By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 29, 2009 at 8:46AM
It's hard to believe that a filmmaker as assured as Jason Reitman is 32 and has made just three feature films, including Up in the Air, which is about to open limited December 4 after earning raves from audiences and critics on the international film fest circuit. Here he talks about his airline obsession, pie chart, directing George Clooney as well as 60 non-actors who had been laid off, and why this was the right movie to make at the right time.
1. Are you a compulsive airline miles collector?
JR: I think when Walter Kirn wrote this book, Up in the Air, he was talking about the idea of collecting miles, ironically, but when I read it, I thought, 'Oh, someone understands me, I’m not alone in the universe!' I do collect air miles religiously and I did go on a mile run once--a mileage run is when you simply go on a flight at the end of the year to maintain your status. I flew from LA to Chicago, landed, picked up a Giordano’s pizza, got back on the plane, flew home to LA, picking up the necessary 2500 miles or so necessary to hit status for the following year.
FlyerTalk is the fan site of frequent fliers where people who are psychotic frequent fliers, like myself, go into forums and speak in acronyms, know every code for every airport and type of reward, and have conversations about, 'Look, I need to get 3020 EQMs by the end of this month, I was thinking about hopping this Northwest flight to Beijing but it's starting to sell out and they’ve gone to the next stage of ticketing.' It's these crazy questions and conversations and they actually have meet-ups where people who love flying get together and talk about what the best seat is on every single plane. There’s another website called [SeatExpert], and you can actually find out, 'Well if you sit in 8F instead of 7F you’ll have an inch extra leg room and they don’t put an left armrest on that chair, so you might want to go...' Look, I have maybe seven different apps on my iPhone all dedicated to flying. One helps me find out the next flight, one is a map of every airport in America, one tells me if every flight in America is on time or the percentage that it is on time often. No, I mean - it’s a sickness - I get it.
2. Do you do obsessive packing as well?
JR: Yeah, I choreographed George packing, the way he went through security. I’m insane the way I pack. I did two weeks on the road, a small world away, I pack like the game Tetris.
3. If I was following you on Twitter correctly, after Telluride and Toronto you took a long flying jaunt around Europe, the United States...
JR: It was a three-and-a-half week run that went LA, Rome, London, Madrid, Berlin, Paris, London, then to LA for a day, then Phoenix, Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Minneapolis. Oh, I forgot Orlando, Miami and Boston were in the middle there as well. There were about 20 flights in 20-25 days.
4. This to me is painful, how was it for you?
JR: Well look. I’m not going to say that many flights is fun; that’s a lot of planes, however normally I do enjoy flying. I think that somehow, for the same reason I started to love movie theaters-- the last place on earth where you can be alone, where you can check out, unplug from life--airplanes serve the same purpose. It’s the one place where you’re not online, where your cell phone doesn’t work, where your only friend is the person in 17J, who you have the kind of conversation with that you’d never have with anybody else. You can often talk to the people in planes about things you would never talk to people you were close to about. So I kind of consider planes to be the last refuge of those who enjoy being alone. And it’s the last place to truly unplug from your life.
5. Do you read?
JR: I am now a Kindle owner, and that’s made flying amazing, except for the fact that a Kindle is not an electronic device with an on off-switch. So you cannot turn it off for take-off and landing, and I end up getting into fights with flight attendants about this.
6. How do you film George Clooney in an airport?
JR: It’s very hard. It’s almost impossible; we shot 400 national airports, I have shot enough airports for five lifetimes. If I get a screenplay I love and there’s an airport, I’ll be like, 'Can this be a train station?' It’s tough. First of all, everyone going to set has to go through security, including George. All your equipment has to go through security and be smelled by dogs. You have to cable your electricity from miles away, and the crowd control problem is insane, because every passenger wants to say hello to George. And they are rushing to a flight and they are upset at you for blocking their way. So it was really complicated, some were better than others. St. Louis was wonderful to us, Las Vegas not so much. We’re the first film to shoot in the actual TSA, the actual security checkpoints. Usually in a movie, if you see a scene that takes place in security, they threw up metal detector in a hotel hallway or a convention center, but American Airlines was actually really good to us and opened up a lot of doors getting us into all these airports and then getting us into security. And overnight we shot those sequences--very well choreographed, hard to shoot--of him going through. And everyone you saw in a blue uniform, all the TSA officers, were the real deal; they donated their time to be a part of the film. It was actually very cool.
7. Did American Airlines pay you?
JR: It was a trade. Basically, American gave us the kind of access we could otherwise never have. They even flew in a 757 so we could shoot on a real plane, which is also unheard of, you usually only shoot on mock-ups. And we did do some mock-up shooting but we also shot on a real plane.
