For Reitman, The Best Characters Are 'Up In The Air' Director Jason Reitman likes to fill his movies with tricky characters, and then put them in situations that test their convictions. His latest project, Up in the Air, is no exception: George Clooney's character has made a career of firing people.

For Reitman, The Best Characters Are 'Up In The Air'

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My guest, Jason Reitman, directed the new movie adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel "Up in the Air." Reitman also directed "Juno" and "Thank You For Smoking." "Up in the Air" stars George Clooney as a business traveler who feels most at home in airplanes, airports and hotels. He travels for his job. When a company is laying people off and they don't want their own VPs or HR people to relay the bad news, they bring in George Clooney's character to tell people they're fired and to try to convince them this is actually an opportunity for growth, even if that's not true.

In the book, the character's goal is to get one million frequent flyer miles. In the novel, that's been upped to 10 million. In this scene, George Clooney is at a hotel bar, flirting with a fellow business traveler, played by Vera Farmiga. They're comparing their elite status cards from airlines, hotels and car rental agencies.

(Soundbite of movie "Up in the Air")

Mr.�CLOONEY (Actor): (As Ryan Bingham) Oh, Maplewood card. How dare you bring that into this palace?

Ms.�VERA FARMIGA (Actor): (As Alex Goran) Hilton offers equal value and better food, but the Maplewood gives out warm cookies at check-in.

Mr.�CLOONEY: Oh, they got you with the cookies, did they?

Ms.�FARMIGA: I'm a sucker for simulated hospitality.

Mr.�CLOONEY: You know, there's an industry term for that. It's a mixture of faux and homey: fauxmey(ph).

Ms.�FARMIGA: Oh my God. I wasn't sure this actually existed. This is the American Airlines...

Mr.�CLOONEY: It's a concierge key, yeah.

Ms.�FARMIGA: What is that, carbon fiber?

Mr.�CLOONEY: Graphite.

Ms.�FARMIGA: Oh, God, I love the weight.

Mr.�CLOONEY: I was pretty excited the day that bad boy came in.

Ms.�FARMIGA: Yeah, I'll say. I put up pretty pedestrian numbers, like 60 thou a year domestic.

Mr.�CLOONEY: It's not bad.

Ms.�FARMIGA: Don't patronize me. What's your total?

Mr.�CLOONEY: It's a personal question.

Ms.�FARMIGA: Oh, please.

Mr.�CLOONEY: And we hardly know each other.

Ms.�FARMIGA: Oh come on, show some hubris. Come on, impress me. I'll bet it's huge.

Mr.�CLOONEY: You have no idea.

GROSS: Jason Reitman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to adapt "Up in the Air" into a film?

Mr.�JASON REITMAN (Director, "Up in the Air"): Well, I'm attracted to tricky main characters. You know, I've made three movies. My first one was about the head lobbyist for big tobacco. The second one was about a pregnant teenage girl, and this one's about a guy who fires people for a living and wants to live alone, with nobody and nothing. And I like humanizing these kinds of characters. But in addition to that, I collect air miles myself. And while I think when Walter wrote this book, he came at air world with a sense of irony, I read the book and said oh, someone else out there understands me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How much do you fly?

Mr.�REITMAN: I fly about 100,000 miles a year.

GROSS: Wow, impressive, very good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Better you than me.

Mr.�REITMAN: Oh, that didn't sound mocking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�REITMAN: Wow, impressive.

GROSS: No, it is. It is. Like I said, better you than me. Now, Walter Kirn's book was published just a few weeks before September 11th. So it's before all of the 9/11 security rituals were put into effect. What are some of the things you wanted to emphasize about air world, even about just, like, the airports and getting onto a plane?

Mr.�REITMAN: Well, I think that airports and airplanes are the last refuge for those who like to be alone, and that's why I like them. I think I enjoy being on airplanes for the same reason that I first enjoyed being in movie theaters. It was a place to unplug from real life. When I'm on an airplane, there's no internet, there's no cell phones. You know, the only person I know is the person in 17-J, and you know, with strangers, you can end up having the kinds of conversations that you would never have with people you know well.

