'Tully' Director Jason Reitman On Reuniting With Charlize Theron And All Of That Mermaid Symbolism [Interview]

To dig too deeply into a discussion of Tully, the third film from screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman (after Juno and Young Adult) is to risk taking the shine off the movie's unique brand of intimate magic. Knowing this makes talking about some of the film's most impressive and heart-breaking reveals all the more difficult, but it makes repeat viewings of Tully something quite special. The film stars Charlize Theron (following up her work with Reitman in Young Adult) as Marlo, a wife (to Ron Livingston) and mother of three, including a newborn. Being the primary parent in the household has not only drained Marlo of energy and deprived her of sleep, but also she has lost sight of the parts of herself that were special and interesting, as her days are taken over with routine.

Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis, whose vibrancy practically jumps off the screen), a night nanny, hired by Margo's well-off brother (Mark Duplass) to take responsibility of the infant while Margo gets a full night's sleep. But Tully sees her job as not only taking care of the baby but taking care of Marlo's needs as a human being, and the two form an instant bond as they discuss their lives. Marlo sees a lot of herself in Tully, and Tully views Margo's life of stability — albeit a little boring — as something to aspire to and not avoid.

After tackling the teenage years in Juno and young, single grown=ups in Young Adult, Reitman and Cody are watching their characters age and mature as they do, and he hopes and expects they will continue to do so well into the future. Reitman (who has also directed Thank You For Smoking, Up in the Air and Labor Day) finds surprising ways to make Tully an honest treatise on the pros and con of getting older and makes it funny, tragic, joyous, scary and decidedly unpredictable.

This interview with Reitman took place in Chicago recently, and /Film spoke to him about the perils of parenthood, marriage and forgetting the hopes and dreams of your younger self.

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The last time I saw you was a couple years ago in Montreal during the Just for Laughs festival, and I finally got to see one of your staged script readings [which normally take place in Los Angeles and occasionally Toronto].

Jason: Oh my god, did you see The Big Lebowski [with a cast that included Michael Fassbender as The Dude, as well as Jennifer Lawrence, Patton Oswalt, Dennis Quaid, Martin Starr, Olivia Munn, Mike Judge, Mae Whitman, and T.J. Miller]? How insane was that night? The calls that came in to come to that one...the Prime Minister called because he wanted to get his family in; Arcade Fire texted me; it was insane. That was one of the great nights of my life. Fassbender—smoking pot on stage! He knows the movie so well that he knows every time The Dude smokes, and he had a joint ready, and every time The Dude smoked, he smoked.

I just love that he come out in costume—the robe and boxer shorts.

Jason: He went for it.

I'm guessing at this point, you have the right of first refusal for anything Diablo Cody writes—maybe not legally, but you've just made it clear.

Jason: Oh no, it's legal, until the day we die [laughs]. Look, we're on the journey together, and I couldn't have explained it or described it 10 years ago, but not it really does feel like we're writing this diary together.

People are referring to these three films as a trilogy, but if it keeps going, that's not a trilogy.

Jason: According to Star Wars rules, a trilogy does not preclude additional films, right? I don't see it as a trilogy, but I do see that there is connective tissue among the films. They are all part of the same cinematic universe—I guess that's the common terms for them today—and I presume there will be more.

What was it about this particular story that hooked you the first time you read it?

Jason: She called me and described the story in two sentences, and I was immediately taken by it. Frankly, the incredible part is that six weeks later, I got the script. She writes so fast.

Oh, it wasn't written when she first talked to you?

Jason: No, she just said, "Here's an idea." I said, "Go write that," and six weeks later, there's the script.

When we first met, I asked you about the wonderful use of Sharon Jones' rendition of "This Land Is Your Land" at the beginning of Up in the Air, and when she died, that's the first thing I thought of—how well you featured her music. And you are still nailing it with the musical choices and placement in Tully.

Jason: What a sweet thing to say. Thank you, seriously.

