We had the pleasure of talking with Jason Reitman, director and screenwriter of Up in the Air about his writing process, the casting of George Clooney, and the relevance of the script in today’s world.
I read that your personal life kind of influenced the final script. In what way?
Jason Reitman: 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.
Jason Reitman: Well I don’t know what’s important in life. I’m just begging the question of actually ‘what is?’
But did you re-write scenes as a result?
Jason Reitman: 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.
You said it was written with George Clooney in mind, did he take much persuading for a role like this?
Jason Reitman: 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.
Was George the first piece in the sort of casting puzzle for you? Did you get him first and then cast around him?
Jason Reitman: 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.
The film seems very timely now with the recession and job losses happening all over the US….
Jason Reitman: 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.
Were you worried that because of Bingham’s job people wouldn’t relate to him as a character?
Jason Reitman: 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 unlikeable characters.
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.
Did you just give them free rein?
Jason Reitman: 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.
How did Up In The Air start for you? Did you read Walter Kirn’s novel first?
Jason Reitman: 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.
So that’s been a sort of seven or eight year journey? It must be really nice to finally get it out there.
Jason Reitman: 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.
Where do you write? Do you need to go somewhere to get into the mood for a particular story?
Jason Reitman: 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.
Your father is a producer on this. Do you use him as a sounding board on all your projects?
Jason Reitman: 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.
Did you visit a lot of sets when you were growing up?
Jason Reitman: 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.
When did you start to think that you would like to make films yourself?
Jason Reitman: You know, I was always fascinated by it, but it wasn’t until I was nineteen that I wanted to be a director myself.
Did you think about another career?
Jason Reitman: I went to college, I went Pre-Med, I thought I was going to be a doctor.
So what changed your mind?
Jason Reitman: 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…’
You started your career as a director making commercials. What did you learn?
Jason Reitman: 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.
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?
Jason Reitman: 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.
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…
Jason Reitman: 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.
Since the Oscar nomination, do you get a lot of unsolicited screenplays?
Jason Reitman: 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.
You grew up in LA but your family is from Canada, do you still have a strong affinity with the country?
Jason Reitman: 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.
Jason Reitman: Yeah, play and watch. I’m a Canucks fan.
But do you still play?
Jason Reitman: Yeah, I only learned to play eight years ago, my wife taught me to play.
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?
Jason Reitman: 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.
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?
Jason Reitman: 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.
What do you think was the best piece of advice that your father gave you?
Jason Reitman: 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.
That’s a great piece of advice.
Jason Reitman: Yeah. (laughs) It is…
Interview By: Emma Loggins
Official Up in the Air Site: www.theupintheairmovie.com