Sunday, August 07, 2011

Interview with Jason Reitman - 18th October, 2009

Promoting: Up in the Air
Venue: The Mayfair Hotel, London
Interview type: Press conference

Question (Q): The film's based on a book, isn't it? If I read the book, would I recognise it in the film?

Jason Reitman (JR): Yes and no. The book is about a man who fires people for a living, this man Ryan, who obsessively collects Air Miles, but if I had directed the book exactly as it was, these two lovely ladies next to me (co-stars Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick) would not be here, because their characters are not in the book.

Q: That sounds like a considerable difference. So the book was source material but you were then able to fly with it, as it were, to take it beyond whatever's on the page?

JR: The way I use source material is, I kind of see it as a toolbox. Usually there's a story that I want to tell and I'm looking for the right words and I'll read a book, I'll read an article and suddenly it'll just be the language that I've been looking for to say something that I've needed to say or ask something that I've been meaning to ask and at that point it just becomes a toolbox of ideas that I can either follow literally or sometimes I take someone's dialogue and give it to someone else or, in this case, I really took the main character who – I liked his occupation, I liked his life philosophy and from there I built the plot around him to ask the questions that I wanted to ask.

Q: I read that you wrote the role of Ryan with George Clooney in mind. Is that correct?

JR: Yeah, I wrote the role with him in mind and with Vera and Anna in mind too. It's easier for me to write when I know who I'm writing for – that's often how I identify the voice of the character. I had met Vera before and seen many of her films and I knew the things that she was able to do that no other actress is capable of doing and it was because she's able to walk that very fine line of being aggressive and feminine at the same time that I was able to write Alex the way I did. It was because I saw Anna in Rocket Science and knew the kind of sparkling brilliance of her mind and how fast she is that I was able to write Natalie the way I did. And look, if you're going to make a movie about a guy who fires people for a living and you still want to like him, that actor had better be damn charming and I don't think there's a more charming actor alive than George Clooney. I was just very lucky he said yes.

Q: What would have happened if you'd written it with him in mind and he'd said no? Do you then go to a Clooney clone? A George Cloney?

JR: I don't think there is such a thing? I'd have probably just ended my career right there and then. The story is actually kind of funny – I'd been writing it for six years and I told his agent, 'Look, I'm about a week away or a month away from finishing it, but in the middle of that I'm going to Italy on vacation with my wife' and he said, 'Well, if you're going to be in Italy, you should just go see him!' And I said, 'That sounds like an awful idea. I don't want to go see him if he hates my screenplay' and he's like, 'No, no, no, just go, he'll love to see you'. So I said, 'Well, look, I'll send him the screenplay and if he enjoys it, then certainly, I'll drop by'. So I get to Italy and I call his agent up and I say, 'Did he like it?' and he said, 'Yeah! Go see him!' 'But did he like the screenplay?' 'Just go, look, here's the address'. So I drive there, I get to his address in Como and one of the first things he says to me is, 'So, what are you working on these days?' I said, 'There's a screenplay, it's called Up in the Air' and he said, 'Oh, I have to find that – I gotta read that' and for two days, my wife and I stayed in his home and I was just trying to prove that I was a man to George Clooney. I played basketball with him, I hadn't done that since eighth grade, I never drink, I tried drinking with George Clooney. He opened four bottles of wine between the three of us, so for an evening I – I don't know how I didn't die of alcohol poisoning and finally, about the end of the second day, he disappeared for a while and, I don't know, he walked into the room and he said, 'I just read it, it's great, I'm in'. And those are words that I feel changed my life and probably one of the greatest moments I'll ever remember from my career.

Q: One of the fun things about the film is that it balances against the darkness of everyone getting fired and then the optimism of these people finding new jobs and kind of the cherry on top of that is the song that came in at the end of the credits. Was that dumb luck? Was that something you were looking for? How did that come about?

