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.