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Film & Literature: American Malaise

Director Jason Reitman, stars Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, and author Walter Kirn discuss the timely Up in the Air, a beautiful film about job loss and human connection.

Up in the Air

Director Jason Reitman has nearly 18,000 followers on Twitter. Now it may pale compared to the likes of screenwriter Diablo Cody (112,000), whose Oscar-winning script for Juno could've been a mess in anyone else's hands besides Reitman, or actress and potential Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick (67,000), or even one of those webceleb types like Tila Tequila (267,000). But what makes Reitman's hourly Twitter feed about food and banal junket questions significant is this: he just made a hell of a film about human connection, the George Clooney-starrer Up in the Air.

Based on the novel by Walter Kirn, it's a film that grappled with topics that are ever-so-timely: job loss, the state of the economy, the way that the modern world—be it the airworld of airports and planes, or the encroaching ease of the Internet—is making us even more lonely. Clooney plays business traveler extraordinaire and corporate downsizer Ryan Bingham, whose orderly world of jetting around America firing people is shaken with the arrival of two people: perky efficency expert Natalie Keener (Kendrick, who can also be seen in The Twilight Saga: New Moon) and alluring fellow traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga). Frequent Reitman players Jason Bateman and J.K. Simmons, along with bright lights like Melanie Lynskey, Danny McBride, Zach Galifianakis, and Sam Elliott, also make appearances.

Up in the Air is a moving film that leaves the audience with a lot to talk about, so when Reitman, the silver-foxy, hilariously midwestern-accented Kirn, Farmiga, and Kendrick were in New York for a press conference, we got a front row seat. Here's what they had to say about adapting the book, the economy, technology, and human connection in a cold age.

Walter, what was the impetus for the book?

Walter Kirn: I wrote this book in rural Montana of all places, in a snowbound winter on a ranch, thinking about airplanes and thinking about a particular conversation I had that startled me. I was in a first-class cabin—somebody else must've been paying—and I'm the guy you don't want to sit down next to on an airplane because I want to know your story and I wanna tell you mine. And I asked him where he was from, and this line is still in the movie, he said, "I'm from right here." I said, "What do you mean by that?" He said, "Well, I used to have an apartment in Atlanta—never used it, collected dust, and then I got a storage locker and I'm on the road 300 days of the year, and this is where I'm from, and that's my family." He pointed to a flight attendant. "I know her, I know her kid's name," and I thought: this is a new creature. I felt like an orninthologist discovering a new bird.

Up in the Air

The book is quite different from the film. It's very timely, too, in its discussion of technology and how the Internet is making Ryan's job obsolete. How did you decide to adapt it, and what kind of decisions did you make? What was it like for you, Walter?

Jason Reitman: When I write, I'm looking for someone who is likeminded. I stumbled across Up in the Air the book when I was in Book Soup in Los Angeles—I judged a book by its cover, Walter, I'm sorry—there was a flight attendant and a quote from Chris Buckley (who wrote Thank You For Smoking, which became Reitman's first film), and I thought I'm probably going to like this. I had no idea that I would actually fall in love with it and one day adapt it. The technology was an underlying idea that was already in the book, about how disconnected we are. The insidious thing about technology is that it makes us think we're closer—you can have 1000 friends on Facebook but you don't actually see them. The technology makes us think we're closer when we don't look each other in the eyes anymore. The firing people online seemed like a wonderful dilemma for Ryan Bingham, in that in a certain sense, it's everything he wants. He wants life to be more impersonal, he doesn't want to be connected to people, but at the same time, it pulls him off the road. He does see a certain dignity in how he does his job. So I thought it would work nicely.

WK: I think that the book is to the movie what a piece of paper is to a paper airplane. Everything that the movie is made of, I like to think, has some sort of precursor in the book, but the movie is independent, and I think a transformed artistic object. It takes chiefly the setting, the main character, the ambiance, and personal challenge of that main character, and takes story elements like the wedding, which he is going to and never reaches in the book, and puts them inside the movie. The movie, for me, kind of starts where the book ends, strangely. Ryan has kind of already come to the point in the book that he ends at in the movie.

Here are two characters [motioning towards Farmiga and Kendrick], one of whom is sort of in the book, and one who is not in all in the book. There's an Alex of a sort and there's no Natalie. There's so much invention. I think anyone who's interested in book to film adaptation should really look at this book, and look at this film, and see the way that adaptation can sort of be a linear process but actually sort of a chrysalis, butterfly process. I read Jason's script amazed. When you talk about Oscars and that sort of thing, because I know the source it came from intimately, there's definitely a deserved one there.

JR: I don't know if you noticed that he said that you should really read the book AND see the movie. [Laughter.]

WK: It's a case where one doesn't spoil the other. You don't read this book and then know everything that's going to happen in the movie, and you won't see the movie and know everything that's going to happen in the book.

JR: There's more waiting for you.

One interesting aspect of the film is that you used non-actors for the firing scenes. How did that come about?