GROSS: There's a scene at the beginning of the film that I really love. It's the first time George Clooney is at the airport, and he goes through the whole ritual. And you photograph it so ritualistically: the collapsing of the handle on the carry-on luggage so it can be put on the, you know, security conveyor belt and then, you know, slipping off of his shoes, putting them in the little box, putting his shoes back on. Can you talk about shooting that to get a ritualistic flavor from it?

Mr.�REITMAN: Well, certainly. I choreographed all of the way that George packed his luggage and the way he went through security. I was very specific about the kind of Tetris of how that all works. And you know, we were the first movie to ever shoot in the real TSA. Normally, if you see a film that has a scene of a person going through a security checkpoint, they just threw up a metal detector in a hotel hallway or at a convention center hallway, and we were the first film to be allowed to shoot in the real thing.

It was actually very tricky to shoot. I choreographed every single shot. I storyboarded it out. We went out to the security checkpoint at Lambert Field in St.�Louis, and we did a trial run, where I shot the whole thing on video, edited it together, refined it again and then - because we were given basically a slot, from 10 p.m. until 4 a.m., when there were no passengers going through, where they basically closed down one side of security and let us use the other. And it's actually the hardest night of shooting I've ever done.


Mr.�REITMAN: Well, because it was - we had, I don't know, 30, 40 shots to get done in six hours, which is just insane, and every one is very specific and has to be done in a very specific way. And so many times, the camera is either looking straight up or straight down. So you're re-rigging the camera so that it can remain stable during these shots. And we were changing the shutter angle on certain shots, which means opening up the camera and adjusting something, and it was just simply exhausting getting all these exact. It's like doing tabletop shooting for commercials. It's just tricky stuff.

GROSS: What kind of lighting did you want? I mean, the lighting in airports and airplanes tends not to be very flattering.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�REITMAN: Says you. No, well, look - I think actually, particularly in modern airports, there is some beautiful, atrium-style lighting. Often, you get these giant windows, and if you are there at the right time of day, light will kind of cut across the entire airport, sending these giant shadows and, you know, beautiful colors that are coming off of the horizon. So - and then other times, you are in these dank, fluorescent-lit holes, and you feel like a prisoner. So we wanted to create an arc over the course of the entire film, and this went through all departments, where at the beginning of the film, the world is beautiful, and we are seeing Ryan's version of air world. The lighting is, there's a lot of half-light, there's a lot of contrast, there's a lot of muted colors and tones. We used a lot of wide angles and moving camera. Even the extras were picked because they were kind of more fit and more attractive, and they were - you know, we tailored their clothes better. The production design, there was not a scuff on anything. Everything was shiny and perfect. And over the course of the film, the colors became warmer, and the shooting became more handheld and long-lens, and the film stock was grainier, and even the extras were picked because they were sloppier.

GROSS: You also have some great aerial shots of what you'd see from flying in a plane. How did you get those?

Mr.�REITMAN: Well, you know, I wanted to see the world from two perspectives: one from 20,000 feet in the air, and the other one, the world is two inches away from your face and nothing really in between. You know, I think that's the way that Ryan sees the world. He can claim to have been to every city, but he's never actually seen any of them. So the trick is to get footage from that high up. You know, normally when you see aerial footage in a film, it's done at 5,000 feet up, which is helicopter height. No one shoots from up in the sky the way you see outside a plane when you're up, actually up there.

And I figured, you know, we'd just throw a plane up and point a camera down, and it would be as simple as that, but it was a lot trickier, in fact. We tried once with a jet, with a camera shooting down through a little glass dome, but the atmosphere was wrong, and the film grain was wrong, and the optics weren't quite good enough. So we went back up with a propeller plane, but to get it that high, the pilots had to wear oxygen masks, and this time, we put a digital camera on the wing. And then if you can imagine this, the camera would only go down, let's say, 75 degrees. It wouldn't go down 90 degrees to point straight down. So to get it to go straight down, they would then put the plane into a dive, and that is how we got straight-down footage.

