The movie follows Aaron Eckhart’s Nick Naylor, spokesperson for Big Tobacco’s “Academy of Tobacco Studies” and the self-declared most hated man in the country, as he tries to defend the virtues of smoking while facing Senate hearings and disgruntled Marlboro Men with his impressionable son along for the ride. It features an amazing cast that includes Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, Cameron Bright, Maria Bello, David Koechner, Rob Lowe, Katie Holmes, Sam Elliot and more.
ComingSoon.net spoke to the smart young director about his debut feature and some of the controversy surrounding it.
CS: What were some of the difficulties or challenges in adapting Christopher Buckley’s novel?
Jason Reitman: I think it was a pretty easy novel to adapt. I adapted it pretty quickly. A lot of it was a big cut-and-paste job. The MOD Squad scenes are basically lifted out of the book and pasted right into the movie. The book, in my opinion, is brilliant and hilarious. The thing that I did is that I took Chris Buckley’s narration and replaced it with Nick’s voice-over because they basically have the same voice and I didn’t want to lose all that narration. I made the son [into] a real character. In the book, the son is basically non-existent and I thought [that] Joey is really the window to Nick’s soul and allows us to understand why does what he does for a living. I think it’s cool and it’s funny, but it’s not real. Through Joey, we get more of an idea of who Nick is. The last part of adapting was holding back stuff that didn’t fit tonally in what I wanted the film to be. In the novel, you have three-hundred pages, and you have an opportunity to try all sorts of different things. The movie, which is 90 minutes, is a satire, which is tricky as far as tone goes, so the tough thing about adapting is that there’s hilarious stuff that just doesn’t fit within the tone of the film and having to cut that was heartbreaking.
CS: How involved was Chris Buckley when you adapted the screenplay?
Reitman: When I first got hired, the first thing I did is I got his number and I left a message on his machine saying, “Hi, this is Jason Reitman, the guy they hired to f*ck-up your book.” He called me back, and we talked, and I just told him that I wanted his blessing basically. I was an enormous fan of the book and wanted to treat it with respect. I sent him drafts as I wrote them, and he would send me back notes. Of all the stuff that I knew about Hollywood, I would make all sorts of mistakes about things that would happen and he would correct me. He came on the roadhe came to Sundance, he came to Torontoand this Saturday, he put together a screening for us and the guest list for it is ridiculous. The new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is coming. Apparently, Ronald Rumsfeld is coming. That’s not confirmed, yet. [laughs] I’d love to talk to Rumsfeld about what he thought of my movie.
CS: Did Chris Buckley disagree on anything regarding your vision of his book?
Reitman: No, Chris had been through so much by the time I got on. His book is published, it’s bought by Mel Gibson, and he thinks, “My book is going to be made into a movie; I’m in John Grisham time.” They had all these high-profile guys writing and no one was turning out anything. I think that by the time I got on, he was just like, “I’m sure you’ll make the movie.” We enjoyed talking to each other, but I’m not sure he really believed that I was going to get it made. When I talked to Chris as I was reading the book, I was 22 years old. I was like [in a youthful voice] “Hi Chris, I’m going to make your movie.” [laughs] I think he liked what I was doing.
Reitman: Aaron Eckhart was basically born to play this role. When I talked to people about it, I sensed a general excitement. Ever since “In the Company of Men,” this is the part they’ve been waiting for him to do. Beyond the fact that he’s very handsome, he has this charm that allows him to say very subversive things and get away with it. You don’t dislike him for it. In fact, you almost like him more for it. When I saw “In the Company of Men,” where he plays this complete monster, you can’t help but want to watch this guy. Then, I watched “Erin Brokovich” and saw how he played this biker that you basically want to let babysit your kids. That was who Nick Naylor was. It was that combination. The movie rests on his performance: it’s good because he’s good.
CS: Would you consider Nick to be a hero or an anti-hero?
