Up in the Air Interviews: Jason Reitman
February 24, 2010
JASON REITMAN DIRECTS UP IN THE AIR
When Jason Reitman was writing the screenplay for Up In The Air he would live life the same as his main character, played by George Clooney, a man who is constantly on the move, passing through one of America’s airports almost every single day of the year.
Reitman would check into an anonymous airport hotel, fire up his laptop and pound away at the keyboard, safe in the knowledge that distractions were kept to a minimum and confident that his surroundings, however bland, would feed into his story.
And whilst it wasn’t exactly the most enjoyable part of making Up In The Air – that came later directing Clooney and the rest of his cast – it was productive and completely appropriate to the poignant tale of a man who is constantly on the move and has lost touch with the important things in life.
“I wish I had a better system,” he says. “But it worked. I ended up doing a lot of this screenplay in Palm Springs. I hate it there, to be honest, but that’s why it was the perfect place for me to write because there were no distractions.
“I’m not going to go out because there’s nothing there that interests me – it’s hot and I hate golf. I didn’t want to do anything in that place except get my script done and go.
“But the thing is it took forever and so I found myself writing in other places, too. I would often write in airport hotels. I would check in to a hotel in a random city and just write. I would go down to the lobby of an airport hotel and just kind of watch people and see how business travellers interacted and then just go back to the screenplay.”
Reitman’s quest to bring Up In The Air to the screen started some eight years ago when he first read Walter Kirn’s novel. The story, of a businessman, Ryan Bingham who moves from one city to the next living out of a suitcase, immediately spoke to him.
He set out to adapt the book for cinema but was side tracked into making two other films, as Thank You For Smoking and Juno, jumped to the head of his personal queue.
“I read Walter’s book back in 2001,” he recalls. “And I just thought it was fantastic. At the time I was struggling to get Thank You For Smoking made and I thought ‘OK, I’ll give this a shot..’
“And then Thank You For Smoking came back into the frame because we got the finance and then Juno came into my life and then finally, after Juno, I was able to complete the screenplay for Up In The Air.”
It’s a huge relief, he admits, to finally get the film out there into the cinema. “Oh you have no idea what it’s like to write a joke and then wait seven, eight years to hear people laugh at it,” he smiles.
Ryan Bingham’s nomadic life takes him from one company to the next doing the dirty work that local executives would rather avoid – delivering the devastating bad news to an employee that he or she is no longer needed. The events of the last year or so, with a recession biting hard in the US and the west, make that a timely, painful theme.
“But I never thought I was making a movie about job loss,” says Reitman. “I always thought this was kind of a back drop to a bigger story about human connection.
“I always thought that Up In The Air would be an infinitely relatable film but it’s not a Michael Moore film and it doesn’t spend a lot of time on the woes of the recession. It’s more about this one man’s journey.”
Right from the start Reitman had Clooney in mind as the perfect Ryan Bingham and set off to the actor’s home near Lake Como in Italy to convince him to take the role.
Clooney’s charisma, on screen and off, was perfect for Bingham a man who has a horrible job – arriving at struggling companies to fire people – but does it with humanity and a degree of charm.
Bingham has insulated himself from the real world by living a vacuum-sealed life of top class but functional hotels, business class air travel and an obsession with frequent flyer miles.
Clooney, says his director, also has a pitch perfect sense of comedic timing, which was also crucial for the film. Arriving at the actor’s Italian home, clutching his script, he had no idea if Clooney would take up the challenge. It was a surreal couple of days, he admits, but securing Clooney was the first vital piece in place in the casting jigsaw.
“I needed to know who Ryan Bingham was before anybody else,” he explains. “So I went out to Lake Como and gave George the screenplay. It was a strange experience. I was kind of floored by the fact that I was staying there and waiting for him to read it. I think both of us were uncomfortable
“A couple of days later he’d read it and said ‘this is a great screenplay, I’m in..’ As you can imagine, that was a big moment for me. What surprised me with George is that as for a movie star, he’s such a non movie star.
“He wants to put people at ease. He’s a lovely guy and the comfort level of a set starts from the top down and he just makes a set feel like family. He never leaves and he loves being on set.
“And the thing is with George is that he’s a great actor and he’s an actor who thinks like a director, which makes my job easier. But on a personal level, he’s good to people and the things that people say about him are true – he’s just a good guy, he does right by the crew and he makes the set a great place to be.”