GROSS: Wow, that's really a lot of effort. I mean...

Mr.�REITMAN: Yeah, well, look, it's funny because I have been - you know, when I do publicity with my films, I'm often with my actors and we do Q&As, and my actors are asked: What is Jason like to work with? And the line I hear the most is: Well, he knows what he wants.

And it's kind of a funny thing to hear because, you know, in a certain sense that's good. As a director, you do need to know what you want, but it also makes me sound like a persnickety jerk, and I guess, yeah, I knew what I wanted. I had a very specific idea in my head of how the aerial footage needed to look. And it needed to be exquisite, and it is, but it wasn't easy to get.

GROSS: So which were the most exquisite parts of the country to photograph from an aerial view?

Mr.�REITMAN: Oh, I mean, I love the circles. I love the crop circles. I just think they're gorgeous. I love being up in a plane and having a clear day where there's no clouds to obstruct. And I just see the kind of patchwork of America, these squares and circles, and I think they're beautiful. At one point, we caught something, and we never were able to use it in the film. It's actually in the trailer but not in the movie, which was one of these crop circles on fire. And it was just kind of a stunning image.


GROSS: The main character's job in the movie, the character played by George Clooney, is talking to people who've been laid off and he has to...

Mr. REITMAN: He's not talking to them. He's laying them off.

GROSS: He's lay - yes. Right. He's giving them the news and then he tries to convince them that this is actually an opportunity for personal growth, that transitions are great things, that, you know, what's the analogy he always uses, his - the line that he's so proud of?

Mr. REITMAN: This is a rebirth. Oh, oh, the - that anyone who's ever set the world on fire has sat where you're sitting right now.

GROSS: And I mean it's really a lot of hooey, but he kind of knows it's hooey but he kind of believes it too - is the impression I get. But anyways, you started this film in 2003 and this was a few years before the big financial meltdown. So the number of people being laid off increased exponentially, between the time you started the film and the time of the film's release. Were you still working on it when the financial collapse started?

Mr. REITMAN: Yeah. I mean two things happened. One, you know, when I first started writing this script, we were basically in the tail end of an economic boom and I was a guy in my 20s, single, living in an apartment. And by the time I finished writing it, I was married, I had become a father, I had a mortgage and we were in one of the worst recessions on record.

So what started out as a story of a man who simply fired people for a living, and was really a contrarian satire, became a movie about a man who was trying to figure out who and what he wanted in his life.

And in addition to that, I had to cut out all these kind of satirical firing scenes that made sense when I first started writing the movie, but in this moment, don't make any sense. And it's not to say you can't have dark comedy in dark times, you certainly can, but it didn't make sense for this movie. And that, as a director in approaching this film I had to make one big change, and that was how I approached these firings and I wanted to...

GROSS: Tell us the story of how you decided to handle that.

Mr. REITMAN: Yeah. I wanted to treat these firings with as much authenticity as possible. I thought there was enough people who were experiencing this that I didn't want them to watch the movie and think that it was in any way fake and not paying tribute to what, you know, a million people have kind of experienced in the last year.

So I reached out into the community - and we were shooting in St. Louis and Detroit, which were two cities that really got hit hard in this country. And I was location scouting and I was constantly confronted by these abandoned buildings. You know, one of the reasons we shot in St. Louis, there was so much - there were so many offices available to shoot in because these were companies that ceased to exist.

And we put an ad out in the paper saying that we were making a documentary about job loss. We did this because I didn't want actors trying to sneak their way into this film. I really wanted people who had - with no on-camera experience, who wanted to lend their story. I got a stack of responses from which we picked 60 people to go on film, 22 of which, who are in the finished movie.

They would show up for an interview where we'd sit them down at a table. And by this point they knew were in a movie. You know, we weren't, you know, lying to them at this point. And we would interview them about what it's like to lose their job in this kind of economy, how did they find out, who did they tell first, how has it affected their live?

And once we realized that they were comfortable on camera, we would tell them that we wanted to actually fire them on camera. And we wanted them to respond with whatever they said the day they lost their job, or if they preferred, what they wished they had said. And this would begin an unusual improv scene.

