Few names in American film are so synonymous with directing comedy as Ivan Reitman’s. After getting his start in Canadian exploitation cinema and producing the immortal National Lampoon’s Animal House, the filmmaker made Bill Murray a screen titan with Meatball, Stripes, and Ghostbusters, found the lighter side of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Twins and Kindergarten Cop, and conjured the spirit of Frank Capra in the Presidential comedy Dave. In recent years, he’s produced hits like Old School, I Love You, Man, and Up in the Air. In the wake of Harold Ramis’ death, he’ll no longer direct Ghostbusters III, but he’s still determined to bring it into the world (though there’s nothing he can announce just yet regarding its script, cast, or director). Reitman’s most recent film is Draft Day (now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Lionsgate), in which Kevin Costner headlines an all-star cast (alongside leading lady Jennifer Garner) as Sonny Weaver, the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, who’s given mere hours to decide the fate of his team after scoring the number one pick in the NFL’s titular event. In the following interview, the director explains his approach to managing superstars and mining laughs in the madness of the workplace.
Nerdist: Though it can be labeled a sports movie, Draft Day has a style, a scenario, and a sense of humor that most strongly recalls the great workplace screen comedies – films like Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday.
Ivan Reitman: [Laughs.] I’m really glad that you think that. Because that’s certainly something I was trying to do. I really was trying to make a film that was much more universal than having it take place in the sports world – which I think is a fascinating place. When I read the script, I thought, “Wow, this is something you can understand if you know nothing about football, certainly nothing about the draft.” That’s why I thought it was funny when some viewers were complaining that it somehow was an advertisement or a PR thing for the NFL. For me it was important that it take place in a real league and that it was in a real place. I just thought of it as a kind of useful location to play this very human story, amongst this group of people in this very dramatic situation that takes place in the course of twelve hours.
N: It’s one of Kevin Costner’s most appealing performances in years. You take great advantage of the depth his world-weariness has acquired over the years.
IV: One of the big things about casting is whatever the real baggage of the actor is. Part of that is where he is in his life at a particular moment and what kind of work he’s done in his past. This all reflects on the work one does. So it was something I was very conscious of. I could hear his voice when I read the first draft of the screenplay. He was the first person I called after I read it, because I thought he was so perfect for it.
N: It’s hard to imagine another actor calling someone “a pancake-eating motherf–ker” with quite as much relish or charm.
IV: Yes. [Laughs.] Most of that stuff was in the script. I just knew that he could bring real life to it and it would be terrific.
N: With so much dialogue delivered by scene-stealing folks like Dennis Leary, was there much improv on set?
IV: There’s always a little bit of improv. You create a reality in a situation; and the props and the geography and the blocking and the interaction all contribute to that sense of “This is really going on now.” Which is very important to good filmmaking, and I encourage it. But it was much less than most of my other comedies I’d say. A lot of it just sort of came in the scriptwriting process, and sometimes that scriptwriting process was going on the morning of the shooting. But there was very little ad-libbing at the time we were shooting.
N: Throughout your career you’ve found a great lived-in quality to many of the actors you’ve cast that transcends mere star casting. Even in smaller roles, like Rosanna Arquette’s in Draft Day, your films feel inhabited. This cast certainly hits the ground running.
IV: Yeah, well, I’m always looking for a cast that creates an indelible impression, and is appropriate to the roles that they’re playing. Draft Day has a huge cast with a lot of people playing large roles for a short period of time, where they have to be effective as co-stars. Not just “Oh, here’s a guy doing his eighteen lines.” I think we were very successful at putting an extraordinary ensemble together. When I work with big stars I just try to find that thing in them that you learn to love, that resonates, and you learn how to use that aspect of them in the specific role that is called for in the film. I like movie stars. I’m not afraid to work with them, and I do try to bring the best out of them.