Up In The Air
BEHIND THE SCENES
In his first two feature films, Jason Reitman established a distinctive talent for taking provocative anti-heroes – a tobacco lobbyist in Thank You for Smoking and a pregnant teenager in the Oscar®-winning Juno – and telling deeply human, funny and appealing stories in which these tricky characters defy expectations. He continues in this vein with the well-timed tale of Ryan Bingham, who, on the surface has a rather disagreeable job: he fires people when corporations downsize.
And yet, Ryan’s story is also about a man who is instantly, poignantly recognizable – a charming, decent man who has enthusiastically embraced our world of speed, technology, comfort, individual ambition and material perks; a man who leads a smooth, enjoyable life; a man who has it all and yet, finds something vital is missing. His tale raises intriguing questions: in an age of global travel and machine-mediated conversations, how do we get to the real, lasting connections that once sustained American communities? And what happens when we avoid them?
Those questions lie at the heart of the screenplay for Up in theAir, based on a novel by Walter Kirn. After an earlier draft by Sheldon Turner, Reitman took it in a new direction tapping into how Ryan Bingham’s story reflects how we live now, in an intersecting moment of technological advances and communication breakdowns.
"When I first read Walter Kirn's novel, I couldn't get Ryan Bingham out of my head," comments Turner. "I was captivated by his job, his unique world and the collateral toll exacted by firing people for a living. How does one sow the seeds of misery and preserve his soul? Ryan Bingham speaks to the disconnect and insulation of our times. All the things meant to bring us together have only driven us apart."
"I saw it as a story about a guy who has to deal with the fact that, even though he thinks his life is complete, he’s been ignoring something very important, which is the responsibility to be part of something larger," adds Reitman. "Ryan Bingham is so scared off by the burdens of joining a community that he’s been missing out on the value of that."
He continues: "It’s something I think we’re exploring as a society right now. We’re all using our cell phones and twittering and texting and it seems as if we are more connected than ever – while, in reality, people don’t look each other in the eye much anymore, and we have fewer real relationships. Ryan’s life in airports is a metaphor for that. You can go into an airport anywhere in the world and instantly know where everything is; they have the same shops, the same restaurants, the same newspapers. We’re comfortable everywhere, yet nowhere really seems to be home. We’re so global that we’ve lost that sense of local community."
Reitman’s inspiration for Up in the Air began with the novel by Walter Kirn, which Reitman used as a jumping off point for a screenplay that evolved into its own journey. "The book spoke to me on multiple levels," says Reitman. "I love Walter’s language which I used a lot. But as I was writing, my own life changed. I met my wife, fell in love and had a child. And in that process, Ryan Bingham also started to mature and look for more in life. The script grew into being about how imperative connections are in our daily lives."
Kirn recalls that his novel’s subject matter originally arose out of a chance encounter. He was flying to Los Angeles, when he asked the man in the seat next to him where he was from. "He said, ‘Oh, I’m from right here; right from this seat, in fact.’ When I asked what he meant by that he told me he used to have an apartment but, because he was on the road 300 days a year, he traded it for a storage locker and called extended-stay hotels home. When I pressed him, he said, ‘You know, there are plenty of me around.’ I realized as I talked to him that he had adapted to a global landscape that’s entirely composed of airports, hotels, chain restaurants, gift shops and magazine racks. But I also realized how lonely he must feel."
Thus was born Kirn’s central character, Ryan Bingham, who has managed to reach his mid forties without forming any true personal attachments other than to his elite travel programs – and who spends his days quite literally "letting people go."
"I gave Ryan the job of taking away other people’s jobs," explains Kirn. "He is like a masseur who comes in and sort of rubs your shoulders while rolling your desk chair into the elevator. Terminating employees has become an art and a legally perilous situation, and Ryan has mastered that."
Bingham emerged as a keenly current twist on the classic American salesman, selling dreams to those devastated by the sudden, impersonal loss of their careers, as he crisscrosses the nation. This intrigued Reitman. "Instead of going door to door, Ryan goes from hub to hub," says the co-writer/director. "And yet there is something very emotional in the idea of a man who in mid-life has no real permanent address."
Kirn was thrilled when he learned that Reitman wanted to direct the film. "Thank You for Smoking was so unconventional in its attitude, it caused me to immediately trust him as a kind of co-conspirator," says Kirn. "And when I received the script, I felt that Jason had added a fourth dimension to it for the screen. I bowed my head in gratitude for the fact that it had been done so well and by a person with skills that I simply don’t have."
