Up In The Air: Interview With Jason Reitman
After enjoying quiet success with Thankyou For Smoking Jason Reitman’s latest film Up In The Air hits cinemas this weekend and you know a film must be good if it can make you like a character who travels round the country firing people for a living.
Here the young director talks about writing parts of the screenplay in an airport lobby, being inspired by his old man and hanging around on the set of Ghostbusters when he was a six year-old. (Lucky b*****d)
You said it was written with George Clooney in mind, did he take much persuading for a role like this?
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?
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, but when he agreed it was a big moment for me.
The film seems very timely now with the recession and job losses happening all over the US….
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.
Why did you decide 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…
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.
Did you just give them free rein?
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.’
How did Up In The Air start for you? Did you read Walter Kirn’s novel first?
Yeah, I read Walter’s book back in 2001, 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.
Where do you write? Do you need to go somewhere to get into the mood for a particular story?
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?
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?
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?
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?
I went to college, I went Pre-Med, I thought I was going to be a doctor.
So what changed your mind?
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…’ 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.
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?
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…
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.
Since the Oscar nomination, do you get a lot of unsolicited screenplays?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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…