Walter Kirn’s Up in the Air Is at the Movies
Livingston Novelist Finds His Creation, and Himself, On Screen—with George Clooney
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
Ask Livingston novelist Walter Kirn, author of the comedic novel Up in the Air, what it’s like to have your book turned into an award winning motion picture starring George Clooney, and he’ll tell you, sincerely, it’s all wonderful. Kirn will also tell you a movie is an entirely different creation than a book, something other than a visual representation of the author’s story. Kirn’s tale, what’s more, while it survived the transition to film in recognizable form, endured not only the alterations brought on by Hollywood screenwriters, but those inflicted by dramatic current events that heightened the sensitivities of movie audiences—the recent eco-nomic crisis, and prior to that September 11.
Before that late summer day in Manhattan, when air travel still reveled in its age of innocence, Kirn sat next to a passenger on a jet, a man who flew so frequently that he spent more time traveling, much of it in the air, than he did at home. In that frequent flyer’s world, airplanes, airports and hotels were home. Dreaming up a story about a man inhabit-ing such a reality, a guy determined to rack up a million frequent flyer miles, Kirn created Ryan Bingham, the main character in Up in the Air—now played by Clooney in the critically acclaimed movie of the same name. In the euphemistic jargon of the corporate world, Bingham is a Management Consultant specializing in Career Transitions. In ordinary English, he’s the guy big corporations hire to fire people.
Through Bingham, Kirn satirizes corporate culture and crafts an alternate reality dealing with air travel and modern values, a formula that seemed to be working as his book hit the shelves. Shortly after Up in the Air was published, though, and while seemingly off to a good start, September 11 terrorists crashed two airliners into the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan. Another struck the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and yet another plane full of passengers was brought down over Pennsylvania, a national nightmare that caused the greatest sensitivities ever about aviation security among the public—a public that buys books, many of them in airports, and watches movies.
For Kirn, September 11 was bad news in more ways than one. Thousands of Americans had been killed, and so the tragic incident seriously tainted the marketability of both his novel and a screenplay he wrote. The novel’s cartoonish cover depic-ting an exploding airliner and a jettisoned passenger only made matters worse.
Prior to the catastrophe, Kirn sold the film rights to his book and was compensated, somewhat modestly, but after 9/11 both the book’s prospects for success and those for a film seemed unlikely. Current events had not only altered the course of American foreign policy, air travel, and the psyche of a nation, they sabotaged what Kirn is quick to admit was by comparison entirely inconsequential—the fate of his novel. As time passed, though, and psyche’s healed, Kirn got word that screenwriter Jason Reitman was working on a script for Up in the Air. He knew better than to take such things too seriously. In Hollywood, I’ll get back to you usually means the opposite, Kirn told us—and in accordance with his midwestern upbringing, he resisted any temptation to be overly optimistic.
Yet two years later, the screen project showed signs of coming to life. Reitman, who had achieved success as the director of Juno and Thanks for Smoking, had apparently been hard at work. Kirn got a phone call alerting him that Variety had reported George Clooney was considering starring in Up in the Air, the movie. Anyone who knows anything about film knows the rest of the story—a December 2009 release, a Golden Globe award for best screenplay, and a good shot at an Oscar or two.
As the film project got underway, though, the economic crisis struck, the worst since the Great Depression, we were told. The fictional story of an axe man like Bingham going around firing people, while in real life millions of Americans were losing their jobs, posed a problem. And so Kirn’s story, now a film in the making, would yield again to the sensitivities of movie goers, a decision made by director Jason Reitman in the wake of the economic crisis. And what began as a satire about modern and corporate culture would give way to a story that addresses the country’s skyrocketing and painful unemploy-ment, complete with 20-or-so real life people appearing in the film who talk about having lost their jobs.
Kirn knows well the degree to which the film medium differs from that of the novel, a difference he characterized in detail when asked what it was like to see his story on screen for the first time, an event that took place in Jason Reitman’s house, in a screening room, according to Kirn, the size of the smaller Empire Twin theater in downtown Livingston.
“People who haven’t written books or novels,” Kirn told the Pio-neer, “probably imagine that the writer is kind of running a movie in his head, and then describing it...but in my experience, that’s not really how it works.”
As an author writing a book, Kirn said, he creates an alternate reality, but with words, impressions, sounds, voices, not necessarily the visual components used by filmmakers. “When you finish a novel,” he went on, “you don’t know exactly what the characters look like, you don’t know what kind of clothes they’re wearing, you certainly don’t know what tie they’re wearing everyday. And so, when you watch the movie, suddenly, all this stuff, basically visual and atmospheric detail that the novelist just suggested and that is kind of fuzzy in the author’s mind, becomes absolutely specific.”
A main character then in a movie has a certain way of smiling, wears a certain kind of suit, walks and acts a certain way, and in this case bears a striking resemblance to George Clooney—as opposed to the nebulous image of Ryan Bingham held in the mind of Walter Kirn.
The moment finally arrived, after the full transition from book to screen, when the novelist’s imagination gave way to the preferences of a screenwriter and director, and then those dictated by marketability due to current events. The house lights dimmed and the projector rolled at that first screening, and Kirn sat before a creation, now cinematic, that was once his own intimate dream.
“The first impression was one of disorientation,” Kirn told us, “because you basically created, umm, an abstract sculpture, and someone else has made a perfectly anatomically correct model, you know, based on that sculpture. You say, Wow, the character looks exactly like this, and speaks this way, and when you get over that you realize I’m now participating in an entirely different artistic form.”
People might think Up in the Air, the movie, Kirn said, amounts to a visualization of the story he wrote on the printed page, but that is not the case. “It’s a completely parallel and separate creation,” he said, “which shares themes, characters, settings, moods, lines of dia-logue, but you [the novelist] become an audience member for what was once, for what you would think, was personal, but turns out to be impersonal.”
