Interview: Up In The Air's Jason Reitman, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick and Walter Kirn

Please fasten your seat belt, put your seat and tray table into the upright position and prepare to enter air world. For most, traveling by plane is a hassle. You’ve got to pack up all your stuff, go through security and spend hours on a stuffy plane. On one trip, Walter Kirn came across a ‘new creature,’ a person who lives to fly. This chance encounter inspired Kirn to write Up In The Air.

The novel tells the story of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate downsizer who considers himself a resident of the skies. He spends the majority of the year traveling the country firing people without remorse, just looking forward to getting closer to his goal of acquiring ten million frequent flier miles. Ryan thrives on his simplicity but when out of his comfort zone and off the road, he’s as complex and troubled as they come.

Kirn passed that complex story over to Jason Reitman who not only related to Ryan’s situation himself, but knew exactly what to do to adapt Kirn’s book to film. Along with actresses Vira Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, Kirn and Reitman give insight into the movie you’ll be eager to see once it lands in theaters in December.

With all of the Oscar buzz surrounding the film, is there any competition between you two actresses?

Kendrick: I’ve got a hit out on Vera. AH! [Farmiga pushes Kendrick, they laugh.]

Kendrick: I’m going to Nancy Kerrigan you’re ass. [Everyone laughs]

Farmiga: Oh, sir, there is no competition.

Kendrick: Oh! What?

You’ve been working since you were young, but before this movie, people didn’t really know who you were. Can you tell us about where you’ve come from and what this has done for you?

Kendrick: I grew up in Portland, Maine and I started in theater in New York when I was 12 actually. I did a show on Broadway when I was 12. I started to get into film and television when I was about 17 and eventually sort of moved to L.A. and, you know, tried to work and stuff. I think it’s a little bit weird to start working at 12 and still be thought of as a newcomer but it’s cool. I’d rather be a newcomer than old news.

Have you ever been fired from a job?

Reitman:I’ve never been fired. I’m frankly very good at what I do. Never been fired from anything. I’ve fired people but never been fired. I fired a seven-year-old girl once. I was directing her on a commercial and she was a bad influence on the other kids.

Kirn: I was fired from my first job as an ice cream scooper. The ice cream scoops were to be made large and hollow so as to maximize profits but I couldn’t bear to give my friends hollow scoops of ice cream. At the end of one day my boss came up to me and said, ‘Walter, we’re going to have to let you go.’ I was 15 and I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because you’re a very heavy scooper.’

Can you tell us about the people you used in the film who were laid off?

Reitman: When I first started writing this movie it was 2003 and we were at the tail end of an economic boom and as I approached the actual shooting of the film we were now in one of the worst recessions on record and I had to adjust how we were doing these firing scenes. To do it as pure satire just didn’t make sense anymore. We were shooting the film in St. Louis and Detroit, two cities that just got pummeled and we put an ad out in the paper asking if there was people who’d lost their just that wanted to be in a documentary about job loss. We said documentary to kind of weed out actors who were trying to, you know, sneak into the film and we got a startling amount of responses. We ended up letting 60 people on camera, 22 of which who are in the film. We would interview them for about ten minuets on what it’s like to lose their job in this kind of economy and after that we would actually fire them on camera and we’d ask them to either respond the way they did the day they lost their job or if they preferred the way they wished they had responded. It was kind of an incredible experience to watch these non-actors improv with 100% realism.

Vera, you’re character’s integrity could be considered questionable. Do you look at her as an honest or dishonest person?

Farmiga: I’ll tell ya, I think it’s what drew me to the character really. I saw her as a feminist manifesto of sorts. I really think that’s what appealed to me about her was the integrity of self. Absolutely. She’s true to herself, her own needs, her desires and she has the world accommodated on all levels. I think Jason does write women as sort of modern heroines in a way. I think Alex represented to me everything that is so hard about being a woman which is this conflicted choice between career and family, between romance and respectability, between recklessness and restraint, the push and pull of being a woman. But she’s true to herself and that’s pretty cool to see feminine desire portrayed in that way. Usually when characters are represented this way they’re bereft of dignity and she has self esteem, so I thought it was cool.

What was the adaptation process like?

Kirn: I think that the book is to the movie, what a piece of paper is to a paper airplane.

Reitman: That was great! That’s no the first time you’ve said that though!

