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Jason Reitman strays from standards answers about 'Up in the Air'

Director Jason Reitman, interviewed during SXSW, wanders from the press script discussing his third feature film, 'Up in the Air'

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com
Director Jason Reitman was in town in October to attend the Austin Film Festival and show 'Up in the Air,' which is now in theaters.

Director Jason Reitman tilts the face of his smart phone in my direction. He's assembled a color-coded pie chart of the standard questions asked during his marathon press tour behind "Up in the Air," including this particular round during the Austin Film Festival.

Examples from the pie chart: "What's it like working with George Clooney?" (During an NPR interview, Reitman related in great detail how Clooney came to take the role during a visit to the star's Italian home, and how he realized that comparisons would be made to the star's nonconformist public persona.) "What's it like being the son of a famous director?" (He has talked about taking his father, prolific Ivan Reitman, to an Oscar ceremony. The elder filmmaker, director of "Ghostbusters" and Stripes," had never been. The younger was nominated for "Juno," only his second widely distributed film.)

Let's not go there, then. Avoid the pie chart.

I say: "What do you want to talk about?"

Flustered — or at least playing "flustered" well — Reitman enumerates the things our readers definitely want to read about: Clooney, again; Clooney's timely role as an emotionally remote, air travel-loving man whose job is to fire people during a recession; the use of real fired people for the terminated employees.

I repeat: "No, what do you want to talk about?"

"Honestly? The honest answer to your question is 'not much,'\u2009" he says. "The weird thing about talking about a movie \u2026 the more I talk about it, the less the movie means to me. When I made it, I really felt confident about what I said with the film \u2026"

Sensing a break from his press-tour routine, Reitman free-associates for the next 20 minutes. Some of his monologue covers familiar territory. Yet it's exhilarating to watch such a smart, funny, creative mind at work.

"It's inexplicable how you make a movie," he says with exasperation. "There's no process; there's no plan. You're going with a feeling. You want the audience to feel something, to respond to something. You don't strategically work that out. But as you practice being a director \u2026 you make a thousand decisions a day. It becomes almost binary. 'Yes, this,' 'No, that,' 'Yes, this,' 'No, that.' 0, 1, 0, 1. The sum of all that equates a feeling."

Reitman talks about going with his gut making his first short films, then discovering how to elicit laughter and reflection reliably from audiences in his first feature films, which included "Thank You for Smoking" as well as "Juno," both unexpectedly profitable.

"Now the filmmaking becomes more sophisticated," he says. "('Up in the Air') makes people feel a certain more gray, articulated way. ... And how do you feel at the end? There's a certain hope to it, a certain tragedy to it. There are no answers."

So if a movie starts with a gut feeling and grows into something more ambiguous, what was that original feeling for this one?

"When I read the (Walter Kirn) book, I thought 'I could make a really interesting dark satire about a guy who fires people for a living.' As I wrote the script, I personally grew. I got married. I became a dad. I have a mortgage. My life changed. I grew up. And bigger questions began to haunt me. Questions about whether to be alone in the universe."

Reitman admits there's something attractive about being apart, traveling by plane, going to cities where nobody knows you, like Clooney's character through much of the film.

"There's always something pulling on you to unplug from life," he says. "Look, I became director, a guy who wants to do something different every year. I'm trying to reconcile that with being a family man now."

These thoughts bring Reitman back to the movie, and what he learned from those real out-of-work people we see on screen. How it was not about the loss of money, but the loss of purpose that affected them the most. "Talking about it, they felt less alone," he says. "There was a strange camaraderie. But it was weird being in Detroit where tens of thousands of people had lost their jobs, and before (working on the film), they hadn't talked about being fired. Maybe it's because I grew up in L.A., where everything is a giant group therapy session."

After a few more digressions, especially about the technical difficulties of shooting the various locations from the air, Reitman digs into his editing philosophy.

"My films don't have fat on them," he says. "I'm ruthless in the cutting room. That comes from not wanting to be embarrassed."

As an example, he shares a key sequence from Kirn's novel. The lead character, on his first trip away from home, is taken by medical helicopter from his small Wisconsin town to Milwaukee.

"\u2009'I travel to what I thought was a foreign country in 10 minutes,'\u2009" Reitman quotes; "\u2009'I realize that my parents were wrong. We didn't live in the greatest place on Earth. The world was one place and comparing didn't matter.'\u2009" ... I ended up cutting that from the dialogue."

Reitman looks out the window. The pie chart of questions seems forgotten.

mbarnes@statesman.com