Reitman went beyond simply translating the book to the screen. He took Kirn’s main character and forged a set of wholly original dramatic circumstances around him – and he crafted two characters who shatter Ryan Bingham’s well-constructed cocoon of individuality. These are: Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a gung-ho if naïve, 20-something efficiency expert whom he is forced to take under his wing even as she threatens his lifestyle; and Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), the woman who seems to be his business travel soul-mate, sparking his first-ever desire for more than just a fleeting link to another human being.
"Ryan goes through an interesting experience in this film, oddly taking on a father role with Natalie, who is always nipping at his heels, and contemplating the notion of becoming a husband to Alex," Reitman observes.
The screenplay took on another powerful layer of relevancy as Reitman wrote, because not only did his life change in major ways, but the country’s economic situation dramatically shifted. By the time the script was nearly complete, the country was in the middle of a severe and perilous recession, which compelled Reitman to more deeply explore the story’s underlying theme of job loss.
In doing so, the co-writer/director was inspired to take an unusual risk. Rather than script the film’s collage of firings and confessions from the newly unemployed, he decided he would go out to capture real, direct, unscripted reactions from ordinary Americans who had just gone through the intensely emotional experience of losing a job in a faltering economy. It proved to be an eye-opening and moving process, tying the film’s mix of human drama and comedy to a sobering reality.
Reitman recalls: "We wanted the firing scenes to be honest and true. So we thought, ‘why not show the real thing?’ We went to Detroit and St. Louis, two cities hit hardest by all the job losses of the last year, and put ads in the Help Wanted section saying we were making a movie about job loss and looking for people who were willing to talk about it. We got so many submissions, it was heartbreaking."
The co-writer/director continues: "People came in and we asked them to say what they said on the day they were fired, or what they wished they had said. What was amazing to me as someone who’s constantly working with actors to attain realism, was how these people, who I presumed would be uncomfortable on camera, came off so honest and real. It’s now one of my favorite parts of the film."
Finally, Reitman adds: "Every day you see news stories about job cuts but it’s usually about a number, so it’s easy to forget who these people are. What I’m most proud of is that the movie puts real faces to those numbers."
The film’s producers found the final screenplay as uncategorizable as it was laced with original comedy and visceral emotion. Says executive producer Tom Pollock: "This is a serious movie that is very, very funny. That’s one of the reasons I love it so much: it’s a movie that’s beyond genre. It’s perfect for Jason because his work is never classifiable. His first two films were completely unique and so is this one."
Also coming on board as a producer was Pollock’s partner in the Montecito Picture Company, a man who perhaps knows Jason Reitman as well as anyone, his father Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters), an acclaimed director in his own right. "Speaking as both a producer and a dad, this was one of the best screenplays I’ve read," he says. "Taking Walter Kirn’s idea about a man who loves to fly and fires people for a living, a whole new story was created that is very timely to what is happening right now. What’s interesting about Jason is that he manages to tell really serious, emotionally charged stories with a unique comic bent. Up in the Air has a fresh kind of humor that helps us see things that are going on around us on a daily basis and finds a way to create an edge about them. He has made a movie that really comes equally from his brain and his heart."
The creative synergy between the two Reitmans became another unique element of the production. Pollock explains: "Jason has found a way to be himself without in any way living in his father’s shadow. The two men make very different kinds of movies, but they have a wonderful working relationship full of mutual pride and respect."
Joining the two Reitmans as producers are Jason’s long-time partner Daniel Dubiecki, who produced both Juno and Thank You for Smoking, and Jeffrey Clifford, who runs production for The Montecito Picture Company.
Clifford notes that what hit him right away about the screenplay is "the way that Jason has an acute sense of how people really operate in the world, their mannerisms, gestures, language and the very specific way they think. What makes him so interesting is that he’s able to use those things to tell stories that are very much about something, but also connect easily to a lot of people."
Dubiecki adds: "Jason brings fun and style to difficult things that people want to talk about. Up in the Air is sophisticated filmmaking that has a light air about it but keeps getting deeper and deeper as the story goes on."
As in his previous two films, Jason Reitman knew that Up in the Air would hang on the bones of its tricky central character, a man who had to be charming, sharp and relatable while hiding an unrecognized sense of emptiness behind his confident swagger and his supposed joy at being "baggage-free."
