TECH SUPPORT INTERVIEW: The crafts of ‘Up in the Air’

Posted by · 6:09 pm · December 17th, 2009

Up in the AirBecause some of director Jason Reitman’s work tends to be stylistically traditional and classic, he says there might be the assumption that he’s not a visual filmmaker. But seven years as a commercial director tends to make you as visual as the next guy. And make no mistake.  He is absolutely specific when it comes to below-the-line elements on his features, and “Up in the Air” was no exception.

Early on the director established a department-wide below-the-line arc on the film that everyone on the crew worked toward. The idea was that at the beginning of the film, the audience is meant to see the world through the main character, Ryan Bingham’s eyes and by the end of the movie, they would see what the world looks like for real.

For instance, “at the beginning of the movie, camerawork is wide angle, lots of moving shots,” Reitman says. “Color-wise, everything is muted tones. Production design-wise, everything is giant open atriums, walls of glass, everything is gleaming and spotless. Extras-wise, people are attractive, trim, their clothes are tailored, they’re told to walk in straight lines and not bump into each other. There’s a functionality to everything.”

By the end of the film, things are being shot with longer lenses, hand-held, with warmer tones.  The costumes are sloppier, extras are sloppier, production design is more lived-in. Even the idea of the film’s general setting — airport terminals — reflects this in some way.

“The first time we see an airport, it’s beautiful,” Reitman says. “It’s this sweeping shot coming over a group of people as Ryan comes in with this roll-away and the sun’s cutting through from the left. The last time he walks in it’s overcast, long lens, somebody bumps into George (Clooney), there’s a guy mopping the floor in the background.

“This was an arc everybody stuck to, and it was very tough, particularly when we were in airports, because we’d have hundreds of extras.  We’d have to split them up by their ‘attractiveness’ and then know that at 8am we’re shooting the beginning of the movie, it has to look like this, at 10am we’re shooting end of the movie, it has to look like this. So that was the trickiest element that everyone was dealing with on this movie at the same time.”

Reitman first met cinematographer Eric Steelberg in high school. Steelberg had an interest in photography at the time and was toying around with the idea of seeking higher education. But after a two-year stint in community college, and as short films and “bottom-of-the-barrel” or “straight-to-DVD” movies kept calling, he decided an education in the workplace was more appropriate.

Steelberg also delighted in laserdisc special features, the first home video elements that featured director commentaries. “It was the first way to get the inside scoop on behind-the-scenes,” he says.

The lenser first worked with Reitman as a camera assistant on one of his first shorts and maintained the relationship.  When Reitman began to transition into features, Steelberg was his guy.

Jason Reitman on the set of Up in the AirSimilarly, film editor Dana Glauberman got her start as an assistant on a number of Reitman’s father, Ivan Reitman’s films. First there was “Father’s Day,” then “Six Days Seven Nights.” A young Reitman would come into the editing room with his short films and eventually struck up a friendship with Glauberman, who offered a helping hand to the up-start.

With Reitman building a steady professional family around him as a filmmaker, the shorthand kicked in soon enough. “Up in the Air,” with its transparent but meticulous attention to detail, is the current culmination of those relationships and, incidentally, Reitman’s most critically acclaimed effort to date.

Even the wardrobe took on a life of its own as Oscar-nominee Danny Glicker set about nailing down the particulars.

“I really love how detail-driven you can be in film,” Glicker says. “It’s really nice that the camera picks up all the subtleties.”

Indeed, Glicker set about assembling a wardrobe for Ryan Bingham that could fit into a carry-on piece of luggage, striving for as much authenticity as possible.

“I wanted to get into the reality of what a business traveler’s wardrobe would look like,” he says. “I wanted to honor the truth of what Ryan would actually have with him and I thought that would make for a really compelling arc, visually, because we’re with him for the whole movie, but he really is this existentialist when it comes to his physical world. I thought it would do a disservice to the movie if we didn’t get a sense of what that meant for his day-to-day life. If he constantly had all these new and interesting outfits on, it would sort of detract from the rigor of his existential physical existence.”

Glicker came to Reitman and actor George Clooney with full blown books dedicated to packing and put together demonstrations on how each item in Ryan’s suitcase would pull double and triple duty, like running shorts doubling as a bathing suit, for instance. And when it came to a wedding sequence later on in the film, Glicker was even more adamant about an attention to realistic detail.

“I’m always annoyed when you see these weddings in the movies that are just unbelievably lavish, and that is not what anyone wanted,” he says. “We really wanted to have a wedding that felt absolutely correct, especially because the financial status of the people having the wedding is a plot point. They don’t have much money, but they’re not dirt poor either, but they want to have a nice wedding. So I worked really hard to put the wedding on a budget the way they would have. I was doing everything as if I was them. The wedding dress was discounted, on sale. The tuxes were all rentals. We just put on a real wedding, complete with the caterers and the band and the ushers and the flower girls. And we did it very inexpensively.”

