“Labor Day” centers on 13-year-old Henry Wheeler (played by Gattlin Griffith), who struggles to be the man of his house and care for his divorced reclusive mother, Adele Wheeler (played by Oscar winner Kate Winslet), while confronting all the pangs of adolescence. On a back-to-school shopping trip, Henry and his mother encounter Frank Chambers (played by Josh Brolin), a man both intimidating and clearly in need of help, who convinces them to take him into their home and later is revealed to be an escaped convict.
The events of this long Labor Day weekend in 1987 will shape them for the rest of their lives. Here is what Brolin, Griffith and "Labor Day" screenwriter/producer/director Jason Reitman said during a press conference for the movie at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, where "Labor Day" had its Canadian premiere.
Jason, can you talk about “Labor Day” being your first period film and any relevance that you think this movie has for today’s audience?
Reitman: The only reason why it is a period piece is because we needed the flexibility to move backward and forward through time. So while I wish it could say it has a relevance to now, I think it could easily take place now, but it needed to take place in ’87, so we’d have the flexibility to move forward and have the [Henry Wheeler] character speak about his childhood later on.
In “Labor Day,” we see a back story for Adele Wheeler, but not Frank Chambers. Did you consider putting a back story for Frank in the movie? And Josh, did you discuss any back story with Jason?
Reitman: I thought we were pretty clear about his back story. It’s just told in a different way. In the book, each of their back stories is told as a solid chapter. “This is what happened to Frank. This is what happened to Adele.” And as a storyteller, I thought that while it works in the book, there’s no way we can stop in the movie for two 10-minute flashbacks, and go, “And now, we’re going to hear your story.”
So we decided to tell the Adele flashback as one piece. I thought it would be more interesting if we were getting these glimpses of Franks story. And as soon as I realized that as a screenwriter, I realized there’s all these little moments in Franks’ back story that strangely relate to all the little things that are happening in the movie along the way.
And if you could somehow pepper them in throughout the movie, so they can act as a visual metaphor for the other things that are happening inside the house at the moment, that could be interesting. For me, my sense of it is that I understand his back story from watching the movie. Different people are going to pick up on different things.
Brolin: I agree. I think it’ all there. He’s just placed it in a way that’s more elusive and, “Who is this guy and what are his real motives? Is he going to do this? Is he going to fall in love? Is it manipulation? Is he taking advantage of them?” All that kind of stuff. I think the outcome is perfect in the way that you’re asking the question.
It was my experience on “No Country [for Old Men]” too. “Well, who killed ….?” And then they saw the movie three times. It’s making you work. And I think that’s a good thing. It doesn’t happen often.
How did you calibrate the tenderness and danger in the Frank Chambers character?
Brolin: We’ve been talking about that. The thing is, you intellectualize it purely out of fear in the beginning. You just don’t want to act bad. And you want to see his vision through as best you can. And then, once you get into, you try and visceralize it as much as possible.
So he [Jason Reitman] is tweaking it more than I am. Once I’m inside it, I can’t really see it. I know how I feel. There’s a reason why he chose me to play the part: because I come across as intimidating. I don’t think I necessarily am. [He says jokingly] It’s mostly my eyebrows.
Reitman: If you play his eyebrows one way, it’s really intimidating. And if you bring them up a little, it’s way more tender.
Brolin: My father was 6’4”, my mother was 5’2”, and I proportionately came out to be able to play this role.
Frank is an escaped convict, yet Adele manages to fall in love with him during a short period of time. What do you think that says about human nature? He seems very relatable.
Brolin: Well, there you go. You just answered your own question. We said it before, when it comes to chemistry, there’s something that you really can’t deny.
I know people have said, “Would something like this really happen?” I think when you have two people who come from such isolated situations, one being that Frank, physically in the last 18 years, and then [Adele] since her divorce, she’s become totally agoraphobic within her own creation. She’s reading a romance novel over and over and over.
So you put these two together, and they’re in such need of human connection, how can it not? If there’s anything possible there chemically, it’s just two magnets, and they’ll figure it out. It’s almost undeniable at that point.