So, from the beginning, the story was written with Academy Award® winner George Clooney in mind. "If you're going to make a movie about a guy who fires people for a living and wants to live alone, he better be a darn charming actor. And there really isn’t anyone better at that than George Clooney," Reitman explains. "The role was tailor-made for him and it was probably one of the most exciting moments of my life when he finished reading it and said to me, ‘Jason, it’s great.’"
Clooney has demonstrated a broad range in roles, from the smooth convict Ulysses in the Coen brothers’ screwball musical-comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? , to heist expert Danny Ocean in Steven Soderbergh’s blockbuster Oceans Eleven and its sequels to his Oscar®-nominated performance as a "fixer" for a corporate law firm in Tony Gilroy’s thriller Michael Clayton.
Reitman says Clooney brought a diversity of shadings to Ryan Bingham, playing him with a humanity that keeps the character darkly funny without slipping into farce. "At a moment’s notice, George can jump right into any type of scene, be it emotional or comedic," he says. "George and I have a very similar comedic sensibility. We both believe comedy should be dealt with honestly, that you shouldn't try to make something funny. The writing needs to be funny, but the acting needs to be honest."
Clooney also brought an air of excitement to the entire production. "He’s just a lovely guy to have on set," Reitman concludes. "People say that a lot and you presume that it’s gotta be hype, but it’s not. He’s the real deal and he makes people comfortable. That was an enormous asset."
Adds Ivan Reitman: "George has this wonderful charm and light humor about him so that he can take this man who finds himself in very serious situations and find just the right tonality to play that. He manages to be both a charismatic movie star and to carry as much weight as he ever has in a movie before. I think that’s a very exciting combination for people to see."
Many were struck by the chemistry between the writing and Clooney’s delivery. "Jason is able to write dialogue that is sharp and cutting, yet has real soul, and that’s who George is," sums up Jeffrey Clifford.
With Clooney cast in the main role, Reitman focused on the two unusual women who force Ryan to question the contours of his future as a perennial free agent. For the vital role of Alex, whose elite travel program savvy seduces Ryan but who also triggers a desire for real sharing, he turned to award-winning actress Vera Farmiga, best known for her role in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.
"The role of Alex is a tricky one," comments Reitman. "This is the woman who captures George Clooney’s heart and she’s also a unique female movie character. Vera came at it perfectly, with such charm, beauty and, frankly, balls that you fall in love with her as she’s flirting over mileage status. What I love about these characters, and about how the actors including Vera played them, is that you don’t judge them. They’re just real people."
Farmiga was drawn both to the story and to working with Reitman. "The writing in this script was sharp as a tack, and the characters brilliantly edgy and witty," says the actress. "I think heroines in a Jason Reitman film are quicker, sharper, more intelligent and more eccentric than most other film female characters. And that’s what drew me to Alex. The film also has such poignancy and enormous social relevance."
She also found it plain funny. "Jason knows comedy – it’s in his genes," she says. "I had to trust him because I am terrified of irony, but he really has an excellent sense of how humor works."
Naturally, she was not averse to a heated romance with George Clooney but, beyond that, Farmiga admits she was actually quite moved by the path that their relationship takes. "Ryan thinks he’s met his match in Alex, a woman he doesn’t have to worry about, who won’t ask more of the relationship than what they have. She fits well into his philosophy of no attachments – only he’s the one who becomes attached."
As for working with Clooney, she summarizes: "George was exactly the partner I needed because I have never felt as insecure as I did coming into this role. I had just given birth to my first child two weeks before my first costume fitting. I really needed an ally and he was simply wonderful. The most attractive thing about him is his wit. He brings himself to this role, a wry, clever, cool, detached guy, and happily so. Yet he’s the consummate gentleman, extremely kind and loving. And there was plenty of laughter on the set."
Just as Ryan Bingham meets Alex, another woman comes into his life – the young numbers-cruncher Natalie Keener, who arrives at Ryan’s company only to threaten the freedom of his hyperkinetic lifestyle. It is Natalie’s budget-cutting idea to bring Ryan and his associates in from the road and have them work via remote video conferencing, a move that threatens to alter and complicate Ryan’s life and de-humanize the firing process even more. But when Ryan takes Natalie on a trip to show her the ropes, she gains new insight into how profoundly unsettling and challenging the act of laying someone off can be, and it proves to be more affecting than she can bear.
