Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Jason Reitman and the art of the opening credits

When Thank You for Smoking came out in 2006, I got the chance to interview Jason Reitman for Las Vegas Weekly (before he became a big-time Oscar nominee), and one of the things I was most eager to ask him about was the distinctive opening-credits sequence of the film (watch it here). His answer didn't make it into the final interview, because the published piece was pretty short, and what he talked about was fairly detail-oriented. I had hoped to get him to talk a little about the value of creative opening credits, but instead he described the whole process of creating them for Smoking. Still, it's amazing how much effort went into the part of the movie that the smallest number of people are likely to appreciate:

I did the first version of those opening titles very early in pre-production. I went online, downloaded a bunch of cigarette ads and started cutting it together on Final Cut Pro on my computer at home, to that song, because I love that song so much. Once we really got cooking, I talked to these guys called Shadowplay Studio who had done short films that had played with my short films at festivals, and we’d traveled together—we’d gone to Sundance together, we’d gone to Tokyo together to a film festival, and I’d really gotten to know them. They’re just wonderful artists. I showed them what I had come up with and they loved it, and they went off and did it on their own. They ordered all these old cigarette ads off eBay. We talked about what each character meant, because each title card actually—even though they’re old cigarette ads, they also play into the roles that the characters play in the film. So Rob Lowe’s title card has an Asian influence, and Sam Elliott’s kind of has like an El Paso feel. And then also the credits that have to deal with the crew also kind of plays into the title cards. It sets the tone for the film. This is a comedy about smoking, which is a very tough thing to get across. People think of a cigarette movie, they think of The Insider. The book has a lot of whimsy in it, and I wanted to capture whimsy as much as possible in any place I could. The opening titles, they just set the table. It’s whimsical, it’s fun, it’s upbeat and lets you know you’re in for a good time.

Opening credits of any kind, whether creative or straightforward, are a lost art in American film, but Reitman continues to take them seriously and put effort into them, making them connect thematically to the story he's telling and the way in which he's telling it. In Juno, the credits (watch here) have the homemade quality of doodles in a teenager's notebook, and are a little piece of the movie itself, as Juno walks through her town from home to the drugstore to buy yet another pregnancy test. They serve a different purpose than the titles in Smoking, but they share the quality of being thematically and creatively integral to the film, of being just as carefully crafted as any other element.

Reitman is nearly alone among mainstream American filmmakers in bothering with this; when I went to see Up in the Air this week (which I found disappointing overall), I was pleased to see another stylish, well thought-out credits sequence, albeit one with a little less panache, in keeping with the more understated style of the film as a whole. It's small touches like this that allow a director to establish a personal style, to set himself apart from his peers. In Reitman's case, it's a great way to announce right away that this is one of his films, that he's going to take care to present the material in his own particular way.

I'm always immediately inclined to like a movie more when it starts with some effective opening credits, even if those often lead to a letdown. Two recent comic-book movies started with creative title sequences only to squander that energy, to varying degrees. Lots of people praised the opening titles of Zack Snyder's Watchmen (watch here), for good reason, with their tableaux of historical events from the source graphic novel, giving the audience snapshots of the movie's world without having to dump a whole lot of exposition on them. Too bad Snyder didn't apply the same kind of creativity to the rest of his approach, instead settling for slavish re-creation.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a decidedly worse film, but it too starts with a world-building montage (watch here, uh, in Spanish), showing the two main characters as they progress through various wars over the last two centuries. Again, this conveys a lot while saying very little, and puts you exactly where you need to be as the story starts (the story, unfortunately, then turns into a giant mess). These sequences represent a pure example of storytelling by showing and not telling, a practice the filmmakers don't heed as the movies progress.

Reitman's titles were all created by Shadowplay Studio, and as I was grabbing links for clips, I noticed that they also worked on another title sequence that sticks in my mind, the one for the completely forgettable post-college rom-com Post Grad (watch here). What's great about the Post Grad sequence is that it's a far better distillation of the movie's supposed themes than the movie itself. Granted, the dialogue and acting are still a little shaky, but the clutter of applications, chat windows and websites on the computer desktop effectively convey the connection/disconnection of college life, and the basic relationships that come into play in the movie get quickly established. A whole movie shot this way could be annoying, but at least it would be interesting, which is more than you can say for Post Grad. (And, I know, only a few credits actually show up in this piece. It's still a striking way to begin the movie.)

The Break-Up is another movie whose opening credits (watch here) do a better job of telling the story than the movie does. In a series of snapshots, we see the two main characters enjoying the happy times of their relationship, and without words director Peyton Reed and stars Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston convey the genuine sweetness of a romance. And then the movie starts.

Obviously it's best when the promise of the credits is fulfilled in the movie. But just by taking the time to introduce itself, any film already gets a little bit of extra credit with me. Launching abruptly into your first scene no longer seems jarring or innovative; now, it just comes off as lazy.

Thank You for Smoking and Juno images via the excellent The Art of the Title Sequence.


Ian said...

Thanks for mentioning Art of the Title.

"The Break-Up" was done by Imaginary Forces and can be viewed here: http://imaginaryforces.com/archive/alphabetical/333

Josh said...

Thanks for the info. You've got a great site.