Jason Reitman | In Search of the Authentic

prof_reitman.jpgHe was funny, and spoke with a lot of candor; you never got the politician vibe that he was lying to you for the sake of good PR.

Interviewing Jason Reitman, the director of the Oscar-bound, St. Louis-shot film Up in the Air, you almost get the impression he’s trying to passive-aggressively write the piece for you. He’s a hell of a lot of fun to interview, but that said, he’s thoroughly intimidating. Thankfully, I had been briefed by people who had dealt with him before: A friend of mine auditioned for a role in Up in the Air at an open casting call, and wound up improvising opposite Jason himself in a scene trying to sell him a car that he didn’t want to buy. Apparently in this scene, Reitman got in my friend’s face, screaming about how "[he] didn’t want his fucking car," and generally doing his best to rattle him. Then, on my way into the interview, another local journalist was exiting at around the same time, having just interviewed him. The journalist looked kind of stunned, said that Reitman was fun but that you had to brace yourself for him. The other journalist’s advice to me was to get up in his face and be like, "Come on, motherfucker!"

While the reality of interviewing Reitman was maybe not as scary as these two stories might imply, they do an accurate job of setting up the experience. As soon as he came in the room where the roundtable was being held, Reitman insisted on taking all four journalists’ pictures on his iPhone individually, for reasons he wouldn’t divulge. While doing this, he said, "You can ask me a question; I can actually do both," in a tone that was hard to read. Really, his behavior that threw me for the biggest loop was the way he answered questions. Any other director I’ve interviewed will give long-winded answers to whatever they are asked, sometimes actually addressing the question and sometimes not. This leaves the journalist to pull the best quote out of the several minutes of rambling for their piece. Reitman’s method of answering each question was to only give you the pull quote without the worthless crap that usually surrounds it. Each answer was funny and intelligent, and answered the question that was asked, but all were so short that they left me scrambling for a follow-up.

What made him fun to interview was that he was funny, and spoke with a lot of candor; you never got the politician vibe that he was lying to you for the sake of good PR. While, when asked the many obligatory questions about his feelings on shooting in St. Louis and working with St. Louis-native cast and crew, he would say things like, "The people were lovely. I met great actors, I met great crew, I met great people who made me feel at home. I was here for four months, and I was sincerely sad to leave," or, in reference to his favorable portrayal of St. Louis in the film, "St. Louis was very kind to us… I wanted to make a movie that spoke to the beauty of Middle America, and identified cities as unique." These might come off as suspicious if he hadn’t been so quick to complain about things he didn’t like. On what he didn’t like about St. Louis: "It gets fucking cold here!" On shooting in Las Vegas: "Las Vegas I hate; you probably noticed that. That was the worst place to shoot, and a place I never enjoy going to… Actors to locations, you know when I love them… The people aren’t exactly friendly, it’s hot in the middle of the desert, it’s a city based on our worst desires; it’s not a city of hope. I don’t know, it just doesn’t speak to me. It’s a fake city. St. Louis seemed to be a collection of people who were authentic, and Las Vegas is a collection of people who are trying to disappear and be somebody else, and in that sense be inauthentic."

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Authenticity is something that seems to comes easy to him. Despite his playfully abrasive demeanor, Reitman is best known at this point for the heartfelt (if sarcastic) Juno, and Up in the Air is just as generous a movie. It’s a film wherein he cast St. Louis non-actors to play roles that were essentially themselves; he wanted to hear stories from people who just lost their job about how they lost their job while he was here in town, and then cast some of these people to be fired by George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham, a man who fires people for a living. It has come up here at PLAYBACK:stl before that our own writer, Kevin Renick, wrote and performs the song that plays over the closing credits. Kevin’s version of the story of how this happened is that he attended Jason Reitman’s speech at Webster University in February of this year, and afterward introduced himself, and handed him a tape of his song "Up in the Air," which he had coincidentally written about his recently getting fired from his day job (with that title and all) before ever being made aware of Reitman’s forthcoming film. Reitman’s version of the story? "Kevin bribed me." After scoring the laugh he was going for, Reitman elaborates: "He had recently lost his job, he had written a song about it, and he handed me a cassette tape. The largest problem I had was finding a place to listen to it. But we found a car with a cassette deck and we listened to this song, and it opens with him talking to me, which was unusual, but we used that in the film. It was this very authentic song about the idea of looking for perks in your life, and it lent a voice to the enormous amount of people who’ve lost their jobs in this country."

While themes of family, home, relationships, job loss, etc. are rampant in Up in the Air, that didn’t leave us with nothing light to talk about. For example, despite being known as one of the hottest young directors working in Hollywood at the moment (here Reitman interrupts me: "‘Hot’ as in ‘attractive’?" Me: "Yes, ‘hot’ as in ‘attractive.’" Him: "All right! I had no idea!"), Reitman has the balls to make his older female actress, Vera Farmiga as Ryan’s commitment-free companion Alex, very sexy, while making his younger female actress, Anna Kendrick as Ryan’s coworker Natalie, quite dowdy (despite Kendrick herself being rather pretty). The question here is what is what regarding Reitman’s disposition toward old versus young women. I opened with this frivolous question — it was my closest equivalent to "Come on, motherfucker!" in question form — and Reitman responded with an enthusiastic "This is going to be a fun roundtable!" Despite how ultimately useless the question really is, Reitman nonetheless produces a worthwhile answer. "I…uh…like older and younger women equally. I find that they each have their charm. Really, look: Anna and Vera are playing the same woman at two different ages; that’s what I was trying to explore with their characters."

In this sense, my interview with Reitman mirrored the reality of watching one of his films: funny, direct, unusual and full of things to think about, some weighty, some thoroughly superficial. The key trait in Reitman’s oeuvre is the well of humanity under the surface of sarcasm; I couldn’t have been more delighted to find that Reitman practices what he preaches.

| Pete Timmermann

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