Anatomy of a Contender: 'Up in the Air'


The layoffs were hilarious.

When Jason Reitman began writing "Up in the Air," his tale of an emotionally disconnected termination specialist's pursuit of 1 million frequent-flier miles, the detailed strategies for how to dispose of employees were scripted to get laughs.

"I had originally written the scenes of people getting fired as corporate satire," Reitman says. "As we got closer to the filming date, the economy had completely changed from 2002, and there was no way to treat those scenes humorously any more. I had to treat them in an authentic way."

So Reitman decided to film nonactors who recently had been laid off. He brought them in and had executive producer Michael Beugg fire them again on camera.

"While location scouting in cities going through major recessions, it just hit me: We should just use real people," Reitman says. "There's enough people around here who have lost their jobs that I imagine that would make for some devastatingly real performances."

Those layoffs are just one of many touches of timely authenticity that Reitman brought to "Air." During the shoot, he was determined to take his cast and crew on location to five airports in Middle America to infuse his movie with real-world vitality.

"Jason had a real point of view on every aspect of this film," producer Jeffrey Clifford says. "He knew he wanted to get out into America and shoot this movie."

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The state of the U.S. economy was not foremost in Reitman's mind when he first fell in love with Walter Kirn's 2001 novel after picking it up in a bookstore. An unknown commercial director at the time, Reitman took the rare step of asking his father -- director-producer Ivan Reitman, whose Montecito Picture Co. had a first-look deal with DreamWorks -- to pick up rights for him.

Unfortunately, the novel already was set up at Fox 2000 with Jay Roach's company, and Ivan didn't really "get" the appeal, Jason says. So he wrote 30 pages of a spec adaptation to convince his dad that the material had merit.

Meanwhile, Sheldon Turner, screenwriter of "The Longest Yard," also found and loved the book and decided to write an adaptation as an exercise. When the Fox option lapsed, Turner attached his script to the newly available rights.

By this time, Ivan Reitman had seen his son's script pages and clicked with the idea. In 2004, he bought the film rights, and when he did, Turner's script came with it. Jason Reitman and Turner share screenplay credit, but Reitman kept to his own adaptation, which turned more personal as his life moved forward and his feature career took off with "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno."

"I was growing up as I was writing, and that was impacting the screenplay year by year," says Reitman, who was becoming a frequent enough traveler to be familiar with the ins and outs of the lifestyle.

"I became a professional director, I got a mortgage, I got married, I became a parent, and each one of these major steps in life impacted how I wrote the screenplay," he says. "When I started writing it, I was writing it more as a satire. I was writing from the point of view of a single, libertarian, contrarian guy and trying to find humor in the places that people don't. By the end, I was really writing about what matters to me."

By fall 2008, Reitman had George Clooney in discussions to take on the lead role of Ryan Bingham. But then DreamWorks announced its split from corporate owner Paramount, which held on to the project, greenlighted it and signed Montecito to a new three-year first-look deal this year. As those decisions were being made, Reitman cast the key female roles with Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga, who was eight months pregnant. (Ivan Reitman advised against casting the latter, but Jason persisted.)

Rehearsal with the actors was planned and then abruptly scrapped. Farmiga showed up to the table reading just 10 days after giving birth to her first child, a 10-pound boy, and "weighed as much as George did," she jokes. "It didn't matter. We sat down to table read, and there was a very kinetic energy. When Jason witnessed it, he canceled all rehearsals and tried to keep us away from each other as much as possible."

Reitman's "Smoking" and "Juno" had been straightforward 30-day shoots in a single location (Los Angeles and Vancouver, respectively). But the "Air" shoot was twice as long and infinitely more complicated: 50 days spread out over 60, with traveling between Omaha, Neb., Detroit, St. Louis, Miami and Las Vegas.

On a budget of $25 million, with first-unit shooting in five cities and substantial aerial footage, producers had to cut costs wherever they could. That meant choosing locations based on potential state rebates, stripping down crews in the airports and convincing Clooney to forsake a sizable upfront payout.

"George has demonstrated over his career that when he's passionate about a movie, he becomes effectively an investor in it," Clifford says. "When the movie does well, he'll be rewarded for that, too. As he should."

It then took rigorous planning from regional production managers -- plus major cooperation from airport liaisons -- to turn five airports into what appears in the film to be more than a dozen, all while they remained swarmed with real travelers. Interiors like Bingham's spare Omaha apartment were shot on location too.

The schedule also forced on the crew, particularly location manager John Latenser and first assistant director Jason Blumenfeld , to take a crash course in airport logistics. Everyone had to pass through security repeatedly, all equipment was brought up through a special back entrance and sniffed by dogs and crew weren't allowed to draw from the airport's electricity.

The production also wasn't permitted to block off sections, so passengers were free to gather close to filming areas. "George attracts multitudes to rival Jesus," Farmiga jokes, so Blumenfeld devised a fake take the crew would employ once it knew a scene was in the can, allowing Clooney to slip away quietly.

Once American Airlines became the film's onscreen travel sponsor, the company intervened where necessary -- moving gates, re-dressing check-in kiosks and counters and rerouting flights to minimize foot traffic. American even flew the St. Louis Cardinals' 757 back from Chicago for the weekend so the production could shoot in and around it in a St. Louis hangar.

The only thing the airline couldn't help with was the Musak in the Omaha airport. "Apparently, it was driving George so nuts that he and the locations department were all up on ladders trying to disconnect the speakers," Beugg says.

Principal photography lasted from March to May, and the director shaved two months from a standard Paramount postproduction schedule so he could lock his print in time for Toronto, which had helped "Juno" launch two years ago.

"I don't fuck around," Reitman says of the quick turnaround. "I write slow, but I direct fast. And I cut even faster."

But filming wasn't actually done. Reitman's original idea of an opening montage of Bingham moving through airports eventually morphed into a desire to have high-resolution, high-altitude aerial shots of a bundle of cities.

"That was a nightmare," Reitman says. "I always figured: We'll put a plane up in the sky and it'll shoot down, and that'll be it."

First, a modified Learjet was rigged with a Spectra Vision camera system on a periscope and flown around for four days, but when it was taken higher than standard altitude it produced images that weren't sharp enough.

After more tests, producers mounted an HD Gyron camera system to the wing of a Cessna and flew it 8,000-14,000 feet above 15 cities. To get the flowing overhead shots to appear flat, the pilots finally had to bank and dive.

Since its premiere at Toronto, the film also has become a world traveler, showing at Austin, Mill Valley, Rome, London, Orlando, St. Louis and Stockholm ahead of its Dec. 4 theatrical liftoff. Reitman, who itches to fly more than 100,000 miles a year, was packed and eager to go.

"Thank God, because when you're shooting a movie, you don't end up flying as much," he says. "There's a reason why I made this movie: I actually enjoy it."