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Media Thank you for saying no 

Rejection meant Jason Reitman got to make a truly independent film

“Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming the chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan,” begins Christopher Buckley’s satirical novel about American spin culture. “I read that first line and immediately fell in love with the book,” says Jason Reitman, writer and director of the film adapted from the eponymous book, Thank You for Smoking. “A very smart woman I knew gave it to me and said, ‘This book was written for you.’ And she was right.”

click to enlarge media-smoking_420jpg
First-time director Jason Reitman is the son of legendary comedy director Ivan Reitman, but it took five years and a little serendipity to turn Chrisotopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking into a film.

That was the beginning of Reitman’s bumpy, five-year quest to adapt Buckley’s book into the movie that opens this week, starring Aaron Eckhart as Naylor, sleazy spin-doctor for the tobacco industry, Katie Holmes as the journalist who seduces him for his story, and Robert Duvall as “the Captain,” a tobacco exec who admits, “Sometimes I feel like a Columbian drug dealer.” That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though: Maria Bello, William H. Macy, Sam Elliot, Rob Lowe, and Adam Brody all make appearances. How did a first-time director land such a stellar cast?

“I attribute it to Christopher Buckley’s words,” Reitman says. “Actors want to say smart, funny things and Buckley provided them with that. That’s what I would get from them the most, because I was surprised myself.”

Reitman, son of legendary comedy director Ivan Reitman (Animal House, Ghostbusters), knew he wanted to turn Thank You into a film when he first read it, but it took a few years for the recent college grad to score an agent and get his foot in the door at Mel Gibson’s Icon Entertainment, which owned the project at the time. “They had already spent a decade trying to develop it as a big, broad comedy for Mel,” Reitman explains. “They hadn’t gone anywhere with it because they were basically softening it up. When I came in, the project was pretty much dead.”

Over the weekend, Reitman wrote a 25-page first act to wow Icon and, as a result, was hired to write a new adaptation. “They loved it,” he says. “They didn’t have any notes, they didn’t want to change a word. They just wanted to make this movie. I even got a call from Mel, who really thought I had nailed this book he had personally fallen in love with.”

Once Reitman’s spiffy new screenplay made the studio rounds, it received a universal brush off, though, with the same inane note attached to every rejection. “They wanted the movie to have the traditional Hollywood third act,” Reitman says. “They wanted Nick to realize the wrong of his doings and go work for the Red Cross or something — and I thought that was ridiculous. That was exactly the film I didn’t want to make, and it died again.”

And it would’ve been ridiculous. After all, this is a film about libertarian ideals and a culture of deceit, not warm and fuzzy epiphanies.

Salvation came in the form of Paypal founder David O. Sacks, who had recently sold the company to e-Bay for more money than ... well, let’s just say he had some cash to throw around. “He was in money and wanted to make movies,” Reitman says, “but, unlike a lot of guys with money who want to make movies to meet chicks, he actually wanted to make great movies and films he believed in. And he loved the screenplay!”

The two met in 2004 at Sacks’ brand-new LA pad, a house made famous in Pulp Fiction. “We sat on folding chairs because he didn’t even have furniture yet,” Reitman laughs. “We talked about our mutual admiration for the project and, in the coming year, he stepped up with his checkbook and made it happen.”

Considering that Thank You for Smoking is about spin culture, it’s ironic that the bulk of its press has surrounded what some suggest is the spinning of a deleted sex scene at a Sundance screening. When an Eckhart-on-Holmes encounter vanished from the print, Reitman was accused of buckling to pressure from Holmes’s fiancé Tom Cruise to axe the sultry scene (which actually turns out to be quite tame). Later, when it was explained that the projectionist had inadvertently cut it only from this print, “projection error” began to sound a lot like “wardrobe malfunction.” But it’s like they say: Bad press is still good press.

“I wish I was that smart because it’s been absolutely great publicity,” Reitman says, shrugging off the accusation that the dust-up was just a marketing ploy. “I would’ve never imagined this story having the life it does.”

Even odder than the Sundance fiasco is that Reitman’s family failed to land him in the director’s chair sooner; after all, Hollywood heirs pretty much get a free ride in Tinseltown. Actually, you just have to be an heir (ask Paris). “If nepotism could’ve played into anything, I wish it could’ve got this movie out five years ago,” he says. “But, hey, I’m happy it didn’t because I would’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve learned a lot in the last five years and really grew as a storyteller. Getting to make it independently in the end means I really got to make the film I wanted to make.”