Reitman: I see him as a hero. I actually like the message that he’s trying to get across, because he’s trying to teach his son to be an independent thinker. When he talks to his son on the pier and says that murderers need public defenders and [that] good corporations perhaps need the same thingthey’re constantly being vilified and need their white knight. I actually believe that. So, I do think that he’s somewhat of a hero. On the other hand, he’s great at what he does: he’s a great talker and he’s basically very good at subverting arguments. It’s fun to watch someone do something they’re brilliant at. When I spoke to Aaron [Eckhart] about the role, I said [to him that he] has to be enjoying himself at all times. When you watch Coby Bryant playing basketball, you enjoy watching him play because he’s so fantastic, although that may not be [necessarily true]. I want Aaron to have that same type of joy and I think that’s why it’s enjoyable to watch him.
CS: Can you talk about some of the rest of the cast like Robert Duvall, and about the controversy surrounding others like Katie Holmes and Rob Lowe?
Reitman: Once [Aaron] signed onto the film, it became a lot easier to attract [other actors]. I never in my wildest dreams thought that we’d get the cast that we did. I still look at the poster and can’t quite believe that I directed the actors in this movie. When I think about the days I directed Robert Duvall, literally, it’s like a dream that didn’t happen. We sent him the screenplay, I wrote a letter to him [and] he called me up. He really loved the letter I wrote to him, which was a real surprise. He was touched by it. I think he really loved the script. He liked the politics [and] Chris Buckley’s words. He was the second guy on and then it became really easy because you say, “Robert Duvall is in this movie”. People were interested. The way the movie works is this kind of odyssey where Nick is visiting one character after another and it meant that the actors only had to do two, three, or four days of shooting. It was a scheduling dream. Katie did this movie before she met Tom Cruise. She was just lovely and got the sense of humor in the movie immediately. [She] was wonderful to work with. It kills me to see how she’s getting hammered now because she’s really just a lovely girl. Robe Lowe [laughs], I don’t know how to talk about his controversy, because I was an infant when that happened. I don’t remember how that played out and didn’t see the video either. It’s exciting for me to read the press reactions to the movie and see Rob in the first, second or third line and mention how much they love Rob and how funny they think he is in it. He’s a funny guyhe’s a guy who calls Dennis Miller one of his best friends. I think it would be great to see him do more stuff like this. He definitely starting doing stuff like that on “The West Wing,” and I hope that this will help.
Reitman: Yes, the character is obviously named after the character in the book, but Rob kind of took it to another level. He based the speech pattern on an agent who he won’t name. It’s the new power agent in Hollywood, what he calls it is an arrogant version of modesty. They’re not slimy; they’re the opposite. They take modesty to a level where it’s arrogant. I think that’s pretty clever.
CS: Do you think there’s a larger picture here about morally bankrupt greed?
Reitman: Yeah, I’m really interested in that argument. There are a lot of movies that talk about greed. I’m not as bothered by it, I guess. I loved the movie “The Insider”, “Erin Brokovich”, and there are corporations that do awful things, but, on the other hand, I like to think that there’s a lot of people who just happen to grow up in North Carolina and they work at Phillip Morris because that’s where they grew up and they work in accounting. They go to work, they do their job, and that’s their gig. They don’t want to kill people. If they had grown up in Michigan, they would work at Ford. I’m just not as interested in talking about how evil corporations are. There are plenty of people doing that.
CS: There’s been a bit of controversy about the sex scene, because some people thought that it might have been reedited at the request of Katie Holmes or her powerful fiancé.
Reitman: The Toronto version was the finished version of the film. What happened is it was simply a projection error. It opens with a cut to black, and in Sundance, they have over 200 prints going in and out of there in 10 days. They’re assembling these films on benches because they don’t show films with two projectors anymore, so they have this room where they’re assembling and they get to the end of the reel and they see black and they just made the cut. The scene was sitting on the floor for a week. It’s funny because two days went by, [but] nobody said anything about it. No one really cared. Then, the L.A. Times did this story and then that was it. I went from doing interviews with The Times and The Journal, and by midweek, it was Inside Edition, Access Hollywood, and US Weekly.
Reitman: It’s great publicity! It’s weird in that people just ran with it. People started talking about the nudity in the film and I’m like, “What are you talking about?” [laughs] They just made stuff up! Last night, I was in Boston and this college kid is going, “Where was the nudity? I thought I was going to see tits!” and I said, “You should rent The Gift and you’ll get plenty.” It’s a scene of humorous humping. It’s not really crucial to the plot beyond the fact that you need to see them sleeping with each other or it’s kind of shocking to see them in bed around two-thirds into the film. It was a good story. I feel awful for Kate because she’s been hammered enough. The exciting thing is that we finally cracked the fifteen year-old boy demographic. I think we’ll get some kids in there.
