Up in the Air has become the critical smash of the season. Following an enthusiastic reception at a number of film festivals earlier in the year, the movie – which stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a”career transition counselor” who spends the majority of his life happily living on airplanes as he travels around the country firing people — has opened to extremely strong reviews and very solid returns. Script recently spoke with screenwriters Sheldon Tuner and Jason Reitman (who also directed) and asked them how they brought Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel to the screen.
The process began several years ago, soon after the then-new-to-the-business Turner (The Longest Yard – 2005, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning – 2006) had landed one of his first assignments — adapting a book called The Booster for Intermedia.”I was reading the New York Times Book Review on a Sunday and I came across a cover review for Walter Kirn’s book…went out and got (it)…and immediately was captivated by Ryan Bingham. It just struck me as a great redemptive tale to have a story about a guy who fires people for a living…who is very happy, very good at what he does and suddenly has the realization that maybe there’s more.”
Turner was fascinated by Ryan’s job.”I always thought, ‘My god, what does that do? What’s the psychological and psychic toll on someone that has to go every day and fire someone?’ Look, I can’t even fire my maid. I have an amazing amount of fascination, abhorrence, intrigue, and respect in a way for somebody that can do that. And I was always intrigued with someone that does that and does it gracefully, but also the impact of that (on a person).” He was also intrigued by Bingham’s sense of disconnect, a theme he feels is even more timely now.”Even though it wasn’t that long ago that I wrote this, there still wasn’t that obsession now that we have with Blackberry. There was no Twitter and all those things (that) I think have managed to make us even more disconnected. Y’know, people don’t look each other in the eye any more. This was a great way to entertain and still shine a spotlight on things that I think we can improve on without making it didactic.”
As soon as Turner read the novel, he had a clear vision of how he wanted to adapt it, so he approached his producers at Intermedia and pitched them his concept. They liked it and began negotiating to acquire the screen rights. Unfortunately, there was another bidder on the scene – Fox 2000 was also pursuing the book on behalf of director Jay Roach. In an attempt to persuade Kirn to go with them, Turner and his producers had a creative conference call with the Montana-based author.”We just talked about the book and it was this wonderful call,” Turner recalls.”So much so that afterwards we (Turner and his producers) all turned to each other and said ‘We got it!’ And sure enough, as all these things go, we didn’t get it.”
Kirn ultimately sold the rights to Fox 2000, at which point Turner did something unusual.”Because I was just starting in the business — because I was super hungry, and a little bit stupid — I had already written half the script. So I was devastated when they decided to go to Fox 2000, because I had sixty pages that I loved and I knew what I wanted to do with the story and all this stuff. So, to just double up my stupidity, I decided as a writing exercise to finish the script. So I finished the script. I was very happy with it. I never showed it to my agents. At the time I had a manager, didn’t show it to him. Didn’t show it to anyone (and) put it on a shelf. And about eighteen months later I got a call from Matthew Snyder at CAA who repped the book and repped Walter and he said, ‘By the way, they never got a draft out of it, or they got a draft they weren’t happy with, at Fox 2000 and it’s in turnaround, and I remember you loving the book – are you interested in pitching it out? And I said, ‘Well, I actually have a script.’ At which point Matthew was sort of appalled and intrigued at the same time.” Snyder read the script and liked it. He and Turner sent the piece out as a spec and ultimately sold it to DreamWorks with Ivan Reitman attached to direct. Sheldon did a number of drafts and then Ted Griffin took over and did a few more. However, no film was made and eventually the project went dormant. Turner heard no more about it.”And then a year ago, I got a random email from a producer friend of mine saying ‘Congratulations on Up in the Air. I hear it’s Jason Reitman (Ivan’s son) and George Clooney.’ At the time, I was not involved in the project… and so I was like ‘That’s fantastic. That’s nice to know.’ And sure enough, it came together from there. And Jason took it and rewrite me and then essentially did this amazing movie out of it.”
Like Turner, Reitman had also been captivated by the novel back when it was first published. At the time, he was trying to get his first film as a writer/director – an adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s satirical novel Thank You for Smoking – produced.
“Nobody would make it. It was one of those scripts that everyone said was a great writing sample, but nobody would finance it, nobody would produce it. I went looking for something else to work on and I was in Book Soup in Los Angeles) when I saw a copy of Up in the Air just sitting there on a table. It had a quote from Christopher Buckley right there on the cover, and I suppose I thought that was a bit of serendipity. I picked it up and found a lot of connections with the character and the ideology of the story and I just fell in love with it.”