Playing Natalie is Anna Kendrick, who became the second youngest Tony Award nominee ever when she was nominated as Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance as Dinah in the Broadway revival of "High Society." She has since gone on to a range of film roles from her debut in Rocket Science to her participation in the Twilight film series.
"The secret is that I actually wrote Natalie for Anna Kendrick," Reitman confesses. "I had seen her in Rocket Science, and thought she was simply incredible, different from any actress her age. And when she came in to audition for Up in the Air, she proved it. She has a completely unique voice that separates her from her generation."
He continues: "I'm very proud of the character of Natalie, I think she’s different from most young female characters. Usually if you have a female character in her twenties, she’s some sort of romantic lead. But Natalie is an unromantic, business-minded, bull-headed young woman who reminds me of several women I adore, including my wife."
Kendrick was equally taken with Natalie. "When I was first talking to Jason about the role, he said that it was based on several women he knew who feel frustrated because they’re always the smartest ones in the room. Natalie is smart but also uptight, uncomfortable in her own skin and socially awkward. Now, I don’t think I’m the smartest person in the room, but I did connect with the control freak aspect of it and I’m really an awkward person," she laughs.
Kendrick was also intrigued by how Natalie tries to find within herself a person who can fire one employee after the next with business-like precision and equanimity. "Natalie is such a funny character but she doesn’t think she’s funny and she certainly doesn’t know she’s funny," she explains. "She so wants to be in control and she’s been thrown into a place where she isn’t. This is probably the first time she feels completely lost, and she starts to realize she really can’t do this job."
During the firing scenes, the reality of the story had a deep impact on the actress. She relates, "I was doing one of the firing scenes and the woman that I sat across from told me that she really had just lost her job. It was uncomfortable and I didn’t know what to say to her. It really hit home that this was a reality for so many people."
As much as she enjoyed the character, the irony for Kendrick being cast in this particular movie is that she finds airports a personal hell. "I hate them and I find no pleasure in flying. It was hilarious to me that we were going to be filming non-stop in airports. For me, that is the essence of losing personal control."
She also had her concerns about working beside George Clooney, but those were quickly put to rest. "I was terrified, excited and nervous," she says, "not just because it was George Clooney, though obviously that is intimidating. But also I was so excited about the role and so dearly wanted to do well. Then I met him and understood why everyone had tried to calm me by saying, ‘You’ll be fine.’ He’s just a great guy."
Jason Bateman, who previously portrayed the uncertain adoptive father to the unborn child in Juno, reunites with Reitman in the role of Ryan Bingham’s boss Craig Gregory. "Once I read the script, I knew that Craig Gregory was going to be a great character to play," says Bateman. "He’s your typical corporate bagman in suspenders, the kind of guy I hate. It is very indicative of who he is that over each piece of dialogue, Jason used his full name whereas in most scripts, you only see the first name. He is the prototypical guy you don’t want to work for – sort of a soul-less Darth Vader."
Reitman was excited to have Bateman do something quite different in the role. "Jason has played a lot of smarmy roles but he came up with a new approach to Craig Gregory," he says.
Bateman in turn notes that he, along with the entire cast, was inspired to explore the character through the prism of Reitman’s drama-comedy fusion. "Jason’s drama is filled with comedy, and vice versa, because he’s interested in real people with real problems," sums up Bateman. "His is a hysterical but heartbreaking kind of humor. Not a lot of people know how to do that but Jason is certainly one of them."
FASTEN SEAT BELTS
Ryan Bingham’s journey really starts to tilt when he is invited to his sister’s Wisconsin wedding – forcing him to confront the family he has largely ignored his whole adult life and spurring his unexpected hunger for something deeper.
Jason Reitman sees Ryan’s encounter with his family as crucial to both the film’s comedy and drama. "One element I always loved about Walter Kirn’s book was the idea that Ryan needed to go to his sister’s wedding. I hate weddings personally, so I really empathized with Ryan not wanting to go but, at the same time, I thought it was the perfect opportunity for Ryan to show that he had changed, that he wanted something more, and that he was ready to connect."
