Labor Day, the new film from Jason Reitman and starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, doesn’t reward cynics. In fact, it punishes them with doses of crusty homemade peach pie and baseball lessons from rough-hewn surrogate fatherhood.
The novel was written by Joyce Maynard — who also authored the book that was later turned into Gus Van Sant’s ferociously incisive (and ferociously underrated) To Die For — and her story, in the film at least, works in an unabashedly sappy milieu. Adele (Winslet) is a divorced, broken shell of a woman who battles depression and agoraphobia while trying to parent her 13-year-old son Henry. Being no fan of his biological father, who he blames for Adele’s state, Henry seems to be keeping up appearances for the neighborhood so that she won’t lose custody.
On one of their rare shopping trips in town, Adele and Henry are confronted by Frank (Brolin), an escaped convict who forces them to take him into their home so he can shake off the heat. He ties her up and makes a pot of chili, which he lovingly feeds to Adele. A few scenes later comes the infamous pie. A bit later, the needle drops on a mambo record and it’s starting to look a lot like young Henry has a new paternal role model — a murderer, according to the urgent TV news reports, but a sensitive one.
As you can imagine, the plot for Labor Day does not leave much room for what Roger Ebert used to refer to as “the plausibles,” and to hear Joyce Maynard talk about it, that’s for the better, hardly in contradiction of the charge J.D. Salinger leveled against his ex-girlfriend when he said: “The problem with you, Joyce, is you love the world.”
I had the chance to talk with Maynard for a bit while she was in town a few weeks back to introduce the movie to some of her loyal readers. We discussed the value of romantic escape, the expectations an author has when her work is translated into a film, and her motivation for participating in the production of last year’s Salinger documentary. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
Henderson: It seemed like for a good while as I was watching the movie, I thought, “This is a really uncomfortable premise to begin a romantic film.” What can you say to those who would approach this material with the side eye?
Maynard: “Gimme a break,” right? Like “I would never bring this man home from that store”? Oh, I have so much to say to skeptics. One of the things I think we look for — from a movie and from a book — is to imagine lives we haven’t lived, not just the ones that we do. To have the movie take us on a trip that we’ve never had before. And I like, as a writer, the challenge of getting you to go someplace you didn’t think you could go. “I could never have anything to do with that man.” Well, suppose you could? I think people are cheering for them to get away. They’re not looking for the police to catch him. They’re on his side. I freely admit that there are going to be people who will not accept that. You have to have a certain lack of cynicism. (Laughs) You have to believe in the power of trust and love and hopefulness, and some people are more likely to expect bad than good. I am a fundamentally hopeful and optimistic person. If I’m still this way at age 60, I guess I’m just always going to be this way. So, I would’ve brought him home. I mean … it’s Josh Brolin, of course. But the world is full of people who look like the good guys who turn out to be the bad guys. We’ve all known a few, we see plenty of them in the news. So here’s someone who looks like the bad guy and maybe he isn’t. Once you know somebody’s story, it’s usually a lot more comlicated
Henderson: The “lack of cynicism” comment resonates with me because I’ve been defending a movie to a lot of skeptical friends lately: Her. The premise of that one strikes a lot of people as being impossible. Is this something that’s true of all romance movies to an extent?
Maynard: Don’t we all want that? Isn’t that what the movies are about? When we think about our favorite movies, it’s not just about giving us a picture of how life is. I believe in characters that feel real and human, but I want the movies to take me away for a couple of hours. (Labor Day) is an unabashedly romantic movie. And men are loving this movie. I hate the term “chick flick” and find it insulting to women but even more so to men — like men don’t care about relationships and love. But I wrote the story I wanted to read. I wanted a mature romance. At the point that I wrote it, I had been a single mother for many years myself. I’m not that character, but I wanted to give that woman something that she’s never had.
Henderson: You’ve had another of your books adapted before — To Die For (1995)…
Maynard: Totally different movie …
Henderson: But a fantastic one!