8. You wrote a role that fits George Clooney like a glove. Did you write with casting in mind?
JR: I actually wrote eight of the roles in this film for eight of the actors who are in the film. George, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Danny McBride, JK Simmons, Sam Elliot, Amy Morton …it helps me write. When I know the person who’s going to play it, when I know their voice. When I saw Anna in Rocket Science I thought, 'Oh I know exactly how to write you.' And it was just done. And when I saw Amy Morton in August - Osage County on Broadway I knew exactly how to write her as Kara. When I saw Danny McBride in All the Real Girls, he just spoke to me and I knew how to write him as Clooney’s new brother-in-law. So, as soon as I know who I am writing for it becomes a lot easier, and outside of George, I presumed a lot of these people would do the film.
You know it's funny, it’s not as if I’d follow George’s life on US Weekly, and then try to punch in elements into the screenplay. I wrote a character that I thought he was perfect to play. And certainly, when he read the script for the first time he said to me, 'You know, I see how people are going to draw parallels between my persona and this character, and I’m ready to stare at them straight in the eyes.' I think what makes this role special for George isn’t all that stuff, it's really that he shows a type of vulnerability in this film that he’s never shown in any other film he’s done: He’s out of control. And he’s particularly vulnerable in a romantic relationship. The way he is on that monorail when he’s talking to Vera Farmiga, and she calls him a ‘parenthesis’ – I hadn’t seen him do that in any other movie, and he did that on day two of the shoot. I mean, he’s a remarkable actor and a remarkable man. And a lot of nice things are said about him, but it’s not just talk; it’s actually true. He made my job look easier and he made me look good.
9. This movie is an unusual hybrid genre. How would you define it?
JR: My films often don’t have a genre. This film would be, if there were still video stores, just as fitting for the comedy shelf as the drama shelf. That’s how I like it. I think comedy and drama, they’re techniques, and hopefully I can use both of them to move the audience.
10. This movie is a deconstruction of the romantic comedy, where you throw romantic fantasy at people in the beginning, and then you deconstruct it. How were you dealing with tensions between sexes and generations?
JR: I wanted to make a movie about a female mid-life crisis as much as a male mid-life crisis, and I thought the best away to portray that was to show the same woman at two different ages, around 38 and 23 years old. I have fallen in love with a series of really smart women in my life, they’ve always been the smartest girl in the room, my wife included; always women who are kind of frustrated by their own brilliance. I guess I feel like the last few generations of women have been put in a tricky position, almost by the feminist movement itself, in that they were promised that they could be and do anything, and that they could have it all. And in reality nobody can have it all. Everyone has to sacrifice. And I find sacrifice is what often leads to mid-life crisis, in men and in women. And I wanted to look into that in a way that movies have kind of ignored.
11. Screenwriting, to start, is what makes this movie work so well. What were the models for you for the kind of romantic comedy banter that you wanted here?
JR: I saw Sullivan’s Travels while writing this and that was a big influence. I love the way they spoke in that film. Alexander Payne has been a huge influence on me. Shampoo is oddly a big influence on this; about a guy who lives freely and is not tied down whatsoever; Shampoo ends with Warren Beatty on Mulholland, looking out over the city, kind of lost, trying to figure out what his next move will be. And that’s how I wanted to end this film.
12. The ending of the movie has produced some debate. Why did you not give everybody a happy, romantic ending?[SPOILER ALERT]
JR: There are millions available on DVD if you want to feel good. No, honestly, look; there are plenty of movies that inspire companionship through romance on screen. You see two people in love and you go, you know what, I want that too. I did not want to make that movie. I wanted a film that inspired companionship through loss. It's not when George and Vera are dancing at the wedding that you go 'oh, this man is truly in need of somebody in his life,' it’s right after he shows up at her door in Chicago and realizes that she’s unavailable, that’s the moment you go: 'Oh, this man actually wants something else.' And hopefully it’s the moment that the audience feels it so hard, you get hit so hard in the gut that you want it yourself as well. So I thought somehow that would actually be more impactful than simply watching two people in love. Then the ending of the movie, it’s a movie about an epiphany rather than a decision. We get to the end of the movie, we know that he’s come to some sort of realization, and from there he can do anything. He can get on a plane and live the same way for the rest of his life, he can get a plane and settle down somewhere and meet someone and share his life with somebody. That actually doesn’t matter. I’ll tell you why; he’s a fictitious character. He doesn’t exist. However, the movie doesn’t end there, and then just cut to clouds and sit on clouds for a few seconds. And I don’t mean to be pretentious, but I hope that moment is a moment of silence for the audience to think about what they want in their life, because in reality that’s much more important than whatever Ryan Bingham decides to do.
13. This movie was released by a Hollywood studio. But this is not your standard glossy, overproduced overwrought studio movie: it's small and reasonable and sane. What did you do to prevent it from being that other movie – the one that too many people make?