The director especially enjoyed casting the Binghams. "I needed characters that were funny but very honest, and oddly heartbreaking. And I got that particularly in Melanie Lynskey, who plays Ryan’s sister. She brings so much honesty, humor and sadness and sweetness. When Ryan asks her, ’do you need me to walk you down the aisle,’ before she even says no, you can see it in her eyes. That breaks my heart every time I see it. And Danny McBride is a guy I’ve been wanting to work with ever since I saw him in All the Real Girls. He’s so funny that people forget how good he is at just plain acting. So it was just a thrill to give him a role where his job wasn’t to be funny."
McBride, an actor and writer who most recently starred in his own HBO comedy series, "Eastbound and Down," felt an immediate connection to the material. "I just loved the tone of the script. It was so mature. Jason has such a cool tone and style," he says. "Both Thank You for Smoking and Juno are such fun and also have an incredible heart at the center and that’s the kind of comedy I gravitate towards."
He also enjoyed the surprise turn his happily engaged character takes. "Jim is your typical, small town, 30-ish male who always assumed life is about getting married, buying a home and having a family. Then, on the morning of his wedding, he flips out," McBride explains. "It becomes a crucial moment not only for Jim but for Ryan, because it turns out he’s scared of the same things Jim is scared of. In trying to figure out the right things to say to Jim, Ryan sees another side to his own life."
Lynskey, a New Zealand native who is well known for her role on television’s "Two and a Half Men" and whose recent films include Sam Mendes’ Away We Go and Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, also could not resist the film’s characters. "I really, really wanted to be in this movie," she recalls, "and the casting director said to me, ‘Don’t let Jason know you have a New Zealand accent. If you say anything, do it in an American accent.’ Unfortunately, I’m not very good at that when I’m talking as myself. So I ended up being completely silent unless I was doing a scene. He asked me to do an additional scene and I just nodded my head. In the end, though, it worked out."
Hailing from a very big family, Lynskey says she could relate to Ryan barely knowing his sister, Julie. "That’s what appealed to me because it was such an honest portrayal of what families are really like," she explains. "I really responded to the awkwardness of when, even though you’re related to someone, there’s a feeling of great distance."
Reitman decided early on that the way he wanted to film Julie and Jim’s wedding and reception was to do it as though he’d been hired by the couple locally to document the happy day. The entire scene, including the reception, was shot not on film but on video. There was one rehearsal the night before with the cast in their own clothes and a real wedding coordinator and pastor advising Jason and the cast and crew on how it would proceed if real.
The result was surreal for Lynskey. "Danny was so funny and that day was so bizarre. We suddenly looked at one another and went, ‘Whoa, I feel like we’re really getting married.’ We’ll probably have this strange bond for the rest of our lives. I’ve been married in movies before, and also in real life, but this was Danny’s first time so it was pretty funny."
McBride also got into the celebratory mood. "It was all so perfect," he laughs. "I thought about calling my fiancée to see if she wanted to rush out to St. Louis so we could knock out our own wedding. She probably could have fit into Melanie’s gown. It would have been great."
Up in the Air is a movie that cruises, like its lead character, from city to city, hub to hub, airport to airport, never quite grounded, always speeding towards an uncertain destination. Jason Reitman says that, when it came to the look of the film, this proved to be an intriguing design challenge. "I think a lot of people like to think that a hard production design movie is one that takes place in 17th century England. But, realistically, the average person wouldn't know if you were off by a hundred years. A movie like this, on the other hand, needs to be completely accurate," he comments. "You look at it and right away you know whether you believe it or not. Is that really your home town, is that really your city? Is that really what your office looks like?"
He continues: "We shot in five cities but we were portraying twenty. And Steve Saklad, our production designer, was just a genius at setting up five different cities in one building sometimes. We’d literally just go from floor to floor, scene to scene, and we’d be crossing the continent. At the same time, I wanted to really feel the changes, every time Ryan lands somewhere new. One moment you’re in Miami, on the water, the next moment you’re in Detroit in the middle of the snow. I wanted to feel those climates, I wanted to see them breathing the air, so everything had to change from city to city: the lighting, the production design and the clothes all change."
There is also a larger visual change going on that echoes the shifting landscape inside Ryan Bingham. "As we begin the movie, everything is pristine. You walk into an airport, it’s perfect and spotless and all the people are well tailored, and you can’t imagine a more heavenly place," Reitman says. "But by the end of the movie, as Ryan’s life changes, his point of view on airports changes, and suddenly everything is handheld and chaotic and a mess."
