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"Finding Magic" in Life's Work is Key, Acclaimed Filmmaker Jason Reitman Tells DePauw Audience

March 15, 2010

Jason Reitman Ubben1.jpgMarch 15, 2010, Greencastle, Ind. — Video Link [Download Video: "Exploration and Discovery" - 1624kb] "This moment is about trying to figure out who you are," award-winning director and screenwriter Jason Reitman told students who were among the crowd gathered in DePauw University's Kresge Auditorium tonight.  The 32-year-old, the youngest person ever to receive two Academy Award nominations for Best Director, said, "I went to college and thought I was gonna be a doctor."  In his Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture, "Finding Your Place Up in the Air," Reitman told undergraduates that during college, "It's about making mistakes and figuring out who you are ... and that is what you should use this time to do." (photos by Alex Turco '10)

Born in Canada, Reitman, whose father, Ivan Reitman, was the director of Ghostbusters, Kindergarten Cop and Stripes, literally grew up on movie sets. Yet, as he Jason Reitman Ubben wide.jpgheaded to college, he was determined to become a doctor. Jason Reitman realized his heart wasn't in it after his father told him of advice he'd received years ago from his own father, stressing the importance of "finding magic" in your work.

Video Link [Download Video: "Magic" - 2704kb] "So my father told me this story, and he said, 'Look, being a doctor is one of the most noble jobs in the world.  If you became a doctor, your mother and I, we'd be over the moon we'd be so proud of you.  But I don't think there's enough magic in it for you. I think you're a storyteller.  I think you have to follow your heart.' And it's off of that advice that I moved back to Los Angeles Jason Reitman Ubben2.jpgand I enrolled at USC and I became an English major."

The winner of the Golden Globe for Best Adapted Screenplay this year for Up in the Air, Reitman talked of the process involved in "finding your voice" as a writer, which he says, takes time and perserverance. Video Link [Download Video: "The First Short Film" - 2400kb] "My first short film was so desperately trying to be Quentin Tarantino that it wasn't me.  And that's what we do when we first start doing any form of art -- the first time we try writing a story, the first time we try painting a picture, the first time we take a photo -- we try to be someone that we love, we try to be someone that we want to emulate."  He added, "You end up fighting your own voice.  You have a natural way you want to say something, but you figure it's not literary enough or it's not cinematic enough or that's not what it's supposed to be.  It's supposed to be more than that guy."

After earning kudos at festivals for his short films, Reitman set his sights on filming Christopher Buckley's Thank You for Smoking and adapted the screenplay.  But getting the project financed took five years, and Reitman stubbornly turned down commercial feature film directing opportunities, including Dude, Where's My Car?, opting instead to direct commercials. He asserted, Video Link [Download Video: "A Good Start" - 1344kb] "It's very Up in the Air Poster.jpgdangerous. Many filmmakers, if they start with the wrong movie, it can take them 10 years to try to get back to the type of story they actually want to tell." Of commercial offers, Reitman says, "It's very seductive.  They'll always tell you, 'Oh, just make one, just make one for the team for the company, you'll have a hit, you'll be able to go make the movie you want to make.  But it's not true.  You wind up making bigger versions of the movie you've already made."

Reitman's stubborn patience paid off. Released in 2005, Thank You for Smoking grossed almost $40 million worldwide and was nominated for two Golden Globe Awards.

He followed it with Juno in 2007, which was nominated for four Academy Awards (Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Picture, and Best Actress), pulled in more than $230 million in gross revenue and was Roger Ebert's top film of the year.  

Reitman's most recent picture, Up in the Air, was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture.  Eight days after going, as he put it, "oh for six" at the Oscars, Reitman joked, Video Link [Download Video: "Oscar Night" - 891kb] "Sunday night was kind of a rough night for me.  Anyone who tells you it's just an honor to be nominated, I meanJason Reitman Forum1.jpg they're just not giving you the whole story."

Jason Reitman's day at DePauw began with an hour-long question-and-answer session with students in the ballroom of the Memorial Student Union Building (seen at left), followed by a news conference, and then a reception with students, faculty members and alumni at The Elms, the home of DePauw President Brian W. Casey (pictured below). At the latter, the filmmaker moved from table to table, spending time with many of the 49 students who were invited.

Video Link [Download Video: "Reitman on Directing" - 2009kb] "Directing is a job where you really figure out who you are by making mistakes," Reitman told his DePauw audience. "If I can break directing down into kind of what the gig is, you basically make 100 decisions a Jason Reitman Elms-1.jpgday -- binary decisions: the red one or the blue one, yes or no, faster/slower, louder/softer -- and that's kind of it.  You rarely make giant decisions; you are actually making tons of little decisions.  And it's the culmination of those decisions which will either produce a feeling or not."

