Where there's smoke
by Benito Di Fonzo
August 18, 2006 (Metro, Sydney Morning Herald)
Jason Reitman was captivated by Christopher Buckley's 1994 novel Thank You for Smoking but the film rights already belonged to Mel Gibson.
"The original idea was to make a $US60 million [$78 million] comedy, a smoking version of What Women Want," says Reitman, the son of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman. "By the time I got involved [Gibson] had gone on to things he was more 'passionate' about."
In light of recent events, perhaps Reitman is grateful?
"There's only so many times you can hear, 'Die, Jew,' while trying to give an actor directions."
Reitman's Thank You for Smoking made for a tenth of Gibson's proposed budget, follows smooth-talking tobacco-industry spin doctor Nick Naylor, played by Aaron Eckhart.
To stop sales dropping, Naylor tries to cut a deal with Rob Lowe's eccentric Hollywood agent to get cigarettes back in films. Naylor's brief also includes stopping Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy) from putting a skull and crossbones on cigarette packets.
Finistirre's logo seems subtle when compared with the blackened organs adorning Australian packets.
"We tried to make it look really nasty, but you're right - next to what's on the Canadian and Australian packs, we can't compare," Reitman says. "[That] often happens in satire: you try to do an elevated reality, then you realise the truth is worse."
Comedy is a good approach to making a film about Big Tobacco.
"You couldn't do a drama with a hero that works for Big Tobacco," Reitman says, clearly forgetting Russell Crowe's turn in The Insider. "I'm taking a mature look at the subject of vices: that we have to be adult about this, that it's not as simple as heroes and villains. Had I made a drama, people would string me up. But by making something we can laugh at, we can talk about these ideas. That's the importance of satire."
Thank You for Smoking is Reitman's first feature, but the 29-year-old has been making films since he was 10. At 15 he made an award-winning commercial about AIDS, and at 19 he was one of the youngest directors to show at the Sundance Film Festival.
Does he feel he had a career advantage in that his father is a successful filmmaker?
"Oh, that! Honestly? Once people know you're the son of a famous director, they really do think your film's going to suck. Back when I was making short films I could see it in people's eyes. They would say, 'Hey, your film was good.' It was like, 'It didn't turn out as retarded as I thought it would.' "
However, being Ivan Reitman's son had its advantages.
"[When] I was seven years old, every kid was a Ghostbuster for Halloween, but I was the only kid who actually had a real Ghostbusters gun!"
Reitman has directed award-winning commercials for fast-food chain Burger King and Heineken lager. Would he direct a cigarette ad?
"I wouldn't do cigarettes and I wouldn't do military," he says. "American military commercials really bother me. Not that I'm against war, I just don't think people should be conned into fighting. The air-force commercials show kids snowboarding."
Isn't the hero of Thank You for Smoking a con man?
"Nick speaks on behalf of the freedom to smoke. He says people should be allowed to smoke, shouldn't be vilified for smoking. We understand the dangers, we know it's deadly - if you still want to smoke, smoke! If you want to put a gun in your mouth and shoot, shoot. He's a believer in freedom."
Reitman was adamant his adaptation of Thank You for Smoking would be his first feature, believing it would affect the type of scripts he was offered afterwards. The policy paid off. He has since being offered "cool stuff, Iraq War satires".
Perhaps he could interest Gibson? The Aussie expat may need the work.
"Poor Mel," Reitman says.
"I heard he put himself into rehab.
I'm not sure if it's rehab for alcohol or anti-Semitism."
Thank You for Smoking
Director Jason Reitman
Stars Aaron Eckhart, William H. Macy, Rob Lowe, Maria Bello, Robert Duvall
Opens August 24.