JR: Well, I don’t really love romantic comedies, so it’s hard to imagine myself making a fairly conventional romantic comedy. Look, I’ve made three movies: The first one is about the head lobbyist for Big Tobacco, the second one is about a pregnant teenage girl, and the third one is about a man who fires people for a living, and wants to be alone with nothing and nobody. For some reason I’m apparently attracted to unconventional, tricky characters. I mean that’s what gets me excited about making movies. And you know, I wouldn’t make The Insider, I would make Thank You for Smoking. It’s just what I’m attracted to; there’s a great line in the book Thank You for Smoking, when Nick Naylor says, “If you want an easy job go work for the Red Cross, if you want a real job go work for Big Tobacco,” and I guess I’m the type to actually see the sense in that.
14. Why did you decide to interview real people?
JR: I started writing this movie seven years ago. At the time I was trying to make my first film, Thank You for Smoking, I had written the screenplay and nobody would finance it. Nobody would make it. It was one of those, 'That was a great script, you should really write more,' that’s what I would hear, “Nice writing sample.” And I was like, 'Screw you! I want to direct this film!' And nobody would make it. At the time in looking for something else that would be a good first movie, I found Up in The Air and began to write it.
I got about thirty pages in when my agent called and said there’s a guy called David Sachs, he’s sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion, and he wants to make your movie. And he actually signed a check for $6 million and that’s how my career started and Thank You for Smoking got made. And you know, I’m the son of a famous director, my entire childhood, I was told that nepotism would pave the way for my career. Nepotism failed me! And it actually took an Internet millionaire from San Francisco to start my career.
And when I was done with Thank You for Smoking, I came back and wrote another 30 pages of this movie, and I got about 60 pages in when I got another call, this time from a friend who said, 'There’s this screenplay you gotta read,' and I said 'Oh, what is it?' And he said 'It’s a teenage pregnancy comedy written by a former stripper from Minneapolis.' And I said, 'Wow that sounds perfect for me.' And that, of course, was Juno, and it was the kind of screenplay I knew if I didn’t direct it I would regret it for the rest of my life. And that took me another two years.
But after that I came back and I finished Up In The Air. When I first started writing this screenplay, I was a single guy living in an apartment and by the time I finished it six years later, I had met my wife, I had become a father, I had a mortgage, and my life had changed. And this movie about a guy who fired people for a living became a movie about a guy who was looking for what he wanted and who he wanted in his life. And when I first started this screenplay we were in an economic boom and by the time I finished it we were in one of the worst recessions on record.
And there was one dramatic change that I thought was necessary upon approaching this film now as a director, and that was, I’d written scenes in which people got fired, and I wrote them, originally, as satire, similar to Thank You for Smoking, and this made sense in an economic boom, it did not make sense right now. So I deleted those scenes and since we were shooting in St. Louis and Detroit, two cities that got hit hardest in this country, we reached out to find people who had been fired to act in this movie. We put an ad out in the local papers and said we wanted to make a documentary about job loss, we thought by saying this we would weed out actors trying to sneak into the film, and find people who had no on-camera experience who were ready to just open up about what it's like to be searching for purpose on a daily basis in a very, very tough time.
15. How did you conduct the interviews? What did you ask them and why?
JR: We ended up putting 60 people on film, 22 of which are in this movie. So everyone besides the actors you recognize, everyone who gets fired in this movie, is someone who’s lost their job. They would come in, sit at a table, we would interview them for about 10 minutes, we would ask them questions about how they lost their job, who they told first, how this has affected their life, and as soon as they were comfortable on camera, we would say, 'we’d like to actually fire you on camera now. And we’d like you to respond the way you did the day you lost your job, or if you prefer, how you wish you had responded.' And this would begin an improv scene; unlike any improv scene I’ve ever seen in my life.
My job as a director is to get people to get people to be honest on camera, that’s kind of it in a nutshell. It’s to get actors to be authentic. And I know how hard it is to sometimes get people to be authentic on camera. And yet here in this moment, 22 people who had never acted before, we would read them this boilerplate legal firing document that I found through an HR person, that is basically used coast to coast for firing. And the second they would hear this legal verbiage, and they would hear the kind of language they heard the day they lost their job, they would start to use sense-memory without knowing it. Their body language would change, their shoulders would fold, their eyes would turn, one girl broke into hives. I’m not sure if you noticed her, the hives broke out across her neck, right at that moment. And they’d begin asking questions of our interviewer, who knows nothing of their situation, they’d ask them about severance, and their medical benefits, and why they were chosen and why not somebody else. And if there was another job that they could get in the company, and these would go on for ten, sometimes 20 minutes. They were really emotional, and they would get angry and they would cry, and they would say the kind of things I could never think of as a writer, and it was said in a way that I would never think to direct them.