JR: That was dumb luck. After Juno, I've gotten kind of used to teenagers sending me songs with the idea that it'll appear in one of my films. But I was speaking at a college in St Louis and a man in his mid-fifties came to me with the song. That was unusual. And he handed me a cassette tape. So, first off, I had to find a place to actually listen to this, but we found a car with a cassette deck and I really was ready for something ridiculous and instead on came this voice, which you know is in the credits now, and he introduced himself, explained how he had lost his job after being there for a decade, decade and a half and he was now in the middle of his life, trying to figure out the purpose of his life and he started singing this song that is not the greatest song ever written, but it's an authentic song. And I guess my feeling was that we're in the middle of one of the worst recessions on record in America and about a million people had lost their jobs in the last year, but we really have no experience of who these people are – they're just often numbers on newspapers' mastheads, percentages – and here was a guy who was able to sing, very authentically, about how he felt about it and I felt what better tribute than to end the movie with it. And I knew, halfway through listening to it that it was going to be in the credits.

Q: One of the pleasures / sadnesses of the movie are the interviews that are conducted by Anna's character and Clooney's character, with apparently real people. How was that done? Obviously J.K. Simmons is an actor, but were some of the others genuine people who had lost their jobs?

JR: Well, when I started writing the screenplay seven years ago, the economy in America was very different – we were basically at the tail end of an economic boom and I decided to write a corporate satire about a man who fired people for a living and I wrote comedic scenes in which people lost their jobs. And by the time it came to shoot this film, it just wasn't funny anymore and I couldn't go about shooting these scenes as written. And we were scouting in St Louis and Detroit and the idea just came to me, that we should try and use real people, so we put an ad out, in the newspaper, in the Help Wanted section, saying we're making a documentary about job loss and we're looking for people who would go on camera and talk about their experience. We had an overwhelming amount of response and we brought in a hundred people and twenty-five are in the finished film. So, outside of the people you recognise, like J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis and Pamela Jones, everyone else who loses their jobs in this movie is a real person who came in and sat down at a table with an interviewer and for about ten minutes answered questions about what it's like to lose your job in an economy where really, there's nothing available and you have to consider some very dire decisions. And then after that we fired them, so 'We'd like to now fire you on camera and we'd like you to either respond the way you did the day you lost your job or, if you prefer, you can say what you wish you had said'. And this would turn into improv scenes in which they would pelt our interviewer with all sorts of questions that he did not know the answer to, about their severance, about why they lost their job instead of Jeff and, you know, it just went on and some people were really angry, some people got emotional and cried, some people were very funny. And I'm so grateful for their participation in the film, because I could have never written the type of things that they said.

Q: You've got a history of writing strong female characters, like with Juno and then this film as well. Do you think there's a shortage of those in Hollywood right now?

JR: Yeah, I think that's why I write them. I like to write original films and I think many of the men's stories have been told and so many of the women's stories haven't and I've fallen in love with many really smart women over the course of my life – the most recent and presumably the last one being my wife – and I enjoy it and I enjoy spending time with my wife talking about these scenes. The best thing I've ever written, I only wrote half of and it's the scene in this movie where Vera and Anna talk about what they look for in a man at each of their ages and the only way I could write that is I asked my wife to have a conversation with herself at 18 about what she looked for in a man and so everything that they say is true to her, which breaks her heart every time she watches it, but I basically laughed at her for five minutes. But no, I enjoy writing for women and I enjoy working with great actresses and I've just been very fortunate, I've made three movies now and throughout all of them, from Maria Bello on Thank You For Smoking and with Ellen and Jennifer on Juno and then not only Anna and Vera on this one but also Amy Morton and Melanie Lynskey, I've just been surrounded by great actresses that I hope I can work with more and more.

Q: You mentioned that you started this script seven years ago and obviously you've had a couple of films come out in between that time – Thank You For Smoking and Juno. Does that mean you put this on the back-burner for a while, while you did Thank You For Smoking? How does the time-line work?

