The film stars Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, the chief spokesman for Big Tobacco, who makes his living defending the rights of smokers and cigarette makers in today’s neo-puritanical culture. Confronted by health zealots out to ban tobacco and an opportunistic senator (William H. Macy) who wants to put poison labels on cigarette packs, Nick goes on a PR offensive, spinning away the dangers of cigarettes on TV talk shows and enlisting a Hollywood super-agent (Rob Lowe) to promote smoking in movies. Nick’s newfound notoriety attracts the attention of both tobacco’s head honcho (Robert Duvall) and an investigative reporter for an influential Washington daily (Katie Holmes). Nick says he is just doing what it takes to pay the mortgage, but he begins to think about how his work makes him look in the eyes of his young son Joey (Cameron Bright).
So take some time and enjoy as I bring you one of the best interviews I believe I have sat down in. I am giving you this in transcript form because I think it was that good and I didn’t want to muddy it up with an attempt at puting together a cutesy article.
How much of the script is yours?
Jason: I would say when it’s funny it’s his [Christopher Buckley] and when you’re watching the clock it’s me. [laughing]
How much did you have to change?
Jason: You know, honestly, all the really kind of smart political stuff is Buckley. All the stuff, the M.O.D. squad [Short for “Merchants of Death,” the M.O.D. Squad consists of Naylor and fellow lobbyists Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) for the alcohol industry and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner), who represents the gun industry.], Nick spinning, it was in the book and it was perfect and I literally just did a cut and paste job. The real thing I added, is there is no real son in the novel, there’s a character named Joey by name, but you never really meet him. There was a moment in the book where Heather Holloway, the Katie Holmes character, asks, ‘What does your son think of your job?’ That’s an important question and I thought I wanted to answer that question with the movie and I developed the character, the son. So all the scenes where Nick and Joey are talking are mine, and even though they’re not as funny as the rest of the movie I think they are important because they give you a window into Nick’s soul that allows us to like Nick and they give an answer to why Nick does what he does.
The notes talk about the chief spokesperson for something like the tobacco industry would most often be perceived as the villain, is Nick a villain?
Jason: No, I think he’s a hero and he’s a hero for freedom. Now, freedom is a word that is getting thrown around a lot these days because of our current administration, but Nick takes the idea of freedom choice to the nth degree. He says that it’s not about that he wants you to smoke he wants you to have the choice to smoke, the freedom to smoke. What frustrates him is not people saying smoking is dangerous, what frustrates him are people saying smoking should be illegal. Well, not illegal, that the tobacco industry should be vilified for making an illegal product.
Are you a smoker?
Jason: No, I’m not.
Are you a drinker?
Jason: No, I’m actually…
Jason: Yes, but you’ve got to make the movie somehow. No, I’m kind of a zero vice, boring guy. Married, never really smoked, never drank, but more probably I don’t like being told what to do. I have a real authority problem and I think that’s one of the reasons the book really appealed to me.
Is this more of a message movie? More of a comedy? More of a drama? And in the future where do you see yourself going?
Jason: Well, I hope to make movies that combine all three. I want to make smart films and I don’t want to do really broad comedies. I mean, one day I will sell out and make a broad comedy and make a fortune and that’ll be nice, but for the mean time I feel like I have something to say and hopefully I can still do that while making people laugh.
35 shooting days, 85 locations and this massive cast. What was the budget on this film?
Jason: Five million.
How limited were you?
In what ways?
Jason: Well, it’s a couple things. One of the big things you come up against is how many extras you can have, that seems like a small detail, but you do scenes like a Congressional hearing or you’re doing scenes like the plane stuff, or the Joan London show and you find yourself literally going, ‘Okay, you wanted 120 extras, you can only have 100, or you can only have 80,’ and when you bring down all those people and the film starts to look fake, it’s one of the big delineators between making an independent film and a studio film. A studio film has extras, you look around and places look real. In independent films they always have that barren landscape look because extras cost a lot of money. You’ve got to pay those people a lot because they’re actors even though they’re just walking in the background.
So there’s that and then there’s the amount of shooting days. I had to really fight hard to get 35 days and we had to do them in unique ways. All 35 days weren’t actual shooting days, out of those I think 32 of them were principal and three of them were kind of us pulling shit together, doing dioramas, the guys in the boxes, second unit stuff and making the days work and having a limited amount of film and a limited amount of hours in the day is hard. I directed commercials for years where the money’s there, you need it the money is there, and here the money wasn’t there, we had to get the days done on time and we needed to be on budget and I did not want to sacrifice anything. I’m proud of the film, and I think it has a very polished look for an indie film, but there were sacrifices, scenes had to be cut, all the normal stuff.