Adds Daniel Dubiecki: "As Ryan begins to subtly shift and alter you feel that in every element of the movie, in the colors and textures. The changes are not just happening in character and in dialogue. They’re happening in the music. They’re happening in the production design. They’re happening in the costumes. They’re happening in the lighting. The shifts are part of Jason’s overall vision."
The cities where Ryan Bingham travels to do his "career transition counseling" were carefully chosen to spotlight those that have most fallen prey to downsizing, bankruptcies and foreclosures in recent months. They include Detroit (home to the auto industry), Phoenix (a health insurance hub), St. Louis (a bottling center) and Wichita (securities finance firms).
When Reitman put his production team together, he called on a team who had worked with him previously, including director of photographer Eric Steelberg, production designer Saklad and costume designer Danny Glicker. He also reunited with location manager John Latenser, whose talent for tenaciously searching out locations had been demonstrated on Thank You for Smoking. "Although it’s a lot more work, I love the fact that Jason likes to shoot on practical locations," admits Latenser. "Filming in a practical location brings a realism that can’t be duplicated on a stage."
Latenser first had to narrow down the primary locations. The analysis pointed to St. Louis, Missouri as the logical home base for the production, because of its wide variety of architecture. Detroit, Omaha, Miami and Las Vegas were subsequently added. Those five cities would double for locations including Phoenix, Wichita, Chicago, Houston and Waupaca, Wisconsin. Many of the St. Louis neighborhoods resembled areas in Chicago and Omaha and the production eventually shot at more than 30 different locations throughout the city. In addition, the film includes more than 50 scenes in various airports and planes. "Normally a film company would shy away from shooting any place that is noisy. But Jason decided early on that he had to shoot in actual airports," says Latenser.
Since 9/11, filming in airports has become increasingly problematic. "Everything had to be planned out including the logistics of how to get the equipment and the crew into the airport," Latenser reports. "Every member of the crew had to pass through TSA security and have had a previous background check. And we could not interfere with the normal rhythms of the airport."
Fortunately, because the production had already forged a partnership with American Airlines, the disruption was minimal and many employees and travelers were surprised and happy to find themselves face to face with George Clooney, who was always ready with a wave and a smile.
Production began at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, where the company filmed for three days in the new McNamara Terminal and the mothballed Berry Terminal, which the art department was able to use to stand in for other airports, just one of the many such transformations required for the production. Recounts Saklad: "In that one complex we were able to portray five airports that you believe are all over the Midwest."
In St. Louis, the production took over the empty, six-story GenAmerica building in downtown, which was utilized for the interior of Ryan’s head office; Sun Casualty in Phoenix; the St. Louis bottling company, with the city’s famous Gateway to the West arch visible out the window; and Alex making a phone call from an Atlanta conference room. The building was next door to the Ballpark Hilton, where additional scenes were filmed.
Saklad set the tone for each of the cities’ offices with distinct palettes and identities. For example, Phoenix featured earthy, southwestern colors; for Wichita, it was rich burgundies and golds; while Detroit, the motor city, was done in greys, reds and cool blues. "We had to have a rigid framework so the audience would feel the movement from place to place," the designer explains.
There were also seven different hotel rooms in which action takes place. What helped Saklad was the fact that early on an agreement had been made with the Hilton Hotel chain, taking some of the guesswork out of his job. Still, Saklad and Reitman wanted something very specific. "We rejected the most current, contemporary hotel designs," notes Saklad. "What we wanted is something that feels more timeless and classic because Ryan is not a man of huge visual imagination."
There was also a psychological component to the look of the hotel rooms that played into the story’s theme. "Jason felt strongly that he wanted the sense that when Ryan slides that key card in the door, he can come into the room and without turning on the lights know where the closet is, where the robes are stored, where the luggage rack is and the bathroom lights are. We made a concerted effort to have a very limited vision of Ryan’s world," Saklad explains.
Throughout the first part of the film, Saklad observes, the film’s locations are almost entirely prefabricated and manufactured spaces, rather than intimate or personal places. "Ryan moves through corporate spaces, hotels, airports and offices. Even his home functions like a hotel room. For the art department that was a truly unique challenge," he says.
Once the filming moves on to Waupaca, Wisconsin for the wedding, however, the design does a 180-degree turnaround. "We had a great deal of fun showing the Waupaca wedding," says Saklad. "There we have color and lots of craft projects. The set decorating department spent hours designing and making the table decorations. We even had a homemade wedding cake. It was a lot of fun."
