A screenwriting dispute over Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air”

I wasn’t surprised when Jason Reitman won the Golden Globe for best adapted screenplay last night; I was surprised that someone named Sheldon Turner did, too. Until last night, I had never heard of Sheldon Turner. I guess I was too busy anticipating George Clooney’s screen time to pay enough attention to the opening credits of “Up in the Air,” but then again, I thought I already knew the screenwriter of “Up in the Air.”

But things, especially in Hollywood, are rarely what they seem.

According to a timely piece in the L.A. Times yesterday, deciding who gets screenwriting credit on produced movies is a fairly complicated web. And it looks like Hollywood’s favorite young Jewish director got caught amidst some suspicious activity.

The Times writes that throughout awards season, Reitman has been taking sole credit for writing “Up in the Air”—a screenplay supposedly inspired by his own special find, a Walter Kirn novel he discovered at Book Soup. In truth, a film version of that novel has been in development for years, and in particular, a screenplay written by Sheldon Turner. Turner wrote “The Longest Yard,” an installment in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” franchise and has been recently hired to write “X-Men Origins: Magneto.”

That he’s getting more attention for his predicament with Reitman than for any of his work is proof that there’s no such thing as bad press. In a weekend, Turner has gone from a complete unknown to someone on the public’s radar.

Long before Reitman had ever read “Up in the Air,” Turner had adapted Kirn’s book into what insiders say is a close version of the finished product. Reitman ended up writing his own draft anyway, though no one quite knows how Reitman’s screenplay became a movie that looks a lot like Turner’s original. In order to get the matter settled, the two writers were brought to arbitration at the Writers Guild, where in the end, the guild ruled in Turner’s favor.

So far, neither parties are commenting on the matter, though Reitman did step aside last night to allow Turner to the podium first.

The question is: Is Reitman the menschy, well-regarded talent we think he is? Or is he just like everyone else in Hollywood, susceptible to the same power-grabbing impulses?

Read more at the L.A. Times:

The genesis story that Jason Reitman tells is by now well-honed. He discovered Walter Kirn’s novel “Up in the Air” in the independent bookshop Book Soup and spent a long time whipping a script into shape before getting behind the camera. “When I started writing this screenplay,” Reitman told NPR, “we were in the midst of an economic boom, and by the time I was finished we were in one of the worst recessions on record.”

What he hasn’t been saying as much was that the script was actually already in development for several years, first as an independent project and then at Fox, before he became involved, and screenwriter Sheldon Turner wrote an entire draft before Reitman put pen to paper. Turner’s draft would be recognizable to anyone who’s seen the finished film; significant elements from it, sources who read it say, appear in the finished movie.

The invention of George Clooney’s whippersnapper partner played by Anna Kendrick, for instance, came from Turner (in Turner’s version it was a man; another writer who wasn’t Reitman later changed it to a woman). A key plot point about a laid-off worker committing suicide came from Turner. And while Reitman invented many memorable lines, sources noted Turner made his mark too: he was responsible for the trademark line from George Clooney’s character to laid-off workers about founding an empire. Turner and Reitman separately declined to comment.

This all could have been fairly typical; Hollywood films, after all, often are the result of people drafting off predecessors’ work. Except when it came time to allot credit, Reitman maintained that the substantive work on the movie was his and that he shouldn’t share credit with Turner. The two went to arbitration in front of the Writers Guild, which ruled in favor of Turner and handed him a credit. Turner is also nominated for an adapted screenplay Golden Globe, where, if he wins, he will share the podium with Reitman.

Still, Turner has mostly stayed out of sight on the awards circuit, and it’s rare to hear Reitman, who has been ubiquitous on that circuit, mention him at all. [UPDATED 10:07 PM: Reitman and Turner just won the Critics Choice prize for best adapted screenplay. They both came to the stage but, in what could only be described as an awkward moment for Turner—who trailed Reitman by about five seconds in coming to the podium—only Reitman spoke, thanking several people but failing to acknowledge the credited writer standing next to him. Turner looked like he wanted to speak, but Reitman finished and began walking off the stage, the exit music began playing and Turner again trailed behind Reitman, not having said anything.]