And look, I'm a director. My job is to get people to be honest on camera. And I know how hard that actually can be, even with trained professionals. But what I saw was astonishing. These 22 people who, again, had no on-camera experience would start to use sense memory. We would read them this document that I had gotten from a friend I know who works in HR, that was a kind of boilerplate firing document.

And when they would hear the legal verbiage in it, they would start to recognize the kind of language they had heard the day they lost their job, and they would immediately change. They would - their body language would change, their eyes would turn. One girl broke out into hives, visibly, and they would begin to say the kinds of things that I would never think to write as a writer, and they would act in a way that...

GROSS: Like what? Like what?

Mr. REITMAN: You know, the one that really stands out - and this is in the film - was a guy who said - he started questioning the interviewer saying, what are you going to do this weekend? You have money in your bank? You got gas in your gas tank? You going to take your kids out to Chuck E. Cheese?

When I think of Chuck E. Cheese, I think of a less-than-mediocre pizza restaurant with a guy in a rat costume. I've never in my life thought of it as a luxury and I could've never written that down without thinking I was trying to be cute in some way. But when he said it, it was incredibly honest and it was heartbreaking. And people see this guy and they think he's the best actor in the movie.

GROSS: Yeah. I thought he was a really good actor. I didn't realize...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...until afterwards that he was actually unemployed. I mean that he'd lost his job and that's why he was there.

So, you know, you said that you read - the people who had actually been fired - you read them this boilerplate document that shows you how to go about firing somebody. Do remember the language in that document?

Mr. REITMAN: Um... Yeah. Look, I couldn't recite it verbatim, but it basically spoke to the idea that it's nobody's fault and that, you know, this was merely a function of the economy and the time, and that they hadn't been picked out for any reason that was personal. And it's strangely cruel in its lack of specificity.


GROSS: Now, George Clooney stars in your film and he's so much fun to watch in it. Was it hard to get him to be in the film? I mean he's so in - he's in three movies right now. He's in your film "Up in the Air." He's in "Fantastic Mr. Fox." He's in "Men Who Stare at Goats." So I think everybody wants him. Was it hard to get him?

Mr. REITMAN: In the end, no. Certainly, while I was writing this movie, and I wrote with him in mind, I never was arrogant enough to presume he would be in the film because he does get 20 screenplays a day. But it got to a point where I was almost finished with the screenplay and his agent knew that I was writing it for him.

And he called me one day and said how's it going? I said oh, I'm really close and I'm going to Italy with my wife on vacation and I'll send you the script probably right before I leave or right when I get back. It'll be one of the two. And he says well if you're going to Italy, you've got to go see George. And I said I don't know. That doesn't really seem like a good idea, you know...

GROSS: He lives in Italy?

Mr. REITMAN: Yeah. And I thought what if he hates the script, or you know, why don't I just - I'll send it to you when it's done and if he likes it, you know, I'll get my chance to meet... And he said no - his agent said no. You're crazy. You got to go see him. He loves to see... He loves having visitors. You got to definitely go spend time with him. I said well look, I'll just make sure I get you the script before and if he really wants to meet me while I'm there, I'll go down and see him.

So at this point, you know, I'm in Italy with my wife and I call George's agent. I said so, should we drop by? He said yes, yes. Go spend a few days with him. Here's the address. Go see him. He read the script. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Just go. So my wife and I go to George's house. We get there and one of the first things George asks me is, so what are you working on these days?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REITMAN: I said it's a screenplay. It's called "Up in the Air." Oh yeah. Yeah. I, yeah, Brian talked - I got to read that. I got to find it. I know it's somewhere around here. I'm going to read that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REITMAN: I thought, oh no. And I think he was just as terrified as I was. You know? Now I'm staying at his house, wondering what he's going to think of my screenplay; and he's thinking, oh great, I got this guy in my house. What if I hate his screenplay and, you know, I got to lie about it or kick him out? And for two days I just spent my time trying to impress George Clooney, trying to man up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REITMAN: You know, at one point he asked me to play basketball with him. You know, I'm Jewish, I haven't played basketball since eighth grade. I say yes. Of course. Certainly. He played college basketball. And at one point he wanted to, you know, he was like, let's drink tonight and I never drink and, of course, you know, he pulls out four bottles of wine for the three of us and I'm surprised I didn't die that night.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REITMAN: But after two days of wondering, he walked into the room that my wife and I were staying in and he just said - I just read it. It's great. I'm in.

