TELLURIDE, Colo. – It’s fair to say filmmaker Jason Reitman has a bit of a history with the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. In 2005 his feature debut, “Thank You for Smoking,” sold at the latter. Since then, three of his last four films, including this year’s “Labor Day,” have debuted at Telluride (2007’s “Juno” and 2009’s “Up in the Air” in the form of “sneak previews” secret screenings) before heading north to Toronto. It’s become a notable tradition, so we asked Reitman about his thoughts on the two environments and whether he’s superstitious enough to consider them a good luck charm at the start of the fall.
How did that first Telluride-Toronto experience with “Juno” in 2007 affect you?
I had heard about Telluride but not experienced it. People always talked about it like it was a fairytale. We came in as a secret screening, which was exciting; everyone sees you around town and they start to realize your film is there. We played so well at Telluride that year that by the time we arrived in Toronto, there was this kind of word already coming. Before we even screened, it was a must-see film at the festival. It just brought up the wattage of the screening in Toronto. It became a harder ticket, and you could just feel it as the movie began, there was this excitement, this understanding that they were about to experience something cool that carried off of the juice that it got at Telluride.
How do these two very different environments compare and how do they reflect on your work when you bring movies to each?
The Telluride environment is as lovely as everyone says. It’s this quaint little Rocky Mountain town that is preserved in all its charm and it’s a very easy place to talk to fellow filmmakers and film fans. You spend three days in this little tree-lined valley going to a barbecue and trying to keep up with the altitude and it’s so quiet. And then less than a week later you land in Toronto, this metropolis, and it’s a whole other deal. All of a sudden it’s loud, it’s exciting, you’ve gone from jeans and flannels to suits and dresses, tons of press conferences, red carpets, and a similarly excitable but different fan base of movie-goers who are just as thrilled to see movies. But their passion is just a little bit different. Frankly it’s a wonderful combination because obviously there’s something lovely about how quiet and respectful the Telluride crowd is, but then there’s something so exciting about how loud and passionate the Toronto crowd is. You get to see two different versions of your film, like see your film play to two different audiences, in two different rooms.
Are you able to take time to see films while attending these festivals?
Yeah. Since the time I started going to film festivals I spend a lot of time seeing movies. This year my schedule’s really tight. Telluride I’ll probably get a chance to see a lot more films, because I’m doing a lot of press at Toronto. There’s something nice about going to Telluride and not having to worry about doing interviews on a regular basis and just hanging out, eating barbecue and having drinks with your friends.
Do you ever feel like there’s a danger of peaking early with buzz for a fall film by hitting these early festivals? It’s been argued that “Up in the Air” ran out of steam because it hit such a high point with Telluride/Toronto in 2009.
I’ve heard so many arguments, honestly, both ways. “Don’t play Cannes, it’ll be too early.” “Don’t play Toronto, it’ll be too early.” “Wait for New York.” “Don’t play New York, play AFI.” “Don’t show anything. Wait for December, pull the Eastwood and don’t show a single soul.” I don’t think there is a certain system that works. I think the best thing to do is play for the audiences you think will love your film. For whatever reason, the audiences at Telluride and Toronto seem to be the kind of people who dig my movies, and I presume I’ll just keep bringing my films back to those festivals. It seems to be a nice match. We’ll get a bit of a bump coming out of the festival, then some other film will get a little juice. In the weeks leading to our release, we’ll get a little more juice and it’ll just go back and forth.
With the last film, “Young Adult,” you skipped this strategy.
Frankly, “Young Adult” was a movie that, I don’t know, it just felt like a different movie. We wanted to try something different. Looking back, I don’t even know if it was the right decision. It would have been nice to have seen it play at some film festivals. It certainly is a film festival type of movie. But I’m not a superstitious guy so it really doesn’t play into anything like that. We tried something. We did this little tour from city to city at these cool little art house theaters and we did posters in each town. It was something fun. But am I excited to go back to Telluride and Toronto with “Labor Day?” Very much so. And frankly I think Telluride will be a lovely place to show “Labor Day” because it strangely feels like the setting of the movie.
The three times you’ve done Telluride and Toronto you’ve had distribution on board, but with “Thank You for Smoking” in 2005, you came to Toronto looking for a buyer in the marketplace. That must have been a completely different experience.
It was phenomenal. It was the dream. It’s what everyone talks about. Saturday night in the Ryerson Theatre, had a killer screening and then that night there was a bidding war that went until three in the morning. I went out and smoked cigars with all of my buddies. The next morning Paramount and Fox Searchlight both announced that they had bought the film and it started a week-long battle with them in the press, each stating that they had bought the film. Searchlight in the end had it. It was an exciting week.
Alright so let’s just ask the question: Is going to the quaint mountain setting of Telluride and then to the busy metropolitan marathon of Toronto at the beginning of the fall festival circuit your good luck charm?
I wouldn’t consider it a “good luck charm.” It seems like a natural way to introduce my films to the people I think most about when I’m making them. Telluride you get a slightly more highbrow curation, a small selection of very thoughtful, smart, highbrow films. It’s a nice combination of international films you might never have seen and the most promising American films of that moment. What’s fun about Toronto is you get a broad spectrum of what’s interesting happening in cinema. You get huge movies, tiny foreign films, interesting American indies and badass midnight films. I can spend a day in Toronto at the Ryerson, see five movies in a row and see everything from a great little American indie to a badass film like “Drive” or “Spring Breakers” and then close the night out on some insane movie like “Stuck.” The Telluride and Toronto audiences are not elitist. They just love movies. All kinds of movies.
“Labor Day” screens for the public in Telluride on Friday at the Galaxy Theater. It arrives in theaters on Christmas Day.