Maynard: … and a totally different novel. Look at Jason Reitman, though. He’s done very edgy, cynical kinds of things, and with this one his heart is on his sleeve.
Henderson: So when Jason Reitman was attached to the material, were you apprehensive about how he was going to adapt it?
Maynard: First of all, I understand that when a writer’s work gets made into a film, the writer has to let go of it. I don’t want anybody standing over my shoulder when I’m writing a book, and I wouldn’t want the director to have me standing over his or her shoulder when he or she was making the film. But I have a huge respect for Jason. I wasn’t saying “Oh, Jason makes this kind of movie.” I was saying, “Jason makes good movies.” He called me up and said he read the galleys of the book, which wasn’t published at that point, and said he wept when he read it. That was not the comment of a cynic. That was someone with the capacity to believe these characters. He’s not a sap. The fact that he was someone that did these edgy, sharp looks at a variety of characters and was open to this romantic story was an affirmation that you can be both true and realistic and unsentimental and tell a big old fashioned love story. He filmed it that way; it has an almost old-fashioned look with the photography.
Henderson: Yeah, a lot of lap dissolves. So you said that you had to walk away as a writer. But now, after the fact, were there any aspects or plot developments or character quirks from your novel that you do regret didn’t make it into the film?
Maynard: Oh, of course. There are things that didn’t make it into the film that I love. But that’s just the nature of making it into a film. I don’t think (Jason) was wrong. I hope as people who loved the movie read the book, they’ll find a lot of these things. But my only major regret about the movie was that it couldn’t be filmed in my home state of New Hampshire. I certainly don’t fault Jason for that. It was still in New England, and that means a lot to me. It’s a very small town story, but New Hampshire doesn’t give film incentives.
Henderson: Were you pleased with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin? Were they along the lines of what you had in mind while writing the book?
Maynard: I did not have a face for Adele. And Kate Winslet might not have come immediately to mind, because as great an actress as she is, she’s not the sort of ethereal type of person, which this character was. She was a dancer. But I loved that she is a very real-looking woman. When we tied her up to that chair, her ankle was like a real woman’s ankle. It wasn’t this skinny little perfect model’s ankle. She has a real calf. When I was writing, I was already seeing a movie in my head, and I saw (Brolin’s character) as sort of Tommy Lee Jones 30 years ago. As I’m sure you know, Josh Brolin has played the young Tommy Lee Jones (in Men in Black 3). He’s a terrific actor. I don’t think he’s ever done a romantic role before, and I see audiences of women just melting for him.
Henderson: This year turned out to be a pretty big one for you, as you were also involved in another film: Salinger, which was one of the more popular documentaries of the year, I think, right?
Maynard: No, it was not a popular documentary. (Laughs)
Henderson: As far as documentaries go?
Maynard: No, it was a widely criticized documentary.
Henderson: I merely meant box-office wise.
Maynard: I don’t think it did particularly well, either. I’m glad that I was in it. I knew that if I did not make the choice to be in it and speak for myself that somebody would speak about me and probably get it wrong. So I preferred to speak for myself. As with Frank being portrayed as a sort of sound bite on the TV news, my relationship with Salinger has been portrayed pretty inaccurately and simplistically. I’m always ready to tell what my truth is, but it’s not a film that I admire.
Henderson: Can I be honest? I didn’t either.
Maynard: Oh, it was a terrible film. I went into it kind of knowing that might be the case, but you’re speaking to a person who has had to deal with the question of Salinger asked of her almost every day for the last 41 years. So if it’s going to be known, it’s going to be said anyway, it would not have been my choice. Somebody that I was with for 11 months 41 years ago is still regarded as one of the most important aspects about my life. He’s not. At least, I want to say what my truth is. I will say, I wrote a book — not about Salinger, about myself — that if a person truly has interest, that’s the place to go. I saw that film once, and that was enough for me.