Jason Reitman (Not) Versus the Internet

Men, Women & Children director on the use and abuse of tech

“It’s interesting to me that there’s been this response to the film that it’s some kind of takedown of technology.
“It’s interesting to me that there’s been this response to the film that it’s some kind of takedown of technology." Writer/director Jason Reitman on his new film, Men, Women & Children. (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Internet porn. Abusive online gaming forums. Prostitution websites. Bulletin boards for adulterers. Men, Women & Children, the latest from director Jason Reitman, has every sin the World Wide Web offers. But don’t call him a technophobe. He said, "I see the Internet as an inanimate concept that is a reflection of us.”

Adapted from Chad Kultgen’s 2011 novel, Reitman’s script (co-written with Secretary scribe Erin Cressida Wilson) follows the electronically-enhanced lives of several Austin families: A former high school football hero (Ansel Elgort) abandons the pitch for a gaming controller; two mothers (Jennifer Garner and Judy Greer) are at the extremes of Internet access, one too permissive, one pathologically restrictive; and a married couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) can’t resist temptation. Reitman said, “This movie starts with a husband masturbating on his son’s computer, and it ends on a husband and wife having a very important conversation. … The Internet has revealed me for the person I am, should I tell the person I love?”

While Reitman's story was filmed and set in Austin it's not cool Austin, hip Austin. It's suburban Austin, white-bread Austin, middle-class Austin, where there's no technology gap between the haves and have-nots because there aren't many have-nots. But it was Austin's creative scene that attracted him to shoot here, specifically the explosion of indie film productions and the infrastructure that supports it. "And that's just [Robert] Rodriguez's place," he said. "The perception of Austin outside of Austin is almost like a mythical place. There's a fairy-tale quality to the way people talk about the place. It's Narnia. Neverland is a better word for it, because it's a place where you can never grown up and always be an artist and never have to shill for the studio. And that feels as though that's how it is down here as a musician, as a filmmaker, as a creator of any type of medium or arts, or if you are making artisanal jams."

Most directors shy away from showing any technology: There’s the old joke that, in any horror film, the first victim is the cell phone, and for Reitman, that’s a sign of antiquated storytelling. “We’re emulating the world that John Hughes wrote about, when we don’t live in that world anymore. … Even on Juno, we pushed the era back a little, because we didn’t want to deal with cellphones.”

Reitman found himself working on a different narrative grammar than his early, wordier work like Up in the Air, one in which digital communication is constant, but face-to-face conversations are rare. When he started location-scouting in Austin, he quickly realized how much the digital world had changed physical interactions: “There were new schools that didn’t have lockers. You don’t need lockers, because there are no books, because everyone has an iPad.”

Another part of why filmmakers get so nervous may be that the technology shifts so quickly. “The book is only four years old, but they’re all on MySpace,” Reitman said. He admits his film could quickly become a historical artifact but, he added, “I’m not concerned about whether Facebook or Snapchat or Twitter won’t exist in five years. Because what I’m interested in is people, and our desires are not changing.”

Like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s porn-obsessed Don Jon, Reitman used real sites like PornHub and Ashley Madison. “You know the Internet so well, that if Facebook looked a hair different, it would be like I went into your bedroom and rearranged things.” However, to retain narrative control, his team constructed a virtual set. He said, “We built software to emulate the Internet, and then built a webpage – photos, ads, comments, accounts, as well as making each thing searchable, clickable – so the actors could go on and use it.” That was a massive undertaking, and one that led to some very specific research. “We had someone whose full-time job was to go through Vivid video to find thumbnails.”

While Men, Women & Children is not a techno-horror, Reitman’s characters struggle with their machines. He said, “It’s interesting to me that there’s been this response to the film that it’s some kind of takedown of technology." How does he think the digital society is doing? “I don’t know,” he said. “I think in 50 years, we’ll look back, and we’ll go, god, we were so silly. We are the Cro-Magnons at the beginning of 2001 that touch the all-knowing object, pick up the tibia, and beat the shit out of the other Cro-Magnons.”

Men, Women & Children opens in Austin Oct. 17. For a full review and listings, see listings.

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