I've been anxiously anticipating Jason Reitman's third film, Up in the Air, from the moment I first read about the project. With George Clooney on board I was practically giddy, so imagine how excited I was to have the opportunity to talk to the director himself when he stopped in San Francisco during his promotional tour.
The film is one of the many buzz-worthy December movies, and it opens in limited release this Friday. Reitman talked about everything from Clooney to the economy to how he handles garnering so much acclaim for his first three films. Here are the highlights:
- On traveling: I love travel and there’s a reason I started doing this movie — even when I started doing commercials I’ve been a psychotic frequent flier, so I enjoy it. I enjoy having the itinerary, going to the airport, I enjoy the being nowhere and unplugging which being on an airplane allows you to do.
- On whether or not he fell victim to one of Clooney's pranks: No, there wasn’t, I’m sorry I wish I had a better story. But we were making a movie at the end of the day. And it was a shorter shot — maybe he’s used to these Ocean movies where they have time for fun, but we were hauling ass, so no fun stories.
To see what Jason had to say about working with his father, Ivan Reitman, and how he's grown since making Juno, just
- On whether he intended to make a film about the current state of the economy: No. First of all, it’s based on a book, so I found the book seven years ago and I started adapting it and it basically took me six years to write, and I never intended to make a movie about the economy. The economy doesn’t interest me as much as [it's] just sort of a backdrop or metaphor for human connection, which was more important to me and that’s what I wanted to tell a story about. But certainly as the world changed and we went from an economic boom to one of the worst recessions on record, I had to take it seriously and scenes that were originally humorous were scenes that I had to make authentic and real and dramatic. And that’s why I started to use real people for people who’ve lost their jobs, people who actually lost their job instead of actors. I never wanted to be Michael Moore, as much as I respect him as a filmmaker. He has a tendency to try to give you answers and try to push people to believe something, and my point of view is to push people to be as open-minded as possible and not judge, so I think I have agenda-less films and hopefully they act more as a mirror so you simply see yourself in it.
- On using "anti-heroes" in his films: I don’t know why I'm drawn to anti-heroes but I certainly am, I made three films. The first one [Thank You For Smoking] is about the head lobbyist for a big tobacco, second one’s [Juno] about a pregnant teenager, and the third one’s about a guy who fires people for a living. So for whatever reason I guess I’m somewhat contrary and I enjoy humanizing tricky characters. There was a line in the Thank You For Smoking book that said working for Greenpeace is easy, working for the Red Cross is easy, try working for big tobacco — that’s a job. And I can’t help but think the same way to a certain extent about filmmaking. Humanizing good people is kind of boring and I don’t really see the value in it. Showing romance of two people who are just kind of charming and deserve each other, what’s the work in that, what’s the value in that? Humanizing tricky characters for me is exhilarating and making audience films out of indie subjects excites me. At the end of the day I don’t know why I’m drawn to it.
- On why Up in the Air is more deeply personal than his previous films: Each one of my movies is addressing a question I have for myself. Thank You For Smoking was about being libertarian and having a heart at the same time, Juno was about the moment you decide to grow up and it was personal for me. I had a child right before I started Juno and I felt like I was going through all the character’s experience and I was constantly drawing on my own emotions while making that film, but this was a script that I wrote over six years, and six very important years. When I first started writing I was single, I was a commercial director, I basically had zero life responsibility, and over six years I became a feature film director, I got married, I have a beautiful daughter, and I started to learn what was important in life, at least for me. And when I first read the script (because I would never go back and reread I would just go forward over those years), so five years in when I finally went back and read it, it was like watching myself grow up and watching myself re-evaluate what was important to me and I could watch my own sophistication change. So to have a film that speaks to so many questions I have, and perhaps the most important question of all — where do you find purpose in life and what do you want in your life, who and what do you want to play your life with? That makes it exceedingly personal, and you never know, maybe two years from now I’ll say this was the most important film, but I can’t help but think that they are very transformative years in my life and they get encapsulated in this film. You don’t have a question, you just have a camera.
- On other actors he'd like to work with: I really love Laura Linney, I really love Rachel McAdams, love Joan Allen, I love Matt Damon, I think he’s actually really great . . . who else? I like Jonah Hill a lot, I like Seth Rogen. I mean, everyone I’ve worked with is great. Right now it becomes one of those hard things where, do you ever have that thing where you have old friends and you meet someone new, and then you have that new friend then you want to spend all this time with your new friend, but you also want to spend time with your old friends? I think that’s kind of how it is with actors. I got all these actors that I’ve already worked with that I really want to work with again. I worked with Rick Allen again, and Allison Janney, and Anna Kendrick is phenomenal and I want to work with her again, and Danny McBride. And then there’s the new group, and it’s like, if I work with the person I’ve already worked with, it’s like I already know how great they are and I know won’t be disappointed. I do get excited about working with new people.
- On writing roles for actors: It’s kind of cool, I never know if people are going to say yes, there are plenty of people that will certainly say no, but there is a very good chance of them saying yes and that’s an exciting way to work. This movie I wrote for eight of the actors that are in it. It was cool to write for George and for Vera and for Anna and Danny and Zach and J.K, and Bateman, to know that they’re going to show up, it’s a cool feeling to have as you’re writing.
- On working with his father Ivan Reitman for the first time: It's interesting because I avoided working with my dad for a while because I was so sensitive of being accused of the idea of nepotism, and it’s been important to me for so long to establish myself on my own. I remember when I was 19 years old I started a desk calendar company to pay for my first short film just so I could say one day my daddy didn’t pay for my first short film. And I really established myself through the film festival world, starting at Sundance and lots of film festivals and really took on a different style of film from my father and made my first two movies on my own, and really it was once after the second film that I felt, "OK, I think I’ve established myself as a director now and I’m going to go do a movie." But it’s something I’ve been looking forward to because I love my father and we have such a strong bond and I look up to him as a filmmaker and a storyteller, so it was great and when I see the credits and it says produced by Ivan Reitman and Jason Reitman, my heart swells. It’s really really cool.
- On how he's grown as a director: There’s nothing like "Oh, that was the day I learned to do this," it’s more so you just become a more sophisticated filmmaker. I mean, look, the job is this: I have an idea and I want the audience to feel something specific. I want at each moment to articulate something in a way so that I make you laugh here, and make you envious here and I make your heart swell here, romance here, you feel heartbroken here, and as a director you get better and better at nailing those moments specifically. So when I look back at Thank You For Smoking, I see broad strokes but some of the detail work is not as strong as my last film. And that’s just over three films, so my only hope is that as I continue to make more and more films I’ll get better and better at making them, because you make 2,000 decisions a day as a director, sometimes more, even if you’re not even thinking about it, even if you’re responding to something. So you just become better at making these tiny, tonal decisions that if you add them up almost like a binary thing, they amount to the feelings so that when the joke happens or the line happens or the moment happens or when the song comes in, the audience feels it right there.
- On handling success and awards show buzz: Well look, first of all it’s wonderful. And film festivals are really how I establish myself as a director, and I counted on them to give me legitimacy. So when a film festival honors me it really hits home for me, and as far as moving forward — I never a make a movie with the intention of some sort of award or nomination or whatever it is. I really just try to tell movies that are in my heart and I know when I respond to something — I read a book or an article or something and I have an instinctual response to it and I just try to follow that all the way through and I’ve been lucky. So far, [I've made] three movies people seem to like, but there’s a bad one waiting around the corner for me. Honestly, it happens. And my hope is that as long as I make movies for the right reasons, the ones that fail won’t hurt as much as if I made a movie for the wrong reasons, like I made it for money or something big, then I imagine the failing would hurt more.