JR: The time-line is that no-one would make Thank You For Smoking and so I started looking for something else to write and direct and I found this book, I fell in love with it and I started writing it and then out of nowhere, a millionaire – one of the creators of PayPal, who had sold PayPal to eBay for one and a half billion dollars with his partners – decided he wanted to make movies, he read my script, he got it from a friend, he called my agent and said, 'Hey, I'd love to make this movie' and he wrote a cheque for six and a half million dollars and made Thank You For Smoking, so all of a sudden, I wasn't writing Up in the Air anymore. I made Thank You For Smoking, went back to writing Up in the Air and then Juno came into my life and was just this irresistible screenplay that I knew if I didn't direct, I would regret for the rest of my life. The interesting thing was that I basically finished the screenplay after Juno and about five years in, I had basically got to the end of the script having never gone back and reread what I'd been writing and as I read from start to finish, I watched myself grow up. You know, over the course of the six years that I wrote the script, I became a professional director, I bought a home, I got married, I became a father and I watched myself in the first act be kind of a cynical guy in his 20s who was really just a satirist and then over the six years I became, I don't know, a bit more sophisticated as a writer and I also realised at least what was important in my own life and that really changed Ryan's journey as I continued to write.

Q: There are lots of real-life locations in the film, including several different airports. Did that present any particular challenges?

JR: Oh, it's a total pain in the ass. Shooting in airports is very difficult and we shot in four international airports. There was actually a fair amount of access and because American Airlines was our partner in this film, basically our trade was that they were our airline and they gave us access to all their check-in gates as well as their departure gates, but still, all the actors had to go through security every day, on the way to the set. And I think they would, on purpose, put George through as much security as humanly possible. I'm surprised he didn't get pat down every time he went through. And you know, we can't bring our own food in there, we have to bring in our own electricity, we have to bring in our own wire for our generators through an airport – it was really tricky.

Q: Anna Kendrick says that she thought you hated her after her audition. Why did she think that?

JR: Well, one, I'm a mean guy, but two... I wrote the role for Anna and Anna auditioned against thirty of the best actresses of her generation. I needed to know that she could actually do it – I basically saw her in one movie. I thought, 'Oh, she's great, but I need to see her actually read the lines.' And when she came in, I didn't want her to get psyched out by saying, 'Hey, I wrote this role for you' because then she'd probably freak out and not be comfortable, because then it would be kind of hers to lose, but since I'm a horrible actor myself, in trying not to show that I was already a huge fan of hers, I probably wasn't as nice as I could have been. It's kind of like when you meet a pretty girl but you don't want to show her that you think she's pretty, so you're trying to act as straight as possible and then you're not acting like yourself and then pretty soon you're acting like a jerk.

Q: I just wanted to tell you how much everyone enjoyed the film. When Anna gets dumped by text and Clooney says the line “I guess it's kind of like firing someone over the internet”, the whole cinema was in stitches.

JR: That brings up something worth mentioning and that is that this is the first film that my father (Ivan Reitman) and I have actually worked on together. I'd avoided doing that with the first two, because I wanted to make a name for myself and once I'd made a couple of films there was nothing that would make me more proud. Now, my father wrote one line in this movie and that line is “Oh, it's kind of like firing people online”. It's a MONSTER line, it gets applause every time the movie plays. If the reaction to that is a ten, the next biggest reaction to a line is a four. So, I don't know, I'm a little jealous, but it's a really proud moment for me. It's as if he's a baseball player, he can just, like show up and go, 'Oh, you want me to hit one? Sure, I'll hit one' and then he knocks it out of the park.

Q: One of the pleasures for film fans is when well known actors turn up in tiny roles. You mentioned JK Simmons, who has a very unselfish cameo and also you had Sam Elliott in the film. How much explanation do they need?

JR: Well, once I gave them a great role, like the ones I gave to Vera and Anna, I presume that on the next film they'll come in free and do three or four lines of dialogue each. No, I invited all of them to come in and do those roles and they've all been very gracious and have done them. I try and keep strong relationships with them so that when I ask they come back and do these roles. When I started my career, my biggest goal was I want to be a director that actors want to work with. Actors make movies, not only fiscally but they make them work and I just knew that the only way I'd ever be a successful director in the way that I want to be a film-maker would be if good actors actually wanted to work with me. And I'm slowly working my way towards that and I look at people like Sam Elliott, who would show up for a day and do that role and that makes me more proud than anything.

Q: Could you talk about your choice of music in your films? Is that drawn out of your personal taste? What was the case with Up in the Air?

JR: I start up an iTunes library while I'm writing the screenplay and I'm very specific about music and there are some very personal things for me. I originally thought this movie was all going to be done to Hank Williams music and then I got into the edit and realised I was wrong and I started moving into kind of folk music, but yeah, it's very personal for me.


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