'Up In the Air' Director Jason Reitman Has a Good Sense of Where He's From and Where He's Headed

Up In the Air director Jason Reitman has a good sense of where he’s from and where he’s headed

Unlike the zigzagging protagonist of his latest film, Up In the Air, Jason Reitman tends to stay close to home. “If we were in a small town, you’d call me a ‘townie.’ I’d be the guy who’s always lived within a mile of the house he grew up in,” says the Oscar-nominated Juno director on a recent afternoon in his West Hollywood office, where a small sign beside the front door modestly announces, “We Make Movies.” “I grew up riding my bicycle around here,” Reitman adds, gesturing toward a bank of windows overlooking Sunset Boulevard. “I lived on Elm, I lived on Crescent, and now I live near Coldwater Canyon. I’ve never moved west of the 405.”

By contrast, Ryan Bingham, the character played by George Clooney in Up In the Air, gathers no moss. A third-party hatchet man enlisted by companies too timid (or already too short-staffed) to handle their own firings, Bingham spends most of his life at 20,000 feet, basking in the comfort of strangers and the anodyne pleasures of business class, touching down just long enough to deliver the bad news to the newly downsized, along with the smiling guarantee that, really, this is going to turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to them. Then it’s off to the next hollowed-out cubicle wasteland—a landscape Reitman turns into the most resonant of this movie season’s many apocalyptic visions. Indeed, for most of us, this is how the world really ends—not with a Roland Emmerich-size bang, but with a pink slip.

"My films never touch on what the answers are when it comes to their polarizing subjects—they simply use [the subjects] as a location."
"My films never touch on what the answers are when it comes to their polarizing subjects—they simply use [the subjects] as a location."

Adapted by Reitman and Sheldon Turner from a 2001 Walter Kirn novel, Up In the Air can be considered a companion film of sorts to Reitman’s 2005 debut feature, Thank You for Smoking, which focused on the fast-talking exploits of a Big Tobacco lobbyist. It was an auspicious beginning that offered ample evidence of Reitman’s sure hand with actors and an ear for the kind of barbed dialogue that powered the rat-a-tat Hollywood comedies of yesteryear. It’s also a good yardstick of just how far he has come as a filmmaker in the four years since.

“I think I’m growing up, and my films seem to be becoming more real,” says Reitman in his let-me-level-with-you way. Growing up is something of a constant for Reitman, onscreen and off, perhaps because, at all of 32, he’s still in the midst of it himself. In the past five years, he married, bought a house and became a father. He’s also made three movies that, beyond their surface topicality, are all portraits of people questioning their beliefs and struggling to find their footing in the world.

“My films never touch on what the answers are when it comes to their polarizing subjects—they simply use [the subjects] as a location,” Reitman says.

Reitman’s life so far might easily be mistaken for a stereotypical second-generation Hollywood legacy case. The oldest of three children born to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman and actress Geneviève Deloir, he came of age on his father’s film sets, from a visit to the Oregon location of Animal House (which the senior Reitman produced) when he was 11 days old to a summer job as a production assistant on the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Kindergarten Cop when he was 13. “I knew the presumption of who I was,” he says. “If you think, ‘son of a famous director,’ your immediate reaction is: no talent. Spoiled brat. Drug or alcohol problem. These are the going ideas.” He halfheartedly enrolled at Skidmore College as a pre-med student, but by the end of his first semester, his dad had convinced him to give movies a try.

He proceeded with caution, transferring to USC—as an English major with a creative-writing emphasis. Even then, there were those who saw their classmate as a potential meal ticket. “I remember hearing from a friend that someone in the film school had said, ‘We’ve got to get him into the film school because he’s going to hook all of us up,” says Reitman with palpable disgust.

I suggest to Reitman his movie career might be the product of a prolonged adolescent rebellion: the Beverly Hills “townie” who points his camera at the flatlands of the Middle West; the son of one of the industry’s ultimate “high-concept” directors, determined to make small, character-driven movies. After a considered pause, he says, “My father is the child of Holocaust survivors who escaped Communist Czechoslovakia in the bottom of a boat. They wound up in Canada as refugees. My grandfather ran a car wash and a dry cleaner’s. So it’s no wonder that my father wants to make movies that just make people happy, where you walk out feeling better about life than when you walked in. It’s much easier to be a satirist when you grow up in Beverly Hills and never worry where your next meal is coming from.”

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