Jason Reitman
The director on writing strong female characters, shooting in airports and convincing George Clooney.

23 May 2010

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With Juno and Up in the Air, Jason Reitman has been recognised in the Best Director category at the Oscars and it is fair to say that he has a very bright future in the film industry. Reitman talks to Pure Movies editor Dan Higgins about writing strong female characters, shooting in airports and convincing George Clooney.

Pure Movies: Up In The Air is based on a book, would you recognise it from the film?

Jason Reitman: Yes and No. The book is about a man who fires people for a living and who obsessively collects airmiles but, if I had directed the book exactly how it was, Vera [Farmiga] and Anna [Kendrick] would not be in it because their characters are not in the book.

So, you used it more as source material to use as a starting point?

I kind of see source material as a toolbox. Usually there is a story I want to tell and I’m looking for the right words. So, I’ll read a book or I’ll read an article and suddenly it will just be the language that I’ve been looking for to say something that I’ve been meaning to say or to ask something that I’ve been meaning to ask. At that point, it just becomes a toolbox of ideas that I can either follow literally or sometimes I take someone’s dialogue and give it to someone else or, in this case, I took a main character and who I liked his occupation, I liked his life philosophy and from there I built a plot around him to ask the questions that I wanted to ask.

Is it true you wrote the role of Ryan Bingham with George Clooney in mind?

Yeah, I wrote the role with him in mind and with Vera and Anna in mind as well. It is easier for me to write when I know who I’m actually writing for and that’s often how I identify the voice of the character.

I had met Vera before and seen many of her films and I knew the things that she was able to do that no other actress is capable of doing. It was because she was able to walk that very fine line of being aggressive and feminine at the same time that I was able to write [the character of] Alex the way I did. It was because I had seen Anna in Rocket Science and knew the kind of sparkling brilliance of her mind and how fast she is that I was able to write Natalie the way I did.

Look, if you’re going to make a movie about a guy who fires people for a living and you still want to like him, that actor better be damn charming and I don’t think there is a more charming actor alive than George Clooney. I was just very lucky he said yes.

What happens if you’ve written it for him in mind and he said no? Do you then find some kind of Clooney clone?

I don’t think there is such a thing. No, I’d have probably just ended my career right there and then. The story is actually kind of funny. I’d been writing it for six years and I told his agent “Look, I’m about a month away from this screenplay and in the middle of that I’m going to Italy on vacation with my wife” and he said “Well if you’re in Italy, you should just go see him”. I said “That sounds like an awful idea. I don’t want to go and see him if he hates my screenplay” and he’s like “No, no, just go. He’ll love to see you.” I said “Well look, I’ll send him the screenplay and if he enjoys it then, certainly, I’ll drop by”. So I get to Italy and I call his agent up and said “Did he like it?” and he said “Yeah, go see him”. He gave me the address, we drive there and get to his house in Como and one of the first things he asks me is “So, what are you working on these days?”. I said “There’s a screenplay, it’s called Up In The Air” and he said “Oh, I gotta find that, I gotta read that” and for two days my wife and I stayed at his home and I was just trying to prove I was a man to George Clooney. I played basketball with him, I hadn’t done that since eighth grade. I never drink and I tried drinking with George Clooney. He opened four bottles of wine between the three of us over an evening, I don’t know how I didn’t die of alcohol poisoning and, finally, about the end of the second day, he disappeared for a while. Then, out of nowhere, he walked into our room and said “I just read it. It’s great. I’m in.” and those are words that, I feel, changed my life and it will be one of the greatest moments that I ever remember from my career.

The film balances between the darkness of everyone getting fired and the optimism of these people finding new jobs and the song at the end credits really sums up that journey. Was that dumb luck? How did that come about?

That was dumb luck. After Juno, I’ve gotten kind of used to teenagers sending me songs with the idea of them appearing in one of my films. I happened to be speaking at a college in St. Louis where we were shooting and a man in his mid-fifties came to me with a song and that was unusual. He handed me a cassette tape. So, first off I had to find a place where I could actually listen to this, and we found a car with a cassette desk and I was really ready for something ridiculous and, instead, on came this voice which is now in the credits. He introduced himself and explained how he had lost his job after being there for a decade and a half and he was now in the middle of his life trying to figure out the purpose of his life. He started singing a song that isn’t the greatest song ever written but it’s an authentic song. I guess my feeling was that we are in the middle of one of the worst recessions on record and about a million people have lost their jobs in the last year but we really have no experience with who these people are. They are just often numbers on newspapers, mastheads, percentages and here was a guy who was able to sing very authentically about how we felt about it and I thought what better a tribute than to end the movie with it. I thought halfway through listening to it that it was going to be in the credits.

