Jason Reitman may belong to Hollywood royalty–he’s the son of director Ivan Reitman–but it was a struggle for him to get the job of making the film of Christopher Buckley’s 1994 novel “Thank You for Smoking,” a satire that riffs on spin doctors for unpopular industries, pompous politicians, activists, jaded reporters and superstar PR agents.
In a recent Dallas interview, Reitman recalled, “I just fell in love with the book–it really spoke to me. I loved that it had this wonderfully kind of libertarian attitude on the issue of cigarettes, and it didn’t apologize for itself. It’s a book where the hero represented tobacco, and he never felt sorry for that. And he had a great sense of humor about it, yet he was very self-aware. It was a very unusual thing, and when I read it in the last nineties, it just struck me. And it said a lot of things that I’d felt, but I’d never written down, or seen on paper before.”
But the rights to the book reposed elsewhere. “Mel Gibson’s company Icon owned it,” Reitman explained, “and they had worked on it for many years, getting nowhere, trying to turn it into a broad comedy.” He said that he thinks their model was Jim Carrey’s “Liar Liar,” which described as being “about a lawyer who realizes that his job is wrong. I think that’s what they were trying to do with the tobacco lobbyist. And it was basically a dead project when I came in saying, ‘Look, this should be an indie film. It should be ‘Citizen Ruth,’ it should be ‘Election.’ You should be making this for $5 million. They went for that and hired me to write a screenplay for scale, and then we went out to studios, and no studio wanted to touch it. Everyone had this problem that the main character, Nick [Naylor], never apologizes for himself, that he never saw the light and went to work for the Red Cross or something. That’s why we ended up having to do it independently. And it took five years to find a guy [David Sacks, the founder of PayPal, who bought the rights from Icon] who would put up the money and do it.”
Reitman also noted that Buckley, who does a cameo in the movie, was involved from the very start. “I always wanted him to take ownership of this film,” he said. “Right from the beginning I would send him copies of drafts, he’d send me notes, he came to the set, he’s been coming to the film festivals, he’s come to the premiere, and I wanted him to be in the movie. I wanted him to feel completely involved. Screenwriters and authors are always at each other’s throats, and I wanted this to be a wonderful working relationship. And it was–we built a fantastic friendship out of it.”
Once the project was on, Reitman took the script to Aaron Eckhart, whom he wanted to play Naylor. “Nick’s…not doing was a traditional lobbyist does,” he said. “He’s a spokesman, the guy that you send into battle when you need one face to represent an organization that’s completely un-hateable. And that’s why Aaron was perfect for this role, because he was born not only incredibly handsome, but with that charm that allows him to say these subversive things, and we like him for it. Aaron was born to play this role, and when I met him in person, he just smiled, and I was like, ‘Hi, Nick’–that’s how it felt!”
From that point, though, the game plan changed. “Originally I thought this would be Aaron Eckhart, God willing a couple names people recognize, and then a lot of character actors,” Reitman said. But Robert Duvall signed on to play The Captain, the mint julep-sipping southern tobacco titan who funds the institute where Naylor works. “He changed the landscape for us,” Reitman explained. “And as soon as Robert Duvall came on, everything was a reality. We had carte blanche to go to all these fantastic actors, and they kept on saying yes.” Eventually the roster came to include Maria Bello, Cameron Bright, Adam Brody, Katie Holmes, David Koechner, Rob Lowe, J.K. Simmons and William H. Macy.
And also Sam Elliott, as an erstwhile cigarette spokesman now afflicted with cancer, whom Naylor has to approach with the request not to speak out publicly against smoking. “He was my number one choice, and there wasn’t a number two,” Reitman said. “I wrote him a letter and told him that, and said, ‘You have to do this movie.’” Elliott loved the script, but was distressed by the fact that in the end his character did something the actor disliked. “He wanted to be noble, as he usually is in movies,” Reitman explained. But the writer persuaded him that the scene, as written, gave him an opportunity to do something different. “I basically told him, ‘There’s something wonderful about this guy being vulnerable, and that’s new for you. I think that’s what really makes it worth playing for you.’ I Nick Nayored him in, and I actually believed that. That’s spin you can actually believe.”
Reitman has been very happy with the reaction “Thank You for Smoking” has gotten thus far. “In a weird way, I think I’ve made the most mainstream version,” he said. “I’ve been traveling around the country showing the film, and no one’s offended. They’re really into it–they’re responding to this idea that we’ve been for too long told how to live our lives by both neo-liberals and neo-conservatives. So I don’t know what I did not, but somehow the movie’s accessible.
“I’m not trying to take a side pro or anti-smoking. That’s what our attitude is–smoke ’em if you want ’em. My attitude is, we’ve just got to relax a little and stop telling other people how to live their lives. The only person who had a problem…was at a Berkeley screening, which could have been dangerous. The students loved it, but there was a woman in the crowd who got up and started accusing me about going off of the real issue and not coming down hard on big tobacco. And before I could even respond and say there are plenty of movies that do that, and I’m trying to add something new to that conversation, all the students started to boo her, and they booed her until she stopped talking, and thus kid up front said, ‘Aw, get over yourself!’ I loved that. I felt like, hopefully, that’s this generation’s motto. The students who loved the film are the same generation that has embraced ‘The Daily Show.’ Young people don’t get their news from CNN, they don’t get it from the New York Times; they get it from Jon Stewart. And I think he’s the only one who’s being even-handed. He’s the only one who’s showing how ridiculous both sides are when they’re telling other people how to live their lives. Hopefully this is the political satire for the ‘Daily Show’ generation.”
And what about Ivan Reitman’s contribution to the picture? “I didn’t lean on him,” Jason said. “But I definitely sent him a draft or two, and he gave me notes, and he came to the editing room and checked out a cut and gave me notes. My father’s my role model–he’s my hero. I grew up on his sets, and that was my film school.”
If “Thank You for Smoking” is any indication, it was a pretty good campus.