Kirn went through a process of acceptance. People might assume, he told us, that as an author he compares what he sees on screen with that which he “imagined” while writing his novel. He readily accepts though, and without regret, that the adap-tation of his book to film was done quite liberally, but often for practical reasons.
“There were various things about the book that weren't necessarily cinematic that went on inside Ryan Bingham’s head, and in order for that to go on outside his head, you have to give the character someone to talk to, and so a character was invented to travel along with the main character.” That would be Alex Goran, played by Vera Farmiga oppo-site George Clooney as his love interest.
With a major supporting character having been invented, numerous scenes that do not derive directly from the book, an extended time frame compared to that of the novel, and themes introduced due to current events, Kirn told us that the means by which an author, as an artist, must approach a movie version of his book can be summed up in one word—surrender.
“[It’s by] letting go,” he said, “realizing that your child grew up, you missed his adolescence sort of (Kirn laughs), it is now an adult on its own, and you need to get to know it all over again.”
Kirn hasn’t lacked for experience in seeing one of his novels converted to film. Thumbsucker, his autobio-graphical tale about adolescence made it to the screen as an indepen-dent film in 2005. Thumbsucker, the movie, however, did not prepare him for Up in the Air, the latter being a far more high profile project, one involving a much larger production, major movie stars, and a script, according to Kirn, that involved far more inventions and changes compared to his original conception in the book.
Helping to bring about his sense of acceptance, his resignation to the fate of his novel as depicted on screen, was that he spent 10 days on the set in St. Louis where the film was shot. He became acquainted with Ryan Bingham incarnate, George Clooney, and Kirn even participated in the film, on screen, as an actor in a non speaking role.
Reitman, Kirn told us, had him play a colleague of Clooney who sits next to him in a scene that takes place in an office. “That was fun,” he said. “We have facial expressions back and forth, little reaction shots between us.” (See page 15 sidebar for Kirn’s experiences with Clooney).
Referring to himself as a skeptical midwesterner, Kirn said he was struck by a moment of great satisfaction realizing the film was actually being shot. “Even when I was on the set, and they were shooting the movie, I was too superstitious to believe that it would ever come out.”
Similarly, Kirn barely allowed himself to feel encouraged by Clooney’s star power, and how that might propel the film’s success. When asked if he felt reassured by the fact that a huge star like Clooney would play Ryan Bingham, Kirn said, “I was, but nowadays, the way Hollywood works, even the biggest actors don’t guarantee anything. I mean, Angelina Jolie has movies that go straight to video. ...There’s a lot of ways for a movie to go wrong, even when it has George Clooney. Those things [major stars] are all good news, they’re all encouraging, they all get your hopes up, but as your hopes go up, so do your fears, unfortunately, if you’re somebody like me.”
Participating in the actual filming of Up in the Air, though, seemed to have paved the way for Kirn’s acceptance that his child had grown up and left home, but as with any scenario in which adolescence yields to the age of consent, tell tale signs preceded the realization.
As one might expect of a novelist, Kirn describes objects and impressions and the accompanying sensations they evoke—collections of director’s chairs and paraphernalia on the set inscribed with Up in the Air, as he realized that’s the title of his book. Then hundreds of people, trucks, wires, lights, cameras, and assistants running around and all wearing jackets that also say Up in the Air.
“They’re making a movie,” he said, “and they don’t even know who you are. You’re just some guy who got let onto the set.” Kirn even said the experience of watching his own internal creation being made into a film was weird, like being a ghost at his own wedding. “It’s a very strange experience to watch this huge industrial project based on what was a completely solo and isolated creative venture, and kind of be a part of it, but really no longer be a part of it.”
Having gone through all that preparation, even the disorientation he first experienced as the reel turned and the projector light flickered in Reitman’s home theater, Kirn told us he came around in a positive way, leaving, at least in part, his midwesternness aside.
“After the first few minutes, I told myself, this movie is terrific. I was just blown away, and felt that way right to the end. To be honest, I cried at the end. I don’t know if it was because of the somewhat melancholy ending or because I was grateful that they had not done something that I couldn’t be associ-ated with.”
With a Golden Globe for best screenplay and Oscar nominations in the works, Kirn’s gratitude for the fate of Up in the Air, even though it did not return to him a vast reward financially, comes through clearly in his voice, in his heartfelt expression. “It’s all wonderful, he said. “It’s all wonderful because as you know it’s getting harder and harder to be a writer. It’s getting harder and harder to make money from the written word—it makes people around you think that you somehow got rich, but honestly it doesn’t make you rich, because they bought these rights a long time ago. It’s sort of like you sold a house five years ago. It does cause reinvigorated interest in the book, but the way the publishing industry works, you don’t find that out until a year later.”
Asked if his heightened notoriety with the success of Up in the Air would help him negotiate a better deal next time around, Kirn rever-ted to the protective comfort of his midwestern skepticism, and told us—one would hope.
As for other rewards, like being called out twice from the stage of the Golden Globes in January by screenwriters Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Kirn said, emphatically, “I thought it was a very classy move and I was grateful for it.”
Look for more of the same at the Academy Awards in March—the fate of Kirn’s novel turned motion picture, owing to critical acclaim, is anything but up in the air.
Note: Walter Kirn is a reviewer for The New York Times Book Review, and his work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Time, New York, GQ and Esquire. He is the author of several previous works of fiction. His most recent book is a memoir titled Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. Kirn graduated from Princeton University and attended Oxford on a scholarship. As the Montana Pioneer goes to press, he was working on a Rolling Stone piece dealing with the late J.D. Salinger.