As Oscar season approaches, more people will become aware of writer/director Jason Reitman’s (“Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno”) 2009 film “Up in the Air.” The film chronicles the travels of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate downsizer whose isolated lifestyle is challenged by the people he encounters in his journey.
Since its release, the film has garnered several award nominations and wins, as well as a lot of critical praise and attention. What audiences will also discover in the coming months is that “Up in the Air” is actually an adaptation of a 2001 novel of the same name written by Walter Kirn, a published novelist, literary critic and essayist.
Representing Bellevue College, I had the chance to partake in an interview with Kirn, in which he took the time to answer several questions.
The book was written in 2001 before 9/11, the War on Terror, and our current economic crisis. The film was released last year, and the content feels very topical. Kirn spoke of the timeliness of his book and the film: “Neither Jason [Reitman] nor I have special prophetic powers. It’s just that we happened to identify the perpetual mania that lies at the heart of the American economy.
“In Ryan Bingham’s quest for miles, I had a metaphor for a quest for wealth that would never sustain itself. I think it will always be true in American life that we’re going to chase these dreams and see them break up and have to deal with the consequences. It happened to be that the book and the movie hit at two times when that was happening,” said Kirn.
When asked what inspired Ryan Bingham, Kirn said, “Ryan Bingham was inspired by a man I was sitting next to in a first class cabin. I turned to him and asked where he was from and he said, ‘I’m from here, right here. I travel 300 days a year, I know the flight attendants, the security guards; this is my home.’ I asked him how many people like him are out there. He replied, ‘More than you realize.’
“The book and the character were my attempt to guess at his circumstances,” said Kirn. “Novelists pick features from their friends and family and, like Dr. Frankenstein, they put them together.”
Walter Kirn also took a few moments to address his past: how growing up in Minnesota has affected his writing. “The people in Minnesota are a little removed from the mainstream; they like to poke holes in big balloons. They’re a state of modest, good-humored, clear-eyed, cool-viewed people. There’s an underdog quality about them and skepticism toward the ‘big dogs,’” said Kirn. “It’s a very kind place; it allowed me to be nice to characters that I think other writers might not be as nice to.”
While on the topic of his origins, Kirn talked about his choice to leave Macalester University in Minnesota to attend Princeton. “I wish I hadn’t left Macalester to go to Princeton. I transferred to Princeton, because I think I had this F. Scott Fitzgerald dream; to be a real writer I had to go east. I did it out of some fantasy. I don’t think that, in retrospect, that’s necessarily true at all,” he said. “I think I became a real writer when I embraced the place I came from.”
Walter Kirn released a memoir last year titled “Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever,” which chronicles his past education. He shared some thoughts on contemporary American education: “Schools produce people who are very good at taking tests, passing tests, climbing the ladder of achievement and praise; but very bad at asking why they’re having to do it or where all this intelligence should be put and why.”
It’s safe to say, however, that Walter Kirn found a way to utilize his intelligence. His first published book was a collection of short stories called “My Hard Bargain: Stories.” His third book, “Thumbsucker,” was his first to be adapted into a film in 2005, so he’s not totally new to the process, although his experiences have been different.
‘Thumbsucker’ was a much smaller budget and was a bio story. It really was, in some ways, my story. It was a little more like putting on a school play or something; it was more intimate. Mike Mills [director of ‘Thumbsucker’] worked a lot with the actors. I got to see that, [and] he became a friend; it was wonderful, cozy.
“‘Up in the Air’ was scarier, bigger, and it was a complicated production. With it, there were great ambitions to talk about large social issues, as well as personal ones. It was a little more exciting, a little more Hollywood: more high-risk. In both cases, the directors were passionately trying to make serious works of art, not just entertainment,” said Kirn.
As for Kirn’s thoughts on George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, “It took about thirty seconds to realize that George Clooney was a brilliant choice. He’s older than the character in the book; he’s far better looking and a lot smoother, perhaps, in a lot of ways. Having read Jason’s script, he was the only guy who could play the guy. The public has this perception that GC has this ‘devil-may-care’ persona.
“The character of Ryan Bingham is an exaggeration, as is George Clooney. He just plays a guy in a suit, but he has so many dimensions and depth and subtly. I think he’s being modest; there’s a real accomplishment with the almost-invisible acting,” said Kirn.
Reitman’s film has been a major success, but it’s difficult to say whether or not “Up in the Air” is a film that will stand the test of time or fall by the wayside. Walter Kirn thinks the former: “I think it will be a movie that people will go back to time and time again and become a part of people’s movie libraries.
“Brilliant performances – they will always be funny and moving and heartbreaking. It captures a time in American history like no other movie has. For all of those reasons, I think it’s gonna last,” he said.
On the question of the overall message of the story, Kirn said, “Specific messages are dangerous, because a movie this complicated has a hundred messages and questions it asks. But I think really, as the writer of the book, the movie does say one thing more than anything, or ask one question: where are you going and why do you want to get there? And, what are you going to when you get there?”
“Life is a journey; it’s short, it’s lonely, and do you want to be alone?” said Kirn.