Though a film adaptation is exciting in its visualization of particularly engaging written works, the making of one is encumbered by unique obstacles. How does one adapt a pre-existing narrative in a manner that stays true to the original story while still including one’s own brand of originality?
In Jason Reitman’s estimation, the answer is purely autobiographical.
Jason Reitman, the young writer-director of “Thank You for Smoking” and director of “Juno,” divulged the motivation for his new adaptation in a recent interview. His newest project, “Up in the Air,” is a reworking of a novel by critically acclaimed writer Walter Kirn. The book follows a middle-aged “management consultant” named Ryan Bingham as he travels across the country by plane, firing the unfortunate employees of the various companies that have requested his services. “Up in the Air” will start screening in wide release at the end of the month.
Despite Ryan’s dreary line of work, the greatest pleasure he derives from his life is flying. The close relationship between this love of flight and screenwriter Jason Reitman’s own life gives presents intimate perspective to the story.
“I started enjoying flights for the same reason I enjoyed going to movie theaters. It’s a chance to unplug from your normal life,” Reitman said.
“You know when you’re up in the plane, your cell phone doesn’t work and your closest friend is this person in 17J and you can have the kind of conversation with them that you would never have with someone you knew well. And yes, I collect miles. I collect miles like crazy … I’ve been on 20 flights in 20 days.”
Reitman’s oddball enthusiasms — particularly for flying and frequent-flier miles — are closely related to those of his unlikely protagonist Ryan, sans the illegal prescriptions and illegal women, of course. Flirting with the fine line between the real and the fictional is the process by which an artist can bring about a sense of catharsis in those who view his work, after all.
What better way to elicit emotion than to show normal people the ways in which the despair, joy and other emotions found in art parallel the emotional ups and downs in their own lives? In this sense, Reitman is no narcissist — he’s a humble writer of the people and for the people.
“Because of the economy, I (decided to) cast real people as the people who lose their jobs in this movie … except for a few actors that you’re going to recognize like Zach Galifianakis (“The Hangover”) and J.K. Simmons (“Juno”), these are people in St. Louis and Detroit who actually just lost their jobs in real life,” Reitman said, describing the evolution of the screenplay in the past seven years.
This unlikely approach recollects the unadulterated displays of social decay in post-World War II neo-realist films, though Reitman’s motivations are far removed from the political realm. His films are more focused on character studies of isolation, as can be seen in tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart, “The Dark Knight”) from “Thank You for Smoking,” pregnant high school student Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page, “Hard Candy”) and Reitman’s newest character, the lonely wanderer Ryan Bingham (George Clooney, “Burn After Reading”).
“I’m obviously attracted, whether I know it or not, to characters who live in a kind of polarized world,” Reitman said.
“I like these characters because they usually have a very open-minded point of view on something that’s traditionally (divisive) and they give me an opportunity to take a fresh look at a subject that is usually talked out in only one way.”
And as for Reitman’s next character study?
“If ‘Thank You for Smoking’ and ‘Up in the Air’ were two parts of a trilogy, and I needed my third angry white guy to fill it in,” he said. “After tobacco lobbyists, corporate termination executives, what’s the third slot? Maybe someone who works in the clergy.”
Future plans aside, one can expect more of the same from Reitman’s observations from “Up in the Air.” It will likely be a glorious amalgamation of happiness and despair, acclaim and stigmatization, laughter and somberness. Less contrived glitz and garish glamour and more of life, just the way it is.