Reitman’s deft adaptation of Walter Kirn’s source novel is a darkly humorous look at the life of Ryan Bingham (a never-better George Clooney), an emotionally stunted “career transition consultant” — a guy companies across the recession-ravaged U.S. hire to fire their employees. Bingham’s perfectly constructed life, which essentially consists of a never-ending parade of plane flights and hotel rooms, hits a snag when his company decides to bring in hotshot Ivy League graduate Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), whose ideas clash with his old-school ways.
Add an unexpected relationship with a woman (Vera Farmiga) who also subscribes to his “no-strings” worldview (“Think of me as you, but with a vagina,” she tells him) and a wedding that requires him to reconnect with his fractured family, and Bingham is ripe for a midlife crisis.
[Read Scott Renshaw's review here.]
Yet just when you think Up in the Air might be headed for a clichéd Hollywood conclusion, Reitman throws in a final-act twist that feels as authentic as its zeitgeist-synching subject matter. In fact, no high-profile mainstream movie in recent memory better sums up the state of our fractured cultural and economic landscape.
CityBeat recently phoned Reitman, the Oscar-nominated (for directing 2007’s Juno) son of filmmaker/producer Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters), to briefly discuss everything from Up in the Air’s almost coincidental origins to his love of actors and airports.
CityBeat: How did you come across Walter Kirn’s novel?
Jason Reitman: I saw it in a bookstore. I literally just picked it up and started reading it. At the time, I couldn’t get Thank You for Smoking made. I was looking for something else to do, picked up the book and started reading it and fell in love with it.
CB: What was it about Ryan Bingham that piqued your interest?
JR: He’s a guy who fires people for a living, and I thought that’d be an interesting character to humanize.
And simultaneously he collected air miles, which speaks to me because I collect them religiously.
JR: Yeah, I love being on planes.
CB: You started writing this script seven years ago. So how did it come together now?
JR: I started writing it, and then someone came in and decided to finance Thank You for Smoking (Reitman’s 2005 feature-length debut). Then I went back to writing it, and then I went and made Juno. Then I went back to writing it and finally finished it.
CB: Well, it’s interesting because the film synchs up so nicely with what’s going on in the world right now, especially in the United States.
JR: (Laughs) I have good timing.
CB: Can you talk about the casting? Did you have the actors in mind when writing it?
JR: Yeah. George (Clooney), Anna (Kendrick), Vera (Farmiga), (Jason) Bateman, Danny McBride, J.K. (Simmons), (Zach) Galifianakis, Amy Morton and Sam Elliott — I wrote all their roles with them in mind.
CB: A lot of screenwriters don’t like to have an actor in mind when writing because they think it sort of constricts where the character can go…
JR: No, it actually informs me on how to write their voice. Seeing Anna in Rocket Science informed on how I could write Natalie. Seeing Amy Morton on stage in August: Osage County informed me on how to write Carol (Clooney’s eldest sister in the movie).
CB: Can you talk about casting somebody like Clooney? A lot of people obviously see him, the celebrity, before they see him as the character Ryan Bingham. Were you concerned at all about that aspect of casting him even though he seems to have a lot in common with the character: their sense of humor, their rakish quality, their kind of loner streak when it comes to relationships?
JR: No. I thought there were enough connections between his character and his persona that I thought it would be an interesting self-examination for him.
CB: I imagine you were on your dad’s sets a lot when you were a kid. What did you take away from that experience that you found useful in your own career as a filmmaker?
JR: Probably the most useful thing I learned was in editing, just to be ruthless with my own material, that if it doesn’t serve the rhythm and tone of the film then it shouldn’t be in there.
CB: You seem to have this love of actors. You also seem to be one of the few directors who is able get studio-backed, character-driven pieces made nowadays.
JR: I really just love making character-driven pieces, and I don’t think you can make character-driven pieces without really loving actors. I’m in awe of actors who are able to just able to be themselves on camera. For so long my ideas simply live in my head and I can’t bring them to life. It takes people who have the guts and the presence to go on camera and bring my dialogue to life with honesty and authenticity. It’s just a skill set that I’ll never fully comprehend.
CB: When I saw you at the Toronto Film Festival back in September you said that this is probably the most personal film you’ll ever make. Why?
JR: I don’t know. It just really reflects my growth (as a filmmaker) over the last six or seven years. And I can’t imagine making a film that is more about me and my questions about the world we live in.