Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner accomplish a rare feat in Up in the Air, which is to write a transcendent romantic comedy. In all my genre classes, I talk about the importance of transcending your form, of hitting all the required story beats but also twisting them so the story is original to you. Transcending any genre is hard, but especially so in romantic comedy which is a highly choreographed form with 12 special story beats. The question for the screenwriter becomes: how do you stretch this narrow form and do something that the audience, which loves love, has never seen before.
When you want to transcend a genre, the first thing to focus on is the weakness/need of the hero. Weakness/need is the first of the seven major structure steps, the wellspring of the story and the key to the main character. If you succeed in twisting this beat, you can twist any other beat in the story. That is clearly the case in Up in the Air.
In all love stories, the hero’s weakness is that he or she is unable to love. Ryan, the main character in Up in the Air, takes this weakness to the extreme, and in his own mind turns it into a strength. Both personally and professionally, he is the master of disconnection. Not only does he fire people for a living, with style, he is the Casanova of the sky, an artist of love and leave.
But the writers don’t stop with this simple organic unity in the main character. In a nice touch, they show us a man who has conjured up a detailed psychological and moral justification for the way he lives. When he’s not traveling the country separating people from their work family, Ryan is a motivational speaker who waxes poetic about taking the baggage of your life (ie, your relationships) out of your backpack, so you can move, be free and live.
The love story is the only genre that has two main characters. Once the writers establish a hero who lives at one extreme of the loner/community spectrum, they create his lover, who is the exact female expression of his life philosophy. Notice that the challenge for the writers and actress Vera Farmiga was huge: how do you create a woman George Clooney, world’s most desired and eligible bachelor, would believably fall in love with.
Incredibly, the writers and Farmiga pull it off. She is not classically beautiful because that would be a cliché that would guarantee in the mind of the audience that Ryan/Clooney would never fall for her, much less marry her. But she is sexy and smart, and as confident a practitioner of great, free sex as he is.
The audience sees that in spades in her very first scene with Ryan, another love story beat – the “meet cute” – that the writers twist in an especially creative and funny way. Sitting in the hotel bar, the would-be lovers compare credit cards, hotels and techniques required to be a master of the love-and-leave lifestyle. The dialogue is perfect, and the actors knock the scene out of the park.
It is in the script’s story structure, determined by the hero’s desire line, that we really see why these writers are masters of the screenwriting art. Notice that the concept of the film and the unique main character immediately place the writers in a terrible story bind. In the Great Screenwriting Class, I talk about the difficulty of writing a story about a purposeless man. Of course, such people exist. But writing a successful story about one of them is nearly impossible, because his weakness – his lack of purpose – also means he has no desire line. Which means the story has no spine.
So how do the writers solve this most essential of all story problems? They have to have some spine, but it has to be true to this character’s fundamental weakness. His first desire is to fly 10,000,000 miles, a meaningless accomplishment but one reached by only six people before him. Then he wants the girl.
Notice that neither of these goals can serve as the spine for the entire story. First, he is already flying all the time; it’s the same beat. Second, he is the ultimate loner and so is she, so their meetings must be sporadic. Third, he can’t find his true desire, if ever, until the end of the story at the self-revelation. So he can actively chase her only in the last 20 minutes of the film.
What to do in the meantime? The writers create a substitute desire line, and ongoing conflict, when Ryan takes the rookie, Natalie, on the road to show her how to fire people. Notice this has nothing to do with the hero’s ultimate goal. He never makes a play for her. But she is a variation on the basic theme, having to do with the hero’s weakness, in that she is even colder in how she fires people than he is. That forces Ryan to find at least some compassion in doing the work of the devil, and perhaps, just perhaps, cultivates the ground where love can grow in his heart.
The writers complete their twisting of the romantic comedy form by having the story turn in ways that you don’t expect (and I won’t mention here). Suffice it to say that Reitman and Turner take this love story to its logical extreme, which is deeply satisfying and shocking to the audience at the same time. In this, Up in the Air is similar to the great detective stories, where you look back in total surprise at who done it but realize that’s the only way it could have been done. That’s great writing.