Do you think this movie is at all too clever for its own good?
Jason: I think you can never be too clever.
Do you think people may be caught laughing at a simple joke and begin to miss what is really going on?
Jason: Well, hopefully there is enough stuff that you can go back and see it a second time, or buy the DVD. [laughing]
There are lots of little things, lots of little details that we put throughout the film, a lot of thought went into it. For instance if you go back and see it again, if you look at the Academy at the back of Scotty’s all the blinds in the office are all cigarettes.
I read that.
Jason: Oh yeah, that’s in the press notes, I have no surprises for you.
Yeah, I heard all this give me something new.
Jason: Give you something new? Okay, this isn’t in the press notes, if you look at the close-up of Rob Lowe in his office there is a guy getting his head cut off in the painting behind him. It was supposed to be this juxtaposition of Rob who is completely calm and almost arrogant in his modesty next to this Asian war mural behind him, and literally right next to his head is this guy with a sword cutting through his throat and there’s blood everywhere. So that’s a detail that’s not in the press notes.
Let’s talk a bit about the cast and start with Cameron Bright. I have not been a fan of his movies, but I see talent there. Oddly though he has always played a creepy kid in Godsend, Birth and so forth. What made him the right kid for this film?
Jason: I think it is that he delivers with complete honesty and he does it without trying. He’s not acting, he’s just being real. He has these amazing eyes and they’ve worked for him very well in these movies where he is supposed to be creepy devil children, but when we did the casting, the character has all these kind of adult things to say with lots of polysyllabic words and when we cast most of the children would come off as the children on Bill Cosby’s “Kids Say the Darndest Things”. They were just kind of cute saying these adult things. When Cameron says it, it comes off honest, it comes from the heart and I don’t think he is trying, I think it is innate. The way his eyes are, the way he talks, things just seem real and the audience believes in him. It’s one of those keys to actors, it’s that indescribable human characteristic that you just were born with. There’s something exciting about him.
It does take a bit of getting used to him after seeing films like Godsend and Birth.
Jason: You’re waiting for his eyes to turn red and fire to come out of his ears. [laughing]
He does soften up as the film goes on and his relationship with his father grows.
Jason: Well, we spent a lot of time rehearsing that. Aaron and Cameron would come over to my house and we would just kind of talk through the lines and we would play games. I have a big air hockey table, I love air hockey, and Aaron and Cameron would just sit there and play air hockey as they did the lines and in doing things like that the lines became kind of secondary to their relationship and they built kind of an odd father son relationship. You know, Aaron taught Cameron to play backgammon at some point, and they built a strong relationship as two actors and it really shows on screen.
How about bringing in Adam Brody, was it him in “The O.C.” and his comedy and the way he delivered his lines in that show that peaked your interest?
Jason: I was really lucky to get Adam, I mean that was a monster pull. We were all dying for him to be in the film and he gave us a couple days and as soon as I knew he was going to be in I wrote two extra scenes of dialogue.
Was it the line, “I’m going to impale your mom on a spike and feed her dead body to my dog with syphilis.”
Jason: He’s the only guy on Earth that could deliver that. I wrote that and I told that line to my wife and my wife’s just like, ‘That’s not funny.’ [laughing] Then he does it, and it’s hilarious.
With Adam interacting with Rob Lowe was great, how about bringing in Rob?
Jason: I’ve known Rob for a while, Rob’s actually been a family friend for 5-10 years now and he’s just such a smart guy, it’s hard for me when I hear from people that they still kind of see him as the guy in Bad Influence because he’s very smart, very political, very clever, very funny, he’s a guy who… He and Dennis Miller are really close friends and they’re matching wits all the time and I don’t think people see that side of him and he again was just really generous, drove down from Santa Barbara, drove four hours to come, because we shot that down at Long Beach, and gave us that day where he just turns in the performance of the film. I mean, every person that reviews this fucking film that is like the second thing they say, they can’t believe how funny he is.
I was not really a fan of Lowe until “The West Wing” and when he left that show I was devastated because he is and was all those things you said.
Jason: Yeah, I think he’s awesome.
