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Jason Reitman blends reality and fiction in Up In the Air, and does so entertainingly. The reality, however, is sobering. An Insider Investigation.

After his standout debut, Thank You For Smoking, followed by his equally compelling Juno, filmmaker Jason Reitman has forged a work that fuses reality to fiction: it’s funny, but it’s grounded in serious and relevant subject matter.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a specialist in firing people who loves his life on the road, is forced to fight for his own job when his company downsizes its travel budget, thanks to smart little graduate, Natalie (Anna Kendrick). He is threatened with being grounded at base, right on the cusp of a goal he’s worked toward for years: reaching 10 million frequent flyer miles … and just after he’s met the frequent-traveller woman of his dreams, Alex (Vera Farmiga). A resolute bachelor and opportunist, he is not prepared for the forces that the two women unleash.

The screenplay for Up In the Air took on a powerful layer of relevancy even as Jason Reitman wrote, because not only did his personal life change in major ways (marriage, baby), but his country’s economic situation shifted dramatically. By the time the script was nearly complete, the US was in the middle of a severe and perilous recession, which compelled Reitman to more deeply explore the story’s underlying theme of job loss.

"inspired to take an unusual risk"

Reitman was inspired to take an unusual risk. Rather than script the film’s collage of firings and confessions from the newly unemployed, he went out to capture real, direct, unscripted reactions from ordinary Americans who had just gone through the intensely emotional experience of losing a job in a faltering economy. It proved to be an eye-opening and moving process, tying the film’s mix of human drama and comedy to a sobering reality.

Reitman recalls: “We wanted the firing scenes to be honest and true. So we thought, ‘why not show the real thing?’ We went to Detroit and St. Louis, two cities hit hardest by all the job losses of the last year, and put ads in the Help Wanted section saying we were making a movie about job loss and looking for people who were willing to talk about it. We got so many submissions, it was heartbreaking.”

The writer/director continues: “People came in and we asked them to say what they said on the day they were fired, or what they wished they had said. What was amazing to me as someone who’s constantly working with actors to attain realism, was how these people, who I presumed would be uncomfortable on camera, came off so honest and real. It’s now one of my favourite parts of the film.”

Finally, Reitman adds: “Every day you see news stories about job cuts but it’s usually about a number, so it’s easy to forget who these people are. What I’m most proud of is that the movie puts real faces to those numbers.”

"laced with original comedy and visceral emotion"

The film is laced with original comedy and visceral emotion. Says executive producer Tom Pollock: “This is a serious movie that is very, very funny. That’s one of the reasons I love it so much: it’s a movie that’s beyond genre. It’s perfect for Jason because his work is never classifiable. His first two films were completely unique and so is this one.”

Both those films gave us provocative anti-heroes. So does Up In the Air, which is based on a novel. Author Walter Kirn recalls that his novel’s subject matter originally arose out of a chance encounter – and is thus also a fusion of reality and fiction. He was flying to Los Angeles, when he asked the man in the seat next to him where he was from. “He said, ‘Oh, I’m from right here; right from this seat, in fact.’ When I asked what he meant by that he told me he used to have an apartment but, because he was on the road 300 days a year, he traded it for a storage locker and called extended-stay hotels home. When I pressed him, he said, ‘You know, there are plenty of me around.’ I realized as I talked to him that he had adapted to a global landscape that’s entirely composed of airports, hotels, chain restaurants, gift shops and magazine racks. But I also realized how lonely he must feel.”

Thus was born Kirn’s central character, Ryan Bingham, who has managed to reach his mid forties without forming any true personal attachments other than to his elite travel programs – and who spends his days quite literally “letting people go.”

"like a masseur who comes in and sort of rubs your shoulders"

“I gave Ryan the job of taking away other people’s jobs,” explains Kirn. “He is like a masseur who comes in and sort of rubs your shoulders while rolling your desk chair into the elevator. Terminating employees has become an art and a legally perilous situation, and Ryan has mastered that.”

Published January 14, 2010

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