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Jason Reitman: Flying high, exceeding expectations

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But of course being the son of a famous director has lots of perks. What did you expect?

``People presume so little of you -- they naturally assume you're going to be so bad -- you actually don't have to do that much to impress them,'' says Jason Reitman, 32, son of Ghostbusters creator Ivan Reitman and director of Up in the Air, which opens Friday. ``I can't tell you how often, early in my career, people came up to me after seeing one of my movies with this wide-eyed look saying, `You know, that was pretty good!' They talked to me the way you would talk to a child born without hands who had painted a painting with their feet.''

Even though his famous last name may automatically have lowered the bar on expectations, Reitman has not taken the cushy road to a filmmaking career. Before he directed a feature, he honed his craft the same way no-name novices do, making short films and entering them in festivals.

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``I was perfectly aware of what people were presuming I would be, so I worked very hard to prove that wrong,'' he says during a recent promotional visit to Miami. ``I wanted to experience the Darwinian nature of film festivals like everybody else. I wanted to succeed on my own merits. I wanted people to look at my short films and know I have a reason for sitting at the table.''

His father Ivan, who produced Up in the Air, says Jason proved he was serious about a film career a month after he arrived at the University of Southern California. The young Reitman raised $8,000 to pay for his first short by selling ads to local businesses for a calendar he distributed to students.

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 ``Jason always came to my sets and hung around the editing room,'' the senior Reitman says. ``I didn't even know if he was paying attention, but clearly he was. He truly was concerned about going into the same business as his dad. When he finally decided to do it, he used a completely different approach than I did: He mastered the film-festival route and used them to get the word out on his movies. By the time we made Up in the Air, he had made two extraordinarily good and successful movies, so he had earned the right to be the captain of his own ship.''

For his directorial debut, Reitman adapted Thank You for Smoking, the Christopher Buckley novel about a tobacco-industry lobbyist that many other directors (including Mel Gibson) had failed to turn into a film.

Juno-poster  His second movie, Juno, made stars of actress Ellen Page and stripper-turned-screenwriter Diablo Cody, who also won an Academy Award for her work. Juno became a box office smash and was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director Oscars.

If any lingering claims of nepotism still secretly circulate in Hollywood, Up in the Air should conclusively dispel them. This wise and profoundly moving film proves that, famous dad aside, Reitman is the real deal: A natural-born filmmaker.

Loosely based on Walter Kirn's 2002 novel, the movie stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a ``career transition counselor'' who travels from city to city, informing people that their employers are downsizing and their positions are no longer needed.

Transplanting Kirn's book to the present-day economy means Bingham is a supremely busy man -- so much in demand that his quest to rack up 10 million frequent-flier miles is finally within reach. But what is the toll of hopping from city to city, living in hotel rooms and airport terminals with no one and nothing to return to back home?

``When I first started working on this script, I thought of it as a satire, like Thank You for Smoking,'' Reitman says. ``I thought I would make a comedy about a guy who fires people for a living. It wasn't really until I started experiencing more myself -- I got married, I became a dad, and I started to really value my alone time versus my time with my wife -- that I started to think of the story differently. Life just gets more complicated as you go along, and this character and what he did for a living became more and more right for this personal exploration of my own.''

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For the role of Bingham -- a character who gradually realizes his decision to lead a rootless, adventurous life has consequences -- Reitman could think of no one other than Clooney, Hollywood's reigning bachelor. The parallels between the actor and Bingham, who is constantly surrounded by people but keeps his personal life isolated, made Clooney a natural choice. But Reitman briefly feared that the character might have come a little too close to reality.

``I wrote a role that was kind of the George Clooney self-examination role,'' Reitman says. ``And when he read it, he got that immediately. He said `People are going to draw connections between this character and me,' and I knew exactly what he meant by that, and we never really talked about it much more afterwards. There was just this understanding that he knew who this guy was, and he played him fearlessly.

``Usually when you play a character that has any similarity to real life, the actor gets nervous,'' Reitman says. ``But the way that George not only runs right at it but the vulnerability he shows in this film that he has never shown before, I consider a great gift. George Clooney walks the walk more than any other human being I've ever met.''

But Clooney's admittedly terrific performance is aided considerably by Reitman's precise direction, which carefully underscores the character's alienation in subtle but exact ways. The first time we see Bingham spend a night at home, for example, the movie shows us what seems to be The World's Loneliest Apartment.

``Directing is an instinctual process. I have a feeling that I want you to feel,'' Reitman says. ``The question is, how do you get there? As a director, you learn from your mistakes as you make more movies. It becomes this binary thing where if you get the ones and zeroes right, it adds up to the right thing.

``I know for instance, that I want George Clooney's apartment to feel lonely. So I start with the idea I have in my head of what a lonely apartment looks like. They always have sad hallways with bad yellow lighting, and when you walk in there are the plastic Venetian blinds and a smattering of furniture.

``Then you start looking at locations and adding in details. There's the bad kitchen, the gray floor and the white walls. An air conditioning unit in the window? Perfect. Then when you shoot it, use a standard square shot that doesn't showcase this place at all. And you tell the actor `OK, when you walk into the apartment, I want you to have no familiar relationship with this place at all.' All those minor decisions, on their own, wouldn't do it. But when you add them all up, you feel something.''

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Reitman's careful attention to detail pays off in Up in the Air. This deceptively simple tale gets under your skin and stays there in a way strangely reminiscent of a Stanley Kubrick picture -- not in tone or style, perhaps, but certainly in depth of haunting, persistent feeling.

``That's the most generous compliment anyone has ever given me in my life,'' Reitman says, laughing. ``But I'm a huge Kubrick fan, and I know exactly the feeling you're talking about. With Kubrick, you don't know how he does it. It's one thing to make people laugh, but it's another to give people that feeling -- like a wanting, when someone breaks up with you, and you feel it in your rib cage.''

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