WARNING: Obtaining The Rights To A Novel May Cause Nausea,
Confusion, Feelings of Inertia and Hopelessness.
Upon its release in 1994, Christopher Buckley's acerbic novel Thank You For Smoking shone a light on the "spin" culture that had taken hold in America. From the White House to corporate boardrooms to Hollywood, the truth had become something to be managed and massaged, but rarely spoken.
"At some point in the late 90's," THANK YOU FOR SMOKING writer-director Jason Reitman remembers, "one of my friends handed me a soft-cover copy of Thank You For Smoking, saying it was the funniest book she'd ever read and perhaps the perfect book for me. I began reading it that night and found within the very first page a voice I had always been longing for. I had never read narration that was so densely packed with intelligent humor.
"I immediately identified with both Christopher Buckley's voice and that of Nick Naylor," Reitman continues. "It had this wonderful libertarian point of view that made light of rough things but not in a nasty way. It had a way of saying things that could normally be cruel but were instead hilarious. Every moment in the book appeared to me as a filmic, visual scene. I saw the whole thing coming together in my mind. I immediately wanted to make a movie out of it."
The young director, son of director Ivan Reitman, studied English at USC and began his career making short films. In 1998, with his short film OPERATION, Reitman became one of the youngest directors in the history of the Sundance Film Festival to have a short accepted for exhibition. His short film IN GOD WE TRUST, premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival and went on to play Toronto, Edinburgh, US Comedy Arts, New Directors/New Films at New York's Museum of Modern Art and was honored with prizes at many festivals including Los Angeles, Aspen, Austin, Seattle, Florida, Athens and the New York Comedy Festival.
Thank You For Smoking also had fans at Mel Gibson's Icon Productions, which then co-owned the rights to make a film version of the book. Unfortunately, attempts at adapting the book for the screen resulted in scripts that missed the proverbial mark.
That changed when Reitman presented his ideas about adapting the book in a meeting with Icon. "They had owned the book for almost a decade and had apparently given up on it," Reitman remembers. "I was hired to take a crack at the adaptation. When I turned in my draft a few months later, no one had any notes. Everyone seemed to enjoy the screenplay as is."
Reitman tackled the adaptation with the blessing and input of novelist Christopher Buckley. "I gave him my first and second drafts. I can't imagine not working with the author when adapting a book for film. You're working with their baby."
His solution to creating a worthy adaptation involved a shift in focus to the relationship between Nick Naylor and his son, Joey. "When I first read the book, I thought the question that reporter Heather Holloway asks Nick, 'What does your son think of what you do?' was the most important question in the book." Reitman recalls. "What your children have to say about you means something to you, and the answer to that question clearly means something to Nick. When I read that I really grabbed onto it and, for the movie, I wanted to develop who Nick was in Joey's eyes."
Reitman broadened the emotional content of Buckley's satire by expanding the character of Joey. His screenplay explores the complex questions of what to do when one's professional duties and objectives conflict with good parenting. "I wrote more scenes of Nick and Joey bonding because I wanted to see the two of them come together. I thought that Joey humanized Nick, that if this young boy could love his father, then the audience could."
Once the script had its emotional and ethical center, Jason Reitman's approach to the rest of the script was, as Reitman puts it, "pretty straightforward. Much of the dialogue is taken straight out of the book." Reitman is the first to admit that the dialogue in the M. O. D. Squad scenes were "direct lifts. I wish I could have put more of those scenes in the film. You get about ten times more 'M. O. D.' in the book."
Though he had turned in a strong screenplay, the rights to THANK YOU FOR SMOKING were owned by both Icon and Warner Bros., the studio that had originally housed its deal. Obtaining the full rights would be a costly risk. Reitman's screenplay languished in the development ether until it landed on the desk of independent producer David O. Sacks in December 2002.
Sacks recalls his instantaneous enthusiasm for the project: "My first reaction was: 'Why has this movie never been made?'"
