Wednesday, December 2, 2009

For Jason Reitman, It's The "Air"
That Keeps Him Grounded

Amber mode: Film director Jason Reitman, whose latest film "Up In The Air" stars George Clooney
and opens on Friday across North America.     Omar P.L. Moore /

By Omar P.L. Moore/
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

“Where do you want to sit?” Jason Reitman asks his questioner, who expresses indecision.

“There’s a breeze this way,” says Mr. Reitman.  “And there’s --”

The decision where to sit is now an easy one for the journalist. 

Waiting, however, for George Clooney’s decision on whether to play Ryan Bingham, a jet-setting corporate heartbreaker, caused apprehension for Mr. Reitman, whose latest film “Up In   The  Air” was a audience sensation at the Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals earlier this Fall and finally gets its theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada on Friday, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

In October Mr. Reitman was in San Francisco talking about “Up In  The Air”.  Possessing an intense look but a welcoming and friendly demeanor, the 32-year-old Canadian filmmaker talked about Mr. Clooney.

“I really tried to tailor [the screenplay] to his voice as much as possible,” Mr. Reitman said.  “I didn’t quite know what I would do if he said 'no'.  But he said ‘yes’ … and the rest is history.”

Mr. Reitman’s film history is this: an Oscar-winning film (“Juno”), an impressive debut (“Thank You For Smoking”), and a likelihood of more of the same with his new film, which boasts arguably Mr. Clooney’s best work to date.

“Up In The Air” may just be the first air-trip movie ever made.  When told this, Mr. Reitman laughs.  “That’s funny.  No one’s said that – I like that one,” he says. 

Shot in five cities in 50 days, the film features Vera Farmiga (“Orphan”), Melanie Lynskey (
“The Informant!”), Zack Galafianakis (“The Hangover”), Danny McBride (“Land Of The Lost”) and several cameos from actors who have appeared in the director’s previous films. 

Shooting in airports was the biggest logistical challenge of “Up In The Air”.  “To have one-fifth of your shoot in airports …” Mr. Reitman makes a sound indicating just how tough the endeavor was. 

“All the time, shooting past security -- working with the
TSA all the time.  Every one, every actor has to go through security when they’re on the set.  Can’t bring food.  You have to time everything out with the gates when the planes are coming and going.”

The director credited St. Louis, whose
international airport “was really generous with us”.

The airport logistics weren’t all that kept Mr. Reitman and his film crew on their toes.  Several incredibly detailed, very high overhead shots of U.S. cities are interspersed throughout “Up In The Air” and the director wanted to get a higher than helicopter-eye view of the cities, which include San Francisco. 

“First we went out with a jet and a periscope-lens and that didn’t work well at 25,000 feet.  Then we went out with a Cessna and a camera on the wing.  The pilot had to use oxygen – that was at 15,000 feet.  That proved usable.  We shot eight days of aerial footage.”

The detail, “some of which I’m really proud of,” said the director, is breathtaking and distinct.

The film’s central character has living quarters in Omaha, a blank-slate of a residence which doesn’t belie Ryan Bingham’s personal life.  Mr. Clooney’s character has the unenviable task of firing people from their jobs in a recession era.  

The director on the set with George Clooney. 
Dale Robinette/Paramount

“Up In The Air” was intended as a corporate satire and Mr. Reitman began writing it in 2002, at the tail end of an economic boom.  “As time passed the world changed, the economy obviously changed,” said Mr. Reitman.

“And when I began to location scout, I was looking at locations in St. Louis and Detroit I could no longer ignore the fact that we were in a huge recession and I had to take this seriously and I couldn’t just take what was happening to over a million people lightly.  And instead of casting actors to read dialogue I decided, ‘let’s try to find a way to get real people.’  And in the end we have 25 people who lost their jobs in St. Louis and Detroit who came on camera, who were very honest about their experiences and then we would fire them on camera.  And we’d ask them to just respond the way they did that day they lost their job or they preferred how they wished they had.”

The city of Detroit, for those who aren’t aware, has an unemployment rate of close to 33%, and sits unsurprisingly in Michigan, the state which with the nation’s highest unemployment rate, at just over 16%.

For all the adversity surrounding the film, both on-set in the make-believe and off set in the very real world, “Up In The Air” was propelled by an airline which like much of its brethren was going through a major crisis. 
American Airlines made the director and his crew feel at home, and the airline is prominently featured in the film. 

“They really helped us out at airports – they were just very, very good to us.  Helping us with shooting at their own check-in gates.  Came and visited the set all the time.  They were very good partners to us [as were Hertz Rent-A-Car].”

The director, who is the eldest child of filmmaker Ivan Reitman, revealed that his celebrity status (not surprisingly) gives him perks at airports.
  “Because of my status I’ve been able to get on flights where they weren’t any seats available.  I’ve been called to a gate without a person there and once I arrive a person shows up and helps me because I have very high status and I’m so obsessed with my miles.  I’m at that level of status now where I can get away with things.”

“Up In The Air” is easily Jason Reitman’s most personal film.  The movie gets quieter and more intimate as it moves along, and you can’t help but feel the director’s own story unfolding. 

“Well yeah, I mean I’m dealing with things that I’ve been feeling for six, seven years now,” said Mr. Reitman.  “And over the last six, seven years . . . I’ve started to direct feature films, I’m married, I have a daughter.  Life has become infinitely more complicated and I’m trying to deal with the questions I have about life through my films. And in this one I really looked into what I want to fill my life with.  What do I do with a complete life, and why do I feel like unplugging?  Why do I still get a sense of exhilaration from getting on a plane and travelling to an unknown destination?”

“Up In The Air” opens in theaters across the U.S. and Canada on Friday.

More film stories from Omar here.