“Up in the Air” director Jason Reitman does not want you to judge his characters. Oddly enough, Reitman, in most of his films, chooses main characters to whom the audience initially wants to do just that — a tobacco lobbyist, a pregnant teen — and in “Up in the Air,” a guy who fires people for a living.
Blast got a chance to sit down with Reitman about why he finds himself drawn to such unlikable characters like UITA’s Ryan Bingham (George Clooney).
“I think a lot of people will come in ready to vilify the guy,” Reitman said. “But I’m used to making movies about characters that are normally vilified. I have the most charming actor on earth, so I’m not as worried about people being ready to hate him. I seem to be drawn to tricky characters that I like to humanize.”
Reitman spoke candidly about his film as he absentmindedly removed and replaced his beanie, fidgeting with his chin-length salt-and-pepper hair. This is the third film on which Reitman has been both writer and director, and he revealed that he had specific actors in mind before he even started the writing process, many for which this will be their first big role.
“I wrote eight of the characters in this film for the actors specifically,” Reitman said. “I find it a lot easier to write once I know the voice of the character.”
One of these characters was spunky do-gooder Natalie Keener, played by 24-year-old Anna Kendrick. Kendrick’s performance has generated a lot of Oscar buzz.
“I’d seen her in ‘Rocket Science,'” Reitman said, “and in that saw a girl so different from everyone of her generation with such an articulate, pointed way of speaking. A know-it-all who is like many of the girls I’ve fallen in love with in my life, who are always kind of the smartest girl in the room and who are frustrated by their own brilliance. And that’s exactly who she is.”
Another hand-picked actor was Vera Farmiga, who plays Alex Goran, possibly the most unlikable character. In her biggest role to date, Farmiga plays a foxy 30-something to George Clooney’s debonaire 40-something. Reitman said that with the character of Alex, he needed an actress who could accept the character at face-value.
“What I liked about Vera is that she doesn’t judge her characters,” Reitman said. “I was portraying a very specific woman. A woman in her late 30s who is going through kind of a mid-life crisis. I needed a woman who could be as masculine as she was feminine, completely in control of her sexuality and not judge what happens from the beginning to the end of the film.”
Another of Reitman’s chosen actors was one he’s used many times before — J.K. Simmons. Simmons has figured prominently in most of Reitman’s films, but in this, he plays a man who’s just been laid off. But don’t let the size of the role fool you — it’s one of the most meaningful scenes in the movie.
“I hope J.K.’s in every movie I ever make,” Reitman said. “He’s my muse. Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock had these beautiful women, and I have J.K. Simmons.”
With the current economic climate, Reitman conceded that viewers might be more likely to despise his main character now than they would have before. But Ryan’s job is just a backdrop to the larger story, Reitman claims, and when he started writing the script seven years ago, he couldn’t have anticipated his impeccable timing.
“I feel like downsizing isn’t what the movie’s about, at the end of the day,” Reitman said. “The movie’s about a guy trying to figure out who and what he wants in his life. This economy has served as an interesting location for the film, and it’s become a more prominent location from when I started writing the script seven years ago. But it’s never been a movie about actually firing people. That’s just his job. That’s the location.”
Reitman shared that the making of this film has been an educational process for him.
“I had to grow up and learn about life,” Reitman said. “When I started writing it I was a single guy living in an apartment. By the time I finished writing it I was married, I was a father, I had a mortgage.”
Also enlightening was the act of actually interviewing people who had been laid off and trying to completely understand the firing process.
“The astonishing thing is,” Reitman said, “if you had asked me before I made this film, ‘What’s the hardest part about being fired?’ I would have probably said the loss of income. I didn’t make a movie about people who worked on a factory line, I made a movie about people who went to college and started careers and had real salaries and a mortgage and often two car payments and kids about to go to college who are left suddenly with nothing. And I said, ‘Oh, it must be the loss of income.’ But what I came to realize, at least when it came to the people, and I talked to a lot of people, it was the loss of purpose. The reason to get out of bed in the morning. The thing they would say that scared me the most was ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know where I’m supposed to go.’ We’d do the interview, and they’d say ‘I could get in my car after this interview and I don’t need to be anywhere.’ And that seems to be the most frightening thing.”