Former wunderkind comes into his own, finds the magic

With just three features, 32-year-old helmer Jason Reitman has gone from indie wunderkind (“Thank You for Smoking”) to breakthrough sensation (“Juno”) to verifiable Hollywood maverick (this year’s “Up in the Air”). Like Reitman’s previous films, his latest takes on the task of humanizing “characters that are normally vilified,” acknowledges the director, who garnered his first Oscar nom for 2008’s “Juno.” What’s unique about his approach is “the tone,” he says. “It’s not about how it’s shot or how it’s lit. What holds a movie like this together is that it’s never a drama and it’s never a comedy.”

GENESIS: “Seven years ago, I was trying to make ‘Thank You for Smoking,’ but because no one was financing that film, I found ‘Up in the Air,’ and there was a lot that I related to. I collect air miles, too, but most importantly, it was about a guy who was dealing with the idea of whether to be alone or connected in the universe. And that’s something that’s always on my mind.”

VISION: “We created an arc that went across all departments, whether it was cinematography, production design, locations or extras casting, where we started with a world that was beautiful — grays, blues, wide angles, we moved the camera a lot, elegant extras — and over the course of the film, we move into a world with warmer colors, a longer lens, handheld camera, production design that was scuffed up, and extras who were sloppy looking. So as Ryan allowed himself to be connected with the real world, the real world began to actually look as we live in it.”

CHALLENGES: “Shooting in airports is difficult. Everything has to go through security; your actors and equipment have to be sniffed by dogs. There are crowd control problems; you’re working with real airplanes; passengers are trying to get to flights. We shot in the real TSA. I’ve met way too many other mileage runners to know that this stuff had to ring true.”

MAGIC:“When we reached out to real people in Detroit and St. Louis who had just lost their jobs, and then interviewed those people and then fired them on camera, it resulted in these improv scenes with nonactors that would say these things that I never would think to write and say them in a way that I would never think to direct.”

NEXT: He’s collaborating on a new script with Jenny Lumet and working on an adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s “Labor Day” (“it deals with the tricky shit in life”).

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