Jason: Not enough press about her. I wish she could get a little more attention.
Talk about her and this supposed sex scene that was cut out of the flick. Did she ask to have it cut out of the film?
Jason: The scene was missing, but it was simply a technical issue. It was a projection room error while assembling the reels to create the print. Sorry.
Katie Holmes is generating press, but do you see her as a person that will create any kind of draw to this movie? Do you like the type of press she is getting with this movie coming out? Does it bother you at all?
Jason: It bothers me that she is getting attacked so much for this relationship. I haven’t talked to her since we finished the film, but, you know, look – she’s a girl in love and I hate that she has to go through all the crap she is going through because it’s certainly on a whole other level from these other kind of celebrity relationships and I really like her. She was really lovely to work with and is really funny in the film and so when I picture the girl that I got to know having to go through all this crap it really kind of bugs me. As far as what it does for this film – it definitely raises the profile of the movie and this is a political comedy that normally would reach a very specific type of audience that likes smart comedies, likes independent films and the truth is that this is a really funny, accessible comedy that we’ve shown to older audiences, last night we showed it a UW to a bunch of college kids and they find it funny across the board. People really enjoy the experience of this movie beyond it being a political satire and the idea that Katie opening this movie up to younger kids, people who would not normally go see indie films – I can’t help but be excited by that.
I did like that I no longer saw her as Joey from “Dawson’s Creek”. I didn’t even get that from Batman Begins, I don’t think that film demanded as much of a performance from her as Thank You for Smoking did, but I think that is because you have her in other situations rather than just being the girl in the movie.
Jason: She came really excited to do this. She knew exactly what she wanted to do with this part and it was really fun working with her.
Aaron Eckhart, I think, gave the performance of his life. I didn’t really like him before this film and after Paycheck I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to like him. Paycheck actually caused me to have no interest in Suspect Zero.
Jason: You ever seen In the Company of Men?
Jason: You gotta see that. What Aaron has and movies like Paycheck, The Core and Suspect Zero don’t take advantage of is that he has this unbelievable ability for saying very subversive things and getting away with it and still being charming, but in all his other movies he is so fucking serious that he’s not as likeable. Here he is able to be sexy and all-American and charming while saying nasty things and that’s what he did in In the Company of Men that was so incredible. He’s a monster in that movie, but he’s sexy. You know, you can’t help but like this guy and think he’s fantastically cool and that’s what I needed to tap into. This is a tough role, it’s hard to go out there and have this kind of dialogue every day and look this is a movie about cigarettes and the villain wants kids not to smoke. [laughing] I mean it’s a tough thing to pull off.
Especially in the day and age we’re in.
Jason: How do you mean that?
Well, here in Seattle we just put a smoking ban on smoking in public places such as bars.
Jason: [laughing] Yeah, that’s pretty incredible.
Did you have anybody combating this movie?
Jason: We showed the movie at Berkley a couple of nights ago and the audience really loved it. I had one woman ask, ‘Why didn’t you take on the issues of smoking more seriously? Why didn’t you talk about the awful things that corporations do?’ There’s a rare case of a person like that.
But I think you do – it’s all mentioned. You only have two hours.
Jason: That’s true. I’m honest about the dangers of cigarettes, I just don’t think it is y job to vilify corporations in this movie. I think there are plenty of movies that do that.
I did appreciate the fact that you didn’t begin preaching to people, because it would have been easy to do.
Jason: I didn’t want to do that. There’s enough people doing that and at the end of the day this is not a movie as much about cigarettes as much as it is about SPIN and it is about talking. A film that was a real guiding light for me was Citizen Ruth, the Alexander Payne film, it’s a film that is about abortion, but it is not about abortion. This is a movie that is about cigarettes, but it is not about cigarettes. Citizen Ruth used abortion as a location to observe the mania people get when they want to tell people what to do. Hopefully, what Thank You for Smoking does, is use cigarettes as a location to look into the mania people get when they want to decree how other people should act.
Now, how hot was Maria Bello in person?
Jason: [laughing] Maria is gorgeous. She’s a knockout, the first time I met her she’s pretty breathtaking. It’s funny, I met a lot of actors at restaurants and agents and stuff are always setting you up at places like the Peninsula and Chateau Marmon and Maria was like, ‘Hey, here, I have this place where we should go meet.’ She takes me to this bar and she gets beer, smoking a cigarette, and she’s just the epitome of cool. I mean she’s hot.