The use of the Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual during a driving outing is so damn funny. It goes on way too long, and that's the point [both laugh].

Jason: That's right. The point is, how do you illustrate that it took an hour for them to drive into the city? You listen to an album from start to finish. Everyone knows that album.

I'm not even sure that's true, but people of a certain age will get it and find it very funny. Also, the Jayhawks [whose song "Blue" is featured in the film] is one of my favorite bands. I had even missed the first time I saw it that you use the song twice in the film.

Jason: That's awesome.

I'm assuming night nannies are a real thing.

Jason: It's a real thing coastal rich thing.

I think that part of Margo's initial struggle in accepting the gift is not wanting to feel like some snooty, rich parent that has no interest in taking care of their own kids.

Jason: If I can rephrase that, I think that part of being a parent is everyone telling you how you should be doing things better. There's all this shame that comes along with being a parent, that somehow you're letting your child down and not doing enough, whether it's "You should be diagnosing your child with this. In the middle of the night, you're not doing this thing or feeding your child this thing?" Whether or not to take this nanny as a gift falls into that category—all the ways we judge ourselves for not doing a good enough job. There's the criticism we feel from the outside, but that's no match for the criticism we feel from the inside.

Usually when we see a marriage in a film, it's either still in the honeymoon phase or it's falling apart. We very rarely get a look at a marriage that feels functional and lived in. How did you, Charlize and Ron establish that feel for this couple?

Jason: The first steps are in the script, which has rich detail. Even the little thing of him playing videogames in bed. I haven't seen that yet, and that's a true thing: there's a generation of dudes who grew up on the original NES. And the fact that they get into bed together, and he's got his game and she's got her iPad, that alone speaks so much. It's also about having actors who trust each other, and me trusting them, they trust in me, establishing a level of comfort on set. "Alright, we're going to play this real and honest, and no one has to go big." That was certainly the target—a quiet marriage.

That's how relationship go. You get to the point where not everyone wants to say anything that's going to rock the boat. You're not fighting; you're just avoiding anything that could get tricky. Along with that, intimacy slows down, physical contact slows down, you just start to fulfill the jobs you have in the house. Tully arrives to remind Marlo that, it's okay, she's doing alright. That's one of the many categories that we're trying to establish in the film.

I love that Tully says at one point that "boring" and "normal" is a good place to be.

Jason: We aspire to create safety for our kids, and there's nothing wrong with that. But along with that comes living a pretty sedate life, certainly one we didn't imagine living when we were in our early 20s.

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In the last couple of years, Charlize has played a long string of heightened characters in Mad Max: Fury Road, The Huntsman sequel, Atomic Blonde, and The Fate of the Furious, but she comes down to earth for you. Tell me about the connection you two have and getting her back into a film with you.

Jason: God, it started from our initial meeting when she took me aside and told me a dirty joke, and I was like "I adore you," and we immediately wanted to make films together. Young Adult kind of defined the tone and language. There was this sneak, funny woman hiding inside that had not gotten the chance to come out. On "Arrested Development," she got to do some cool stuff, but that was a totally different character. There was this really sarcastic human being in there that was tired of being glamorous. Young Adult was the first opportunity, and this was the second. This one, she had to dig deeper, she had to put on weight and dress even further down and deprive herself sleep. All of that had an impact and made it feel very real.

When you have another filmmaker on the set like Mark Duplass, is that intimidating in any way?

Jason: It's such a gift. I've worked with a few actors who have directed now, like George Clooney, who is a brilliant director. Jason Bateman is a director. When someone understands what story you're trying to tell, and they can be a player-coach, it's a huge asset. Mark has one of the hardest jobs in the film. Every movie has an exposition scene where somebody goes, "Here's what the movie is about. Let me give this necessary piece of dry dialogue." And he does that in that tiki room scene, but it never feels like you're getting the exposition because he's so naturalistic and funny. That's his improvisation when he goes, "Hey, a**hole" [as a greeting to Margo]. Charlize just lit up when he did that and was like, "Oh, this is good." She loved that he just called her an a**hole.