CS: Did you always intend for the movie to be R-rated?
Reitman: I wanted to swear. It’s kind of lame that you get an R-rating just for a few swear words. I don’t think it really matters on a film like this. I don’t think there will be fifteen year-old kids who will get pissed off because they can’t get into “Thank You for Smoking.” If that happens and your kids are sneaking in, then God bless them.
CS: There’s a bit of relevance to what is going on in Washington right now with the lobbyists. Did you do any research into that?
Reitman: We went to Washington, D.C., to the Heritage Foundation, and the KATO institute, and met some people. They were all fans of the book, but, to be honest, what Nick does is so different from what a traditional lobbyist does. A lobbyist is someone who uses money, and basically whatever they can, to move legislation. Nick really is a spokesman, a frontman for tobacco. [He’s] a guy you send into battle when you have to be on TV or in front of a large crowd. You need a guy who is [unable to be hated] as much as possible. That’s what he does. We use the word “lobbyist”, because it’s part of the lexicon and allows you to understand the character better, but I think what he does is different from a Jack Abramoff, for example.
Reitman: I don’t think they ever commented about it. In general, they don’t comment. The tobacco industry, in a weird way, is kind of doing the best as [it] has done in many decades. There was the late-nineties settlement, Joe Camel is dead, the Winston Cup series is now called the Nextel Cup Series, and Phillip Morris has changed their name to Altria. They’re trying to move into a new direction. I think they want to steer clear of controversy as much as possible. They haven’t contacted us. We use tobacco names all over the moviewe got a guy called the Marlboro Man and they smoke Marlboros and Kools. We talk about cigarettes a lot, and obviously emulate a lot of actual cigarette advertisements in those posters that we have all over the Academy of Tobacco Studies. When we went to Washington, D.C. to talk to people, they were all huge fans of the book, [but] they just couldn’t really talk. There was a woman with Phillip Morris who almost got on the phone with me and then didn’t. I was able to get Chris Cox, the NRA guy, on the phone and we talked for a little bit. He promised to send me bullet cufflinks and never did.
CS: Did you have to check with your lawyers about using the Marlboro Man in the movie?
Reitman: We talked about it, and it became an intellectual decision. We were going to go for it and who knows? Maybe we’re going to get sued and it’ll be fantastic publicity; we’ll just go back and re-dub the movie. I really don’t think they’re going to come after us for this. I just don’t think that’s the headline that Big Tobacco wants right now. The headline that Big Tobacco wants right now is, “We’re not tobacco. We make cheese and soft drinks.” They’re just another big American company with many different products. Marlboro has a clothing line. I think that’s what they want to be rather than those jerks coming after an independent filmmaker.
CS: Did you see any similarities between the relationship Nick Naylor has with his son and the relationship between you and your father?
Reitman: My father and I took a lot of drives when I was a kid, and I’d just ambush him with as many questions as I could possibly fit. I would imagine that that’s not dissimilar for most parents and children, but I guess [that’s where it comes from]. I wasn’t as smart as Joey when he was his age.
CS: Do you think your dad will be jealous if you get better reviews than him right out of the gate?
Reitman: My father is my hero, and he’s incredibly proud of me and this movie. He’s really excited about it. I think he’ll be thrilled for anything that happened. He would enjoy the reviews as if they were his own.
CS: Would you ever work with him on a project?
Reitman: I’ve re-written for my father before, and I really enjoy working with him. I didn’t want to do it up until now because I get really queasy about all the “daddy’s boy” sh*t. I made five short films before I did all this that played in a lot of film festivals. I tried to do a little bit of work and do this film on my own, so that I can say, “I made a movie. I did one on my own.” At this point, I’d be really comfortable, and don’t be surprised if you see a press release for the fact that I am.
CS: How about Christopher Buckley? Would you consider adapting another one of his books?
Reitman: We’ve talked about stuff, and I’d love to do another project with Buckley. We’ve been going back and forth on ideas, and I agree. We’re both good compliments for each other.
Thank You for Smoking opens in select cities on March 17.