Kirn: What I mean by this paper airplane comparison is this, he took this story and he folded it and he refolded it and he transformed it in a way that I completely recognize my own impulse in writing it but when I sat down to see it was not only honored and delighted but surprised by the transformations that had taken place in my own material and some of the potentials that I left untapped and, you know, here are two characters [gestures towards Kendrick and Farmiga], one of whom is sort of in the book and one of whom is not at all in the book. There’s an Alex of a sort and there is no Natalie. So there’s so much invention. I think that anyone who’s interested in book to film adaptation really should look at this book and this film and see the way that that can be something more than a linear process but actual sort of chrysalis, you know, butterfly process. I read Jason’s script amazed and when you talk about Oscars and that sort of thing, because I know the source material that it came from intimately, there is a very deserved one there.

Reitman: Wow. Thank you. That was incredibly generous and startlingly well put. And a great market thing. I’m not sure if you noticed that but he said that ‘you should really read the book and see the movie.’

Reitman: Oh! You know what? That’s true!

Kirn: You know, you won’t read this book and then know everything that’s going to happen in the movie and you won’t see the movie and know everything that’s going to happen in the book.

Reitman: There’s more waiting for you.

Do you yourself have an affinity for ‘air world’ like the character Ryan?

Kirn:Jason and I have compared mileage … in the men’s room.

Reitman: [Laughs] You stole it! I was thinking it!

Kirn: Just before we came in. He has approximately 15,000 times I think the mileage that I have. I wrote this book in [Earl], Montana of all places, in a snowbound winter on a ranch thinking about airports and airplanes and thinking about a particular conversation I’d had that had startled me. I sat down in a first class cabin – somebody else must have been paying – and you know, I’m the guy you don’t want to sit next to on an airplane because I want to know your story and want to tell you mine and I asked him where he was from this line is in the movie. He said, “I’m from right here” and I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “Well, I used to have an apartment in Atlanta but I never used it. It just collected dust and then I got a storage locker, I stay in hotels and am on the road 300 days a year. So this is where I’m form and this is my family.” He pointed to a flight attendant and said, “I know her. I know her name. I know her kids’ names.” And I thought, this is a new creature. I felt like an ornithologist discovering a new bird and when you’re a novelist and you discover a new creature and you discover a sort of new environment in which this creature is possible, you have to write the book.

Reitman: Well, Walter, it’s not how many miles you have, it’s how you use them. [Laughs] Sorry, I couldn’t resist that. I’m a flyer. I fly a lot. The reason I love that book is because I am loyal to one airline. I fly it religiously. I’d rather have a connecting flight than fly nonstop on another airline. I have a very specific way that I pack. I have a specific way that I go through security. I choreographed how George packs and goes through security on this film. I was very detail oriented on this. I love flying. I think that – the reason why I loved to go to movie theaters when I was a kid is I liked to be alone and I liked to turn the rest of the world off and the movie theater used to be that place but it stopped being that I think mostly because of cell phones. But, your cell phone doesn’t work on an airplane and, oddly, being in the air is the last refuge for those who like to be alone. I love to be amongst strangers. I like sitting next to the person, you know, that’s got the window seat and have a conversation with them, the kind that which I could not have if someone if I actually knew them. I see a beauty in the idea of travel that I recognized in your book and I wanted to explore that on film. There’s a great line in the book and it’s true for me, “Everything you hate about travel is why I love it.”

Can you elaborate on the adaption process and what it’s like seeing your work altered?

Kirn: I wrote a script to this book, which was terrible and caused its option to be dropped by another studio and that script disappeared into the sands of – or into the dustpans of Hollywood and then I woke up one day thinking there would never be a life to this book and found out that, you know, somebody whose name I knew, whose work I respected and who happened to be very hot thought – or was telling people that this was going to be his next movie. So really, it was like waking up in a dream world because I’d failed to do it, the thing had disappeared and I wasn’t sure whether to believe the e-mail and I said something like, “So you’re involved with my movie or something” and Jason said, “No, this is my next movie. I’m writing it” and so on. See, anything that comes to me from the Los Angeles zip code is subjected to a 99% skepticism test and then when I heard from him again a few months later, and then when I actually saw him and he showed up at the place where we were supposed to meet and then when I found out that they’d actually casted the movie, I thought this is the first guy that has ever told me the truth from the city and he’s told it to me four times and it just gets better and better and then I read the script and it was a good script and then I went to the movie at his house – now that was manipulative – and it was a great movie. And, so, I have had the best case scenario experience and I’m not just saying that. I’m a realist as a novelist and I’m being realistic here. Sometimes miracles happen and this was one of them.

Perri Nemiroff

Staff Writer for CinemaBlend.