Love stories are Hollywood’s most endangered species. Forget about formula romcoms, or vampire-human couplings, or the ubiquitous tales of men lusting after their hot, shapely guns. I mean real love stories, where the exhilaration of two people falling headlong for each other is also laced with the dangers such plummets can bring. Real love, however sensual and joyful, is seldom without darkness, risk, and sorrow.
Writer-producer-director Jason Reitman has already made two memorable love stories, although Juno and Up in the Air are definitely on the quirky side. With his latest film, Labor Day, he reaches a new level of maturity, adapting Joyce Maynard’s poignant, bestselling novel about reclusive, divorced Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) and her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith). Their rural Massachusetts existence is disrupted in the summer of 1987 when wounded, escaped convict Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) takes refuge in their home. The attraction between Frank and Adele quickly deepens into something profound, as he takes care of her by listening, making repairs around the house, and showing remarkable culinary skills–like how to bake the perfect peach pie. Meanwhile, Henry feels a rush of conflicting emotions, complicated by his own emerging sexuality.
Moviegoers saw author Maynard on the big screen last year in the documentary Salinger, where she recalled her youth as one of literary giant J.D. Salinger’s secret conquests (he reportedly favored liaisons with teenaged girls). She survived that experience, which could have proved crippling, going on instead to craft her own literary career as a prolific journalist, columnist, novelist and memoirist. (Her latest novel, “After Her,” comes out in paperback in April.) Slender, sleek, and chic at 60, she fills the room with her energy and exuberance. She also has a wicked, self-deprecating sense of humor, referring to her recent trip to Chicago as part of her “Kate Winslet Was Unavailable Tour.” As much as I like the consistently pleasing Winslet, I doubt I could have had more fun talking with the actress than I did chatting up the movie with the book’s creator.
Andrea Gronvall: Generally, if I haven’t already read the book on which a movie is based, I won’t read it until after I’ve seen the screen adaptation, so that nothing interferes with my initial perception of the film. So, I didn’t read Labor Day until after I’d seen Jason Reitman’s version. I very much liked the movie, and then I loved your book, and after reading it I found I admired the movie even more.
Joyce Maynard: [laughs] I think the book is always better!
AG: Books often are! But seriously, he captures the tone of your novel so well. He really has a feeling for your original material.
JM: He does, and he is a man who loves his mother. Jason bought the movie rights before Paramount came on board. He had read the book in galleys, and contacted me in the fall of 2009 shortly after it came out. And he asked if he could come over to my house to learn how to make pie.
AG: Although the movie is faithful to the book in all the important ways, what’s also interesting is what’s left out. An abortion is key in the book, but there’s no mention of abortion in the film. My guess is that he made that change because if he hadn’t, the culturally divisive topic of abortion would have pretty much dominated all media discussion of the movie.
JM: We did talk about omitting the abortion reference. Kate Winslet pushed hard to keep it in the screenplay; she wanted the film to be faithful to the novel because she loved the book so much. But Jason’s decision was the right way to go.
AG: Also, without wading into any potential spoilers here, the film is ambiguous about which character is guilty of an act of betrayal, while the book is not.
JM: Yes, let’s avoid spoiling. I can say that that [betrayer’s identity] aspect was deliberated thoroughly, but an ambiguous ending seemed to be the only way to pull the film off. And it’s certainly not a conventional happy ending.
AG: You’ve seen two of your novels adapted for the big screen. How did your experiences of movie-making differ between Gus Van Sant’s To Die For  and Reitman’s Labor Day?
JM: They were totally different—although, in both instances, a wonderful director, a wonderful screenwriter, and a wonderful movie. Buck Henry, who wrote the screenplay for To Die For, is brilliant; I love his writing. And Nicole Kidman was terrific in the lead.
AG: Yes, it remains one of her best roles.
JM: But that said, the two directors’ styles were completely different. I was very pleased with the way the way the movie of To Die For turned out, but I think I didn’t have more than one conversation with Gus Van Sant—not that I ever expected to be hanging out on set, or wanted to be peering over anyone’s shoulder. Jason is roughly the same age of the narrator of the Labor Day movie [Tobey Maguire, who plays the adult Henry], which gives him the right perspective for the character. And Jason has a wonderful team of collaborators who’ve worked with him previously [including cinematographer Eric Steelberg, production designer Steve Saklad, art director Mark Robert Taylor, and composer Rolfe Kent]. The set decoration, the whole look of the film, reminds me a little of the love story The Way We Were. It also reminds me of the cover of a James Taylor album I still have.
AG: You’ve been writing professionally since you were 18. Which authors do you read?
JM: I tend to read writers who inform me as a writer—Andre Dubus II, Alice Munro, Grace Paley. And I’ve just read Ann Patchett’s “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” a book that’s been getting a lot of favorable attention.
AG: You’ve written eight novels, and several memoirs—
JM: Actually, that’s not completely true. Of the four nonfiction volumes, only “At Home in the World” is, strictly speaking, a memoir. I went through a really tough time during all the uproar following its publication; it was unbelievable how vitriolic people were that I chose to write that memoir.
AG: Who are they to judge you? They weren’t there when you were with Salinger, so they don’t know what it was like.
JM: It is one of my books of which I’m most proud, despite everything I went through later.
AG: But getting back to my question: you’re such a prolific writer—a storyteller, a journalist, a memoirist—haven’t you ever thought of turning some of your work into a one-woman stage show?
JM: [laughs] All the time! Actually, I do perform with The Moth [the celebrated New York storytelling group]. I’m such a ham.
AG: Well, there’s already one actor in your family. You must be so proud of your son Wilson Bethel, who is carving out a promising career for himself.
JM: I am so proud of him. He has developed quite a female following for his current TV series. “Hart of Dixie.”
AG: He’s a cutie-pie.
JM: He is a cutie-pie!
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