Up in the Air: Interview with Co-Writer/Director Jason Reitman

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Jason Reitman is the co-writer/director of the new film "Up in the Air," starring George Clooney and Vera Farmiga. The film is set for a Christmas release by Paramount on December 25, 2009.

“I saw it as a story about a guy who has to deal with the fact that, even though he thinks his life is complete, he’s been ignoring something very important, which is the responsibility to be part of something larger,” says Reitman. “Ryan Bingham is so scared off by the burdens of joining a community that he’s been missing out on the value of that.” 

He continues:  “It’s something I think we’re exploring as a society right now.  We’re all using our cell phones and twittering and texting and it seems as if we are more connected than ever – while, in reality, people don’t look each other in the eye much anymore, and we have fewer real relationships.  Ryan’s life in airports is a metaphor for that.  You can go into an airport anywhere in the world and instantly know where everything is; they have the same shops, the same restaurants, the same newspapers.  We’re comfortable everywhere, yet nowhere really seems to be home.  We’re so global that we’ve lost that sense of local community.”

Inspiration

Reitman’s inspiration for Up in the Air began with the novel by Walter Kirn, which Reitman used as a jumping off point for a screenplay that evolved into its own journey.  “The book spoke to me on multiple levels,” says Reitman.  “I love Walter’s language which I used a lot.  But as I was writing, my own life changed.  I met my wife, fell in love and had a child.  And in that process, Ryan Bingham also started to mature and look for more in life.  The script grew into being about how imperative connections are in our daily lives.”    

Bingham emerged as a keenly current twist on the classic American salesman, selling dreams to those devastated by the sudden, impersonal loss of their careers, as he crisscrosses the nation.  This intrigued Reitman.  “Instead of going door to door, Ryan goes from hub to hub,” says the co-writer/director.  “And yet there is something very emotional in the idea of a man who in mid-life has no real permanent address.” 

Writing Supporting Characters

Reitman went beyond simply translating the book to the screen.  He took Kirn’s main character and forged a set of wholly original dramatic circumstances around him – and he crafted two characters who shatter Ryan Bingham’s well-constructed cocoon of individuality.  These are: Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a gung-ho if naïve, 20-something efficiency expert whom he is forced to take under his wing even as she threatens his lifestyle; and Alex (Vera Farmiga), the woman who seems to be his business travel soul-mate, sparking his first-ever desire for more than just a fleeting link to another human being.    

“Ryan goes through an interesting experience in this film, oddly taking on a father role with Natalie, who is always nipping at his heels, and contemplating the notion of becoming a husband to Alex,” Reitman observes.

A Relevant Economy

The screenplay took on another powerful layer of relevancy as Reitman wrote, because not only did his life change in major ways, but the country’s economic situation dramatically shifted.  By the time the script was nearly complete, the country was in the middle of a severe and perilous recession, which compelled Reitman to more deeply explore the story’s underlying theme of job loss.

In doing so, the co-writer/director was inspired to take an unusual risk.  Rather than script the film’s collage of firings and confessions from the newly unemployed, he decided he would go out to capture real, direct, unscripted reactions from ordinary Americans who had just gone through the intensely emotional experience of losing a job in a faltering economy.  It proved to be an eye-opening and moving process, tying the film’s mix of human drama and comedy to a sobering reality. 

Reitman recalls: “We wanted the firing scenes to be honest and true.  So we thought, ‘why not show the real thing?’  We went to Detroit and St. Louis, two cities hit hardest by all the job losses of the last year, and put ads in the Help Wanted section saying we were making a movie about job loss and looking for people who were willing to talk about it.  We got so many submissions, it was heartbreaking.”

The co-writer/director continues: “People came in and we asked them to say what they said on the day they were fired, or what they wished they had said.  What was amazing to me as someone who’s constantly working with actors to attain realism, was how these people, who I presumed would be uncomfortable on camera, came off so honest and real.  It’s now one of my favorite parts of the film.”

Finally, Reitman adds: “Every day you see news stories about job cuts but it’s usually about a number, so it’s easy to forget who these people are.  What I’m most proud of is that the movie puts real faces to those numbers.” 
The film’s producers found the final screenplay as uncategorizable as it was laced with original comedy and visceral emotion.  Says executive producer Tom Pollock:  “This is a serious movie that is very, very funny.  That’s one of the reasons I love it so much: it’s a movie that’s beyond genre.  It’s perfect for Jason because his work is never classifiable.  His first two films were completely unique and so is this one.”