Jason Reitman knows how to make compelling cinema out of adulthood bummers. The 40-year-old director’s filmography is populated with beaten-down characters Hollywood might prefer to ignore: a depressed high school prom queen 20 years removed from her glory days (Young Adult), a tobacco lobbyist with an uneasy conscience (Thank You For Smoking).
In Tully—Reitman’s fourth collaboration with screenwriter Diablo Cody, who wrote his 2007 indie breakout hit Juno—the primary antagonist seems to be parenthood itself, or at least the particularly exacting toll it takes on middle-aged moms. The protagonist is played by Charlize Theron, the star of his 2011 film Young Adult. In a career-highlight performance, she embodies an exhausted mother of three who, in a fit of desperation, hires an exuberant night nanny (Mackenzie Davis) to help with her newborn.
Tully is substantially more complex than it initially appears to be. And like its predecessor Juno, it has sparked national debate, both among film critics, who tend to hail Reitman’s imaginative talent, and among maternal mental health advocates, some of whom have slammed Tully for its depiction of postpartum conditions. “The movie is not a clinical film,” Reitman tells Newsweek in response. “It is centered around our relationship with ourselves.”
The director has already filmed his next movie, The Front Runner, about Gary Hart’s failed run for the presidency in ’88. He took a break from working on that film to reflect on Tully and the complicated conversations it has sparked. Be warned: This interview contains spoilers.
You mentioned on Instagram that your journey with this film began with a call from Diablo Cody, and “she said two sentences and a movie started playing in my head.” What were those two sentences?
She said, “I’d like to write a script about a woman who just had her third child and is suffering from postpartum, and a younger version of herself comes to save her.” I was immediately excited to read the script. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait that long.
How did you react to the twist ending when you first read it?
You have to understand: For me, it’s not a twist. For me, it’s an unveiling. This is a movie where you are watching two movies at once. You just don’t know it. And if the movie works, it just unveils itself to you in its closing moments. You track back and realize what you’ve been watching this whole time. You realize you have not been watching a movie about parenthood as much as a movie about the relationship we have with a different moment in our life.
How has your working relationship with Diablo changed since Juno?
If anything, it’s just a level of growing trust. If something’s in the script, there’s a reason it’s there, even if I don’t understand it.
This movie, like Young Adult, deals with characters trying to grow up and reckon with their past. Is that a preoccupation of yours?
I suppose I’ve always felt like I don’t know where I am on my timeline. I often feel like I’m in the wrong place. I presume that most people feel that—this sense of being too early, like in Juno, or being too late, like in Young Adult.
Juno, like Tully, dealt with pregnancy and motherhood, and neither of them portray motherhood in a glamorous way.
I think of parenthood and motherhood as a location, and we want that location to be as authentic as possible. If the movie took place aboard a submarine, I’d want to be sure that all the costumes and all the lingo were true to life and felt real.
But it’s rare for a male director to make such thoughtful movies about being a mother.
Motherhood is a really interesting place. I can work hard to make that place feel authentic. But as a director, my job has to do with scene and tone and story, and I feel like scene, tone and story are genderless.
Have you read some of the criticisms of the film from mental health advocates, and do you have a response to those critiques?
Not really. I feel like Diablo has written a very personal film, [which] comes from her own experiences. The movie is not a clinical film. The movie is centered around our relationship with ourselves. You can only understand that once you’ve watched it start to finish. My understanding is some of this criticism came from people who haven’t seen the film, and who presumed from the trailer what the subject was.
There was one blog post that went viral. The author was concerned that the movie didn’t address the subject of getting treatment for postpartum mental health problems.
The movie is not about mental health. That doesn’t make any sense to me. The movie is as personal to Diablo as Juno was and Young Adult was. To presume that the film should have some sort of clinical answer is to presume that Juno should have clinical answers on teen pregnancy and adoption. Each film is a singular personal story. This movie—and you can only understand this once you’ve watched it start to finish—is about where we exist on our own timelines and how we grow up. This is the movie we set out to make from the beginning.
Tully is also a sort of horror film for people in their 20s who are considering having kids. Do you have anything reassuring to say to them?
I think the movie is really funny! Look, there is this taboo about parenthood, where we’re not allowed to talk about it in a real way. We can talk about our sex lives with detail and candor. But when it comes to parenting, we’re only supposed to say that it’s a delightful blessing that completes us, and that’s it. The truth is, it’s scary. There’s shame that comes with it. There’s people around you telling you that you’re doing it wrong. And Diablo wrote a script that spoke to that.
Who’s your favorite fictional mom from a movie?
I don’t know! Who’s yours?
I’m going to say Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona.
God, that’s such a good one! How can I beat that. Did you ever see the mom in the Swedish film Together, the Lukas Moodysson film?
I have not.
I don’t mean to get all weird and art film-y, but it’s an amazing movie. It’s a lovely comedy. And the mom is really complicated and interesting. You’re gonna love it. And it’s charming—it’s not, like, some weird, arty foreign way.
Where did you find the metal band that plays at the bar in Tully?
Oh, the speed metal song! When they’re in a bar for five seconds and they’re rocking out to metal music? That was a New York metal band. They brought in tapes of bands that would be up for playing in the movie, and that was one of them.
There’s also a great Carly Rae Jepsen music cue during the karaoke scene. Are you a Carly fan?
I know that song [“Call Me Maybe”], but I’m not that familiar with her catalogue. So much of the movie thematically deals with your younger self versus your current self. What would your younger self think of you now? How do we still recapture our youth? And because of that, you have an adult who is doing karaoke to a Carly Rae Jepsen song at a children’s party. The film is dealing with this concept of: Do we have to say goodbye to our youth or not?
Your younger self was briefly captured in some of your father Ivan’s movies, like Ghostbusters II and Kindergarten Cop. Are you embarrassed to see yourself as a kid?
[Laughs] Well, it’s not like I watch these movies by myself all the time. It was more embarrassing when I was younger. If my daughter wanted to see what I looked like when I was younger, she could watch one of those movies, which is cool.
She has not seen Twins or Kindergarten Cop or Ghostbusters II. I really need to up her game on her grandfather’s movies.
We just passed the 10th anniversary of Juno. Has anything surprised you about its long-term legacy?
Not as surprising as it was when it first happened. You have to keep in mind, we made this little movie for no money, hoping it would play festivals and find a cool indie crowd to dig it. And it just opened up! Now people like Young Adult way more, which is a film no one totally got [at first]. I meet fellow directors—that’s their favorite film of mine.
Are you still taken aback by how much Juno is brought up in abortion debates, how people politicized its message?
That’s what people do. People try to politicize everything. That’s the nature of the world—particularly right now. You can’t just make a movie, it has to politically stand for something, and each person thinks that it only stands for one thing. [With] Thank You for Smoking, liberals thought it was theirs and conservatives thought it was theirs, and they were both right. Now people are a little more presumptuous and obstinate about it.
What I’ve always wanted to do is make movies in which you walk out and it acts as a mood ring. The screen is a mirror. You see yourself in it.