Up in the Air and Jason Reitman (Essay)


NOTE: This is an article I wrote for my college newspaper after talking with Jason Reitman at the Grand Hotel in Minneapolis a few weeks back. Further, less formal/cohesive posts will soon follow detailing other things that came up in the interview I found interesting. My review of Up in the Air is also forthcoming.

For someone who makes films for a living, it might sound disconcerting that Jason Reitman finds no answers in the language of the big screen—only questions.

“I don’t think there are answers,” Reitman said, his knack for philosophical discussion as apparent as it is in his films. “The only thing I’m fairly confident in is that life is infinitely complicated.”

Coming off of the success of cult comedy Thank You For Smoking and international film sweetheart Juno, Reitman’s new picture, Up in the Air, which he both wrote and directed, aims to pose equally challenging questions about love, home, belonging and self in a similarly entertaining, non-aggressive, comical manner.

A story about a man who travels two-thirds of the year for his career, played by George Clooney, Up in the Air is as personal a film to Reitman as it could get.

“I really cherish my time in the air,” he said after rattling off more than two-dozen cities he’s traveled to in promotion of the film.

Starting as a commercial director and transitioning into feature productions, he said he’s always been accustomed to traveling, and that the detached, stringless lifestyle represented by the main character is something he can very much relate to.

Based off of a novel of the same name by Walter Kirn, Up in the Air is an adaptation that Reitman tried to keep as close to the original as the new medium would allow, taking into account the differences between the two.

“I always contact the authors immediately,” he said of using others’ work as a jumping-off point in both Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air as well as in future projects. “Simultaneously, I want them to understand that there is a difference between a book and a movie.”

While managing a close relationship between the authors he works with—having them on set, showing them drafts of scripts, remaining upfront about what the film will be—Reitman strikes a very personal cord in reaching a final product.

The filmmaker attributes his success with both audiences and critics alike with the personal connection he makes with his work; the more important the message is to him, the greater the chances the film has for reaching people, he said.

Up in the Air is at once a highly personal account of a man always on the move and at the same time a broad reflection of the economic hardship currently facing everyday people.

After writing the screenplay during an economic boom, Reitman found upon review that the scenes in which the protagonist performed his job of firing people across the country had lost their accuracy.

“At that point, I thought the most authentic way to approach this recession was to find real people,” he said.

He said the decision to use real people who had lost their jobs in the film changed the entire tone of the production. Reitman found 60 people from the hardest hit cities in the nation and performed mock firings with them, telling them to say what they did when they actually lost their job or what they wish they had said, and the result became a central figure in the film.

The characterization of Up in the Air was another focus for Reitman, not inasmuch as the characters would be perfectly relatable to audiences, but in that they would be vehicles for the very relatable questions that inspired Reitman in making the film.

George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, is much like the protagonist of Thank You For Smoking, a smooth-talking, suave, devilishly handsome man who is capable of convincing anyone of nearly anything, a character type that Reitman is drawn to writing for.

“[It’s] probably because I’m not that person in real life,” he said.

He said he makes his characters models of articulation, debonair individuals who always know the right thing to say, in order to make up for his own shortcomings. In other words: when given months to scrutinize what his characters say, it’s going to be perfect.

And when casting actors to fit the parts, they better be perfect too.

Reitman said eight of the leading roles in Up in the Air were written specifically for the actors who would play them.

“I find it easier to write once I’ve identified the voice of the actor I’m writing for,” he said. “I think that’s why I have a better hit rate [in casting].”

“I like to work with people who I like,” he added matter-of-factly, acknowledging how simple finding the right actors can be.

Reitman’s ultimate goal in challenging audiences to a real, emotional, humorous piece of life is to offer more than escapism.

“I’d like my films to serve as a mirror,” he said, expressing his want that audiences merely partake in the questions he poses, not look for the answers.

Up in the Air will have a limited theatre release on December 4 and go wide Christmas day.


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