Mackenzie Davis has been one of my favorite actors for a few years now, especially with what she did on Halt and Catch Fire. How did you discover her?

Jason: My initial connection to Mackenzie Davis was Drake Doremus' Breathe In. I saw that at Sundance and was like "Whoa, who is this?" She read for me for something, and we worked a little bit in the room, and she was spontaneous and interesting and makes cool choices. "Halt and Catch Fire" cemented it. And then this opportunity came up, and for reasons I can't go into [to preserve the film's secrets], the casting of her and Charlize was kind of perfect.

There's a wonderful moment where Tully announces that it's time for her to leave. She's so in tune with Margo's needs, that she's also aware when it's time to step away and let somebody take their own life back.

Jason: In that sense, she really is Mary Poppins. She shows up not just to help with breast feeding, but she shows up to save the family, and when the family is saved, it's time to go.

I have to ask about the recurring images of mermaids. I'm still not sure I get it.

Jason: [laughs] I asked Diablo about that, and she said very often people who have postpartum refer to it as feeling as though they're underwater, and she thought, "If I were underwater, who would I want to save me?" A mermaid. For me, when I had a daughter, my life literally went from zero mermaids to mermaids everywhere from toys, cookies, cartoons, books. Also, she has a swimming tail she wears in the pool; she has a sleeping bag mermaid tale that she sleeps in in bed. It's one of those creatures that is not in your life at all, and then overnight when you have a child, it's suddenly everywhere. It's a huge symbol for being a parent.

You've assembled a group of actors and other creative people that you work with regularly, and I love that idea of you returning to work with Diablo and Charlize. What do you get out of that?

Jason: In the simplest sense, there's a shorthand to working with people you've worked with before. You speak the same language. As anyone develops a voice, that becomes part of the voice. Working with the same crew that understands the look and feel and tone you're trying to achieve is the same as working with actors again and again—you start to understand them as instrumentalists and start to think about how their voice works as an instrument. I know how J.K. [Simmons'] voice works. I know everything about J.K. being angry, being tender, cynical, funny, as a father figure, as an innocent, and I know how that instrument is going to handle the music. And I know what happens when I put other people with him and how he affects them. I can't imagine not working with Charlize again or with J.K.; there are so many of them.

You opt for a really interesting style of editing in Tully, where at times, the scene cuts off almost as soon as we can sense where it's headed. It actually makes it funnier.

Jason: I've become less and less patient [laughs]. My movies always end before the ending, because third acts bore the shit out of me, and I don't care about them. I always feel like, "Alright, I know where this is going. I'm good. Let's stop." So I feel like my movies end that way, and now my scenes end that way. A lot of the filmmakers I admire do that too. Michael Ritchie—he did that all the time in his early films. New directors, particularly the foreign ones, they do cool shit like that.

I wanted to quickly ask about your next film, The Front Runner [about the derailing of the presidential campaign of Gary Hart]. Are we going to see it come out before the end of the year?

Jason: I sure hope so.

I was certainly alive when that went down, but I don't know much about Gary Hard before or after those singular events. How did you get interested in that story?

Jason: I'd rather save that conversation for when that movie comes, but suffice it to say, I had a similar experience to you in how I didn't really know this story until I heard it a couple years ago in detail. I immediately thought of it as an ignition moment that took us to today. It's the moment when gossip news and political news drove into the same lane and never drove out. And we lost a great candidate, and I wanted to ask why. Maybe it was worth while, maybe it wasn't. I don't know; I don't answer that question. But Hugh Jackman gives one of the performances of his life. And we have a huge cast, 20 actors deep, and we shot it like a Michael Ritchie film.

It was great to see you again, Jason. Thanks.

Jason: Thank you so much.