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Director Jason Reitman on Tully, Juno, and Soundtracks That Speak to Growing Up

If you were a teenager a decade ago, the image of Ellen Page and Michael Cera covering the Moldy Peaches’ “Anyone Else But You” in Juno still might be engraved on your brain. Director Jason Reitman’s second feature was a bona fide cultural phenomenon, thanks in large part to its hyper-quotable dialogue, its playful soundtrack of indie rock and classically cool bands, and the meeting of the two. In the 11 years since, Reitman has built up a body of work in which music punctuates where the characters are at in their lives, from a cassette keeping Young Adult’s protagonist stuck in the past, to a high-school party soundtracked by Heems on Hulu’s “Casual.”

Reitman and Juno/Young Adult screenwriter Diablo Cody recently teamed up again on Tully, starring Charlize Theron as Marlo, a woman stretched dangerously thin after the birth of her third child. Reinvigorated by the arrival of the film’s titular nanny, Marlo celebrates by busting out “Call Me Maybe” at karaoke and taking a nighttime drive set to Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual. Then, in a typically Reitman move, a jukebox reprise of the Jayhawks’ “Blue” brings Marlo back to her past while simultaneously pointing towards her future. “I’ve always loved that song, Diablo does too,” Reitman tells Pitchfork. “We’ve been looking for a place for ‘Blue’ somewhere in one of our movies since Juno.”

Following the release of Tully a couple weeks back, we called up Reitman to talk karaoke, “Time After Time,” and hamburger phones.

Pitchfork: The “Call Me Maybe” karaoke scene in Tully is one of my favorite on-screen moments this year. Was the song written into the script?

Jason Reitman: Yeah, Diablo picked the song. That’s two movies in a row where I’ve gotten Charlize to sing, which is perhaps my greatest accomplishment as a director.

While the movie is set in the location of parenthood and motherhood, we saw it as where you are in your own human timeline. Juno’s about growing up too fast, Young Adult was about growing up a little too slow. This one deals with that moment when you become a parent and your younger self starts to feel like a different human being. The idea of adults doing karaoke and feeling young again is a moment we’ve seen in so many movies, and this kind of turns it on its ear. You see that it feels kind of inappropriate, it isn’t true to who she is anymore.

You also had Anna Kendrick sing “Time After Time” at karaoke in Up in the Air. What does a karaoke scene bring to a story?

Doing karaoke is one of those really vulnerable things, and I like making movies about flawed characters and showing them in vulnerable moments, so karaoke just kind of fits in.

“Time After Time” comes up repeatedly in your work too, including in Tully.

It’s funny, it was only after the fact that I realized that I’ve used Cyndi Lauper so much in my work. That was an intentional move—we used Cyndi Lauper not only in Up in the Air and Tully, but also on my TV show “Casual.” Frankly, we had this scene where Marlo had to get from [suburban] New York to Manhattan, and we need to cinematically explain that she drove for hour. A framing I’d never seen was, you get in a car and put on an album, and that represents a journey. By playing an album from start to finish, you show how long she’s driven. That would require being able to play every track of one album, and we needed to find one that everyone knows. That Cyndi Lauper album [1983’s She’s So Unusual], half the songs on it were chart hits, and everyone knows them. It speaks to multiple generations.

You often show physical forms of music, like mixtapes or the needle dropping on a record, which seems to reinforce the generational differences between your characters.

When I think about my childhood, one of the first images that comes to my mind is the handling of music: carefully removing a record from its sleeve, fixing cassette loops with a pencil, the first CD I played in my first car. If I had a pie chart of my childhood, it would be a very large slice of the pie, the hours spent putting music on or going to record stores. And then, in recent years, the amount of going down wormholes of music online. It just takes a large part of our time. If you’re going to talk about people’s connections to their past, you’re going to see them do this.

A number of your films also have extended credit sequences set to music, like the iconic Juno opening using Barry Louis Polisar’s “All I Want Is You.” What’s the process for deciding these de facto theme songs?

There’s always a song that, for me, represents what the movie is, but then by the time I’m finishing the movie, I realize that the movie is now saying all those things that I found originally in the song. I always presume the song’s going to go in the titles, too. In Thank You For Smoking, it was this Steve Winwood song “I’m a Man,” and through the whole process with Juno, it was the Yo La Tengo song “You Can Have It All.”

You have to find a song that powers what the movie’s already telling you, that complements it. With “All I Want Is You,” there was kind of an innocence to hearing a children’s song at the top of the film, because Juno uses teen pregnancy to talk about the idea of growing up too quickly. There was also something kind of delightful about opening with a children’s song that maybe the audience hadn’t heard before.

I can definitely vouch for the Juno soundtrack introducing viewers to that song, and to a lot more. What was your reaction to the runaway success of that soundtrack?

It was really strange and surprising. I don’t know how to emotionally qualify the success of that soundtrack because it still feels like something that happened to someone else. You have to remember that the thing with Juno was that it was a discovery moment for all of us—for me, for Diablo, for Ellen Page, for Michael Cera, for Kimya Dawson. All of us had our careers as musicians and actors and filmmakers, but none of us were well known. We were up in Vancouver, in what feels like the movie equivalent of a garage band, making a film for film festivals—and then all of a sudden it’s everywhere. I remember I got a call from Steven Spielberg’s office and Howard Stern’s office on the same day because they both wanted to get hamburger phones for their daughters. There was no way to make sense out of it.

Diablo and I talk about it a lot, like: Why did that happen? We continue to tell stories together, writing this kind of diary together that is all on the same theme. And it’s the theme that you keep bringing up, which is our relationship with our youth and how that changes. We’re constantly grappling with our relationship with different generations, but as you get older, you have to grapple with your younger self. That’s why I love that James Bond song “You Only Live Twice,” and use that cover in Tully. That is a song that, in its original conception, ruins the idea of having it all. We thought there was a real irony to saying the opposite, that it’s a song about sacrifice in a movie about having to say goodbye to your younger self.

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