Jason Reitman’s third feature Up in the Air arrives in theaters today, in a cloud of Oscar buzz and Clooney-swooning. The film, the 32-year old Reitman’s follow-up to Juno, tracks a constantly traveling, emotionally cut off, professional downsizser’s relationships with two women, one a romantic partner, assuredly and sexily embodied by Vera Farmiga, and the other a wunderkind colleague, played by newcomer Anna Kendrick. A few weeks ago (before Reitman produced his infamous pie-chart, otherwise, we would have asked about it too), Reitman got on the phone with us to discuss Kendrick, why it’s more rewarding to write for women, how it’s easier to get a first movie made than a second and a charming spot called Baywash.
What state are you in? I’m in a state of panic! I have been flying every day for the last eight days.
So you don’t know the answer? I am in Orlando and yesterday I flew from LA and the day before I flew from London, the day before that Paris and then Madrid.
You’re well on your way to a million frequent flyer miles yourself. I’ve done this for a long time. Even when I was directing commercials I was doing a lot of travel. I’ve always been a fan of being on planes. There is a reason I made this movie.
And what was that? I have to interrupt your question for one second. I am in Orlando and I swear to God I am passing by a bikini carwash with two girls in bikinis sitting on lawn chairs and the place is called Baywash.
That’s amazing. It’s also 11:50am which is early for bikinis. Seriously. These are the moments that Diablo is really sad that she’s not on the road with me. She was not there for Baywash. These are the times when I am like, “Wow, I should stop and take a photo.” But then I am like, “Oh no, they will think I am a creep.”
Don’t you think people stop and take photos of them all the time? Isn’t that the point? Maybe. But maybe you have to get a carwash if you want to take a photo. I guess it’s less creepy for me to say, “This is funny, I want to take a photo.” Rather than, “Here, start washing my car and then I am going to start taking photos.” That’s probably nastier. Oh there’s WJR! Sorry there’s a radio station here with my initials that we are actually passing. Okay I will answer your questions because I know that’s why we’re on the phone.
How did you go about casting Anna Kendrick for this part? I don’t want to make it sound as though I went into my career thinking, I’m going to discover talented young actresses. This wasn’t an agenda of mine from day one. That’s what I find filmmaking is, it’s only once you’re a few movies in, people look back and go, “Oh you seem to be drawn towards this or you do that.” Anna and Ellen [Page, of Juno] are obviously very different actresses but I guess their commonality is the uniqueness of their voices. Ellen Page is unlike anyone her own age and Anna Kendrick is unlike anyone her own age. There is an authenticity to their voices that really stands out amongst a generation of actresses that feel built for television. Anna Kendrick represents the type of girl I never see onscreen, a girl who is just too smart for her own good and kind of thinks she has the world summed up and at the same time is completely vulnerable. She reminds me of two of the girls I have fallen in love with over the course of my life, including my wife. Young girls are almost tormented by their own intelligence. There is kind of a wicked intelligence to Anna Kendrick that reminds me of actresses from the forties and fifties, like Veronica Lake in Sullivan’s Travels. They just speak a mile a minute and are so smart and so funny and really one of a kind. It’s exciting to put those kinds of voices and faces onscreen. There is so much homogeny and so much that seems the same I feel excited to put a voice up there that’s unlike anything anyone has seen before.
Do you think the homogeneity of actors is a result of pressure for a type from the industry? I mean look, at the end of the day, people want a certain kind of thing on television and in the theaters, and studios and television networks want to provide that and actors want jobs. So they try to fit the mold that sells. It’s kind of obvious. My instinct is to do something different. There is something really addictive about finding fresh voices and I feel like I have done that now, two movies in a row and I would like to continue that.
Did you know you wanted to cast Anna after watching her in Rocket Science, and Ellen after seeing her in Hard Candy? Yeah, absolutely. I remember seeing both those girls and going, “Who is this and where has she been hiding?” I remember thinking about there is just an insane amount of confidence to both of them. I find that more and more people are scared of being unique. You find that not only among actors but among young people. There is just this tendency to be as similar to the next person as humanly possible. I saw Rocket Science and she just kind of burst from the screen. I don’t really know how to articulate how exciting her performance was.
Do you remember as a kid, or younger man, watching films and having a similar feeling about other performances? It was kind of different because as a kid if I would have seen Anna or Ellen I would have just fallen in love with them and would have been infatuated with them. Now I have a slightly more professional point of view. I remember seeing Reese Witherspoon in Election and being blown away by her. Reese in Election was like, “Why aren’t there more parts like this for young women?”
Are you cognizant of writing those kinds of parts for women? Well, it’s more interesting to write for women in that most of men’s stories have been told. I want to write original stories. I want to write stories that when you meet these characters and when you when you hear what they’re about you feel like you’re meeting someone new. A lot of the guy stories, quite frankly, have just been told and there are so many women’s stories that have yet to be told.