What were those connections that Reitman felt with the material?”It was a couple of things. One, I’m naturally attracted to tricky characters – difficult characters to humanize. I’ve made three movies – one was about the head lobbyist for big tobacco, the second one was about a teenage pregnant girl, and the third one’s about a guy that not only fires people for a living, but believes in the idea of living alone with nothing. So that was kind of an automatic draw. But in addition to that — and while I’m certain Walter Kirn when he wrote that book was being ironic about this guy’s love for travel — I looked at it and said ‘Oh wow, somebody finally understands me.’ Because I’m an obsessive traveler myself. I’ve gone on mileage runs. I did a flight from L.A. to Chicago and right back to L.A. in the month of December once to retain status into the following year, so I knew what this guy was talking about and shared kind of similar obsessions.”
Reitman revived the moribund project and began what would turn out to be a six-year process of rewriting the script. During this period, Reitman’s life underwent significant changes that influenced his approach to the story. In addition to finally getting Thank You for Smoking off the ground and directing Diablo Cody’s script Juno,”I went from a single guy living in an apartment to…I was married, I became a father, I now had a mortgage. And what began as a screenplay about a guy that fires people for a living became a movie about a guy trying to figure out who and what he wanted in his life.”
As he crafted his adaptation, Reitman made a number of changes to Kirn’s novel.”Well, there are a fair amount of differences between the screenplay and the book. I’m not even sure what the best way to describe it is, because (calling it) a loose adaptation can sound a little unfair because the philosophy and heart of the book are so present in the movie. But a lot of the plot is mine. I added two female characters – Natalie and Alex – to kind of challenge the main character’s philosophy. I added this wedding sequence. I added the plot of this firing online idea being implemented and (the) cardboard cutout shtick that (Ryan) had to do on the road. Really, I tried to add as many plot elements as possible to put pressure on the main character’s ideology. It’s about a guy that believes in the idea of being alone in the world, in the universe, and then in my film is challenged by his family, a woman who wants to become involved with him romantically, and a young girl whose just biting away at things and oddly becomes a surrogate daughter to him.”
Reitman wrote his script by envisioning certain actors as the characters – actors that he was ultimately able to cast.”I wrote eight of the roles in this movie for eight of the actors that ended up playing them – George, Anna (Kendrick), Vera (Farmiga), Zack (Galifinakis), J.K. (Simmons), Danny (McBride), Sam Elliot, Amy Morton. It’s a lot easier for me to write when I know who I’m writing for. Particularly for those women (Kendrick’s Natalie and Farmiga’s Alex) – those were very tricky characters and I needed two actors who could be very strong and fearless and at the same time not judge their characters in any way. And it’s really since I saw Anna in Rocket Science that I really knew how to write Natalie. (And) I’d seen Vera in Down to the Bone and…The Departed and she’s one of the few American women on screen. There (are) a lot of girls out there, but there’s very few women who own their own sexuality and simultaneously own their own womanhood. And I basically needed a character who was going to be as I described her – Ryan Bingham with a vagina – and I needed a woman who was ready to play that and not use some kind of shticky satire of a woman whose actually acting like a guy. (Alex is) very much a woman that knows exactly what she wants – she’s a modern business woman who wants it all — everything that the feminist movement promised her — and sees nothing wrong with having this kind of coast to coast sexual fling with Ryan Bingham and I just knew she (Vera Farmiga) had the ability to do that with a confidence that no other actress could.”
As filming approached, the world’s economy took a major downturn and more people found themselves out of work since at any time since the Great Depression, circumstances that forced Reitman to reconsider a key aspect of the story.”When I first started writing the script I wrote the firing scenes as satirical, almost tonally similar to Thank You for Smoking, and by the time I got to directing the movie – (which I consider) the end of my writing process – I realized that I could not use these scenes, that these satirical firing scenes had become (inappropriate) in this kind of economy. And I decided to delete almost all my firing scenes and replace them with interview footage in which I brought in real people in St. Louis and Detroit who had lost their jobs and then interviewed them on camera and then fired them on camera.”
As Oscar buzz for the film builds, Sheldon Turner finds himself very pleased with how the project he began so many years ago has finally turned out.”It’s kind of fantastic (that) when I saw the movie and saw that the thing I saw about it back when I was dumb enough to write it on spec was very much alive, and just to see Jason make it into his own as a director and all was pretty amazing.”