Filed in: Director Series

Defying Conventional Expectations in Up in the Air

December 17, 2009 01:43 | By
Jason Reitman on the set of <i>Up in the Air</i>

Jason Reitman on the set of Up in the Air

With his earlier films Juno and Thank You for Smoking, Oscar-nominated director Jason Reitman established himself as a smart, imaginative and wry storyteller with a penchant for provocative anti-heroes that defy conventional expectations. With his latest offering, Up in the Air, based on Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel of the same title, Reitman continues along the same lines with another off-beat protagonist, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate downsizer who has remained happily airborne, coldly efficient and decidedly uncommitted for years. But just as Bingham is about to reach his coveted 10 million frequent flyer miles and finally make a connection with a passionate female business traveler, his prized life in the air is threatened. Aided by the creative talents of his regular below-the-line collaborators, Reitman has created a subtly humorous and deeply human story that is grounded in reality.

Below the Line: What attracted you to the book?

Jason Reitman: I was trying to make Thank You For Smoking. No one would finance that film. I was searching for something else. I happened to be in a bookstore.

There it was, sitting on the counter with a Christopher Buckley quote on top. I loved that it had a very tricky character to humanize, a man who fired people for a living, who believed in the idea of loneliness. It was also about something I hold dear—collecting air miles.

BTL: You’ve known cinematographer Eric Steelberg for years, working on Juno and short films before that. What makes for such a successful collaboration?

Reitman: Like any good relationship, communication is key. We know how to talk to each other.

We’re both artists who want to disappear and let the story be the only thing visible. We don’t do cool shots. Everything serves the story. I think most cinematographers want to be flamboyant.

It’s rare to get a DP who cares so much about the story that he doesn’t want to step in its way.

I’m a similar director.

If there’s one thing we do best, it’s that we keep each other honest. At the end of the day, the idea is to move people. Sometimes you need a devastating image to move people. Sometimes you need the camera to disappear. Our collaboration resulted in evocative imagery like Bingham standing in front of the window looking at the plane. That image burns into your memory. It was automatically the film’s poster. Then there are dialog scenes where you don’t notice the camera because you are lost in what people were saying.

BTL: What is your process with Eric?

Reitman: He reads the screenplay. We talk about it, look over photo books, watch movies together. We go to the sets. We each bring a camera and start taking photos of how we could potentially shoot this thing. We’re always having conversations about tone, about what you’re supposed to be feeling in any given scene.

BTL: How do you shape the story with editor Dana E. Glauberman, another continuing professional relationship?

Reitman: When I first send footage to Dana, I give her zero notes. I don’t want to push her in any direction. I want her natural reaction to the footage. Often she cuts a scene in a way I never intended, but it’ll be perfect. I literally won’t change a frame. When working with people, I think it’s best to allow them to express their instincts at first. When I get into the editing room, there is zero ego. We know each other so well—she’s like my work wife. We get along great. There are times when I jump on the Avid. For the most part, I watch and try to offer perspective to everything she’s cutting. We start at the beginning of the film and work our way to the end.

We get the movie working without music, and then we treat ourselves. It seems like a gift. It’s too easy cutting to music.

Music makes everything good. You make the movie as good as you can, then add music and let it sing.

George Clooney in <em>Up in the Air</em>

George Clooney in Up in the Air

BTL: You’ve worked with production designer Steve Sakland on all your features. What challenges occurred designing for numerous locations in different states?

Reitman: Steve and I worked on an arc from the beginning of the film all the way to the end.

This was how we worked in all departments. The beginning of the film was through Bingham’s eyes where we’d see the world, the airport world in particular, as beautiful. Locations were picked because they were gorgeous. The production design was spotless and gleaming, shiny and beautiful.

The cinematography used wide-angle lenses, lots of moving shots, crisp lighting and muted colors. The costume design, everything was tailored and fit perfectly. Extras were chosen because they were in better shape and cleaner looking.

Over the course of the film, things become real. The camera work was more handheld and used long lenses. Colors shifted to warmer tones. Extras were picked because they were sloppier. Costumes were floppier. In the production design, you begin to notice the dents in things, that life isn’t perfect. This arc took us from Ryan’s version of reality, to reality as it exists. Since this movie is an awakening for the character, we wanted all departments to work towards that theme together.

BTL: Who contributed the most to making the shoot run smoothly?

Reitman: I rely heavily on first AD, Jason Blumenfeld, who I’ve worked with on commercials and all my movies. It’s like having a second brain inside my head. He’s extraordinarily personable, very gifted at moving a set, and thinks about everything that I don’t, which allows me to just work on creative issues.

He earned himself an associate producer credit, because he was invaluable.

BTL: You originally worked with Rolfe Kent on Thank You For Smoking. What attracts you to his music?

Reitman: Rolfe is the only composer working today that I know of, who does exactly what he does, which is extraordinarily subtle comedy. There are a lot of composers doing drama, a lot do good orchestral, some do quirky music and others do broad and romantic comedy music, but between his work with me, Alexander Payne and a couple of others, Rolfe has almost found his own genre—subtle comedy that does not tell the audience what to think. Jerry Goldsmith was able to do that with a 100- piece orchestra. Rolfe’s genius is that he’s able to do it with two instruments.

BTL: Did anyone else go above and beyond?

Reitman: Costume designer Danny Glicker, who did Thank You For Smoking and who is coming off of an Oscar nomination for Milk, is brilliant. We had to create a character that lived out of a roll-away suitcase, who looked amazing all the time, who wears the same suit the entire movie, and who is surrounded by an authentic corporate world—a world business America knows inside out, including workplace, travel, and most importantly, convention attire. It needed to be perfect because if it were half a percent off, people would call bullshit on us! Danny captured the exact look. We were not satirizing, but simply being truthful. George Clooney, this 5,000-kilowatt star, could also blend in.

I love Steven Morrow, my production sound guy. I’m not sure I can speak to anything amazing, except for the fact that we were shooting around airports. It sounds good, despite all the planes flying by throughout the dialog.

I should also mention that supervising location manager John Latenser got us into four international airports.

One fifth of the shooting days were on airplanes or in airports. He got us an American Airlines 757 to shoot on instead of a mock-up.

We were the first film to shoot in real airport security checkpoints. When you see a security checkpoint in a movie, you’re seeing people walk through a metal detector set-up at a convention center or hotel hallway.

We shot from 10:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m., when no flights were going through. It was exhilarating, using the real thing with real officers. That is a tribute to the great work.

George Clooney (left) and Jason Reitman (right) on the set of <em>Up in the Air</em>

George Clooney (left) and Jason Reitman (right) on the set of Up in the Air