Another key collaborator was Reitman’s father, filmmaker Ivan Reitman, who serves as a producer on Up In The Air. It’s the first time they have worked together although Reitman the younger proudly names his father as the biggest single influence on his carer.
Indeed, one of his earliest memories is visiting the set of Ghostbusters when his father was directing Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd in what would go on to be rightly regarded as a comedy classic.
“I spent my entire childhood on sets but Ghostbusters is the first one that I really remember and it was a lot of fun as you can imagine.”
Although he toyed with the idea of becoming a doctor, Reitman realised when he was 19 that filmmaking held an abiding fascination for him and that he was destined to follow his father and become a director.
“I was always fascinated by it but it wasn’t until I was 19 that I wanted to be a director myself,” he says. “I went to college – I actually went to pre-Med (school) and I thought I was going to be a doctor.
“And then my father came to me and said ‘why are you doing this?’ And I said ‘I’m scared of being a director..’ He said ‘why?’ And I said ‘I don’t want to have failure on a very public level. I don’t want to be lost in your shadow..’ And he said ‘you’re a storyteller, you have to follow your heart..’”
Reitman started his film making commercials and made his feature debut with the critically acclaimed Thank You For Smoking. His second film, the bittersweet, acutely observed comedy about a pregnant teenager, Juno, earned him an Academy Award nomination.
Those years spent honing his craft, on commercials were the perfect preparation for directing films, he says now. “I did do a commercial once about a guy packing,” he laughs. “So that kind of played into Up In The Air.
“But really, it’s a great place to make mistakes. I think as a director you have to learn by making lots of visual mistakes. So it’s a place where you can figure things out. And I had a great six, seven year process of directing commercials where I learned from fucking up.”
Sharing the credits with his father on Up In The Air was a proud moment for both father and son. “I’ve always used my father as a sounding board,” he says. “Going back to when I was doing my homework.
“And he certainly reads all the screenplays I write. But I wanted to establish myself as a director before I made a movie with him, before we shared the screen, and after Juno, I felt like ‘OK, I think I’m a director in my own right at this point..’ Nothing made me more proud than to have a credit with him.”
The Oscar nomination for Juno was confirmation that Reitman had indeed arrived as a filmmaker in his own right. It also led to a host of unsolicited offers to direct numerous screenplays.
“Juno really changed things for me and I get a lot of screenplays come in now,” he says. “But I like to self generate and I like to kind of pursue my own ideas. And I think the more personal the better.”
Indeed, his own life fed into the script for Up In The Air and he admits that the story changed as a result. “I related to this character more than a few ways and when I started writing I was thinking of it more as a corporate satire and over the six years or so it took me to write it, my life really evolved.
“I went from being a single guy living in an apartment to a married guy with a daughter, a professional director living in a house with a mortgage. And my perspective just changed and inevitably I had to write the character (of Bingham) differently and start discussing the things that are important in life. For me that’s one of the questions that the film asks, ‘what’s important in life?’”
Reitman’s film resists the temptation to tie everything up in neat little bows in the way that a more traditional romantic comedy would. Instead, it asks the audience questions and makes them think about Bingham’s life and whether he will change.
“I don’t even watch those films anymore,” he smiles. “It’s funny, I can sit through the worst horror film ever made but even a quite good romantic comedy can drive me nuts.
“I remember my wife used to drag me to them and the way I got not to see them anymore was when one of the jokes came up I would go like (loud voice) ‘ah hah! Oh my God! He thinks that she doesn’t know!’ I’d do that in the movie theatre and she stopped taking me…”
Reitman was born in Canada but raised in Los Angeles where he currently lives with his wife, writer Michele Lee.
Q and A follows:
Q: I read that your personal life kind of influenced the final script. In what way?
A: I related to this character more than in a few ways and when I started writing this screenplay, I was writing more as corporate satire, and over the six years it took me to write it, my life really evolved, I went from a single guy living in an apartment to a married guy with a daughter, a professional director living in a house with a mortgage, and my perspective just changed and inevitably, I had to write the character differently and start discussing the things that are important in life.
Q: Such as?
A: Well I don’t know what’s important in life. I’m just begging the question of actually what is?
Q: But did you re-write scenes as a result?
A: Oh yeah. When I went back and re-read the script five years in, having not read any of the scenes up until then, it was like watching myself grow up. I think, I looked at the writer at the age I was when I wrote Thank You For Smoking, I think it was just kind of less sophisticated.
