made and he just really knows comedy and he really knows what he's doing. He knows. He knows.
When you started developing the script, did you do so with Valentine's Day in mind?
Reitman: Really this is a studio decision on what the most benign date is for a particular movie. They said, 'How about January 21st?' I said, 'Why? Do people go to the movies on January 21st?' 'Yeah, it's great.' So that's why we're here. Look, this movie has been in development for a good three years. Two years where the three of us have been working and then Ashton got involved about a year ago. You don't think about release dates. You just think about how you make a great movie and then you have to fight all the perceptions of Hollywood in terms of what's a good movie to make and just try to get a movie going.