Really, it must be said that everything Glicker has to say on his approach is quotable material. He speaks with an eloquence and passion that has no ring of going through the motions or sound-biting his way through an interview. Just ask him a simple question about some specific character quirks he wanted the wardrobe to reflect and you get a breathless, engrossing soliloquy:

(from left) Danny McBride and Melanie Lynsky in Up in the Air“Even though it is a movie, there was a very, very, very serious focus on making sure that each character was absolutely authentic to their place in the story, and the clothes really reflected that. Even though the business world has a lot of rigorous rules, there’s major distinctions even within those rules, and I think one of the greatest examples of that is between Natalie and Alex.

“You see two women in the business world who are completely different in the way they present themselves. Natalie is dressing to absolutely try to present everything about a business person that she thinks people will expect of her. She’s conforming to a young business woman just entering the workforce, and she’s trying to use her clothes to strip her identity away, to just be clean and professional and presentable and kind of use the clothes as a form of armor.

“Someone like Alex is incredibly successful, has nothing to prove anymore, and in a weird way, she’s more powerful because of it because she’s at a place where she’s incredibly sensual, she’s comfortable, and she doesn’t have to apologize for her sexuality or her sensuality.  So it’s sort of like seeing what happens when someone accomplishes what they want to in the business world, and then their clothes start to reflect a little bit what they are.”

When it came to shooting the film, Reitman was thorough enough to take still photographs of every angle of a shot, fully concerned with the preparation but also leaving room to improvise if need be. However, nothing was a frivolous include.

“You’ll never hear us saying, ‘Oh we should do that, that’s a cool shot,'” Steelberg says. “That’s just not in our vocabulary. We’re at the point where if either of us comes up with something and says, ‘Oh, that’s a cool shot,’ we’ll stop and say, ‘Alright, what’s wrong with it?’ Cool shots is not our currency. It’s whatever’s tonally appropriate.”

The film had the same overall production length as “Juno,” but with twice the amount of time for principal photography and half as much time in post-production. Matched with a more robust narrative with more storylines and characters to deal with than Reitman’s prior work, that schedule made for quite the challenge on Glauberman’s side of things. But it was a welcome one, given how much she enjoys being in a dark room finding the best path for a visual narrative.

“I took one film production class at UC Santa Barbara and the only thing I liked doing was editing,” she says. “It kind of reminded me of doing jigsaw puzzles when I was a kid. I used to clear off our dining room table, lay out hundreds of pieces and get lost in doing that. And editing is just like doing a jigsaw puzzle. There’s only a few pieces that fit together in a puzzle, but anything is possible in film editing.”

Reitman is quick to sing Glauberman’s praises, and not just for the obvious, surface-level skill that most tend to single out when discussing the editing of the film — like the quick cutting of the airport security sequences.

Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air“Doing all those quick cuts, it’s just quick cuts,” he says. “I think I could teach most people how to do that. Creating a scene like George, Vera (Farmiga) and Anna (Kendrick) talking about what a woman wants in a man, creating real drama, creating moments, creating beats at the right time, watching a character go through these kinds of arcs, picking a series of takes, and by doing those takes, creating an arc and personality between three people at the same time, that takes talent.”

Reitman also says he prefers Glauberman come to the footage as fresh as possible (as in, no visits to the set), because it can detract from the serendipity of spontaneity.

“I learned the same thing with editors that I did with actors,” he says. “The best thing to do is allow someone to take a stab at it and see what their instincts do. They could be 100% wrong, and if it is, tell them the right thing to do. However, they might do something that surprises you, that is something you never thought of, that is just brilliant. But if you direct them right from the beginning, you lose whatever their instinct was.”

That approach just so happens to dovetail with Glauberman’s way of working.

“Back in the day when you would sit and watch dailies in a screening room with the director every single day at lunch, I always admired how editors would basically plan it out just by looking at the dailies,” she says. “Nine times out of 10 I haven’t been able to do that. But once I get into it and start cutting, it’s totally different.”

Finally, one of the most discussed elements of the film’s cinematography is something Steelberg says he unfortunately can’t accept credit for: the aerial shots that open the film and serve as transitions throughout. It was the result of a separate team that went up to grab the footage, though they encountered some problems along the way as well.

Initially there was a periscope-style film camera that was fed into a dome beneath the plane, but the images came out grainy and just didn’t work to Reitman and Steelberg’s liking. Plus, it’s quite simple to get helicopter-level aerial photography, from say 5,000 feet. But to get images from roughly 25,0000 feet and see the “patchwork of America,” as Reitman puts it, the crew had to use a digital camera on the wing of a propeller plane.  To get it that high, the pilot had to use oxygen. Then there was the issue of the camera mount, which was designed in such a way as to prevent a 90-degree, angled-down shot.

In order to achieve that, the plane had to be tilted into a dive.  But the trouble was both worth it, and necessary if the film was going to have the point of view Reitman was going for.

“I wanted to see the world from the two ways that Ryan Bingham sees it,” he says. “One is six inches away from your face and one is 25,000 feet in the air. He really doesn’t see anything in between.”

→ 2 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Interviews · Tech Support

2 responses so far

  • 1 12-17-2009 at 6:31 pm

    Me. said...

    There’s a tribute to Amelie in this film.

    It was probably the only thing I loved about the film.

  • 2 12-18-2009 at 9:26 am

    Mike_M said...

    Very good read, made me realize somethings in the film that I definitely noticed but didn’t put it all together.