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Grounded: Jason Reitman

Hometown boy makes good
Kevin Scanlon

Unlike the zigzagging protagonist of his latest film, 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 — an unassuming suite of rooms, staffed by a handful of mild-mannered, happy-looking assistants, near the edge of Beverly Hills. A small sign beside the front door announces, modestly: 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 Reitman’s Up in the Air, gathers no moss. A third-party hatchet man enlisted by companies too timid (or already 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. Consider him an avatar of our wired-in age of global communication, at once everywhere and nowhere in particular, 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, who shot the film in such solid Middle American locales as Detroit and St. Louis and cast actual laid-off workers to play themselves, 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 a pink slip.

Adapted by Reitman and Sheldon Turner from a 2001 Walter Kirn novel that had the misfortune of landing in bookstores mere weeks ahead of the September 11 attacks, 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 another professional bullshit artist — a Big Tobacco lobbyist played by Aaron Eckhart. It was an auspicious beginning that offered ample evidence of Reitman’s sure hand with actors (a large ensemble, including Robert Duvall, William H. Macy and Sam Elliott) and an ear for the kind of barbed dialogue that powered the rat-a-tat Hollywood comedies of yesteryear — movies Reitman, who didn’t attend film school, is still catching up with. It’s also a good yardstick of just how far he has come as a filmmaker in the four years since: Where Smoking sometimes hedged its satiric bets to make sure we knew Eckhart’s Nick Naylor was really a good guy at heart, Up in the Air views Bingham with considerably greater ambivalence, playing the character’s gray morality against Clooney’s natural charm. It seems all the smarter for doing so.

“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, adding that he recently caught parts of his two previous films on HBO and is learning from his mistakes. “I’m just becoming more confident as a storyteller, and I’m heading more in the direction of drama and more in the direction of real human beings dealing with real shit.”

Indeed, 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 last five years, he married, bought a house and become 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. Which helps to explain why Juno and its pregnant Minnesota teen ended up earning praise from both sides of the abortion divide, and why Up in the Air has been embraced by early festival audiences, despite the obvious concerns over releasing a movie about job loss into the worst economy in a half-century.

“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. “In Thank You for Smoking, cigarette smoking is the location for a movie about parenting. In Juno, teenage pregnancy is the location for a movie about people trying to decide what moment they want to grow up. It’s about the loss of innocence — that’s what that movie’s about, and this movie’s not about the economy. The economy is a setting to talk about how we complete our lives. Is it okay to be alone? That’s a big one — that’s the one that people ask me about all the time now. Are you indicting the idea of being alone? No! I’m the one movie that’s saying it’s okay to be alone in life. That’s the most politically charged issue in Up in the Air.”

 

In its general flight plan, 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. In those same years, Reitman rubbed elbows with other scions of the rich and famous at the prestigious Buckley and Harvard-Westlake prep schools, where, he claims, being the son of one of the most successful filmmakers of the 1980s brought him nothing but grief. “I was never a popular kid,” he recalls. “I know people say that all the time, so let me repeat: I was never a popular kid. I was not well-liked. All the movie thing brought was teasing and mockery. It never seemed something to be proud of.”

More paralyzing for Reitman was the fear of following in his father’s footsteps. “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. In addition to that, one of two things is going to happen to me in my career — either I will succeed but live in my father’s shadow, or I will fail on a very public level. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I gave it a shot, it didn’t work out, and nobody knows.’ You go for it, everyone takes a look at it and goes, ‘God, you are bad.’ ” So he halfheartedly enrolled at Skidmore College as a pre-med student. By the end of his first semester, Reitman’s dad had convinced him to hang up his scrubs and give movies a try.

He proceeded with caution, transferring to the University of Southern California — not for the celebrated film school, as might have been expected, but rather 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 heard that and I went, ‘Oh, God.’ If I’d ever even thought about majoring in film, that was it. I decided: I’m going to be an English major and I’m going to make it on my own. I’m not going to change my name; I don’t need to lie to people. I am who I am.”

