Film Director Interview
December 10, 2009
Director Jason Reitman once said, “If you’re going to make a movie about a guy who fires people for a living and wants to live alone, he better be a darn charming actor.” Such reasoning is precisely why Reitman chose George Clooney to star in his latest film, Up in the Air, based loosely on the novel written by Walter Kirn.
Reitman, who directed both Juno and Thank You for Smoking, has produced, written and directed yet another unique film that is beyond genre; a film that is both serious and funny. Its main character, Ryan Bingham, is a provocative anti-hero, a character-type common in Reitman films. Ryan is a corporate downsizer who can pack his life into one wheel-away suitcase. He has no real home and no wife or kids to tie him down.
He travels from city to city via airplane to fire employees of companies that would rather not do the firing themselves. However, when efficiency expert Natalie Keener presents a budget-cutting idea that involves firing people over remote video conferencing, Ryan’s lifestyle of living on the road becomes threatened.
The plot of the film revolves around the idea that all of the things meant to bring us together, such as machine-mediated conversations, have driven us apart, which begs the question, how do we get back to lasting conversations that American communities had in the past? Thus, “the script grew into being about how imperative connections are in our daily lives,” Reitman said.
While the film’s underlying theme is somewhat thought provoking, it is greatly affected by the more tangible idea of job loss, an issue presently affecting most Americans. The news presents countless statistics to the public so often that the issue of unemployment has been dehumanized and has become nothing more than the background noise of family dinners and late-night web browsing.
Up in the Air puts real faces to the statistics we hear, literally. Rather than cast professional actors to play the roles of the employees being fired, Reitman and Co. visited Detroit and St. Louis, two cities hit the hardest by the economy’s downfall, to interview real people that had lost their jobs.
“We put an ad out in the paper saying we were making a documentary about job loss,” Reitman said. “For about 10 minutes we’d interview each person and ask them, ‘How did you lose your job? What is it like to be searching for work in this economy? How is it affecting your daily search for purpose?’ And, once they felt comfortable on camera, we’d say, ‘Now we’d like to fire you on camera. And we’d like you to say whatever you said the day you lost your job or, if you prefer, what you wish you had said.’ This would begin another 10-minute kind of improv scene where they would say all kinds of astonishing things that I’d never have thought to write… Detroit was particularly tough. In Detroit all the people kept saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.’”
Reitman discovered that it’s the feeling of a lack of purpose that hits people the hardest rather than the loss of income, and he does an impressive job of reflecting this concept in his film. After all, there is no need to state the obvious. Had he focused on the money aspect of job loss, the film would be nowhere near as effective as it is. It is the concept of purpose that once again re-focuses our attention on how the economy is affecting those around us.
Reitman talked about how if a 20-year-old loses their job it’s not that big of a deal. They can pick themselves right back up and find another position elsewhere. But if a 50-year-old just a few years away from retirement loses their job, they have been ripped away from the foundation of their lifestyle and basically have no idea where or how to start fresh. They did everything right; worked hard in college to get a degree, worked their way up from the bottom to get the position they had and provide for the family they started. Then, all of a sudden, they lose it all when a man hired to fire them does the dirty deed; a deed that the company they worked for was too meek to do themself.
If it weren’t for the film’s outstanding cast, the message it projects may not have reached as far as it already has. Starring in the film alongside George Clooney are the compelling Vera Farmiga, who plays Alex, and the unique Anna Kendrick, who plays Natalie. Both Alex and Natalie’s characters were non-existent in the original novel, but are pertinent to the development of Ryan Bingham’s character in the film. After meeting the eccentric and intelligent Alex in an elite airport lounge, Ryan begins to question his previous belief that relationships are a burden and begins to play the possible future-husband role in her life, while having Natalie accompany him on the road prompts him to play a father role in her life.
Aside from a deeply moving story, intelligent concepts and George Clooney, Up in the Air also has a beautiful soundtrack, including songs by Elliott Smith, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. Accompanying these famed names is the unknown musician Kevin Renick, a man who handed Reitman a cassette tape containing a song titled “Up in the Air,” a song he wrote about job loss after he was fired. The song occurs at the end of the credits and was almost considered for an Oscar nomination, but was disregarded once it was realized that the song did not fit within certain guidelines.
A film about job loss may seem like an odd film to release during the holiday season. But when you remember that Reitman, the same guy that directed the heart-warming “Juno” and the corporate satire “Thank You for Smoking,” also directed this film starring the ever-charming George Clooney, you’ll feel motivated to see one of the most talked about films of the season, not to mention a film that is getting Oscar nods left and right. Up in the Air will be in theaters on Dec. 23.