Gattlin, your role as Henry Wheeler required a lot of stillness. Was there a temptation for you to do more? Are you comfortable with letting the camera read you instead of putting it all out there?
Griffith: Yeah, definitely. When I first went into the audition, I was screaming and doing all this stuff. And Mr. Reitman was, “Just take it down a notch.” As a kid, I’d always go on these Disney auditions and stuff like that. They’d say, “You’re nice, but you’re not funny.” All right, I guess I kind of have to do the still thing. As Mr. Reitman always said, “Underreact, under-act, rather than over-act.” And that’s kind of how the movie played out.
For people who didn’t read the “Labor Day” book, was that pie-making scene in the book?
Reitman: Oh, that scene was in it, times 20 in the book. It’s unbelievably detailed. The history of the pie is this: Joyce Maynard, the author of the book, when her mother became sick, she said, “I don’t want to watch my figure anymore.” And Joyce made a pie for her mother every single day.
And she became a brilliant pie maker — so good that everyone would ask her, “How do you make a pie?” And she would start teaching them. And she found that she was actually very good at teaching how to make pie. She taught people around the world to make pie.
The second time I ever met her, I went to her home in the valley, she taught me how to make pie. She taught Josh how to make a pie. She taught Kate how to make a pie. Josh made a pie every single day over the course of the shoot.
Brolin: Usually for the Teamsters.
Reitman: He’s the picture of masculinity, but when you show up at his cottage, and he’s wearing an apron, and he’s thrilled and over-the-moon at the crust he achieved that day, or the juices that were able to come out, it’s a very different side. And he would give the pies to everybody. And at first, it was really charming, like, “Oh, Josh made me a pie.” By the end of the shoot, you’re like, “Oh, f*ck, he made another pie.”
What’s your best pie?
Brolin: I only made one type of pie the entire time. I made a peach pie every single day.
Were peaches in season?
Brolin: They were at that time, but it’s a small town — Concord, Massachusetts — so I had people going to other villages, because I bought out all of the peaches. [He laughs.]
The character of Henry Wheeler is also shown as an adult (played by Tobey Maguire). Gattlin, was it difficult to try to act in the moment, knowing where Henry Wheeler ended up as an adult? Or did it help to know how Henry Wheeler was as an adult?
Griffith: Henry was kind of like me at the time. It’s a coming-of-age story of a boy turning into a young man. And I was 13 at the time. And soon as I read the book, I connected to him. I kind of felt what he was feeling.
I didn’t have to be the man of the house as much as Henry did, but he was trying to figure out who he was. He was sensitive. I was a little emotionally unstable as well back then. But yeah, I think that’s who Henry was.
Reitman: You grew out of your clothes also while we were making [“Labor Day”].
Brolin: I love how you said, “back then,” because for Jason and me, that’s like four minutes ago. For Gatlin, it’s like a decade.
“Labor Day” is a suspenseful movie, and your previous movies were sarcasm-filled dramas and comedies. Are you looking to do more movies that have different tones from your first few movies?
Reitman: I wasn’t looking to do anything different. Really, I read this book and I fell in love with it, and I wanted to be very true to what it was. And I made a conscious decision to work with the same people I’ve always worked with.
But each of us knew we had to grow. I had a conversation with my cinematographer (whom I’ve known since I was 15 years old), my editor (whom I’ve known since I was 17), my production designer and costume designer. And we talked about what kind of movie we’re going to have to make if we were going to accomplish this.
And for weeks, we’d watch movies at my house. They’d come over, and we’d point things out. We watched “Body Heat” just to analyze sweat. We spent two hours talking about how sweat looks in hair, how it looks in clothes. Should it be damp? Should it be just sheen?
This was a very technically complicated movie for me and very different from anything I’ve done, but I don’t look at genre and go, “Oh, I want to do one of those.” I don’t aspire to do a sci-fi film. I want to do personal films. And it’s really the ingredients underneath that interested me in this
For more info: "Labor Day" website