Entertainment

The Surprising Story of How 'Juno' Found Its Iconic Hamburger Phone

Fox Searchlight

No one saw Juno coming, but its success snowballed from the beginning. The movie quickly won over fest audiences ("I don’t know when I’ve heard a standing ovation so long, loud and warm as the one after Jason Reitman’s Juno," remarked critic Roger Ebert after the movie's Toronto Film Festival premiere) before going on to earn $231 million at the box office and, before the end of its theatrical run, four Oscar nominations (one would turn into a win for breakout writer Diablo Cody and her screenplay). No one predicted the little coming-of-age indie would become one of the biggest hits of 2007, and certainly, no one thought it would start a craze. A hamburger phone craze, to be exact.

Upon its December release, Reitman's dramedy found a teenage audience and scads of supporters like Ebert. How? A lot of things were working on Juno -- a combination of a great script, a talented cast, and a singular creative vision. But it was also packed with oddly specific quirks. When you think of Juno today, some probably come rushing back: the Barry Louis Polisar and Moldy Peaches songs; Diablo Cody's hilarious dialogue (shout-out to "pork swords"); Michael Cera's insane gold shorts; and, of course, "What? Can you just hold on for a second? I'm on my hamburger phone." Hands down the most iconic and unforgettable prop was that kitschy plastic phone, wielded shamelessly by Ellen Page's title character. 

As random as it seemed, the hamburger phone was deliberately noted in Cody's first script. She sketched it out based on recollections of her youth, and along with Reitman, insisted it be used in the film. ("I always say I’m kind of an emotional scavenger because everything that I write about is drawn from life," Cody's said. "She used to talk for hours to her high school boyfriend on a hamburger phone," a Fox Searchlight exec said in 2008.) Finding something so specific was no easy task for Juno's prop team, which struggled for about two weeks to source one. And once they did, another obstacle surfaced. Production designer Steve Saklad detailed the phone's thorny journey to the screen in an interview for Thrillist's "100 Greatest Props in Movie History":

"We found an obscure Japanese online website that had them, and we only got one. It was shipped from China. We were shooting in Vancouver, and then customs impounded it, because it qualified as some toy, and there were restrictions on toys going from China to Vancouver at the time, so it was actually imported to the US, to Seattle, and then somebody drove it up to Vancouver to get it past the customs ban."

Reitman was so specific about what he wanted the phone to look like he wouldn't settle for anything that wasn't a legit hamburger phone -- there were no plans B, C, or BLT. And at the time of production, the Japanese version was the only one they could find. Saklad said crew members were biting their fingernails, hoping it would arrive back from the US in time for shooting. It might sound silly, but all this was happening in the beginning of 2007, a time when internet-sourcing for props was kind of new. Hunting down obscure items on sites like eBay and Craigslist? Doable, of course, but not the industry standard. 

Worth the hassle?

Fox Searchlight

Saklad thought so. The race for the hamburger phone was representative of a larger trend on the Juno set. With everything -- music, costuming, set decorating -- Reitman was very hands-on. Every single poster in Juno's bedroom was approved by him. Same with the shoes she'd wear, the music she'd play. It might sound controlling, but it worked: The method helped Juno achieve its unified vision. Like many of the gems in the movie, the hamburger phone was the kind of hyper-specific extension of Page's character that ultimately made the movie that much more relatable to teens of the era. The phone, like Paulie's car bed, was a recognizable sign of arrested development.

But why does the hamburger stand out more than other props from the movie? Maybe because it got slightly more coverage than others. It might also have to do with its symbolic importance in the grand scheme of the movie. Though you only see the phone a couple times, it's present in one of Juno's key scenes: the moment she calls to procure a hasty abortion... but can't because her phone isn't working. "It's this inane kid thing crashing into a completely adult challenge," Saklad explained to us. In other words, the premise of the movie is encapsulated in that one bulky piece of plastic. "That's why it works so brilliantly."

It didn't take long for the phone to strike a cultural chord. By the time the movie came out, in December 2007, a new Japanese outfit had started making more phones as toys. Gone were the days of struggling to hunt down a single phone. The movie's producers would now have hundreds to give out as promos. (Which they did.) And a popular movie would have a chance to... spur a massive spike in hamburger phone sales? (Which it did.) In fact, the month after the movie came out, eBay said demand for the phones jumped 759%. (You can still buy one today.)

Over the years, the hamburg has aged nicely in pop culture, becoming, for a time, an obligatory part of the movie's description (from New York Magazine"the 2007 indie comedy about a slang-spewing pregnant teenager with a hamburger phone that was an unexpected hit") and finding an appropriate role on Bob's Burgers. Was this all intentional? Part of some genius marketing ploy? Of course not. At least, not from the start. Juno was a $7.5 million movie featuring mostly unknowns, chasing film fest dreams. It was supposed to be a stepping stone for everyone involved, but Saklad said everything just clicked in a way that was wizard as hell.

"To imagine that the hamburger phone, of all things -- this insignificant toy -- would actually set off a revolution," he added, "is hysterical."

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