Growing up in Ivan Reitman’s shadow couldn’t have been easy. With hits like “Animal House,” “Ghostbusters” and “Stripes,” Ivan produced and/or directed some of the most iconic Hollywood comedies of the past three decades. But that legacy didn’t stop his son, Jason Reitman, from becoming an important voice among a new generation of filmmakers. And while both Ivan and Jason Reitman work in the broad genre of comedy, their sensibilities are strikingly different. On the theme of pregnancy, for example, Ivan made “Junior” (1994), in which Arnold Schwarzenegger takes a stab at male childbearing. Although Ivan said he liked the film, it was a box-office flop. Jason, by contrast, directed “Juno,” a coming-of-age story about a precocious teen who becomes pregnant and puts her baby up for adoption. “Juno” was critically acclaimed, deeply politicized and awarded a best-original screenplay Oscar (the younger Reitman, 31, brought the elder, 62, to the Academy Awards as his guest).
The Reitmans shared a stage at Sinai Temple recently to talk about their careers with Rabbi David Wolpe. The discussion took on a role reversal, with Jason taking the lead and Ivan relaxing into an air of paternal pride.
What distinguishes father from son, filmmaker from filmmaker, is that they came of age in different eras. Ivan is the son of Holocaust survivors; his mother, Clara, survived Auschwitz and his father, Leslie, was a resistance fighter. They fled communist Czechoslovakia in 1950, when Ivan was 5, and moved to Toronto, where the couple worked at a local laundromat. Jason, of course, is the son of a famous Hollywood director, and was raised in Beverly Hills. Their approaches to filmmaking reflect their pasts. Once a penniless immigrant, Ivan sought commercial success with playful, profitable genre films. He dabbled in horror, the supernatural and summer camp comedies. Jason, on the other hand, grew up around privilege and is seeking to challenge his audience through satire and social commentary, as in “Thank You for Smoking” (2005), “Juno” (2007) and the forthcoming “Up in the Air,” starring George Clooney.
What they share, however, is a knack for success and a keen understanding of how to entertain.
“I was terrified about becoming a director,” Jason told the crowd. “I knew what people thought about children of filmmakers — the presumption is that you’re a spoiled brat, you have no talent and most likely you have an alcohol or drug problem.”
At first, Jason avoided his dream and enrolled in medical school. His father sensed his disingenuousness, however, and intervened: “I said, ‘I’m sure you’ll be a great doctor,’” Ivan recalled, “‘but I don’t think there’s enough magic in it for you.’” The son returned to Los Angeles, sweet-talked his way into USC and produced a campus calendar to raise money for his first film.
Jason’s evolution as a filmmaker occurred alongside the digital revolution, which has significantly lowered production costs. Nowadays, anyone can buy an inexpensive camcorder and post a movie on YouTube.
“It’s much easier now than it was when I started,” Ivan said. “My first movie was made in college, and I had to borrow equipment and raise enough money to buy film stock — which is very expensive. Then it had to be processed.”
“You know what you sound like now,” Jason interjected, putting on his best old man voice. “In my day ...” he grumbled mockingly.
Jason also had the advantage of the burgeoning of American film festivals, where new filmmakers can showcase their work. For him, in particular, they offered an opportunity to submit anonymously.
“Most people are trying to break from obscurity; I was looking for obscurity. I did not want to be considered my father’s son,” Jason said. But apart from the challenge of forging his own way, or that he spent summers on film sets, or that typical dinner guests at their house were stars like John Belushi and Bill Murray, Reitman said his childhood with a famous father was “normal.”
“It’s funny, because I read enough now about Hollywood that I’m surprised I didn’t experience more of these things that I hear about. I’ve never even seen hard drugs,” he said, adding, “I almost feel like I missed out on something there.”
By his father’s account, Jason’s remove from Hollywood’s corrupting powers is what gives him the ability to comment astutely. Growing up in Canada, Ivan Reitman developed a talent for American comedy. For him, directing requires him to be aware of infinite details from one moment to the next. Jason agreed: “I find directing to be a very reactionary job. It’s often more about your ability to react to what’s in front of you than create out of thin air.”
Both said directing is about finding a personal voice, though Ivan had difficulty pinning his own down. “My father’s filmic voice is joyful,” Jason jumped in. “He wants you to feel better walking out of the theater than you did walking in. He wants you to feel that there’s a haven in the world of his movies.”
Jason wants the opposite. “I had a very easy childhood, so it’s easy for me to make a movie that’s a lot more challenging to people and puts a hand up to them.” He said he hopes his movies raise questions, rather than provide answers.
Both Reitmans said they struggle to balance their ambitions with their commitment to their families. “Just being a parent and married and living in contemporary Western society is damn hard,” Ivan said, adding that he was always careful to schedule film shoots in the summertime so his family could be at his side.
Jason said he learned how to become a filmmaker watching his father work in the editing room, where he would spend countless hours. Now a father himself, Jason said he sees how hard it is to have balance in your life. “My mom said to my wife just before we got married, ‘You know, Jason’s going to have an affair — but it’s not with a woman, it’ll be with a movie,’” he said.
“The tough part is actually not when you’re away,” Jason added, “it’s when you’re there, but your mind isn’t.”
Their passion for their work led both Reitmans to early success: Ivan was 32 when he produced “Animal House” and Jason just 28 when he directed “Thank You for Smoking.” Youth is an obvious advantage in Hollywood, but peaking too soon makes the threat of irrelevance or failure more acute. Because of the length of his career, Ivan has had considerably more experience dealing with disappointment.
“I had this remarkable hot streak for almost 15 years, and I didn’t think I could fail, and suddenly I failed a bunch, and it was remarkably hard. I was really hard to be with,” Ivan said. Now Jason appears to be on a hot streak: He’s made only two feature films and both have received critical acclaim, something Ivan received less of, though he said, “I think that was good; I was always hungry, and the hunger focused my work.”
Asked how Judaism influences their work, Jason said that his talent as a director comes from a Jewish place.
“I think Jews are great storytellers, and I think it’s our legacy of storytelling that is the reason we still know who we are today. More importantly, I think we’re an open-minded people, and I try to make open-minded films. I take characters who are traditionally considered villains and look at them as human beings.”
“I can’t answer better than that,” Ivan said.