Q: You said it was written with George Clooney in mind, did he take much persuading for a role like this?
A: You know, I thought there would have been more to be honest, but he read the script and his response was, ‘I just read it, it’s great. I’m in.’ That was the conversation.
Q: Was George the first piece in the sort of casting puzzle for you? Did you get him first and then cast around him?
A: Oh yeah. I needed to know who Ryan Bingham was before anybody else. So I went out to Lake Como and gave George the screenplay. It was a strange experience. I was kind of floored by the fact that I was staying there and waiting for him to read it. I think both of us were uncomfortable A couple of days later he’d read it and said ‘this is a great screenplay, I’m in..’ As you can imagine, that was a big moment for me.
Q: The film seems very timely now with the recession and job losses happening all over the US….
A: But you know, I never thought I was making a movie about job loss. I always thought this was kind of a backdrop to a bigger story about human connection. It’s funny because I thought about doing a couple of movies about Iraq and there were a couple of screenplays that I loved but I never did them because I thought ‘why do I want to add one more movie to the stack on Iraq?’ I always thought that Up In The Air would be an infinitely relatable film but it’s not a Michael Moore film and it doesn’t spend a lot of time on the woes of the recession. It’s more about this one man’s journey.
Q: Were you worried that because of Bingham’s job people wouldn’t relate to him as a character?
A: You know, I only get interested in a movie when I think that there’s going to be an amazing stumbling block of how to empathize with a main character. I like humanizing really tricky, normally unlike able characters.
Q: Why did you decided to use non-actors to play the people who are being fired? I believe some of them are people who had actually lost their jobs quite recently..
JR: Well look, I wanted to treat that authentically and while what I wrote originally was more corporate satire, it was funny, but by the time I came to shooting, I just thought ‘there’s nothing that I can write that’ll be authentic enough.’ And I thought ‘this is just the best way to do the scenes..’ And I was right. These non-actors came in and said things that I would never have come up with and they said it in a way that I would never have known how to direct them to do. So it was exciting. I think there’s actually something very cool about that kind of mix of blending actors and non actors, and I see why (Steven) Soderbergh does it and I’d be intrigued by doing it more.
Q: Did you just give them free rein?
A: No, they would come in, they would sit down at the table, we’d interview each one for about ten minutes on how did you lose your job, what was it like, who did you tell first, how has it impacted your life. And after about ten minutes of that, we’d say, ‘and now, we’d like to fire you on camera. And we’d like you to either respond the way you did the day you lost your job, or if you prefer, the way you wish you had.’ And each one would turn into an improve scene, where they would either get angry, or they would get sad, sometimes they were funny, and they would just start asking about things, from their severance (pay), to why me? They would ask all these questions and our interviewer had to be very quick on his toes, because they went with it in a way that I never imagined they would – and none of them had acting experience.
Q: How did Up In The Air start for you? Did you read Walter Kirn’s novel first?
A: Yeah, I read Walter’s book back in 2001,” he recalls. “And I just thought it was fantastic. At the time I was struggling to get Thank You For Smoking made and I thought ‘OK, I’ll give this a shot..’ And then Thank You For Smoking came back into the frame because we got the finance and then Juno came into my life and then finally, after Juno, I was able to complete the screenplay for Up In The Air
Q: So that’s been a sort of seven or eight year journey? It must be really nice to finally get it out there.
A: Oh yeah, you have no idea. I mean, you have no idea what it’s like to write a joke and then wait six years to hear people laugh at it.
Q: Where do you write? Do you need to go somewhere to get into the mood for a particular story?
A: With this it was all over the place. I wish I had a better system. But it worked. I ended up doing a lot of this screenplay in Palm Springs. I hate it there, to be honest, but that’s why it was the perfect place for me to write because there were no distractions. I’m not going to go out because there’s nothing there that interests me – it’s hot and I hate golf. I didn’t want to do anything in that place except get my script done and go.
But the thing is it took forever and so I found myself writing in other places, too. I would often write in airport hotels. I would check in to a hotel in a random city and just write. I would go down to the lobby of an airport hotel and just kind of watch people and see how business travellers interacted and then just go back to the screenplay
Q: How did, your father is a producer on this. Do you use him as a sounding board on all your projects?
