TORONTO — Jason Reitman has built his young career on the razor-sharp comedies Thank You For Smoking and Juno. But when the economy tanked while he was writing his latest movie, Up in the Air, the Oscar-nominated director knew his trademark satiric tone would have to change.
The film stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a businessman who has embraced a life of almost non-stop travel as he jets from city to city helping companies fire their employees. In nondescript offices across the United States, Bingham offers a few perfunctory words of advice to devastated workers before flying off to his next job.
“When I first started writing this, I wrote the firing scenes as comedic satire, and as (the economy soured), I realized: ‘OK, I need to be more authentic here,”’ Reitman said during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival.
He found the genuineness he was looking for in real-life laid-off employees.
In St. Louis and Detroit — two cities particularly hard hit by the recession — Reitman’s crew took out newspaper ads inviting axed workers to take part in a documentary about job loss.
The director said they received a “staggering” response. They called about 100 people, put 60 on camera and included 25 in the finished film.
Participants were brought into a room where they couldn’t see the camera or crew, said Reitman, and were interviewed by a producer about losing their job. After 10 minutes, they were told they were going to be “fired” on camera and asked to respond they way they did in real life, or the way they wished they had.
“It was really an extraordinary experience for me, because I’m a guy who, for a living, tries to get people to be honest on camera,” said Reitman.
“All these people — the second they would hear that kind of legal document that’s used in every firing . . . you would just see their demeanour change.
“They’d just fall in their seats, their eyes would go soft, one girl broke into hives. . . . They would begin very real improv acting where they would say: ‘Why did you choose me? There’s a hundred people in my department. Why didn’t you choose Steve? Is it because of my age? . . . Or: ‘How long is my health insurance going to stay on? Is there another job in the company? How could you do this to me?
“They would say these things that were so real and so heartbreaking. It was very hard to shoot and very hard to edit.”
Reitman said those interviews influenced the rest of the film.