Unemployment features quite heavily in the film. There has been talk of the people who get fired in the film being people who got fired in real life. Is this true?

When I started writing the screenplay seven years ago the economy in America was very different. We were basically at the tail-end of an economic boom and I had decided to write a corporate satire of a man who fired people for a living and I wrote comedic scenes were people lost their jobs. By the time it came to shoot this film, it just wasn’t funny anymore and I couldn’t go about shooting these scenes as written. We were scouting in St. Louis and Detroit and the idea just came to me that we should try to use real people. So we put an ad out in the newspaper saying “We’re making a documentary about job loss and we are looking for people who would go on camera and talk about their experience”. We got an overwhelming amount of response and we brought in 100 people and 25 are in the finished film. So, outside the people you recognise like J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifinakis and Tamala Jones, everyone else who loses their jobs in this movie is a real person who came in and sat down at a table with an interviewer and, for about ten minutes, answered questions on what it was like to lose their job in an economy where there really is nothing available and you have to consider some very dire decisions. After that, we would say “we would like to now fire you on camera and would like you to respond either the way you did the day you lost your job or, if you prefer, you can say what you wish you had said. This would turn into improve scenes where they would pelt our interviewer with all sorts of questions that he did not know the answer to about severance, about why they lost their job instead of Geoff and it just went on. Some people were really angry, some people got emotional and cried and some people were very funny. I’m so grateful for their participation in the film because I could never have written the type of things that they said.


Jason Reitman and George Clooney on the set of Up In The Air

You’ve got a history of writing strong female characters like with Juno and in this film as well. Do you think there is a shortage of these roles in Hollywood right now?

Yeah, I think that’s why I right them honestly. I like to write original films and I think that many of the men’s stories have been told and many of the women’s stories haven’t. I’ve fallen in love with many really smart women over the course of my life, the most recent and presumably the last one being my wife, I really enjoy writing them. I enjoy spending time with my wife talking about these scenes. The best scene I’ve ever written, I only wrote half of and it’s the scene in this movie where Vera and Anna talk about what they look for in a man at each of their ages. The only way I could write that was to ask my wife to have a conversation with herself at 18 about what she looked for in a man. So, everything they say is true to her which breaks her heart every time she watches it with an audience because they basically laugh at her for five minutes. I enjoy writing for women and I enjoy working with great actresses. I’ve just been very fortunate. I’ve made three movies now and, throughout all of them, from Maria Bello on Thank You For Smoking and then with Ellen [Page] and Jennifer [Garner] on Juno and, not only Anna and Vera but also Amy Morton and Melanie Linski, I’ve just been surrounded with great women actresses which I just hope I can work with more and more.

You started the script seven years ago but you’ve done Thank You For Smoking and Juno before this, so how did that timeline work out?

The reason for that is that no-one would make Thank You For Smoking and so I started looking for something else to write and direct. I found this book, fell in love with it and started writing it and then, out of nowhere, a millionaire, one of the creators of Paypal who had sold it to ebay for 1.5 billion dollars with his partners decided he wanted to make movies. He read my script, called my agent and wrote a cheque for 6.5million dollars and we made Thank Your For Smoking. So, all of a sudden, I wasn’t writing Up In The Air anymore.

So, I made Thank You For Smoking then went back to Up In The Air, then Juno came into my life and it was just this irresistible screenplay that I knew if I didn’t direct then I would regret it for the rest of my life. The interesting thing was that I basically finished the screenplay after Juno and about six years in I got to the end of the script having not gone back and read what I had been writing. And when I read from start to finish, I watched myself grow up. Over the course of the six years in which I wrote this script, I had become a professional director, I bought a home, I got married and I became a father. So, I watched myself, in the first act, be kind of a cynical guy in his twenties who was really just a satirist and, over the six years, I became a bit more sophisticated as a writer and also realised what is important in my own life and that really changed Ryan’s journey as I continued to write.

The film is set in 20 cities and based in many hotels and airports. What are the logistics behind shooting a jigsaw like that?

Oh, it’s a total pain in the ass. Shooting in airports is very difficult and we shot in four international airports and they actually gave us a fair amount of access. As American Airlines was a partner in this film, our trade for them being our airline was that we had access to check-in gates and departure gates but, still, all the actors had to go through security every day on the way to set. I think they would put George [Clooney] through as much security as humanly possible. I’m surprised he didn’t get pat down every time he went through.

To read the Pure Movies review of Up in the Air, click here. To see the full list of Oscar nominations, click here.