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‘Up in the Air’s’ Jason Reitman: Grilled

On getting out of his father’s shadow and the unpleasantness of firing people

Although he’s the hottest young director in town, Jason Reitman was pre-med at college. Fearful of living in the shadow of his enormously successful director father, Ivan Reitman, he decided at an early age to choose another path. In the end, however, genes won out and Jason found himself with a camera in his hands. With critical hits like “Thank You for Smoking” and Oscar winner “Juno” under his belt, the 32-year-old filmmaker just may surpass his father before he’s done.

This weekend’s “Up in the Air,” has festival crowds buzzing, making it a likely contender in this season’s Oscar race. Based on the 2001 novel by Walter Kirn, George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a hatchet man who travels the country firing employees whose bosses don’t have the nerve to do it themselves.

Reitman talked to TheWrap about firing people, his father, his career and his theatrical pas de deux with the media.

Bingham is like a sociopath who grows a heart by the end of the movie.
Ryan Bingham’s not a sociopath. Ryan Bingham’s a sensitive human being. Ryan Bingham’s a man who understands that people need to be fired. Nobody holds on to a job forever. Everybody dies and everybody at one point usually gets fired from something. So he’s just good at what he does and he does it with a sense of dignity and it permits him to live the life that means most to him — which is a life, seamless, in the air, on the road, hub to hub.

Ever fire anyone?

Firing somebody is one of the worst feelings on earth. You’d have to be completely insensitive not to empathize with somebody that’s losing his livelihood. There’s no good way to do it. The only thing you can do is be as straight as possible, take ownership of the firing as you do it and to give the person a sense of finality so they can move on.

You had to rewrite all the firing scenes.
When I first started writing this movie seven years ago, we were in an economic boom, and by the time I finished, it was one of the worst recessions on record. The scenes I’d written were satirical, somewhat like “Thank You for Smoking,” but they didn’t make sense now.

I realized that I should reach out to the community and find people that had lost their jobs that were willing to go on camera and be a part of the film. We put an ad out in the paper. We got a staggering amount of responses. Put 60 people on camera, 22 of which are in the finished movie. We sat them down at a table. Interviewed them for about 10 minutes on what it’s like to lose their job in this type of economy, and then we would fire them on camera. We’d ask them to respond by saying whatever they did the day they lost their job or, if they preferred, what they wished they had said.

Did you pay them?
Yeah, yeah, they’re now all in SAG.

Ever been fired?

With your dad being one of the most successful directors of the ’80s, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion you would be a filmmaker.
I was terrified of it. I thought, "Why enter a job where the presumption was that as a kid of a filmmaker I’m just some spoiled brat with a drug or alcohol problem?"

To prove them wrong.
I thought, "The greatest success, I’ll live in his shadow. Greatest failure would be a very public failure." My father, while I was at school, convinced me to come back to L.A. and to tell stories. And within the film festival system I found a democratic system in which I could submit myself to the same Darwinian process which every young filmmaker goes through. And if my short films are successful, it would be my success and I could have a career on my terms.

The directors who made me want to be a director were Richard Linklater and Alexander Payne and Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez and Wes Anderson. It was the people who came out of film festivals in the ’90s that really spoke to me and helped me find my own voice.

So, while I always have enjoyed movies and I’ve had magical moments as a kid on set, and I went to see movies like crazy my entire adolescence, it really wasn’t until I got to college and I started to watch American indies that I thought, "Y’know what? I think I can do this myself."

Did your father encourage or discourage?
He said, “This is a very tough business. It’s very competitive and it’s ugly and you may not want to do this.” But he understood and he knew I had an instinct to do it and at that point he said, “Don’t be so scared.”

Can you talk about the difficulties of finding financing for a character-driven movie in the current climate?
George Clooney helps. The combination of “Juno” and Clooney made this a bankable film, but it’s harder to make movies for adults. That’s without a doubt.

Do you think it will change?
Life is cyclical. It’ll get better and worse, better and worse.

I make my movies for audiences and I think my movies are actually very accessible. Even though I take on polarizing subjects and vocations, I make movies that are for wide audiences. Back to “Thank You for Smoking,” the comment I would always get is, “I didn’t expect to enjoy that, but I actually did.”

Did you ask people why?
They thought it was going to be “The Insider.” They thought it was going to be some political hammer whacking away at their brain, whereas I direct human beings dealing with the kind of stuff that all people do.

“Thank You for Smoking” isn’t about cigarettes. “Thank You for Smoking” is about how to be a dad. “Juno” isn’t about pregnancy. “Juno” is about when do we grow up.

This movie is not about a bad economy, it’s about who do you want in your life? How do you want to complete your life?  What makes you happy?

How do you answer those questions for yourself?
I usually don’t have answers for any of those questions. That’s why I make the movies.

You twittered about the press on this picture. What is your take on the entertainment media?
I find it funny. I think that’s why I do it. I think I find humor in most things. In this case, I find it funny what we’re doing here. We have dialogue. You have questions that you want to ask. I know what the questions are. I have answers I’m going to give. You already know what the answers are. So if you’re asking questions that you already know the answers to, I already know what you’re going to ask, we’re doing dialogue, like a play.

But it is funny, when you start breaking down the numbers, that I’ve been asked about George 150 times in the last three weeks. Try to imagine answering that question the same way 150 times in a row. It’s like a Broadway actor doing 150 nights of the same play.

Do you ever learn anything from an interview?
It’s only once I make movies and I talk to journalists that I sort of realize, "Oh, this is what kind of director I am! This is what I seem to be drawn to." Even in the weird details, like, Diablo Cody the other day realized that no one has sex in beds in my movies. Like, I would’ve never thought about that until she brought that up. I was like, "Oh, why is that?"

That happens every time I talk to a journalist, because it’s the job of a journalist to find commonality and connectivity, so in your guy’s search for that, I end up going through strange therapy sessions.