Jason Reitman: When I first started writing this movie, it was 2003 and we were at the tail end of an economic boom. As we approached the actual shooting of the film, we were in one of the worst recessions on record, and I had to adjust how we were doing these firing scenes—to do them as pure satire just didn't make sense anymore. We were shooting the film in St. Louis and Detroit, two cities that got pummeled.

I put an ad out in the paper, to people who lost their jobs who wanted to be in a documentary about job loss. We said a documentary to weed out actors who were trying to sneak into the film. We got a startling amount of responses, and we ended up putting 60 people on camera, and 22 ended up in the film. We would interview them for about ten minutes on what it's like to lose your job in this kind of economy, and after that we would actually fire them on camera. We'd ask them to either respond the way they did the day they lost their job or the way they wish they responded. It was an incredible experience to watch these non-actors improv with 100% realism. The situation was so real for them, they couldn't help but get in the moment instantaneously. The second they heard that legal verbiage, you'd see their eyes turn and they would just go there. I don't think I'll use trained actors in the future.

Can you talk a little about the female characters in the movie and how they came to be? How did you cast the film?

JR: I needed somebody on the road with Ryan. In the book you have an actual narrator who can tell you what's going on, [but] in a movie, if George has no one to talk to, it's just going to be him sitting in airports alone all the time. So I thought he needs someone to talk to and it should be someone who's annoying him.

I started Natalie as a bookend to Alex. I thought it would be interesting to see the same woman 15 years apart. I started basing it on a series of women I had fallen in love with over the course of my life, including my wife, who were kind of burdened by their own brilliance, who were just too smart for their own good, and I could always tell how frustrated they were that nobody was quite as bright as them. Sincerely.

And I wanted to look into the idea of female midlife crisis in a way that I thought had not been properly explored on screen. That the feminist movement came with a promise that you could, in fact, have everything you wanted and in life, no one can have everything they want. Midlife crisis, from my perspective, is often from the result that you realize you need to make sacrifices—no matter who you are or where you're from, there are sacrifices, and we push against that. Whether it's buying a Corvette, or like Alex, still attempting to have it all, there are certain sacrifices.

I saw Vera and Anna both in their breakthrough films [Down to the Bone and Rocket Science] and I was just floored by their performances. They were two women who were different actresses from other women in their generations, and I knew immediately that I wanted to work with both actresses. When I started writing the film, it was just one of those things where it was like, "Oh, this is how you write those two voices." Eight of the actors in the film, I wrote for them, and it was a lot easier as a writer to write with someone in mind, I didn't know how to write Ryan's sister Kara until I saw Amy Morton in August: Osage County and thought, "Who is this?" And once I had that, it actually became quite easy.

Vera Farmiga: I saw Alex as a feminist manifesto of sorts. I really think that what appealed to me about her was the integrity of self. Absolutely. She's true to herself, her own needs and desires. She has the world accommodate her on all levels. I think Jason does write women as modern heroines, in a way. I think Alex represented to me everything that is so hard about being a woman, which is the split between career and family, romance and respectability, recklessness and restraint, the push and pull, and she's pretty true to herself. And that's cool to see feminine desire portrayed in that way. Usually when characters are represented this way they're bereft of dignity, and she has self-esteem, and I think that's cool.

Anna, where did you come from?

Anna Kendrick: I grew up in Portland, Maine, and I started in theater in New York when I was twelve when I did a show on Broadway. I started to get into film and television when I was about 17, and eventually sort of moved to LA and got to work and stuff. It's a little bit weird to start working at 12 and still be thought of as a newcomer, but it's cool—I'd rather be thought of as a newcomer than old news. That's fine.

Up in the Air

Jason, how did the economic crisis affect your approach to this material?

Well it certainly had more gravity—and that's not to say that you can't make dark comedy in a dark situation—but I had to take it a lot more seriously. But, again, I don't want people to be confused: this is not a movie about firing people. This is really a movie about one man trying to figure out who and what he wants in his life, and the location for that is this economy and the occupation is termination.

One of the best things my father ever told me about filmmaking was to understand the difference between your story and your location. And the way he told me was the strangest thing: he told me one day, "You have to come over and watch 24." I went to his house, he sat me down, it was season one and it was great. I couldn't believe I hadn't been watching it, and I said, "Dad, why is this show so good? There are so many shows on TV about television—what makes this one so special?" He goes, "It's not about terrorism. Terrorism is the location. This a TV show about a man trying to keep his family together." I was like, oh my god, you're right. I don't know why, but this was a moment that cracked open the idea for me that you have to understand the difference between location and plot.

This is a movie where the location is, yes, a horrible economy, and it adds gravity and yes, certainly, there's a correlation between a man who's searching for purpose in his life juxtaposed against the people he's firing, who are now all searching for purpose in their own lives. I never allowed his job or the state of this ecomony to take over what was more important, which is: the fact is, there's something exhilarating about being alone, about waking up in a city where you have nothing and know nobody. I was looking into why that is. I have a very complete life, and yet I still think about that. I was curious why.

Up in the Air opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, December 4, expanding to more cities throughout the month. Click here for ticket information.

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