Director Jason Reitman was recently in London to talk about his latest film, Up in the Air, which stars George Clooney as a traveling consultant who fires people for a living. Famous for directing films like Juno and Thank You For Smoking, here Reitman talks airport security, firing people on camera and playing basketball with George Clooney.
I read that you wrote the role of Ryan with George Clooney in mind. Is that correct?
Yeah, I wrote the role with him in mind and with Vera [Farmiga] and Anna [Kendrick] 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.
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?
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.
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 [also called Up in the Air]. Was that dumb luck? Was that something you were looking for? How did that come about?
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.
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?
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.
There are lots of real life locations in the film, including several different airports. Did that present any particular challenges?
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.