GROSS: Oh. Wow.

Mr. REITMAN: It was as simple as that and it was a life-changing moment. It was, you know, I was about to work with a movie star now, for the first time in my life, a guy who was - couldn't be more perfect for this role. And the next thing he said was, I can tell that people are going to draw comparisons between my persona and this role and I'm ready to stare them straight in the eyes. And that was the last conversation we ever, oddly, had about that.

GROSS: And by the connections, he means that this is a character who has intentionally cut ties, is intentionally alone, and people will think that that's Clooney's life - or that it was Clooney's life.

Mr. REITMAN: I think he was aware that people would presume that this was some sort of self-examination on his part.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. REITMAN: And we didn't even really get into whether or not it was. But it was encouraging that he was ready to do that and make a film in which that is what people were going to talk about. And it was a movie where he was going to be forced to be vulnerable in a way he had never been on camera before -vulnerable romantically.

I mean this is a man who has made a career out of always being cool, always being in control. And over the last few years, he's shown vulnerability in different ways - in "Michael Clayton," in particular - in which he was brilliant in. But this would be the first time in which he would be vulnerable to a woman, that we'd see him in a scene in which he shows incredible longing.

And I suppose I thought, well, this is going to be - that's the day I'm really going to really have to direct him and I'm going to have to yank this performance out of him. And we got to that day and I told him that this is the day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REITMAN: And this is the moment, and on take two he just gave it to me.

GROSS: Did you shoot him differently in that vulnerable scene - that we won't go into because we don't want to give away the story - but...?

Mr. REITMAN: You know, not really. I mean I shot it, you know, the camera was a little lower looking up at him, but not really. You know, he wears the same suit in the entire movie and that presents an interesting challenge. You know, he has the same hair. He has the same look. He never wears makeup so it's not as if you're going to, kind of, adjust how his face looks. So George Clooney is George Clooney and it's really up to him. But he's very good at articulating himself in very subtle specific ways.

GROSS: People are really curious about, like, how product placement works in movies now. Where, like, you see a certain brand of a product, and what happens often is that the - that company has paid to have their product in the movie. Now I know that American Airlines has kind of partnered with you on the movie and that they let you use some of their facilities. Is that a product placement thing or something different?

Mr. REITMAN: Well, American Airlines actually gave us no money. What we did was - it was a bit of a trade - that they gave us access to their gates and their check-in counters. They even flew in a 757 for us to fly on, which is unheard of. When you shoot a plane in a movie, you're always on what's called a mock-up which is fuselage that's on a stage and we were shooting on an actual plane half the time. And in trade, you know, Ryan exclusively flies American.

I thought a lot about this because I'm as sensitive as anyone else is to product placement in the film, and I really did not want my film to come off as some sort of shill. But the truth is, Ryan's greatest friend on Earth is his airline. He knows American and Hertz and Hilton closer than he knows any individual person. And this is the world we live in, where we are surrounded by logos, because I had the choice to actually make it fictitious. But if it was a fictitious named airline like Sunshine Airlines or something like this, all of a sudden the movie is a satire, it doesn't take place in the real world, and I wanted this film to be set in reality. And American ended up being this wonderful partner to us. I mean, one, you know, they flew us everywhere we shot. And they gave us the chance to create a sense of reality. And you know, most notably, got us in to shoot the TSA. I mean, I said earlier that we were the first film to ever shoot in the real security checkpoints in airports. And part of that reason is American Airlines paved the way for us.

GROSS: The downside of them flying you everywhere is you probably got no miles for those flights.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REITMAN: Terry, I'm slowly falling in love with you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But you didn't, right?