How much fun were the M.O.D. Squad scenes?
Jason: A lot of fun although we had to shoot them very quickly. We had two days to shoot seven scenes and the energy is rapid fire and that is how we were shooting. We were just go, go, go and it’s exhausting. The actors, I put through a bit of torture because I wanted the M.O.D. squad only to eat things that would only be served in red plastic baskets, so it’s all fried, nasty, grizzled and the food would go cold – even though you’re bringing out new stuff, it still…
I remember halfway through the second day Maria Bello goes to me, ‘You know what? I’m gonna have a fucking salad. I’m an alcohol lobbyist I can eat a fucking salad.’ She was so pissed I was like, ‘Alright, alright, get Maria a salad.’ They had just been eating the nastiest food and coldest steaks for two days.
With all the people you have in this movie did you turn any bigger name actors down? Did anyone want to be in the movie that you didn’t get in?
Jason: [laughing] No, what we did was – whenever you do a movie you create a list of 20 people – here’s 20 people I can think of for this part from top to bottom. The first five are usually, you know, Hail Marys, you’re not really thinking realistically till you get to your sixth choice and somehow, by the grace of God, our number one picks were saying yes. I still look at my poster, and I look at the names on it and I don’t know how it happened. We had an amazing casting director in Mindy Marin, who’s just a real pro at getting the script in the right hands, and Aaron coming on from the very beginning was very important. That changed the point of view and made it easier to get people to read it and as soon as Duvall, Duvall was number two – Duvall came on number two and that changed the landscape. You send out a script and say that Robert Duvall is in it, because he doesn’t do everything, a lot of these older actors have decided, ‘Fuck it, I’ll do shit for the money now,’ a lot of older actors – they’ve won their Oscar, they’ve made their mark on the face of acting and then they just fuck off and they do films for money.
Duvall is the one guy that doesn’t do stuff for the money. He’s the one guy that only decides based on the quality and that made people go, ‘Okay, I’ve got to read this and see what it is all about.’ In fact, J.K. Simmons who plays Nick’s boss, one of the reasons he did the movie is because he had a scene with Duvall, and then the day he showed up to shoot he realized that it was the hospital scene where Duvall is on a TV and it was just a green screen and he was so pissed, ‘Here is my one scene with Robert Duvall and I am standing next to a green television.’
You adapted this film, have you written anything else or is there anything you are working on?
Jason: You know, I wrote a script, but it took a long time to get this thing made, five years to get financing, and in the interim I did write a script for Fox, but there is another book that I want to do next.
Which one is that?
Jason: I can’t talk about it yet, but it’s similar in nature to Smoking, it deals with a similar white collar anti-hero.
What kind of an influence has your father had on your career?
Jason: Enormous, my father is a master-storyteller. Even though our tone of comedies is different he shaped me into the human being that I am. He taught me overall to be a good person, but taught me that story is paramount. He turned me into the rhythmic director that I am.
Do you feel any pressure?
Jason: Oh yeah, an enormous amount of pressure. Mostly the pressure I put on myself, mostly my own fear is that I would never reach a kind of success on my own and I would be living in my father’s shadow and that any kind of success that I would have would be attributed to nepotism and that I would have to live up to these awful stereotypes that people presume of the children of famous filmmakers that were arrogant, untalented brats with drug habits. I’ve tried to do a fair amount to try and dispel that ideal with myself.
You know what was nice, was that the Sundance Film Festival offered me a democratic system with which to get my own legitimacy.
You have already had success with this film do you still feel like you have something to live up to?
Jason: Go to the IMDB message board for me and you’ll see a lot of nasty things, people saying all sorts of mean shit.
People that haven’t seen the movie yet I am sure.
Jason: You know, daddy’s boy kind of stuff, the same way that Sofia Coppola gets that shit. There are advantages and there are disadvantages, I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the childhood I had and wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
Do you take that IMDB stuff with a grain of salt?
Jason: Yeah, sometimes my wife has to remind me to, but it’s hard because I do feel like I’ve tried to take serious steps to establish myself on my own terms. Even on my short film I created little side companies to raise the money. In college I started this calendar company and with the money from that calendar company I made my first short film and brought that first film to Sundance. So part of me says, ‘Look at my record! My short films have won audience awards! You can’t get that with nepotism!’ But at the end of the day it’s all bullshit. At the end of the day you can only try and make good films.