Directors Ivan and Jason Reitman on Getting Behind the Camera and Into the Family Business

Ivan Reitman poses during a shoot for Zoomer's June 2010 cover story. Photo: Bryan Adams

Jason Reitman is early. Unfortunately, breakfast is late, and all I can offer him at the L.A. studio where we’re shooting Zoomer‘s cover is water. His arrival causes a wave of panic, and the caterer is whipped into a baking frenzy.

Within minutes, fresh croissants are dispatched to the studio. But Jason only wants the water. He’s low-maintenance that way; driving himself to the set and eschewing the valet in the parking lot, he arrived with his own suit, politely declining to be styled. What you see is what you get. And what you see is one of Hollywood’s most talented filmmakers, who, at 32, has already amassed an array of accolades for his three films — Thank You for Smoking (2005), Juno (2007) and last year’s Up in the Air, starring George Clooney — including four Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe win for best screenplay for Up in the Air.

His father, Hollywood directing and producing heavyweight Ivan Reitman — Meatballs, Ghostbusters, Dave and others — is also driving to the studio from his home in Montecito, outside Santa Barbara. L.A. traffic and some confusion with the call time have made Ivan late. While we wait, Jason chats with photographer Bryan Adams. The two have met before when they were seated together during an overnight flight and Adams gave Jason an eye mask to make sleeping easier.

Ivan, 63, arrives, calm, cool and collected, also with garment bag in hand. Like father, like son.

Ivan Reitman
Ivan Reitman for Zoomer’s June 2010 cover story. Photo: Bryan Adams


We are told we only have one hour with them before they disappear into L.A. traffic once more. To say the Reitmans are in demand is an understatement. There’s that small matter of the Academy Awards, a mere two weeks away, that has them jumping from event to event, interview to interview. Nominated for six Oscars, Up in the Air was their first official joint production — Jason co-wrote and directed, Ivan produced — and its huge success has made them a sought-after duo in the media circus. Then there’s Ivan’s own directing project, his first in four years — a romantic comedy with the working title Friends With Benefits, starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher (both are producing as well), which began shooting in May. Oh, and let’s not forget Jason’s follow-up pic, his adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel Labor Day, which goes to camera in the fall and that he’s still writing. We’re lucky we get an hour.

Being directors make them naturally curious about the shoot and between each set-up, the two men stand at the computer monitor, checking out the digital photos with Adams and discussing the framing and the lighting. Adams has a prop he wants them to use: an old-fashioned megaphone. Adams wants to know if they are game to try a few shots and “play” at directing to instil some humour into the shoot. Ivan chuckles, “We’re in the comedy business.”


Ivan Reitman
Photo: Bryan Adams


Moments later, Jason screams into the megaphone while Ivan deadpans to the camera. It’s hilarious, and the crew bursts out laughing. They get comedic timing and then some, and what’s clear is that they have a professional chemistry to match their familial one.

A few weeks later, Ivan calls me on his hands-free phone — post-Oscars and unfortunately they came away empty-handed — he is once again driving down to L.A., this time for pre-production meetings. Fathers and sons have a storied history in Hollywood — Kirk and Michael Douglas, Walter and John Huston or this year’s Oscar winner for best actor, Jeff Bridges, who thanked his late father, Lloyd, for encouraging him to follow in his footsteps. I ask Ivan if he encouraged Jason to become a director. He tells me that he didn’t encourage or discourage, he just wanted his son to do what he wanted. Ivan and his wife of more than 30 years, Geneviève (a French-Canadian), also have two daughters. Catherine, 29, is an actress and Caroline, 21, is studying to be a nurse. Initially, Jason chose to pursue a career in medicine, never once indicating to his parents that he wanted to make movies.

“I think he was staying away from the business for fear of the kind of nepotism issues that might come of it,” Ivan says. “And, in fact, I talked him out of medical school because I could see how miserable he was. I told him that he should not be afraid of approaching a creative life just because he was worried that he was going to be compared to me. And he went back to USC, where he enrolled in the English department and started making shorts, which was the first time I realized that he was actually interested in making films.”

When I speak to Jason via telephone the next day, he admits he was intimidated by the idea of following in his father’s footsteps and living in his shadow, but his dad actually gave him the confidence to do so. “My father told me a great story from when he was 17. He had seen submarine sandwiches in Quebec and asked his father for seed money to open up a submarine sandwich shop. And my grandfather said, ‘There’s not enough magic in selling submarine sandwiches for you.’ And it was from that advice that he became a music major in college and started a film club and really started his career. And he said the same thing to me, that there’s no more noble a job in the world than being a doctor, [but] he thought there was not enough magic in that for me. I was a storyteller and needed to follow my heart.”

Jason made award-winning short films before tackling his first feature, Thank You for Smoking. Along the way, he would go to his father for advice for whatever he hadn’t already picked up from growing up around movie sets and editing rooms. But as Jason’s own talent emerged, Ivan found that he, in turn, went to his son for an opinion.

