Jason Reitman's movie 'Up in the Air' employed the unemployed

More than 7 million people have lost their jobs during the recession. Jason Reitman is the first filmmaker with a crowd-pleasing movie about it.

Reitman's movie — due in Tampa Bay theaters on Dec. 25 — is Up in the Air, starring George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a professional hatchet man hired to lay off workers when bosses can't bring themselves to do it.

Thanks to his job, Ryan is a frequent flier addicted to the anonymity of airports and the status perks offered by airlines. He feels more at home in a terminal or a hotel than in his own apartment. Walter Kirn's 2001 novel focused on that compulsion, but Reitman's adaptation gives Ryan's job equal attention in unique ways.

When viewers see Ryan firing someone on screen, offering severance packets and sincere words of support, most of the people reacting directly to the camera aren't actors. They are jobless in real life, essentially re-enacting the moment they were laid off. Stay through the end credits and you'll hear St. Louis resident Kevin Renick sing a melancholy song he composed after becoming unemployed.

With such deeply personal flourishes, Up in the Air becomes the first feature film speaking to a new, financially stressed America.

Reitman, an Oscar nominee for directing 2007's Juno, recently spoke with the Times about his methods — and the possible madness of turning an economic crisis into mass entertainment.

Did you ever imagine that Up in the Air would be such a topical film?

I started writing the movie about seven years ago, thinking I was making a corporate satire along the lines of Thank You for Smoking. I realized as we got closer to shooting (in March 2009) that I couldn't approach people losing their jobs the same way I would have seven years before. I had to treat it with a little more honesty and gravity.

People understand the questions Ryan Bingham is asking himself: How do I keep moving? Do I really want to? At times it doesn't matter how successful or destitute you are. There's always a part of you that wonders what it would be like to check out, to unplug, to live on a daily itinerary and only interact with strangers.

If you look at the movie literally then, yes, it's about a guy who flies a lot. The fact that he fires people for a living, that he collects air miles and wants to be constantly in flux, all of these are actually just useful metaphors. We're in a time when many people are losing their jobs or scared of losing their jobs, and our lives are in flux. In one way or another, we are constantly up in the air.

How did the idea of showcasing actual laid-off workers begin?

When I was scouting (locations) in Detroit and St. Louis — two terribly affected cities — I thought, "I'm going to do what (director Steven) Soderbergh would do: Use real people." We put an ad in the paper, and people responded like crazy, a heartbreaking amount of responses.

The ad said we were making a documentary about job losses. We did that simply so we wouldn't get a lot of people who just wanted to be actors. We brought in 100 people, and 25 are in the film.

We would sit them at a table and interview them for about 10 minutes about how they lost their job, who was the first person they told, how it affects their lives, how they search for purpose, all those kinds of questions.

Then we'd say, "Now, we want to fire you on camera, and we'd like you to respond the way you did the day you lost your job, or perhaps the way you wish you had responded." These turned into improv sessions when they would start asking all kinds of questions. They would get angry, get emotional. They would cry. Those performances are some of the best ones in the film.

How did you obtain Kevin Renick's song for the end credits?

We shot the majority of the film in St. Louis. Early in the preparation, I went to speak at a university there. After my session, Kevin came up to me.

I'm used to people giving me music now, after Juno. Juno had the kind of soundtrack that really inspired people, especially teenagers, to send me their songs. But this was the first time that a middle-aged man in his 50s came up to me with a cassette tape. This was a guy who lost his job and wrote a song about it.

Something that struck me while making this film, between the real people and Kevin with his song, is that while millions of people lost their jobs in the last year, we have no sense of them as people. We only have a sense of them as numbers. We see the percentages, but they're rarely given an identity.

I'm proud that not only are we using 25 people who put faces to the situation, but we have a guy who wrote a song that isn't the best song ever written, but it's an authentic voice singing about what it's like to search for purpose in life. I found that quite moving. I knew halfway through listening that it would be in the movie.

So you're actually helping with the unemployment problem.

(Laughs.) Yeah, I got Kevin into ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), and 25 people into (the Screen Actors Guild). They'd better vote for this film.

I know co-workers recently laid off, so watching Up in the Air was occasionally unsettling. What can people worried about their jobs get from this movie?

Even though there's a staggering amount of people who lost jobs, the amount of communication between them is very low. People who came and acted in the film would sit in this waiting room and talk to each other. It was the first time they really opened up to anyone in the same situation. They found the process of acting in this film could be quite cathartic.

At the end of the day, this isn't a movie about job loss; it's a movie about one man and the kinds of human connections he wants in his life. The sheer nature of the film, knowing that you're not alone, is part of the cyclical nature of life. Things get better, and things get worse. Understanding that can be somewhat positive.

I also started believing Ryan's comforting line that everyone who accomplished anything great once sat in that chair, getting fired. Is he selling snake oil?

There's a reason why Ryan is good at what he does. It's not because he's a snake oil salesman, but he actually believes in the decency of what he does. Certain people have to be fired. That's a reality of the economy and the country we live in. But there's no reason why it can't be done with a certain amount of dignity. It's a tough job that someone has to do.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

Jason Reitman's movie 'Up in the Air' employed the unemployed 11/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 7, 2009 3:31am]

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