A: I’ve always used my father as a sounding board. Going back to when I was doing my homework. And he certainly read the screenplays I wrote. I wanted to establish myself as a director before I made a movie with him, before we shared the screen, and after Juno, I felt like ‘OK, I think I’m a director in my own right at this point..’ Nothing made me more proud than to have a credit with him.
Q: Did you visit a lot of sets when you were growing up?
A: I spent my entire childhood on sets but Ghostbusters is the first one that I really remember and it was a lot of fun as you can imagine. I was about six.
Q: When did you start to think that you would like to make films yourself?
A: You know, I was always fascinated by it, but it wasn’t until I was nineteen that I wanted to be a director myself.
Q: Did you think about another career?
A: I went to college, I went Pre-Med, I thought I was going to be a doctor.
Q: So what changed your mind?
A: My father came to me and said why are you doing this? And I said ‘I’m scared of being a director.’ He said why? And I said, ‘I don’t want to have failure on a very public level, I don’t want to be lost in your shadow…’ And he said, ‘you’re a storyteller, you have to follow your heart…’
A: Well now I’ve got to write for another six years. No, I’ve got two scripts I’m working on. One is a Jenny Lumet script that she’s writing, that I would direct and another is an adaptation I’m going to write, of a Joyce Maynard book.
Q: You started your career as a director making commercials. What did you learn?
A: I did do a commercial once about a guy packing so that kind of played into the movie, but really, it’s a great place to make mistakes. I think as a director, you have to learn by making lots of visual mistakes, where you figure it out. And I had a great six, seven-year process of directing commercials where I learned from fucking up.
Q: It seems an obvious thing to say but not all directors are as interested in characters as you are. And you seem to be particularly good at writing female characters. Is that fair?
A: Yeah, I like character based work. And I like writing for women. I think that most of the men stories have been told, it’s easy to be original when you are telling women stories, because so few of them have been told. And I like writing strong, smart women – those are always the women I’ve been attracted to in general.
Q: And so casting those roles is key to the success of a film. In Up In The Air you’ve chosen actresses who are doing great work but not as well known as some others…
A: Well, I saw Vera (Farmiga) for the first time in Down To The Bone at Sundance, I thought she was spectacular, she played a heroin addict, and then, I saw of course The Departed and a few other things and she’s just so strong, and she’s capable of such femininity and aggression, simultaneously and she’s just a woman. In a world of girls, she’s a woman. And I had seen Anna (Kendrick) in Rocket Science and was just blown away by her. I just think she has such a unique voice, similar to Ellen Page, just a voice of her own amongst a generation and I needed somebody who can be witty and fast, and really sharp and go toe to toe with George Clooney, and giving him shit the entire film. And there was no one that came close to Anna.
Q: Since the Oscar nomination, do you get a lot of unsolicited screenplays?
A: Well, Juno really changed things for me and I get a lot of screenplays come in now, but I like to self generate, I like to kind of pursue my own ideas. And I think the more personal the better.
Q: You grew up in LA but your family is from Canada, do you still have a strong affinity with the country?
A: Yeah, I was born in Montreal and I go back to Vancouver and Toronto a lot, so I have a sense of being Canadian, and I was raised by two Canadians, and my wife is Canadian, so yeah, I feel it.
Q: Hockey too?
A: Yeah, play and watch. I’m a Canucks fan.
Q: But do you still play?
A: Yeah, I only learned to play eight years ago, my wife taught me to play.
Q: It’s taken you a while to get Up In The Air to the screen? Are you constantly thinking of your next project or do you take a while to decompress when you’ve finished a film?
A: I spent about so long promoting the film, that usually by the time the promotion period is done, I am so ready to write again.
Q: Music plays a crucial part in your films and Up In The Air is no exception. Do you think about the music you will use when you are still filming?
A: On this one is a lot of my own music, I also worked with a great couple of music supervisors named Randall Poster and Rick Clark, but a lot of this is personal. I have an I-Tunes collection going by the time I write one word of the screenplay. It starts very early. By the time I finish writing, I’ve got hundreds of songs and they all go into the mix, so my editor can start cutting to them.
Q: What do you think was the best piece of advice that your father gave you?
A: Your barometer for comedy is nowhere as good as your barometer for honesty. When you are directing a scene, don’t worry if it’s funny, just worry if it’s truthful.
Q: That’s a great piece of advice.
A: Yeah. (laughs) It is…