Sacks is quick to point out the irreverent and ironic stance the film takes on spin culture: "It occurred to me that in any other movie about cigarettes, even a terrific one like THE INSIDER, the chief spokesman for Big Tobacco would be the villain, and the crusading senator and intrepid reporter out to expose him would be the heroes. But here, the conventional morality was inverted, and the audience was completely on board for the ride."
Sacks had previously been in Silicon Valley running PayPal, one of the few internet startups to survive and prosper following the dot-com crash. After leading the company as Chief Operating Officer to a $1.5 billion sale to eBay in October 2002, Sacks was in the privileged position to pursue a new entrepreneurial venture. Without taking a weekend off, he moved to Hollywood to pursue his longtime dream of making movies.
Sacks committed to making THANK YOU FOR SMOKING and began an 18-month-long process of wrangling the rights from all of its owners. Sacks and his fellow PayPal creators invested millions of dollars of personal equity to finance the film.
ContentFilm co-founders Ed Pressman and John Schmidt, and head of production Alessandro Camon also joined the project and responded strongly to Reitman's screenplay and his directing vision. ContentFilm worked with Room 9 to cast the production and secure additional financing through foreign pre-sales.
WARNING: Strong Performances of an Award-Winning, Extraordinarily Talented Cast May Draw Expressions of Exuberance From Audiences.
From the onset, the filmmakers knew that casting for THANK YOU FOR SMOKING would hinge on the selection of a player for the rakish Nick Naylor. Sacks recalls: "He had to be handsome and all-American, while at the same time capable of delivering morally questionable arguments with a smile that made you love him."
Aaron Eckhart was an early favorite for the part. "I had seen IN THE COMPANY OF MEN as well as ERIN BROCKOVICH and was completely taken by one man who could play both roles," says Reitman. "For me Nick Naylor was halfway between these two characters. He has the frightening charm of Chad from IN THE COMPANY OF MEN combined with the unexpected emotional depth of George from ERIN BROCKOVICH. He turned a biker into a sweetheart."
Sacks and Reitman flew to Vancouver to meet Eckhart on the set of NEVERWAS, a film he was shooting.
Eckhart was fascinated by Nick's surprisingly apolitical feelings about his work: "I look at Nick Naylor as one of the few remaining soldiers from an almost-bygone era. I look at this role the way I think George C. Scott looked at Patton: He never apologized for the stands he takes, and that's where I think the audience will find the enjoyment in the film."
Indeed, the film is peppered with moments of hilariously inappropriate behavior. From negotiating product placement for cigarettes in a film that takes place in outer space, to finding himself sharing a bedroom with the journalist assigned to pen a profile on him, Nick Naylor exists in a space that is resoundingly politically incorrect.
"Naylor," Eckhart observes, "was more of a philanderer in the book. But Jason pumped up his personality, and that's what made it fun."
Eckhart also admits that he had a little bit of fun indulging the Nick Naylor he found in himself: "He can be charming, he's fast-talking, and he's passionate. He loves women. He's sort of a rogue. I have all of that in me."
Eckhart was the first in what became a long line of A-list actors eager to add a little smoke to their lives. "When Aaron signed on to be Nick Naylor, the whole thing became a reality," Reitman remembers. "And then it felt like each day we were signing on another unbelievable cast member."
For the role of Nick's son, Joey, Reitman cast Cameron Bright, who had showcased his astounding maturity and talent in GODSEND, BIRTH, and THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT: "Cameron Bright is a really impressive young man and a great actor. He has a tricky role: Joey is a twelve year-old who says pretty complicated things. What's amazing about Cameron is that he's a little man. He can say these things and have them come off pretty truthful."
Bright was happy to be in a comedy for a change: "I have played darker roles. I played a kid who got killed and cloned. This is a comedy and I really like that. In this one, I get to play a normal kid."