Capturing all of these contrasts was director of photography Eric Steelberg, whose relationship with Jason Reitman dates back to high school and who previously shot Juno. "Eric very carefully alternated shimmery, beautiful, sexy shots with ones that had to be absolutely dry bones, neutral documentarian shots," says Saklad.
In their initial discussions, Steelberg recalls that Reitman "told me he wanted the film to romanticize business travel. He spoke of this journeyman who loves being on the road, loves his hotels, loves being on airplanes – all the things most people don’t like about traveling. Jason wanted us to see that whole world through Ryan’s eyes, and he wanted it to be very sexy and appealing. So we show travel as it was years ago, when people dressed up to get on airplanes. Even if it was not a particularly beautiful or new airport, we tried to find a way to romanticize it."
The film’s real-world locations upped the challenges. "It’s difficult to shoot in airports and hotel lobbies that are open for business. In fact, with the exception of one of the airplane interiors, we didn’t shoot on a set. We shot one scene on a real American Airlines 757 jet inside a hangar, and even there we had restrictions," he says.
Wherever he was shooting, Steelberg’s lighting followed Bingham’s progress as a character. When the audience first meets the character, says Steelberg, the imagery is a little slicker but, as the story gets more real, the visual approach changes. "In the beginning we used hard, contrasting light. As we move along, it becomes softer, warmer, as does Ryan. The thing that was most important to us was to shoot and light in a way that the audience really gets sucked in."
Rounding out the design team is costume designer Danny Glicker, who was nominated for an Oscar® earlier this year for his work on Milk and previously worked with Reitman on Thank You for Smoking. "Glicker is hilarious – and a genius, too," says Reitman. "His eye for wardrobe is unparalleled. I can’t imagine making a movie without him. This is a movie where the main character wears the same suit in every scene, and yet it always looks original. Also, as Ryan travels, it was so important that no matter who he meets, they really represent their city, and Glicker nailed that."
Glicker says it started with his admiration for the script and the director: "Jason has a complicated way of telling a story that is both smart and funny. It brings the audience in and challenges them. Jason is also a director who truly contains the entire film in his mind. He’s always in control of what he’s getting on camera."
Unlocking the logic of Ryan Binghan’s wardrobe was Glicker’s first and biggest challenge. In a nutshell, says Glicker, Ryan Bingham has mastered the art of living out of a suitcase. "I wanted to honor the idea that he is so completely devoid of any attachments that he travels with everything in a carry-on bag," he says. "I worked closely with George Clooney and with Jason to create a very, very carefully edited wardrobe that would fit into this small bag and take this man on his journey. We embraced an almost ‘60s-style, classic sensibility of dressing for Ryan. In the ‘60s you would almost always get one blazer and two pairs of pants, so he has two identical suits he recycles on trips."
The story also called for a change in actor George Clooney’s traditional silhouette. "People are used to seeing him in Italian suits," notes Glicker. "In this case I felt that the movie was so connected to the American work force that I wanted to embrace a look that was distinctly American, a crisp, classic Brooks Brothers silhouette."
The minimalist costuming of Bingham’s character relied heavily on detail. "Every shirt he wears is custom-made in the exact shade of grey that will photograph beautifully no matter what environment you put him in. His topcoat was made of the best cashmere you can buy because it reflected light in a beautiful way, staying in perfect harmony with any background. We worked very hard to always have him exude crispness and professionalism yet never be a fashion plate."
The attention to detail continued right down to Clooney’s feet, says Glicker. "Ryan is obsessed with all things that are swift and efficient, and nothing is more efficient than a slip-on shoe. His shoes are absolutely airport friendly and let him go through the metal detector quickly."
Another of Ryan’s most cherished objects also holds a special place in Reitman’s heart: his compact, highly efficient Travelpro luggage. "I have a rollaway that I can live out of for weeks at a time," confesses the director. "I have measured the time it takes me to get in and out of security, to pack and unpack, so those scenes come straight from my real life."
For Ryan’s female counterpart, Alex, as played by Vera Farmiga, Glicker chose looks with a similar sweet smell of success. "Alex is elegant, sensual and smart," he notes. "Fortunately, Vera is one of the rare performers who is at home in her body. She’s able to really move and express the sensuality of clothes in a way that is still very empowering. She is a fearless actress and, in the fittings, rather than simply try on the clothes, she explored how they would inform her performance."