“It was very natural. And it’s an extraordinarily cool thing,” Ivan says. “I remember that kind of relationship with my own father. I remember always asking him for advice and then, at a certain point in my 20s, I remember him starting to ask me stuff. It seemed to be a passing on of the torch.”


Photo: Bryan Adams


Jason would agree, and he admits that he and his father are probably closer than most. “We talk pretty much every single day, and we talk about family and we talk about movies, the two things that are most important to us,” Jason says.

Ivan is close to his son, and both choose to make comedies, but their films are vastly different in tone. “Ivan’s sensibility just moved naturally to Hollywood and working within the studio system. He wanted to connect with the big public,” says Piers Handling, CEO and director of the Toronto International Film Festival. “But I think Jason’s working in a mode that young Canadian filmmakers can probably identify with. Jason’s kind of working outside of the Hollywood system. He will dip in and out of the indie scene as well as the studio stuff when he needs to but at the end of the day I think he’s an independent filmmaker.”

“They share a sharp eye and strong storytelling sense but differ in the way they tell those stories,” says Richard Crouse, film critic for CTV’s Canada AM. “Both are drawn to comedy, but Ivan never met a gag he didn’t like, whereas Jason creeps up on his jokes, subtly infusing them into the story.”

Crouse also suggests that one reason for this difference in approach may be generational. “Ivan’s young life was steeped in turmoil, and the art he makes, like so many other comics who were touched by the Holocaust or other life-altering early experiences, is bright and sparkling, as if it is a reaction against the darkness of his youth,” he says. “Growing up in California as the son of a successful movie director, Jason’s young life was obviously much less fraught so his style of humour is bound to be different.”

Jason puts it this way: “If we were musicians, my father wants to take your favourite song and play it better than you’ve ever heard it before. I want to take a song that you hate and play it so good that you learn to like it.”

Despite having spent much of their lives in Hollywood, they remain dedicated to Canada, a country that, as Ivan puts it, gave him and his parents a home when they came here as Jewish refugees from eastern Europe in 1951. His parents went on to run a car wash business that sat at the corner of King and John Streets in Toronto. This plot of land is a gift worth more than $22 million from Ivan and his sisters, Agi Mandel and Susan Michaels, and The Daniels Corporation — was donated as the site to build and house Bell Lightbox, the permanent home of the Toronto International Film Festival and an adjoining condominium complex, Festival Tower, that is set to open in September.

“The Reitmans are guardian angels for the project,” Handling says. “When we were looking for a piece of land, we had no idea that Ivan and his two sisters owned a piece of land here. They had no idea that we were interested in building the building. We didn’t really know each other that well to be honest. We were aware of each other’s reputations, but that was about it and it was complete serendipity that the two sides were brought together. Of course, it was a match made in heaven.”

Ivan and Jason Reitman
Ivan and Jason Reitman on the cover of Zoomer magazine’s June 2010 issue. Photography: Bryan Adams


Handling says that Ivan was very involved through the entire project right down to the choice of architect. “What impressed me was he wanted to make sure that our needs were met. And that’s tricky when you’re dealing with a joint project and a piece of land that obviously meant an enormous
amount to him and his two sisters. But he was always very, very respectful of what we needed.”

When it opens this fall, Bell Lightbox will house five cinemas, two galleries, three learning studios, a retail store, a café and restaurant, a lounge bar area plus open space for aspiring filmmakers or devoted film buffs to hang out in.

In addition to the TIFF project, Ivan is involved in the Canadian Film Centre’s comedy lab to help foster homegrown comedy films. He and Jason also produced Chloe, the Atom Egoyan thriller released last March.

Ivan has received other recognition for his own success south of the border as well as his ongoing support for the local industry; in 2001, he was given a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame and, in 2009, was awarded the Order of Canada. “I feel very thankful, not only to the country but to the city, Toronto, you know, for taking my family and me in. Ontario is where I was educated and where I began my career, so whatever I can do to give back is what it’s about. In terms of Bell Lightbox and that whole area, it’s really about finding a suitable tribute to my parents.”

As for Reitman the younger, Jason was born in Canada and raised in Los Angeles. He says marriage to Canadian Michelle Lee “kind of made me a Canadian reborn,” and the couple has a young daughter. He also feels a strong tie to the Toronto International Film Festival. “I’m on a creative advisory board with the TIFF. Every one of my films has premiered there, and I feel like I’m a TIFF success story, so I come back and speak on their behalf,” he explains. “Hopefully, I serve as a piece of connective tissue between my family’s history with the land that the building sits on, the building itself and the film festival, which I feel very deeply connected to.”

Connecting to an audience is the benchmark of a successful film. Ivan knows this better than most, with blockbusters like Ghostbusters. There is much gossip on the web about Ghostbusters III, including a rumour that Sony (the studio that owns the rights) didn’t want Reitman to direct, preferring to hire a younger director. I want to know how he feels about that. He is adamant. “It’s not true. As I’ve been saying all along, there is no deal for the movie yet. It hasn’t been scripted yet. We’re going to turn in a script in two or three weeks, at which point someone is going to decide whether they’re making the film. And if they’re making Ghostbusters, they’ll be making it with me.”