Even with a legendary filmmaker for a father, Jason Reitman isn’t too concerned with following in anyone’s footsteps. He’s crafted his own path with his own achievements. Working his way up in the industry by directing commercials and short films and entering film festival competitions, he’s become a successful indie filmmaker, having made the cult classics Thank You for Smoking and Juno, which earned him a Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards. Up in the Air brought him a second nomination for Best Director, along with a Best Picture nod.
Between spending time on sets as a kid with his father and picking up advice from him, and more so successfully leading his own filmmaking career, Reitman’s got some practical tips to share whether you want to break into the indie scene or the industry at large. We’ve collected some of his advice from over the years below.
First and foremost, a director’s job is to find a way to honestly and realistically bring a story to life, especially with comedies. Reitman told DP/30 in 2011:
“My feeling has always been this: it’s the writer’s job to be funny. If the screenplay’s funny, that’s really all that needs to be funny. At that point, it’s the actors and the director’s job to find truth. To make it honest, to make it real, to tell the story well. And then it will be funny.”
Continue the interview here:
Get the Mistakes Out
With today’s technology, it’s easier than ever for a student filmmaker to hone his or her craft. Reitman advised that young directors take advantage of this and use it as an opportunity to get out there and try and fail some. He told the Orlando Sentinel in 2009:
“We’re in the midst of a digital revolution that allows you to shoot, edit, and distribute your films for virtually nothing. You have the possibility of creating a YouTube sensation…When I talk to student filmmakers, I tell them, ‘Read as much as possible. Write as much as possible. Go read (director) Robert Rodriguez’s book ‘Rebel Without a Crew.’ Get the mistakes out. Write bad. Direct bad. Learn how to tell stories as you do. Find that short film that says exactly who you are and the stories you want to tell. Make it and submit it to the festival process and realize that you may be great, you may be terrible. You won’t find out until you try to get other people to judge your work.’”
In an interview with Tested in 2015, Reitman mentions a piece of advice from his father (“just keep making movies”) and uses it to reflect on his own career. He suggests filmmakers work past their self-doubt as an artist by looking toward their overall goal:
“You’re judged so quickly by whatever your last work is. It’s a tricky beat, but if you can somehow get back to why you make movies in the first place. And look historically at filmmakers, look at some of your favorite filmmakers, you can look at the films that bookend their greatest success. You know, Billy Wilder made ‘One, Two, Three,’ it was either immediately before or after ‘The Apartment.’ You watch those two films back to back and go ‘God, these tones could not be anymore different,’ and ‘The Apartment’ is simply a masterpiece on every level. And ‘One, Two, Three,’ I’m not a fan. It’s just eh. It just shows that artists have moments and you just have to keep working.”
Presume You’re Ready
In an episode of the Austin Film Festival’s On Story in 2016, Reitman stresses the importance of self-confidence, especially for newer filmmakers who may find themselves taking on more than they can handle. He says:
“I think to be a filmmaker, you have to have the ego and the presumption that you are ready to make a film even when you’re not ready. Because the truth is, I wasn’t ready. It was around that time that I wrote ‘Thank You for Smoking.’ I wrote it really young. But no one wanted to make it. And I spent five more years directing short films, making commercials, some horrible commercials, and becoming a better filmmaker. And thank God. If I had gotten the opportunity to direct ‘Thank You for Smoking’ when I wrote it, it wouldn’t have been as good a film. I had so much to learn.”
Continue watching the episode here:
Connect with Other Filmmakers
From his time in film school to his years attending and participating in film festivals, Reitman has met many other talented filmmakers whom he’s worked with on a number of projects. In an interview with Collider in 2014 to promote Men, Women & Children, he mentioned the value of having these relationships and suggested young filmmakers create a community of others to make films with:
“I don’t think you need to do anything. But I think film school is very valuable. If I could do it over again, I would probably have gone to the University of Texas and gone to film school there, and had a really nice balance of learning about film and also just going to school in Austin, Texas, and having a great time. But going to film school certainly helps. Look, you’re going to learn some shit about equipment, but more importantly, you’re going to meet some people who you’re hopefully going to know for a long time. What I consider important is the time I spent at film festivals. I spent 6-7 years going to film festivals, with films, without films. Being amongst a community of independent filmmakers, and young short film filmmakers, whom I know to this day. Some are my best friends, some are people I work with. The guys who did my opening titles on all my movies and did all the digital work on this film including designing the voyager sequence and all the graphic stuff that comes on screen. They had a short film at the same time as mine, and I’ve known them since then. So, I think it’s about community. Who is your filmmaking community? Who are you excited to make films with? And those are the people you’re going to meet in film school despite what you may not learn.”
Enter Film Festival Competitions
One of the best ways not only to break into the industry but to get valuable feedback on your work is to take part in film festival competitions. Reitman advised in an interview with Time magazine in 2010:
“Do what I did, which is to use the film festival system. Unlike any other art form, filmmakers have this unique web of festivals. In the US there’s hundreds alone, and it is a democratic system in which you submit films, and if they’re good enough, they play. If they’re very good, they could win an award where they get the attention of some agents and some studios.”
What We Learned
No matter who you are, becoming a successful and talented filmmaker doesn’t just happen overnight. While it’s easy for many to see Reitman’s name and attribute his success to having a famous father, it’s clear he’s really put in the work to successfully build his career from the bottom up and has made a lasting mark on the industry himself. Both film school and film festivals can be indispensable to those hoping to break in for a variety of reasons, but the key thing is to foster creative collaborations and have confidence in your work and yourself as an artist. Success isn’t only defined by box office numbers. Sometimes it’s the smaller, personal achievements that matter most.