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“Anything that comes to me from the Los Angeles zip code is subjected to a 99% skepticism test.”
Walter Kirn
author Up in the Air

My third look at the film Up in the Air involves a closer look at the original writer of the book (Walter Kirn) that inspired director Jason Reitman to make the film. Kirn has solid Midwest roots being born in Ohio and raised in Minnesota. Though a jock in school he was also aware of the talents of the St. Paul writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby). And he was smart enough to go to Princeton University where Fitzgerald attended for a while.

Kirn graduated from college in 1983 and moved to New York and ended up writing for a variety of magazines and published his first of several books in 1990.  His book Thumbsucker was made into a movie in 2005 starring Keanu Reeves and Vince Vaughn. Along the way he moved west to Livingston, Montana and married the daughter of actress Margot Kidder and writer Thomas McGuane. Kidder is most known for her role in Superman and McGuane for his book Ninety-Two in the Shade. Though now divorced from his wife, it would be interesting to know how the relationship with Thomas McGuane influenced Kirn’s writing development over the years.

I remember become aware of McGuane in the 70s from stories about his hanging out in Key West with the likes of Jimmy Buffett and Tennessee Williams.  In fact, Buffett has a song on the soundtrack of the 1975 film Rancho Deluxe that starred Jeff Bridges and was written by McGuane. It’s not a surprise that Kirn lives in Montana as it has a rich tradition of literary talent.  I grew up on Buffett’s early music which often had references to places in Montana like Missoula, Livingston, and Ringling, and was taken by the place and I finally got to visit the place in 1984. It’s a state built for reflecting on life. Something Kirn seems to have a knack for.

(If my facts are correct, Thomas McGuane married Jimmy Buffett’s sister in the 70s, so while Kirn was married to McGuane’s daughter he and Buffett were related.)

One thing is for sure, if Up in the Air, is nominated for an Academy Award then Kirn will have fared better in dealing with Hollywood than both Fitzgerald and McGuane. And much of that credit goes to director Reitman.

Up in the Air was first published in 2001 and was selling well until September 11, 2001 when like a lot of things the sales just dropped off. Though Kirn’s book was optioned and he had written a script based on the book it seemed doomed to never be made. But after a few years of laying dormant the book’s stock was back on the rise. Kirn writes;

“The ascent commenced with a brief email from Jason Reitman, a thirtyish film director who, at the time he wrote me, was not well known, but would soon become famous for his first two movies: Thank You for Smoking and Juno. He was writing a script from my novel, he informed me, and would get back in touch when he was finished. Right. Heard that one. Though another one of my novels, Thumbsucker, had by then become an indie, I knew from experience—my own and others’—that when Hollywood promises to get back to you, it’s best not to wait by the phone. You’ll starve to death.”

It would still be a few years before Reitman would finish the script and then several months after that when George Clooney came on board to star in the film. Kirn was starting to believe the film might actually get made. And once the film finally did get made he had a simple prayer request before he viewed the film for the first time, “Please let this not be crap.”

His prayer seems to be answered. The film is not crap, and has garnered solid reviews across the board. (91% from the top critics at Rotten Tomatoes.)

“Up in the Air is a defining movie for these perilous times.”
Peter Travers
Rolling Stone

And while the film is different from the book in many ways Kirn is glad that the DNA of the book is intact.

“(Up in the Air), which I started writing at the peak of the dot-com mania, was conceived, in part, as a morality tale about the spiritual distortions forced upon people by techno-capitalism. It was also a satirical treatment of the drive to pile up useless wealth. But mostly it was a character study of someone (or a class of someones) who I felt was invisible in literature despite being all around me in real life: the pretzel-eating, mini-bar-raiding nomad, his existence pared down to a single carry-on, but his soul the same size as everyone else’s.”
Jason Reitman
George Clooney Saved My Novel
The Daily Beast

Perhaps the film resonates with me because Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham is a character I recognize from my travels—perhaps even in myself. I flown enough over the years to earn enough frequent flyer miles to fly free to Alaska, Hawaii and Europe. On one trip to the west coast I remember being gone from home for three weeks for productions in San Diego/Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. A friend said to me on that trip, “Don’t you hate traveling?” I remember thinking, “I could live my whole life on the road.” Up in the Air is an exploration of one such character who does just that and it ends up being a reflection on our culture.

Of course, once Reitman finally got the script to the point where it could actually get made, he had to make the film and did a super job of guiding the solid cast that included Clooney, Vera Farming, Anna Kendick, and Jason Bateman.

It’s a fitting end to 2009 to be talking about another Jason Reitman film. For it was his movie Juno, based on Diablo Cody’s script (as well as her life’s story that included a stint here in Iowa) that inspired this blog in the first place. (See post Juno Has Another Baby.) Kirn sounds a lot like Cody when he talks about the Reitman’s film based on his story, “Sometimes miracles happen and this was one of them.”

Happy New Year.

Scott W. Smith


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