A clear-cut conscience

Devoid of moral tension, Thank You for Smoking fails to raise blood pressure

By Steven G. Kellman

Some years ago, I was invited to write for a magazine that called itself Philip Morris. I would be able to tackle subjects that interested me, which did not include tobacco leaves, and the payment would be lavish. After slight hesitation, I declined. A magazine that existed solely to cosmeticize an ugly corporation could not possibly pay enough to compensate for my peace of mind.

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Aaron Eckhart plays professional tobacco pusher Nick Naylor in the satirical Thank You for Smoking.

Though employed to flack tobacco by a nefarious outfit known as the Academy of Tobacco Studies, Nick Naylor (Eckhart) suffers no pangs of conscience, since he apparently lacks a conscience to pang. “The man shills bullshit for a living,” is what a senator says of Nick, who earns his salary by embellishing the image of cancer sticks. He and his two luncheon companions call themselves “M.O.D.” (Merchants of Death) — they are public-relations agents for the alcohol, tobacco, and firearms industries, respectively. With 1,200 fatalities daily caused by smoking, Nick boasts that his business is the most deadly. Why, then, does he do it? “Everyone’s got a mortgage to pay,” he explains. Nick is a clever man, but Thank You for Smoking, which Jason Reitman adapted from a novel by Christopher Buckley, offers no evidence that its protagonist is anything but a moral moron. Inspired by the ultimate test of salesmanship, he takes pride in blowing smoke in the public’s face. “If you can do tobacco,” he says of his PR specialty, “you can do anything.”

Everything Nick does demonstrates his prowess at persuasion. On talk shows and in Congressional hearings, he makes his adversaries sound silly. In Hollywood, he conspires with the slimy pioneer of product placement (Lowe) to get glamorous movie stars to puff onscreen. He even cozens the bitter former Marlboro Man (Elliott), dying of cancer, to accept a payoff in exchange for his silence. “If you argue correctly,” argues Nick, speciously, “you’re never wrong.”

Thank You for Smoking
Dir. & writ. Jason Reitman, based on a novel by Christopher Buckley; feat. Aaron Eckhart, Cameron Bright, Rob Lowe, William H. Macy, Robert Duvall, Katie Holmes, Sam Elliott (R)

Thank You for Smoking is a triumph of rhetoric over ethics — not only in but also by the film. The screenplay, which seems as though it should be either funny or infuriating but is neither, lacks a moral center. It is not only Nick who is, according to those who know him, “a mass murderer, blood sucker, pimp, profiteer.” Investigative reporter Heather Holloway (Holmes) sleeps with Nick in order to expose his misdeeds, and she exposes his misdeeds in order to advance not truth but her career. Intent on requiring all cigarette packages to bear a skull and bones, Senator Orlan Finistirre (Macy) is a sanctimonious zealot who yearns to delete smoking scenes from famous old movies. Robert Duvall puts in a pungent cameo as a shameless tobacco tycoon who revels in his ill-gotten gains. Of all the characters, only Nick’s young son Joey (Bright) possesses any scruples about being unscrupulous. But by the end of the film, Nick has persuaded the boy, a debate champion, that persuasion is more important than justice.

That is not to say that Thank You for Smoking ought to be a morality play whose objective is to convince us that tobacco is lethal and the people who push it are vile. A movie whose sole purpose is to proclaim that racism is wrong would be as compelling as ... Crash. But Thank You for Smoking is not quite a spoof or an exposé or a tragedy. Because the film, whose subject ought to inspire passionate indignation, is as cynical as its characters, it is devoid of drama. It lacks even the tension of a libertarian insisting that Americans should be free to choose their own poisons. A newsmagazine dubs Nick “the sultan of spin,” but all that he and the film about him can do is turn in circles. Heather thinks of Nick as a “yuppie Mephistopheles,” yet Goethe’s devil has God to contend with, not just a gullible public. For a filmmaker, opportunism is merely an opportunity, not in itself shaped art. If you want to view the banality of evil, turn on C-SPAN to see Scott McClellan tap-dance his way across absurdities. The lackeys for Philip Morris, Exxon, KFC, the Bush administration, and other toxic operations are able to pay the mortgage, but the rest of us at least can sleep — even through a movie such as this.

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