The most startling of which is in the movie, when the guy says, 'What are you going to do this weekend? You got a tank full of gas, going to take your kid to Chuck-e-Cheese?' I’ve never thought of Chuck-E-Cheese as a luxury, I think of Chuck-E-Cheese as a mediocre pizza place with a guy in a rag costume. I could never write that because I would have thought that was somehow insulting, and somehow me trying to be funny. But when he said it, that was the truth for him, and it was an incredible experience as a director. And it actually makes me want to try that more in the future – working with non-actors. We shot that on day four of a 50-day shoot and it set the tone for everything from there on.
16. When did you come up with the title sequence; it perfectly sets the tone for the movie. What was your goal there?
JR: I have always enjoyed opening title sequences, all three of my films have prominent ones. I like there to be a separation between the commercials and the movie. The opening title sequence, in general, has gone by the wayside, because many directors like the movie to end with ‘directed by me,' an ego kind of thing. Anyhow, I have a team called Shadowplay who were short film makers at the same time I was. They did the Smoking and Juno titles, and came up with this idea of vintage moving postcards, the most complicated element of which was getting this aerial footage that seems like film. I figured you put a camera in a plane, you put it up in the air, you point down, you get aerial footage, right? I really thought it would be that simple. It was so complicated. Every time you see aerial footage in a movie it’s from a helicopter at 12,000 ft. To get it from 25,000 ft, first we went up with a jet and we had a camera that was going through this bubble system, except the optics weren’t good enough and atmosphere was giving us trouble. Then we went up with a propeller plane and the pilot had to wear an oxygen mask to get up that high; we took a camera out on a wing, we went digital instead of film, and then the camera would not go straight down, so they’d have to put the plane into a dive to get the camera to go down. I mean it was just like unreal how hard it was to get this footage. But I’m really happy with the results and of course it made for fun opening titles.
17. You came up with a pie chart with all the questions that the journalists all over the world have asked you. Was there a country where the questions were particularly bizarre?
JR: Oh yeah, the questions do change per country. My pie chart is every question that has been asked to me on the road. For instance in the last three weeks, I’ve been asked about George Clooney 124 times, the economy 10 times, why I chose this project 91 times, my father 79 times. But then you get down to the little questions, I’ve been asked, 'Was I the kind of flyer who took my shoes off when I flew?' I’ve only been asked that once. I was asked to spell Stanley Kubrick once, by a journalist who couldn’t spell it. She also was curious how to spell Hurt Locker. How cute. I was asked to sing once, I was asked to bark once, I was asked by three people to fire them. And I’ve been asked about the pie chart three times.
18. Would you ever write with Juno writer Diablo Cody?
JR: Diablo is like a sister now, I feel like we’re siblings, and I think we’d tear each other’s heads off if we tried to write a screenplay together, in the same way that brothers and sisters would. I would love to direct another Diablo screenplay, I would love for Diablo to direct a Diablo screenplay. I hope I get that opportunity. But writing together? I’ve never written with anybody, and I’m not sure I have it in me.
19. What happened with Jennifer’s Body, which Cody wrote and you produced?
JR: I think Jennifer’s Body was sadly incorrectly marketed as a horror film, when it was – not a comedy – but it was a joyful film. It was a film that, I thought, was supposed to be in the world of films like Heathers, The Lost Boys, and great 80s warm horror films and all their marketing, much to my disliking, was done as kind of ‘cheap slasher,’ and the film doesn’t deliver on ‘cheap slasher,’ so even if you were looking for that you got the wrong film. Look, I’m never a fan of studios lying about what they have, the great example of course is Election, which was marketing as a teen comedy, and it made no money because of that, and that’s one of the great movies of the last few decades. I never like it when studios lie, and I feel like they lied.
20. They did. How have you been affected by being the son of director Ivan Reitman?
JR: I try to be as open-minded as possible. Being the son of a director has afforded me some great filmmaking lessons. One, film is an evolving thing and you have to listen to your film as it is often telling you what it needs to be and it is changing. It changes throughout writing, it changes throughout directing and it changes in editing; so you have to be prepared. And I have a lot of plans and I do boards and I have notes and layouts for every location and I’m very specific in how I pick my actors and when they show up I have ideas how they are going to move and talk, but at the same time you have to be open to the magic. I’ve gone to the place where I’m not worried anymore. If I don’t understand a scene before the day I shoot it, 'That’s ok, I’m going to get there, I’m going to watch the actors do it once ad it will begin to make sense.' And if it still doesn’t make sense, I‘ll find out why it doesn’t seem real to me and I’ll address that. And there’s a lovely calm to that, to knowing it’s going to be ok. I may have a scene totally done, I know exactly what I need. And sometimes you know what? I don’t know what to tell the actors who are acting. I think young film students get it in their head that they are somehow imperfect directors, when filmmaking isn’t perfect.
[Interview conducted at Sneak Previews by Anne Thompson with extra questions from course members.]