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He proceeded with caution, transferring to the University of Southern California—not for the celebrated film school, but rather as an English major with a creative-writing emphasis. Even then, there were those who saw their classmate as a potential meal ticket. "I remember hearing from a friend that someone in the film school had said, 'We've got to get him into the film school, because he's going to hook all of us up,'" says Reitman with palpable disgust. "I heard that and I went, 'Oh, God.' If I'd ever even thought about majoring in film, that was it. I decided: I'm going to be an English major and I'm going to make it on my own. I'm not going to change my name; I don't need to lie to people. I am who I am."
In the interest of full disclosure, this writer may have had his own preconceptions about Reitman, when, in the fall of 1996, he showed up at USC's Daily Trojan newspaper office, where I was the film-section editor, asking if he could write some movie reviews. I agreed, and over the course of the semester Reitman published his appraisals of Jerry Maguire, the Wachowski brothers' Bound, and Tom Hanks's That Thing You Do!, although it was another actor's directorial debut, Matthew Broderick's little-seen biopic of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, Infinity, that yielded this memorable opener: "Finally someone has made a good film." Reitman's tenure at the Trojan was brief. He was already starting to formulate his first short films, and what I remember most about those days is how stubbornly intent he was on raising the money himself—first by selling desk calendars and, later, bracelets he designed with his girlfriend at the time.
In a way, I suggest to Reitman, his movie career might be the product of a prolonged adolescent rebellion: the Beverly Hills "townie" who points his camera on the flatlands of the Middle West; the son of one of the industry's ultimate "high-concept" directors, determined to make small, character-driven movies. "I guess I'll say this," he answers after a considered pause. "My father is the child of Holocaust survivors who escaped Communist Czechoslovakia in the bottom of a boat. They wound up in Canada as refugees. My grandfather ran a car wash and a dry cleaner's. So it's no wonder that my father wants to make movies that just make people happy, where you walk out feeling better about life than when you walked in. It's much easier to be a satirist when you grow up in Beverly Hills and never worry where your next meal is coming from. It's much easier to sit there and talk about how complicated life is and not really worry about whether your characters are likable."
It's not so easy, however, to keep making those kinds of movies in a Hollywood that has rarely been less hospitable to films for adults and to filmmakers who think outside the toy/Happy Meal/video-game box. "That's what has made my job difficult right now," says Reitman, adding that Up in the Air—a movie he's been trying to make since before Thank You for Smoking—was green-lit only due to Clooney's presence and Juno's robust $231 million worldwide gross. "I'm making films in a kind of netherworld," he continues. "I'm not an indie guy. At the same time, I'm not going to spend $80 million on a movie—that, for me, makes no sense. If you think of the studios having these slots they're trying to fill on their release schedules, none of those slots bear any resemblance to what I'm making."
These days, with his early career anxieties behind him and Up in the Air tipped as an Oscar front-runner, Reitman still finds plenty to worry about, as if his constitution depended on a steady infusion of nervous energy. He worries about whether he's being a good husband to his wife, Michele, whom he credits for his ability to write strong female characters like the businesswomen played by Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air. He worries about whether he's being a good father to his young daughter, especially given the long periods of separation that come with making movies.
While shooting Up in the Air, he tells me, "For the first time, in a real way, I felt this strain, particularly because I'm the son of a director and I know what it was like to have my dad go away for months. The tricky thing about being a director is, even when you're home, you're not there. I could be sitting at the dinner table across from you, but in my mind I'm trying to figure out the movie. As soon as I start writing, all the way through postproduction, my mind is in the world of the characters, and I'm trying to figure the movie out. First, I'm figuring out how to write it. Then I'm figuring out how to get it made. Then I'm figuring out how to shoot it, then how to cut it. It's a year where I'm just not present, and that's tough."