Glicker continues: "She wears a lot of silk charmeuse blouses and softly structured Armani suits. Even though the pinstripe on her suit is a bold fabric, it’s worn in a way that is a little more playful, a little more feminine. She also has some beautiful little black dresses, including the demure, draped collar she wears in the wedding sequence. Her clothes are seductive but also absolutely correct for a business person’s suitcase."
Dressing Anna Kendrick’s Natalie was just the opposite from Alex for Glicker. Like most young professionals fresh out of college, she has very few clothes because she doesn’t have much money. "One thing I did was to always give her three pieces. So if she had a suit, it would always have a blazer, skirt and slacks. All her shirts were perfect, crisp little business shirts. Three-piece suits were a way for her (as a young business person stretching her clothing dollar) to create an entry level professional wardrobe on a recent graduate's limited budget," he says.
As with Saklad, Glicker especially enjoyed switching to homier costuming for the wedding sequence. "The wedding represents a very poignant leg of Ryan’s story, where we really begin to understand that he comes from a background of down-to-earth folk," he observes. "The first thing I did was put us on a budget like Julie’s budget. We were going for the sense that you aren’t just watching some strangers on a screen, but watching people you might know."
In an unusual twist, one of Glicker’s most creative tasks did not involve any of the main characters, but rather the extras who populate the airport and hotel scenes – and were key to providing the flavor of multiple, diverse cities. "After reading the script, I told Jason I really wanted to embrace the notion of regionalism," the costume designer says. "So you will see little things like in Arizona, at the beginning of the movie, people are wearing turquoise. Even in the tiniest segment, we made sure there was some regional flair or local sports memorabilia visible. We didn’t want to hit the audience over the head with it but we plant these little seeds throughout that keep the journey visually exciting. One of my goals was to make sure that, by the end of the movie, the audience has the sense that they, too, just like Ryan Bingham, have traveled the country, taking it all in."
As production wound down, Jason Reitman reunited with another longtime partner he considers essential to his work: Dana Glauberman, who edited both Juno and Thank You for Smoking. Says Reitman of their close collaboration: "I can’t imagine anyone I’d want to share an editing room with more than Dana. She understands how I shoot, she understands my visual language and she’s able to get right at the tone and style that I want immediately."
Glauberman, who also served as an assistant editor on several of Ivan Reitman’s films, has known Jason since he was in high school, developing a friendship that has led to a deep creative trust. She recognized his touches throughout the new script. "I fell in love with the script for Up in the Air immediately. There were a lot of Jason-isms, great characters and great heart. There is more drama in this one than in his other films and the emotions are on a different level."
The work of editing, Glauberman says, was like piecing together a narrative jigsaw puzzle, a process she finds especially fun with Reitman. "Jason and I have worked together so closely that there are times we actually read each other’s minds and finish each other’s sentences. It’s a great director-editor relationship because we really understand each other and each other’s styles. There were a lot of challenges on this movie, balancing all the levels of character, and I am extremely proud of what we have accomplished."
Glauberman was quite moved while sifting through the hours of footage of real people reacting to the loss of their jobs. "We would have tears rolling down our faces watching this stuff because it’s just heartbreaking," she says. "It makes you feel so fortunate not only to have a job but also to have a career that you love."
Reitman put the finishing touches on Up in the Air with a soundtrack of hand-picked songs. "For me the soundtrack is a character in the film," he says. "I start thinking about the music very early on and while I’m writing the script I'm putting together an iTunes library of all the songs I want to use. I ultimately landed on ten songs that really speak to the nature of this film."
The film opens with a funky, contemporary cover of Woody Guthrie’s working-class American classic "This Land Is Your Land" by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, setting the story into motion. Says Reitman: "It’s a really lovely, soulful entrance to the journey of this film about the American landscape."
That journey is one that Reitman took along with Ryan Bingham. He sums up: "I’ve made three films and, with each film, I started with a question I was asking myself. The first film was a question about my own personal politics. My second one had to do with becoming a father and growing up. And this one has to do with the biggest question of all: how to spend your life, whether or not to spend it with people or alone, whether to escape or not. And as I made this movie it confirmed the ideas that I felt burning inside – that is that life is better with company, even if you believe you don't need anybody."