Director Jason Reitman on firing people, recession and film 'Up in the Air'

Reitman is the man behind "Up in the Air," a film about a professional downsizer. But he's also had to do some firing in real life, including, in one case, giving the axe to a 7-year-old.
By Jen Chaney
Thursday, December 3, 2009

It's the day before Thanksgiving and in a few short hours, Jason Reitman -- Academy Award-nominated director of "Juno," husband, father, 30-something with a fondness for wearing skullcaps -- will be on a flight from Washington back home to Los Angeles, a journey he will later document on Twitter after winding up on the same plane as the turkeys pardoned by President Obama. (Seriously. Not kidding: The turkeys, bound for Disneyland, bumped Reitman to an economy seat.)

But he hasn't gotten there yet. At the moment he's tucked into a chair in a hotel suite at Georgetown's Ritz-Carlton, doing a press junket, and adamantly insisting that his new movie, "Up in the Air," which opens Friday, isn't really about the economy.

"The best way I can explain it is that the economy stopped being the plot and started being the location, and the plot became a man trying to decide whether he wanted to live disconnected or connected," he says of how the film -- starring George Clooney as a professional downsizer who makes his living issuing pink slips -- evolved from the screenplay he started in 2002.

"The economy is actually less than 10 percent of the movie. It's just so relevant that it becomes the talking point."

By now, the writer-director-producer (and son of another director-producer, Ivan Reitman) pretty well knows what interviewers will ask him. Since "Up in the Air" made its splashy debut at the Toronto Film Festival in September -- and gained critical buzz as an almost-certain Oscar contender -- Reitman has hopscotched through 14 American cities, sitting down in other hotel suites to engage in conversations just like this one.

All those media moments inspired him to create an interview-question pie chart, another gem posted to his Twitter feed. Not surprisingly, as of the last chart update on Nov. 22, the economy ranked as the second-most popular topic. (The first-place topic? Clooney, "Up in the Air's" leading man and the source of 155 inquiries so far from working journalists. Reitman's dad: 91, the middle of the pack.)

Of course, there's a reason so many reporters turn their Reitman interviews into recession sessions. "Up in the Air," based on the novel by Walter Kirn, centers on Clooney's smooth-talking Ryan Bingham, who revels in racking up airline miles and remaining unrooted to any person, place or thing. While it's true that the bulk of the plot primarily addresses two challenges to that comfortably breezy lifestyle -- an equally unmoored love interest (Vera Farmiga) and an ambitious co-worker (Anna Kendrick) eager to deliver all those layoff notices via video conferencing -- the issue of career insecurity looms large.

With that in mind, Reitman -- who began writing "Up in the Air" during an economic boom, prior to directing his first feature, 2006's "Thank You for Smoking" -- realized he needed to tweak the script a bit once the country plunged into recession. For starters, he says he altered the dark, satirical tone in many of the firing scenes. ("That's not to say you can't have dark comedy in dark times. You can. It just wasn't right for the film," he explains.)

He also decided to insert testimonials from the genuinely laid-off into the movie. Reitman shot interviews with 60 people, all recently sacked; he tracked them down by placing classified ads in St. Louis and Detroit newspapers. Footage of 20 of them, who share their feelings about getting fired in often teary-eyed, emotionally raw fashion, appears in the film. (And yes, Reitman says, all the "actors" were paid; they even had to join the Screen Actors Guild. "Hey, great," he says wryly, "now they've got SAG dues.")

Another small detail that adds to that sliced-straight-from-real-life feel: the song "Up in the Air," which plays during the closing credits, was written by St. Louis singer-songwriter Kevin Renick late last year after he was laid off from his job at a marketing firm. It landed in the movie after Renick slid a copy -- recorded on a cassette tape -- into Reitman's hands after a speaking engagement in that city.

"It's about uncertainty and longing and wanting to make a better connection with life," Renick says of his song during a telephone interview. "It's sheer serendipity that that's what the movie ended up being about as well."

During all these conversations and connections with the newly out-of-work, Reitman says what struck him most was how job loss does more than just leave men and women without a workplace; it also leaves them without a sense of purpose.

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