Whether it's writing a screen treatment or directing a film, the more you do the work, the better the result, according to Reitman.  Video Link [Download Video: "Feeling It" - 2338kb] "When I started making short films, for example, I was right maybe 50% of the time.  And with each short film I made, with each commercial I made, and then with each feature I've made I'm more right more of the time.  That when I want you to feel something, I'm actually getting you to feel it.  And it really just comes from making these small decisions, and sometimes you screw up and sometimes you don't.  It becomes innate, and that's really all directing is -- a combination of finding your voice and figuring that by making these 100 Jason Reitman students1.jpgdecisions over the course of a day, when they watch that scene you're going to feel something very specific."

He added, Audio Link[Download Audio: "The Filmmaker's Goal" - 305kb] "I want to move the audience and there's ways I want the audience to feel at certain moments.  Generally though, I'm looking to answer a question that I already had.  Each movie of mine has been based on a question that has been burning away at me and usually is a question that I just can't articulate an answer for."  In the stories that become his films, "I find the language that speaks to the idea that I've been trying to articulate but never could."

Reitman is adamant that his films are designed to make audiences ponder the messages they address and do not advocate any particular agenda.Jason Reitnan Elns 3.jpg

Video Link [Download Video: "The Message" - 1812kb] "My movies aren't about telling you, telling the audience, how I feel about a subject," Reitman said.  "You should not know how I feel about cigarettes in Thank You for Smoking, you should not know my feelings on teen pregnancy and abortion in Juno, and you should not know my feeling on the economy or whether life is better spent alone or with someone in Up in the Air. It's really for you decide."

The wide-ranging talk also included Reitman's thoughts on his use of people who had been recently laid off in Up in the Air (Audio Link[Download Audio: "Real and Heartbreaking" - 1112kb]); how his father advised him that a director's "barometer for honesty" is much stronger than their sense as to whether a scene is funny or not (Video Link [Download Video: "Creating the Tone" - 3432kb]), which he calls "the best advice I ever got"; his respect for Up in the Air's leading man ("George Clooney is sexy because he does everything for the right reasons"); and how he uses the same crew members on each film and that it's important to have colleagues you genuinely like ("the people you want to be with when everything goes wrong ... I love workingJason Reitman Brian Casey.jpg with a family of people.").  Reitman says he's currently working on an adaptation of Joyce Maynard's novel, Labor Day, which he plans to direct.

Looking out over the students in Kresge Auditorium tonight, Jason Reitman offered, Video Link [Download Video: "Finding Meaning in Work" - 2406kb] "Whatever you attempt in life, particularly in art, one of three things is gonna happen to you.  Either you have talent and people will recognize it, and that'd be wonderful; you have talent and people don't recognize it, and that would be heartbreaking; or you don't have talent and people will recognize it," to laughter from the crowd.  "My advice is to find something that you have talent at that you also love to do.  And it may not be the thing that you think you're supposed to do right now.  But that's what this moment is about."

At DePauw, "I've met nothing but lovely people today and now I'm looking forward to a garlic cheesburger that's awaiting me," said Reitman, who made a beeline to the infamous campus eatery, Marvin's, after he left the Green Center for the Performing Arts.  "Awaiting me in a way that when people describe it I'm scared of it. They're like, 'Get the garlic cheeseburger and the cheese fries.  No, not the cheese fries, it's his first time he won't be able to take it.  He's only human!,'" Reitman chuckled as the audience roared.  He was rewarded with a standing ovation as he finished his presentation.

Established in 1986 through the generous support of 1958 DePauw graduates Timothy H. and Sharon Williams Ubben, the Ubben Lecture Series was designed to "bring the world to Greencastle" and presents events which are available for students, faculty, staff, alumni and the local community to enjoy.

On November 30, 2009, SuperFreakonomics co-author Greg Mortenson Students.jpgSteven D. Levitt visited DePauw, while the first-ever Ubben Debate brought Howard Dean and Karl Rove to campus on September 11, 2009. Other previous guests have included Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, Benazir Bhutto, Spike Lee, Margaret Thatcher, Shimon Peres, Willy Brandt, John Major, Peyton Manning, General Colin Powell, Elie Wiesel, Jane Pauley, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, Greg Mortenson, Todd Rundgren, Ross Perot, General Wesley Clark, Naomi Wolf, David Plouffe, Paul Volcker,  Barbara Bush, Ralph Nader, Mitch Albom, Frank Warren, Harry Belafonte, Mike Krzyzewski, Julian Bond, E.O. Wilson, Jesse Jackson, Paul Rusesabagina, Paul Tsongas, Brian Mulroney, Ken Burns, George Will, Eric Schlosser and Sister Helen Prejean. (above right: Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson with DePauw students; November 13, 2008)

To view a complete roster of Ubben Lecturers -- which includes links to video clips and news stories -- click here.

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