"Really, all Joey wants is to get to know his father and what his father does. He thinks that it's weird that the world is mean to his father just for doing his job," Bright says of his character.
Nick's archenemy is Senator Finistirre, a grandstanding, soapbox-footed politician from Vermont. No one in the world of THANK YOU FOR SMOKING is without their own agendas. Finistirre, for instance, laments that a cancer patient appearing on a television talk show did not look sick enough. His relationship with Nick is based on winning as much as it is on being right.
Macy found the philosophical, ethical and political questions raised in THANK YOU FOR SMOKING to be among the most engaging elements of the project. "What authority does the government have to protect us from ourselves? I don't know the answer and I think it's constantly changing."
Politics aside, Macy also loved Reitman's hilarious screenplay: "The last scene in the movie is the most delicious. In the last scene the Senator has introduced legislation to take all the old films and replace cigarettes with something else. You can do that all digitally now. Lauren Bacall would be asking 'Anybody got a light?' while she's sucking a candy cane.'"
"Truly, anytime you get to play a character named 'Senator Finistirre,' you better take it," Macy adds, jokingly.
"The Senator has a complicated relationship with Nick Naylor," Macy observes of his character, "because politicians like to think they're always telling the truth. But in reality, they spend so much time massaging the truth, trying to figure out how they can slip their agenda in and at the same time please everyone. On that level, Nick and the Senator are more alike than they'd care to admit."
Macy describes the impatience with diplomacy that fuels Finistirre's frustration. "I think that the Senator's greatest challenge is that he has to ride the line of impartiality and inclusion when what he wants to do is jump up and scream, 'Everyone who smokes is an idiot and the tobacco companies should be thrown in jail.' That's what he really thinks, but he's got to comport himself in that civil servant kind of way."
"He does the best version of what you hope to get from an actor. There's a reason that he's so prolific," Reitman says of Macy. He adds that Macy was responsible for adding one of his favorite lines in the film: "The great state of Vermont will not apologize for its cheese." The line replaced one that Reitman had written, which he considered to be mediocre in comparison.
Spinning agendas, swilling scotch and serving as an ultra-jaded support system for each other are the members of the self-appointed "M.O.D. Squad." Short for "Merchants of Death," the M.O.D. Squad consists of Naylor and fellow lobbyists Polly Bailey for the alcohol industry and Bobby Jay Bliss, who represents the gun industry.
"What I like about those characters is that they say things people never say," Reitman says. "They're completely politically incorrect. The M. O. D. Squad will talk about anything, and they'll talk frankly. They talk about murder. They talk about how many people die from their products annually. I love them for that."
Reitman is quick to point out that the M. O. D. Squad scenes needed to be pitch-perfect. "I love the scenes at Bert's. Whenever I talk to fans of the book, the M. O. D. Squad discussions are among their favorite moments. I hope that they're just as good in the movie."
For Polly Bailey, Reitman sought out an actress who could bring intelligence and humor to the often profane and outspoken lobbyist. "The trick was finding a woman who was beautiful but could pull off the brassiness of the character and the brashness of the dialogue. Maria Bello is one of the few actresses around who can do both of these things. She's completely unique and self-confident."
Bello was a fan of the novel Thank You For Smoking and was pleasantly surprised when she received the script through one of her agents. "I think Christopher Buckley is such a funny, acerbic, interesting writer."
Reitman and Bello had a meeting at a very M. O. D. Squad-appropriate location: a bar in Venice, California. Bellow remembers: "I loved his script. Jason was so passionate about the story that he wanted to tell. I loved that the movie has a real heart in the relationship between Nick and his son."
Says Bello of Polly: "I like that she's interested in the world. I like that she's passionate about ideas, that she has these great relationships with these two men who are her confidantes, her buddies and her friends. I like that she's smart."
