Movie Interviews

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Jason Reitman's resume as a film director isn't just impressive, it's stunning when you consider that Reitman just turned 32 in October. He has made "Thank You for Smoking," "Juno" and now "Up in the Air" in which George Clooney makes a lifestyle out of frequent flying going from city to city helping companies fire people and giving motivational speeches, preaching freedom from social and familial ties.

(Soundbite of movie, "Up in the Air")

Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY (Actor): (As Ryan Bingham) Make no mistake, your relationships are the heaviest components in your life, all those negotiations and arguments and secrets and compromises. The slower we move, the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime: star-crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We're sharks.

BLOCK: Well, as my co-host Robert Siegel found out, that does not describe Jason Reitman.

ROBERT SIEGEL: He has a wife and child and a famous father, Ivan Reitman, who directed "Ghostbusters" and produced "Animal House." Jason Reitman began working on the script for "Up in the Air" six years ago before he had directed a feature film. But he set it aside when a stranger, David Sacks, who had sold PayPal for a fortune, offered to finance another script that he'd been struggling to get made, "Thank You for Smoking."

Mr. JASON REITMAN (Director, "Up In The Air"): You know, and the strange part is that, you know, I'm the son of a famous director. In my entire childhood and adult life, people presumed that nepotism would pave the road for my career. And nepotism�

SIEGEL: It doesn't? No?

Mr. REITMAN: It - nepotism let me down, frankly. And it took a San Francisco Internet millionaire to start my career.

SIEGEL: Now, after seeing a screening of "Up in the Air," which I enjoyed tremendously, I picked up�

Mr. REITMAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: �a copy of Walter Kirn's novel, "Up In The Air" and�

Mr. REITMAN: Walter will be very pleased with that.

SIEGEL: Well, he should be. And I would say, of the two, there are many similarities between his novel and the film. But this is not just an adaptation of a novel to a movie.

Mr. REITMAN: Well, there's key elements that I have added. Now, Walter's book is about Ryan Bingham, a man who fires people for a living who lives his entire life on the road, airplane to airplane, hotel to hotel, collecting air miles religiously and living alone. That's kind of his primary philosophy that he wants to live without anyone or anything. And that's something I really locked into.

Now, from there, I injected a lot of my own plot, including two women, a character named Alex, played by Vera Farmiga, and a character named Natalie, played by Anna Kendrick, who really become the challenge to Ryan's philosophy.

SIEGEL: And a family wedding, it has - enjoys a role in the film, which is kind of off-screen in the novel. It's not really so significant. And the kind of Goldman Sachs-McKenzie of management consulting, which is the sort of off-off-off-screen "Moby-Dick" of the novel's life is totally missing. This is a significant variation on the novel.

Mr. REITMAN: Well, I think it's better when you say it than I do. I think if I said it, it would come off a little arrogant. But coming from you, it really makes me look better. So I appreciate that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Did Walter Kirn - was he involved in the - in your version of what most people would think of as his novel after it's made into a movie?

Mr. REITMAN: Yeah. I've always wanted to have a good relationship with my authors. And I've heard the stories of Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King going at each other's throats. So the first time I got hired to write "Thank You for Smoking," I called Christopher Buckley up and said, hi, Christopher. This is Jason Reitman, the guy they hired to expletive your book. And he knew immediately that this was going to be a good relationship.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REITMAN: And I've gone on to reach out to everyone else I've worked with, including Diablo Cody, Walter Kirn and now I'm working with Jenny Lumet and Joyce Maynard, and I've done the same. And I brought - you know, I sent Walter my script before I sent it to anyone else. I brought him to set. Walter is, in fact, in the movie.

SIEGEL: Now, the character George Clooney plays, Ryan Bingham, fires people for a living. He's a consultant who's retained to do what Walter Kirn refers to these days as career transition consulting and explaining to people what happens now that you don't have a job. And you have people who play the part of people who've lost their jobs. Some of them are actors, but not all of them are actors.

Mr. REITMAN: Yeah. I mean, this is what comes with writing a movie over such a long period of time. When I started writing the screenplay, we were in the midst of an economic boom. And by the time I was finished, we were in one of the worst recessions on record. And as I approached the shooting of this film, there was no way I could use the original scenes that I had written, which approached firing in a very satirical manner, I mean, similar to "Thank You for Smoking."

We were location scouting in St. Louis and Detroit, two cities that really got hit hard. And it just became clear to me that we should use real people, people who had actually lost their jobs. So we put an ad out in both local papers, saying we were making a documentary about job loss. And they would go through a 10-minute process where we would interview them and then we would actually tell them, we'd like to now fire you on camera.

And when they would hear those words, you'd see them change. One girl just, literally, just broke into hives across her neck, and she's in the film. So there was something about being in that moment amongst people who you could tell had not really talked about this to anybody. They said the kinds of things that I would never have thought to write as a writer.

SIEGEL: It's one of the worst moments in a person's life to be fired, to lose your job in tough economic times and wonder what you're going to do next, how you're going to provide for your family.

Mr. REITMAN: You know, if you would've asked me before I did this movie what is the worst part about losing a job in this type of economy, I would've probably said the loss of income. But as I talked to these people, that actually rarely came up.

What people said time and time again was, I don't know what I'm supposed to do. And this was kind of a startling statement, that it was really about a lack of purpose. They would say, you know, after I finish this interview, I'm going to go get in my car and I have nowhere to be. And I can't imagine thinking that every day.

SIEGEL: If you had actually made this film, "Up in the Air," before being happily sidetracked to make "Thank You for Smoking," it would've been a totally different film.

Mr. REITMAN: It would've been a different movie for many reasons. I mean, one, because the economy would've been better. But more importantly, I wouldn't have grown up yet.

Look, over the six years that I wrote this film, I went from a single guy in my 20s living in my apartment to a guy who was married, a father, a guy with a mortgage. I grew up. And if you look at the difference between "Thank You for Smoking" and "Up in the Air," there is a difference in pure life experience.

And as a director, you make 1,000 decisions a day, mostly binary decisions: yes or no, this one or that one, the red one or the blue one, faster or slower. And it's the culmination of those decisions that define the tone of the film and whether or not it moves people. And the only way you become a better director is by watching the result of those decisions and understanding how they worked, and if they didn't work, how to make them better.

And over the course of the last six years, as I've directed more features and commercials, I've become better at articulating exactly how I want the audience to feel. And the biggest improvement I see between "Up in the Air" and "Juno" and "Thank You for Smoking" is that "Up in the Air" deals with the complicated human stuff in a way that my other films have not. It's a more articulated film, and because of that, I'm most proud of it.

SIEGEL: Although "Juno" cut pretty close to the bone about�

Mr. REITMAN: Oh, don't get me wrong, "Juno" is a great movie. I'm a very good director.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REITMAN: But I got even better.

SIEGEL: Well, Jason Reitman, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. REITMAN: Are you kidding me? It was an absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me on.

SIEGEL: Director Jason Reitman. His latest film is "Up in the Air."

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