Jason Reitman -- the man who decided not to be a director

Jason Reitman
Jason Reitman directed "Thank You for Smoking," "Juno," and "Up in the Air," despite decising early on he didn't want to go into the movie business.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Jason Reitman says he likes to make movies about tricky characters with surprising views of the world. He points to his three feature films: "Thank You for Smoking" "Juno," and now, "Up in the Air."

"One is about the head lobbyist for big tobacco, one is about a pregnant teenage girl, and one is about a guy who fires people for a living," Reitman said.

Reitman's own story is unusual too. He's the son of Ivan Reitman, who's produced and directed a slew of hit movies, including "Animal House" and "Ghostbusters." As a youngster Jason was interested in film, but he knew as the son of a famous director people would expect the worst of him.

"Most likely you are a spoiled brat, you have no talent, and more than likely you have a drug or alcohol problem," he said. "And I thought, 'Why go into a career where these are the presumptions going in. Best case scenario: I live in my father's shadow. Worst case scenario: I fail on a very public level. And I actually went pre-med. I thought I was going to be a doctor."

And that would probably have been that, except his father stepped in. Ivan Reitman told the story of how he had once approached his own father asking for the money to open what would have been Toronto's first submarine sandwich shop.

"And my grandfather said 'You know Ivan I am sure they are very popular, and they are very delicious, and if I gave you the money you could open one of these shops and you could make a lot of money. But there is not enough magic in it for you.'"

That launched Ivan Reitman on the path that led to Hollywood. Now years later, he told Jason he didn't think there was enough magic for him in med school.

'Up in the Air'
George Clooney plays a man who fires people for a living in 'Up in the Air.'
Image courtesy Paramount Pictures

"He's the first Jewish dad in the history of Jewish dads to tell their son not to be a doctor, be a filmmaker," he said.

Within days Jason Reitman had dropped out of college on the east coast and enrolled in film school in Los Angeles.

In person, Jason Reitman is smart and self-deprecating, clad in jeans and a watch cap pulled down around his ears.

He said he was intimidated on meeting Diablo Cody, who had just arrived in Los Angeles from Minnesota with her script for Juno.

"Of the 27 people who get fired in 'Up in the Air,' 22 of them are real people who just lost their jobs. They are not actors."

"She's covered in tattoos. She's kind of hyper-cool, and I'm the last thing from that," he said. "And I just kind of fell in love with her. We made a very strange pair because I'm oddly conservative compared to her, and yet our minds were very similar."

Their collaboration led to four Oscar nominations and one win for "Juno." Now, Reitman's new film is already drawing Oscar buzz, and it hasn't even opened yet.

"Up in the Air" is the story of Ryan Bingham. He travels the U.S. for a firm which relieves companies of the unpleasant task of firing employees. Ryan's very good at what he does, but what drives him is his need to be on the move.

He gets upset when he learns a new employee has suggested using video links to do the firing. Ryan believes it dehumanizes the process, but it also means he won't travel any more. With George Clooney in the lead role there are moments of great comedy, but Reitman folds in the agony of job loss in a very real way.

"Of the 27 people who get fired in 'Up in the Air,' 22 of them are real people who just lost their jobs," he said. "They are not actors."

On set
George Clooney and Jason Reitman on the set of 'Up in the Air.'
Image courtesy Paramount Pictures

Recruited through a newspaper ad, Reitman got them to talk about how they felt about what was happening to them. Then they acted out being fired. Those scenes in the film are extremely powerful. Reitman said he learned the pain of being fired was not so much losing the job, but losing purpose.

"The question they would ask is 'I don't know what I am supposed to do. Where am I supposed to go after this interview? I get in my car, I don't have anywhere I am supposed to be.' And I can't imagine being in the middle of my life and asking those questions," Reitman said.

Reitman startles a little when it's pointed out that as a film director that's exactly what he'll be doing.

Then he says he likes the idea of taking on something new every couple of years. Having, as he puts it, lived inside Diablo Cody's head for a while, he knows it can be a fun experience.

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