Do you have a sense of what qualities make an actor have longevity? Honestly, I think it’s figuring out who you are each decade of your life. It’s one thing to be lucky enough to have a persona that translates to the screen for a series of five to ten years. But you do change as a person and then you have to figure out how that new persona fits onscreen characters again. There are certain actors that are chameleons and it never really matters and they can move from movie to movie and we never actually figure out who they are. But in general, people kind of give off a certain feel and that defines them as an actor. The big job is, can you recognize what that thing is and can you replicate it onscreen with honesty. For instance, Ellen Paige has so clearly defined who she is right now. But the next question will be, who is Ellen Paige at thirty? She will have to figure that out herself and find that transition and make us believe and understand who she is onscreen at thirty and forty and fifty. One nice thing about being a director is that I kind of do that in private whereas actors have to do it very publicly.
Are you already working on your next project? Yeah, I am working with Jenny Lumet who wrote Rachel’s Getting Married on a script I’m adapting from a new book by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day.
Do you prefer to adapt from books? I do. Often I find that I have an instinct to ask a certain question or tell a certain story but I am kind of looking for the language. I am looking for someone who is saying and feeling the same thing. In Thank You For Smoking and in Up in the Air and now in Labor Day, I kind of recognized things that I wanted to say and I used the book as a toolbox to articulate my own questions.
So what question are you thinking about now? Honestly, I rarely can articulate it until the movie is done. I am not trying to avoid your question I just really don’t know until I finish it. There are certain kinds of instincts I have, but I really have to go through the process of writing to clear it up.
What was the question for Up in the Air? The question for Up in the Air was, what do I want to put in my life and why. If my life is so complete, why do I still have the desire to unplug? I have a wife, I have a beautiful daughter, I get to do what I love for a living and yet I still love being in airports and I still love being among strangers. I love being alone and I love looking at destination boards and wondering what it would be like to wake up in Tulsa and not know a soul. So for me these are kind of the biggest life questions I have been asked so far. And I kind of get the feeling that everyone wonders about these things. The idea of losing your job and having to search for purpose again was the perfect metaphor for that and travel was also the perfect metaphor for that.
Do you feel that people are still intrigued by your youth, or is it transforming into thinking, hey, this guy is going to make movies for a long time? The fact that this is your third movie, has it changed the way people are approaching you? It’s an excellent question. It’s actually easy to get a first movie made and it’s difficult to get a second movie made. There is a tendency to always be looking for something fresh and new and different and what is the next thing. I remember as a short filmmaker, going to film festivals and having my films and … What is it called in football when right after high school before college they send all the players through this system together and all the players and coaches are there and they go to show off? I just can’t think of the word right now. Anyhow, there is this sense that people are on the lookout for something different and if you can make a short film that is unique and if you have a script that makes sense you can, oddly, get your movie made. Once people know who you are it’s oddly harder, when you actually have something to say. I don’t want to say that as an insult to anyone who is having a hard time making a movie. It is very difficult to get a movie made, but having gone through the system now once, if you told me I had to start from scratch and start my career over I think I could quickly come up with an agenda to get my first movie made, if I had to start from nothing. Purely on the basis that people are looking for a fresh voice and I think that it is easy to get people excited about that idea. My head of development, who is really smart, and I have talked about, Could we just create a character and get Hollywood excited about that character? Because I think it actually wouldn’t take much. The longevity is harder. I t is very difficult to keep people interested year to year and decade to decade.
That’s true for actors as well. Yeah, it’s just different with actors. As a director you create your own business. It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that unlike an actor, where you are waiting for an audition, you can actually just create your own business. However, you’re relaying on yourself, so if you have nothing to say, you’re not going to make any movies. As an actor, you don’t have to write your own material but you have to get the job. I can’t imagine being at the mercy of other people.
But in both cases there is a certain buzz about being brand new. Yeah, you can feel it around Anna Kendrick right now. There is this kind of, “Who is this girl and where did she come from?” I can already hear people talk about her performance in this movie even though the majority of people haven’t seen it. People are much more excited about Anna Kendrick and what she did in this role then they are about Hilary Swank and what she did with Amelia because we know who Hilary Swank is, we know she’s a brilliant actress and she’s won two Oscars. They want to know what is this Anna Kendrick and why is she so special? Why is what she’s doing so different and exciting?
Is it exciting to know you gave this kid her big break? Not right now, but I would think ten or twenty years from now, if I can look back and see actors who have had careers that I helped get started, I might have kind of a Bob Evans attitude. Right now I am young myself and I just feel a certain amount of excitement for working with great people.
Just before we finish up, who is singing the song during the closing credits? I Shazammed it in the movie theater and it didn’t come up. That’s a guy named Kevin Renick. He’s a guy in St. Louis who literally just walked up to me at a speaking engagement at a university in St. Louis. He told me that he had just lost his job and handed me a cassette tape. So I had to find a car with a cassette deck just to listen to it and it was just honest and sincere and spoke authentically about the idea of searching for purpose in the middle of your life.
I just thought the soundtrack wasn’t out yet. No. You know those tape decks where you press play and record at the same time? That is what he recorded it with. That’s why you here a click in the beginning. Once I put it in the movie, he was like, “Can I rerecord it?” I was like, No! I think part of the value is how real it is.
Well thank you so much. I hope you get your photo of Baywash. I literally have been parked outside waiting to take pictures.