A Conversation with Alan Alda and Jason Reitman

By Lauren Yarger
Actor Alan Alda and Director Jason Reitman chatted about growing up in the entertainment industry with famous fathers, dealing with fame and reflected on their careers as part of the CT Forum series held Saturday at The Bushnell.

Alda was a last-minute replacement for actor/director Rob Reiner, but he and Reitman shared banter that couldn't have been a better fit. They have a lot in common: both have written and directed (Alda is most known for his multi-year run as Hawkeye Pierce on TV's "MASH" and Reitman for "Up in the Air" and other films) and they both grew up the sons of Hollywood icons: Alda's father was stage and film actor Robert Alda and Reitman is the son of film director and producer Ivan Reitman.

The conversation was moderated by Wesley Morris, a critic at large for the New York Times, who asked his own questions in the first part of the program and then presented questions from audience members in the second. Here's a synopsis of the questions and comments:

Reflecting on their fathers' influence:

Alan -- He had been reading lines with his father since he was 9. He often would decide he knew best, suggesting. "Maybe you should say it like this...." He realized this had given him confidence. Later he had a chance to write an episode of "MASH" starring his father who made a suggestion for an ending to the episode at which Alda initially scoffed. He realized he shouldn't resent the idea because of father/son dynamics and gave it a try. "Not only did it work, but it was a moment of father/son connection that we hadn't had before."

Jason -- He had decided to go to med school when his father urged him to select a field with more "magic." "My father became the first Jew to say don't be a doctor, be a film maker!" Reitman Sr. was a producer on "Up in the Air," which was an interesting dynamic. He didn't buy the scenes where people were being fired and Jason took his advice. He realized he didn't have the life experience to write them, so he ended up interviewing real people in Detroit and St. Louis and incorporating those conversations into the film.

Reflecting on fame:

Alan: It takes a while to get used to it. He had night terrors. People get disoriented when meeting famous people. He has had many come up to him and tell him, "You're my biggest fan." He tries his best to put people at ease as quickly as possible. He does a lot of takes, while directing (which he has little interest in doing any more) waiting "for life to happen." A scene with many takes develops an energy of its own.He is a big advocate of improvisation, especially to discover back story and help the actors understand what their characters have experienced up until beginning the dialogue.

Jason: the relationship with actors on film is different for people than on TV, he thinks, because the big screen in the dark has a more surreal feel. Actors on TV seem more like friends in your home. He doesn't believe in telling actors how to do a scene or say a line and "squeeze them in a box," but prefers to discover direction together. His job is to let the actors create and ask himself ,"Do I believe them." Some actors, like George Clooney, always are aware of what they are doing and why. Others get lost in the scene and have no idea of what is happening in relation to where the camera is, for example. He likes to combine those two as "dance partners." Some actors, like Charlize Theron or Ellen Page, he said, are 100 percent in both of those categories. Ellen can take so much direction that once he gave her about 25 directions on a take just to watch her do it, he joked. There's something about getting actors to expose something from their souls that's beautiful and exciting.

Reflecting on directing and what most excites them:

Alan: Loves a chance to do something that matters. The last episode of "MASH" united millions of people at the same time and touched them. He has to write form experience and refuses to write propaganda. Material needs to be about how people treat each other to be interesting. He loves working with good material, people he respects and having the audience "get it." When he worked on "The Four Season," which he starred in, wrote and directed, he started the process by telling the actors that their job was to become friends. He wanted that to translate to the film. He said doesn't have an interest in directing any more, but if he did, he would lean toward being more spontaneous.

Jason: A great performance is a gift to the director. He likes to listen and see what the actors' performances tell him about the material. He described his job in comparison to his father: His father wants to take your favorite song and play it the best you ever have heard. Jason wants to take your least favorite song and play it so well that you like it. He figures out which take works for his actors. Clooney, for example is take one.

"If we ever work together," Alda quipped, "I'm take 22."

Reflecting on women and film:

Alan: "For decades I have been an avowed feminist." When he is writing, what the women in the scene want is just as important to him as what the men want, he said. And the women shouldn't be staying home pouring coffee while the story focuses on the men. He pondered why the film industry, which had more women writers at the beginning of the industry now has so few.

Jason: Wants to tell new stories, and as women's stories are not generally told, they excite him. It must be terrifying to be a smart woman living in this country today, he said. Why aren't there more movies made by women? "Five different forms of sexism happening all the way up the ladder," he replied. There aren't enough women decision makers. We need to buy tickets and support films with women in them and written by women. He sees the internet and services like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix opening opportunities for more woman film makers.

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