For the part of Bobby Jay, Reitman turned to character actor and comedian David Koechner, a "Saturday Night Live" veteran who is most famous for his hilarious role in ANCHORMAN. Reitman was a fan of Koechner's work with Naked Trucker, his band that often opens for Jack Black's band, Tenacious D. "I wanted to make Bobby Jay more of a human being. He's used to playing these big characters. There's an emotional element to Bobby Jay that people really fall in love with. I knew that David could act and I knew he could do it, even though many of his other roles had been broader."
Koechner describes his character as a "Good Old Boy, four kids, married, religious gun owner and defender of the second amendment. He would be happy if guns were dispensed from machines like cigarettes and cans and pop."
Koechner had not read Thank Your For Smoking before he was offered the part. "Reading the book gives you more character background," Koechner jokes of the book. "It's kind of like a cheat sheet."
Katie Holmes was cast as Heather Holloway, a sophisticated journalist who skewers Nick's character via a newspaper expose. Reitman met with Holmes and was immediately impressed with her keen understanding of Holloway. "She knew exactly what she wanted to do with the part. I loved the idea that she was a young woman who was bridging the gap between her childhood on 'Dawson's Creek' and becoming a woman. The character Heather Holloway is in that space as well."
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING manages to lambaste Hollywood agents just as easily as it defaces Washington's grandstanding elite. Stepping into the roles of super-agent Jeff Megall and his boy wonder Jack are Rob Lowe and "The OC's" Adam Brody, respectively.
Lowe is a longtime friend of the Reitman family, who gladly made the four-hour trek from his home in Santa Barbara to Irvine for his one day of filming. "He got the humor of the role immediately. He modeled it after an agent, but he wouldn't tell me which one."
Brody had minor trepidations about taking on the role of Jack: "He said 'look, if an actor does a movie, and he's not good in the movie, that's one thing. If an actor does a cameo and the cameo's bad, then that's really bad.'" Reitman remembers. "The second he signed on, I got more excited. I wrote more lines for him. The line where he says 'I'm going to impale your mom on a spike and feed her dead body to my dog with syphilis' was written for him. I thought, 'here's the only human being who can make this funny.'"
Reitman turned to acclaimed actor Robert Duvall to take on the part of tobacco giant "The Captain." He sent the veteran actor a letter asking him to play the role.
"Who else could play the Captain but Robert Duvall? Everyone was hoping he would do it. He really responded to the script and to the politics of the film. It's very libertarian. It's about taking responsibility for your actions. The day finally came and I went to meet him in his trailer. I was a giddy fan. He was just perfect. I'm not sure I gave him one direction."
"I took the role because I responded to it immediately," Duvall says. "Some things just come to you intuitively. I felt as if I could give the performance the day I read it."
As with Duvall, Reitman courted Sam Elliott via a letter: "There was really no other actor to play him. We had a phone conversation that led to a two and a half-hour lunch. We discussed the role and his concerns. Beyond being a moral human being himself, Sam also likes to play moral characters. He was concerned about playing 'a guy who took the money.' It's amazing how much of him is poured into those cowboys he plays."
Reitman family friends Dennis Miller and Howard Weitzman appear in small roles in the film.
Actors who appeared in Reitman's short films IN GOD WE TRUST, GULP and CONSENT rounded out the cast. Jeff Witzke from IN GOD WE TRUST, GULP, and CONSENT plays the kidnapper in THANK YOU FOR SMOKING. Richard Speight, Jr. from IN GOD WE TRUST works at the Tobacco lobby with Nick. Mary Jo Smith from GULP is on the fictitious Joan Lunden scene. Reitman's sister, Catherine Reitman, makes a cameo as a reporter.
"The most enjoyable part of making this film has been working with these actors. I still can't believe the ensemble that came together to make this film. To see them come to set and say the things that I wrote. I can't imagine a better feeling. It's thrilling."
Warning: First-Time Directors Often Bring To Set A Fresh Perspective And Unbridled Enthusiasm