Mr. REITMAN: No, you're absolutely right. That's exactly right. The frustration of getting free flights is you don't get miles, and one of the reasons I don't use my miles to travel is when you use your miles to travel, you don't get miles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, boy.

Mr. REITMAN: But you're the first person, I - honestly, you know, if I wasn't married, I might be off to LAX after this, getting a flight to Philadelphia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: We could just fly all the time. That would end the marriage - it would end the relationship immediately.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I have such a hard time flying. So the last time we spoke, which was the first time we spoke, you had just made "Juno." Our listeners hadn't seen it yet because it was just on the verge of opening. That film was so popular and so acclaimed. How did "Juno" change your life?

Mr. REITMAN: "Juno" changed my life a lot. Frankly, I made "Juno" for NPR listeners, you know? I made it for people who have an appreciation of kind of independent cinema, and I thought people who go to film festivals would like it. But it was supposed to be a small movie, a movie we made for $7 million up in Vancouver, and everyone saw it. That's a very unusual thing for me. I really never saw that for my career, and particularly on that film. It made it easier for me to make my next movie. You know, certainly going into "Up in the Air" there were really no questions. They just said yes, we're making this. I get offers to do movies that I really should not direct. I'm kind of blown away by the kinds of movies they will offer you, sci-fi films, horror films, giant effects movies, purely based on the fact that my last movie made money. It's not to say that I'm incapable of making those films, but it's hard to think that you would look at "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno" and then offer that director a superhero film. But it's happened, more than once. I got to go to the Oscars.


Mr. REITMAN: That's something that I dreamt of my entire childhood and I hoped one day I'd be lucky to do. Certainly I didn't think it would happen as early as it did. I got to take my father to the Oscars. You know, my father, who is 63, and has made, you know, dozens of movies, had never been to the Oscars. And I got to take him as my date.

GROSS: Your new movie, "Up in the Air," ends with a song that sounds like it was sent to you because it's - the song starts with the songwriter saying, Hi Jason, here's a song I wrote hoping that you'd use in your movie. And I think he says that he was laid off too. What's the story behind that recording?

Mr. REITMAN: Yeah, it wasn't sent. It was actually handed to me. I was speaking at a university in St. Louis. And I should say that I'm used to teenagers sending me songs at this point because of "Juno," hoping that I'll use them in movies. But this is the first time a guy in his 50s handed me a song. And he gave me a cassette tape, actually, which presented one problem and that was -how do I listen to this? And we found a car with a cassette deck and we put on the song and there he was. There was his voice, Kevin, talking to me, saying, Hey Jason, which is kind of strange.

And he explained the situation, that he had lost his job and that he had written a song about what it's like to search for a purpose on a daily basis. And what followed wasn't the greatest song ever written. It was beautiful. Most importantly it was authentic. And for the same reason that it was important for me to use these real people who had lost their jobs to act in the film, it became very important for me to include this song in the credits. A voice of a group of people that I rarely hear from, and here was a guy singing in an honest, authentic way about what it's like to search for purpose.

And this was the question that I heard most when I talked to the real people who are in this film. If you would ask me at the beginning of this process, what is the hardest part about losing your job in this type of economy, I would have probably said your loss of income. I mean, I made a movie about white collar people who went college and went after a career and in the middle of their life had their job taken away from them, usually in a city where there was zero opportunity. But no one actually brought that up, not a person that we interviewed said, I don't know where to find money.

Everyone would say, I don't know what I'm supposed to do; when this interview is over, I'm going to get in my car and I don't know where I'm supposed to go. I can't imagine what it's like to wake up every morning not understanding my purpose in life, particularly when I've been following it for, you know, 40, 50 years. And here was a guy who articulated it perfectly, and that made the song necessary.

GROSS: Jason Reitman, thank you so much.

Mr. REITMAN: Oh, it's a pleasure.

GROSS: It's been a pleasure to talk with you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REITMAN: No, the pleasure was all mine.

GROSS: Jason Reitman directed the new film, "Up in the Air," starring George Clooney. He also directed "Juno" and "Thank You for Smoking."

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