My interview with Up in the Air director Jason Reitman in October was one of the most meta interviews I've ever done. Before the interview started, Reitman took my photo with his iPhone. He told me only "I'm not sure if that's going to work, what I'm doing with that, but if it does, you'll be thrilled with the results." I'm still in suspense.
In addition, my interview took place right after a Film School Rejects interview (check it out, Reitman name-checks Cinematical) in which Cole Abaius spent 10 minutes discussing the pie charts the Juno and Thank You for Smoking director had been posting to Twitter. Reitman kept track of which questions interviewers asked him most -- I caught him tallying things in a little notebook during our interview -- and posted the stats online frequently. Roger Ebert has also written about the pie charts. Cole and I had been reading Reitman's Twitter feed before our interviews, and not only knew about the pie chart but found out that he had just been enjoying lunch at the Salt Lick, one of the best known BBQ joints in Central Texas.
So that may explain why Twitter, pie charts and barbecue keep creeping into the following Cinematical interview with Jason Reitman. I hope it's as fun to read as it was to be there in person. The above photo is from the red carpet the evening after the interview, when Up in the Air was the closing-night film for Austin Film Festival.
Spoiler Warning: This interview discusses plot points and touches upon the ending of the film.
Cinematical: Your Twitter feed seems to fit perfectly with Up in the Air: what airport you're in, that you can't get your Kindle to switch off, and so forth. Except I don't think Ryan [George Clooney's character] would Twitter.
Jason Reitman: No, I don't see Ryan as a Twitterer. That would imply making connections out there that he would keep up with.
Cinematical: But we do see a lot of technologies in the movie, like smart phones. How does the way you use these technologies tie into the way they're used in the movie?
Jason Reitman: I'm equally guilty of using technology -- I Twitter, I text people, I chat. But I think there's something strangely insidious about it that it makes us think we're closer when in fact we're not seeing each other, we're not connecting. So in a strange way, technology's kind of like an airport. It makes you feel like you're everywhere when in fact, you're nowhere.
Cinematical: Did you start Twitter while you were working on this film?
Jason Reitman: I started Twitter in the post process. I talked to Paramount and they're, like, you should start on Twitter, and I always looked at it like, I don't know, that doesn't seem like me. I'm a kind of private guy. And I tried it out, I started talking about things that were happening in the editing room, and I see the joy of it. I still don't really talk about things in my private life -- I talk about going to eat at the Salt Lick, but that's in conjunction with this tour. If I was back in LA, living my private life, you wouldn't hear about where I was going to eat.
Cinematical: As part of documenting your tour on Twitter, I noticed the pie chart.
Jason Reitman: Yes. I just did a whole interview on the pie chart. It was the entire interview, deconstructing the pie chart.
Cinematical: But that's probably not a question that was on the pie chart itself.
Jason Reitman: Exactly! It's become oddly meta, because part of the pie chart will now be questions about the pie chart. In fact, now you're the second person to ask a question about the pie chart. [makes a mark in his notebook]
Cinematical: Do you think you'll keep using Twitter after the film?
Jason Reitman: My guess is that it'll die out. Particularly once I'm writing, I'm not sure I want to be announcing to the world that I'm lost in the midst of writing on a daily basis. "Pounding my head against a wall" at 3 pm; "Considering drinking" at 7 pm. Although it'd be interesting to twitter the writing process: 8 am: "I'm a genius." 11 am: "Was completely wrong. Everything I wrote this morning sucks." 1 pm: "Written the day off, going to see a movie."
Cinematical: What are you working on now?
Jason Reitman: I'm working with Jenny Lumet on a script, she's the person who wrote Rachel Getting Married, and I'm adapting a book by Joyce Maynard, who wrote the book To Die For, you know, the Gus Van Sant film. And I'm producing something with the Duplass brothers.
[short interval where I instruct Jason Reitman to say "Where y'at?" the next time he runs into Mark and Jay Duplass, who are from New Orleans]
Cinematical: George Clooney's character, Ryan, reminded me very much of Jason Bateman's character in Juno. They're both not quite grown up in a lot of ways.
Jason Reitman: That's interesting. No one's ever mentioned that, and I think you're right. And it's funny, because Ryan and Mark are both kind of projections of me, so it's interesting to explore the ways I'm not growing up.
Cinematical: I was wondering if it was a theme you were hitting, consciously or subconsciously.
Jason Reitman: I'm a child in mid-life crisis. I think that's exactly what you've just figured out.
Cinematical: So did you change Up in the Air substantially from the source novel?
Jason Reitman: I think philosophically, we're at the heart of it [the novel], but plotwise, I definitely changed a lot, and I pushed it to answer my own questions. Someone described it -- I thought they did a nice job -- they said: "The book is about a man losing it, and the movie is about a man finding it."
Alex and Natalie are not in the book, the wedding's not in the book, the backpack's not in the book, there's a lot not in the book. Firing online's not in the book.
Cinematical: I was going to ask about the backpack. It's a metaphor that starts out exciting and then becomes almost chilling.
Jason Reitman: I knew I needed a way of describing the weight of relationships, and tried to think of how you carry that weight. I thought, "Oh, a backpack," really feeling it on your shoulders. Probably it's because I travel so much, always with a backpack, so I'm conscientious of how much weight I'm actually going to put into it and carry from flight to flight.
Cinematical: I know all the firings aren't in the book. How did you get some of that material?
Jason Reitman: We used real people. I realized that the scenes I had written for the firings weren't accurate to the times, and I wanted them to be as authentic as possible. So we put an ad out in the paper asking for real people. We put 60 on film and 25 are in the finished movie.
Cinematical: And you've got JK Simmons in there --
Jason Reitman: Apart from the four actors you recognize, like JK and Zack Galifianakis, everyone else is real, and it was an astonishing process. We would say, "We're going to fire you on camera," and we'd tell them to either say what you said the day you lost your job, or say what you wish you'd said. And it would begin this improv session where people would get emotional, cry, get angry. Eventually, they'd almost always say the same thing, they'd say, "I don't know what else I'm supposed to do."
And that's the most heartbreaking thing for someone -- an adult -- to tell you. Not someone in their twenties, a kid in their twenties, they'll be fine. But someone in their forties, fifties, who's halfway through their life, who's built a life for themselves, to say when they leave their interview, they don't know where they're supposed to go, that general loss of purpose, that's truly heartbreaking.
Cinematical: JK Simmons has been in all your films so far.
Jason Reitman: Yes. He's my muse. Hitchcock and Woody Allen got all these beautiful women, and I got JK Simmons. For whatever reason, he speaks my language, and he'll be in everything I ever make.
I've got to add JK Simmons to the pie chart. That comes up enough -- I'm going to guess that it's been asked four times. [more tallying in notebook]
Cinematical: What's winning so far today?
Jason Reitman: Um ... "why the project," Clooney, what's next ... the book ... then my dad ... whether it's an optimistic or pessimistic film -- that's stronger here [Austin] than other places -- technology's stronger here too ... happy ending, did I ever consider a happy ending, that's stronger here. In Europe, there was a lot of talk about the economy. Everyone wanted to talk about the economy. In Miami, it's George Clooney, George Clooney, George Clooney.