In the interest of full disclosure, this writer may have had his own ill-formed preconceptions about Reitman, when, in the fall of 1996, he showed up in my office at USC’s Daily Trojan newspaper, where I was the film-section editor, asking if he could write some movie reviews. I agreed, and over the course of the semester Reitman published his appraisals of Jerry Maguire, the Wachowski brothers’ Bound and Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do!, although it was another actor’s directorial debut, Matthew Broderick’s little-seen biopic of Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman, Infinity, that yielded this memorable opener: “Finally someone has made a good film.” (At the author’s request, I will quote no further.) Reitman’s tenure at the Trojan was brief. He was already starting to formulate his first short films, and what I remember most about those days is how stubbornly intent he was on raising the money himself — first by selling desk calendars and, later, bracelets he designed with his girlfriend at the time. No legacy case he.

In a way, I suggest to Reitman, his movie career might be the product of a prolonged adolescent rebellion: the Beverly Hills “townie” who points his camera, without condescending affect, on 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 that pose existential questions and peddle no easy answers? “I guess I’ll say this,” he answers after a considered pause. “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; it’s much easier to sit there and talk about how complicated life is and not really worry about whether your characters are likable.”

 

It’s not so easy, however, to keep making those kinds of movies in a Hollywood that has rarely been less hospitable to films for adults and to filmmakers who think outside the toy/happy-meal/video-game box. “That’s what has made my job difficult right now,” says Reitman, adding that Up in the Air — a movie he’s been trying to make since before Thank You for Smoking — was green-lit only due to Clooney’s presence and Juno’s robust $231 million worldwide gross. “I’m making films in a kind of netherworld,” he continues. “I’m not an indie guy; I’m not Gus Van Sant. I don’t make a movie for $5 million. I have made two movies for $6 million and $7 million, but I would prefer not to be that strapped. At the same time, I’m not going to spend $80 million on a movie — that, for me, makes no sense. If you think of the studios having these slots they’re trying to fill on their release schedules, none of those slots bear any resemblance to what I’m making.”

These days, with his early career anxieties behind him and Up in the Air tipped as an Oscar front-runner, Reitman should be breathing a well-earned sigh of relief. Instead, he still finds plenty to worry about, as if his constitution depended on a steady infusion of nervous energy. He worries about whether he’s being a good husband to his wife, Michele, whom he met when they were next-door neighbors in the same West Hollywood apartment building, and whom he credits for his ability to write strong female characters like the businesswomen played by Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air. He worries about whether he’s being a good father to his young daughter, especially given the long periods of separation that come with making movies.

While shooting Up in the Air, he tells me, “For the first time, in a real way, I felt this strain, particularly because I’m the son of a director and I know what it was like to have my dad go away for months. The tricky thing about being a director is, even when you’re home, you’re not there. I could be sitting at the dinner table across from you, but in my mind I’m trying to figure out the movie. As soon as I start writing, all the way through postproduction, my mind is in the world of the characters, and I’m trying to figure the movie out. First, I’m figuring out how to write it. Then I’m figuring out how to get it made. Then I’m figuring out how to shoot it, then how to cut it. It’s a year where I’m just not present, and that’s tough.”

But Reitman worries that he may not be making movies fast enough. “Right now, I make a movie every two years, and I’d like it to be every year and a half,” he says, noting that, historically speaking, most directors tend to make their best movies early in their careers. “If I have something to say, it’s going to happen right now. So, I don’t want to make three movies in my 30s. I’d like to make six movies in my 30s.”

When I ask Reitman where he sees himself 10 years from now, he tells me simply that he hopes he’s made five more films, that they’re all personal, and that most of them are good. “I’m not saying I’m going to have a perfect career,” he says. “I’m going to make movies that don’t work, particularly because I’m trying to do material that’s tough. Hopefully, if I keep on doing personal stuff and I trust my gut, I can put together a group of films that you would look at the same way you would look at the admirable directors of the ’70s, or the admirable screwball-comedy directors — that they did something right for long enough.” His highest aspiration, he says, is that if he’s making an appearance somewhere and the presenter rattles off a list of his credits, “It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s a good list.’ ”

Back in the present, Reitman has his sights set squarely on what he hopes will be his next project — an adaptation of To Die For author Joyce Maynard’s recent novel, Labor Day, about the relationship between a lonely 13-year-old boy, his single mother and the escaped convict who enters their lives over the titular holiday weekend. “It’s just strange and dramatic and romantic,” he says. And decidedly not high-concept. “I’m not going to be relying on cute jokes,” he adds. “I’m not going to be relying on anything. I’m just going to tell the story.”

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