Up in the Air

Okay, first of all, let me warn you: If you haven’t yet seen Jason Reitman‘s Up in the Air:

1. Why haven’t you? It’s in theaters everywhere… go now!
2. You might not want to read the following story as it contains some spoilers for the film. (the headline is not a spoiler, trust me)

While George Clooney‘s character Ryan Bingham is not dying of terminal cancer in the actual theatrical cut of the film, might one have been written and even filmed? After the jump we get to the bottom of the mystery. Is it true? Was it written? Was it filmed? We talked to Jason Reitman to get the answers.

The mystery first appeared online when a reader emailed Hollywood Elsewhere suspecting that Reitman had originally planned a third act twist reveal in which Ryan Bingham is dying of a terminal cancer. Here is an excerpt from the reader letter:

“Kirn’s 2001 novel is told in the first-person from Bingham’s point-of-view. By the time we reach the third act, after a series of strange and confusing episodes, it becomes clear that Bingham is an unreliable narrator. It is only in the last few pages that we learn he has been suffering from seizures, black-outs for hours on end, and has an upcoming appointment at the Mayo clinic for treatment of this unnamed affliction.In short the book has a twist ending that makes you go back and rethink everything you read. I think director-cowriter Reitman had the same ending in mind when he made the movie only to pull his punches in post. The first clue to Reitman’s intention is the ‘Would you like the cancer?/Would you like the can, sir?’ joke during Bingham’s maiden flight. When I saw this scene, I immediately knew the meaning of the signal since I’d read the book. My presumption was that unlike Kirn in the novel, Reitman was going to be a bit more clever about planting clues about Bingham’s health throughout the story. As it stands in the film now, without the twist, the ‘cancer/can, sir’ joke is an odd bit that doesn’t really make sense. It’s merely a joke that seems to have been written to demonstrate Bingham is preoccupied with thoughts of cancer and death. There are other hints of mortality. If you go back and watch the movie again in your mind, almost everything else Bingham does makes more sense if we suspects he may be dying. As in the novel, Bingham is obsessed with frequent flier miles. (One million in the book, ten million in the film) “I would be number seven,” he explains. “More people have gone to the moon.” If we look at his quest through a mortal lens, we see that instead of just being a guy trying to score points, Bingham is someone racing the clock, trying to achieve something that would give his life a kind of meaning before he meets his early end. Bingham’s rash decision to throw away his whole life/relationship philosophy as he tries to connect with Alex in Chicago is something a sick guy with emotional avoidance issues might just do.”

The gag where the flight attendant asks Bingham if he would like the can, sir has always interested me because it’s the only scene in the film that has no connection to the story. It is for all intents and purposes, a throwaway gag. It’s definitely funny enough to include in the film, and every time I’ve seen the movie it draws bg laughs, but if it were removed from the theatrical cut, it would change nothing. You can watch a clip of the scene embedded below:

I also read an early draft of the screenplay which didn’t contain any sort of cancer subplot. But the evidence above seemed to suggest that it might have been filmed, or at least written… So I decided to contact filmmaker Jason Reitman to try to get an answer to the questions of a cancer subplot. And it appears I wasn’t the only one interested, as Alex from FirstShowing and Kris from InContention were also in on the conference call. You can read the quotes below or listen to the audio for yourself embedded below:

“You find out at the end of the book that the character is dying of terminal disease and that he is going to the Mayo clinic. But that is something I never wanted to include in the movie, so I never shot a scene where you find out the character is actually dying. For me, the end of the movie is him making a choice of where he wants to go for the rest of his life and certainly he does have the rest of his life. The Do You Want The Can Sir scene, which was my invention, and was not in the book, came out of a real moment when I was on a plane and I overheard a flight attendant actually ask someone, Do you want “the Cancer”, and I actually did a double take. The inclusion in the movie does two things: I thought it would be a cute nod to the people who have read the book, and in the book he is dying of cancer. And 2, more importantly, It kind of speaks to the idea of how we collect things and this certain sense like it is a disease: being addicted to traveling and the obsessiveness over miles or any kind of fruitless collection is like having a disease. Good?”

I decided to follow up by asking Reitman if the “Would You Like the Can Sir” scene was originally longer, and this is how he responded:

“No, that’s it. I’ll tell you this… It was original going to be the opening of the movie. If you read an old draft of Up in the Air, it opens with “Do You Want the Can Sir”. And I always thought that was a clever cold open. And I actually cut it that way and showed it to an audience, but for an audience that knew nothing about the movie, it really freaked them out. Like they really didn’t know what they were watching. I decided it would carry more weight if it happened a little further in. And it’s still a little unusual. It kind of happens out of nowhere, and we never really call back to it. But I felt like it still had a purpose there.

Alex from FirstShowing then mentioned that in the trailers he noticed some cuts where he is talking to a guy in a plane, and later walking with him in an airport (the guy disappears behind a wall as Clooney walks). Jason responded explaining that it was part of an extended sequence we will see on the DVD/Blu-ray:

“That’s a whole sequence in the book called “To Know Me Is To Fly With Me”, and it’s sad because that was a sequence I really loved. Out of everything I cut out of the movie, that is probably the sequence I’m most proud of because I thought the sequence was directorialy pretty cool, and it really got at who the character really was. But you just didn’t need it at the end of the day. We needed to get to the meat of the story. It will be on the DVD. It’s actually a great sequence and I had a lot of fun shooting it. And for a plane shoot, I thought it was pretty fucking cool. And it had that great shot — that shot I had the idea of from the moment of writing which is this great visual: You’ve got two guys walking next to each other and boom, one is suddenly gone. And right as he is looking up to say goodbye, he disappears. Something I’m going to have on the DVD which is really cool is that I do a lot of video storyboards, and I cut together this piece to music which goes between the video storyboard and the real shot — and that’s one of those where it’s the video storyboard of the shot and it transitions into the real shot.”

So there you have it. Even though it isn’t true, it was an interesting theory.

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