Jason Reitman
Jason Reitman directs Thank You for Smoking. Photo: Dale Robinette/Fox Searchlight

Since its premiere at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, where two major studios fought for the rights to distribute it, Jason Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking has been acquiring the kind of overwhelming buzz that is often associated with great moviemaking success stories. Coupled with this year’s Sundance Film Festival debacle, where due to a mistake when assembling the movie’s final reels, a sex scene featuring actors Katie Holmes and Aaron Eckhart mysteriously disappeared, the anticipation for Reitman’s film has now reached an all-time high. With Thank You For Smoking slated for limited release on March 17th, MM recently spoke with Reitman about perseverance, his father Ivan’s good name and the harsh reality check that is IMDB.

Lily Percy (MM): Christopher Buckley’s novel Thank You For Smoking has gone through a variety of hands over the years. At one point Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions owned the rights to it. How did you come to be involved in the project, and more importantly, how did you come to write and direct it?

Jason Reitman (JR): The book was a gift from a friend and I absolutely fell in love with it the second that I started reading it. When I was making short films, I wanted to get an agent and make short films that gave me enough legitimacy to be hired to make Thank You For Smoking. So I actively went after it. I went in and met with Icon and I pitched them hard on why I was the guy for it and why I thought they had been doing the wrong thing with the project. I actually spent the weekend [before the meeting] writing the first act, gratis. I gave them 25 pages and said ‘This is how good it could be, this is what I’m thinking.’ And they went for it.

MM: Why did it take so long to bring it to the screen?

JR: It was a combination of things. Basically Warner Brothers and Icon had spent over $1 million developing this movie with the thought that it could be a broad comedy and they realized that if you spent that much money the movie couldn’t be as brazen and dangerously funny as it needed to be. Warner Brothers didn’t even want to sell the book rights [as] there’s a longstanding idea in Hollywood that you’d rather eat the money and hold onto the project than watch somebody else have success with it.

Finally, it was a story problem. We have a movie where the main character never apologizes for what he does and that’s a pretty standard issue for a film that would star the head lobbyist for big tobacco.

MM: The film features an all-star cast—Aaron Eckhart, William H. Macy, Maria Bello, Robert Duvall, just to name a few. What was it like as a writer, director and all-around movie fan to direct such big-name actors?

JR: When I was directing Robert Duvall, we would do a few takes, I would walk over to him and he would tell me “Yeah, that was a good one” and then I would say, ‘You know, you’re right, that was a good one. Move on” and that was literally it. What was amazing about Robert Duvall was that, here’s a guy who has nothing to prove to anybody and could retire today and be the greatest character actor of all time. And he is showing up on my tiny movie and is completely prepared—knows the dialogue, gets the character, understands the humor, understands the drama. I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to have been able to work with him; that’s something that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.

But that goes on to everybody in this film. He is kind of a phenomenon but beyond that, these actors in the film—I have 10 people who are Hall of Fame-level actors, who all have 10 times as much experience as I do, and yet they’re showing up ready to work. That is sometimes hard to comprehend.

MM: Do you think that all of the hoopla surrounding the missing Katie Holmes sex scene will ultimately help or hurt the film?

JR: You know, I don’t think that it’s going to hurt the film. Unless people are really looking forward to a sexy scene, which in that case they’re going to be very disappointed, because it’s a very humorous scene. But I think that it will help in that it only raises the public awareness of a film that is a political satire and it’s hard to make people aware of that kind of film. For the first time we’re appearing in magazines like US Weekly and we’re appearing on shows like “Inside Edition” and that’s a different audience for us.

MM: Nepotism goes a long way in Hollywood and yet your career shows none of its trademarks. Why did you choose to go your own route and rely on talent rather than the contacts that your name could have granted you?

JR: My larger fear growing up was that I would never have any success of my own—that I would constantly be compared to my father, that anything I did would be judged immediately and I would never have that bubble that most people do in which they can kind of do stuff when they’re just starting and no one really cares, so you’re allowed to make mistakes. I cared less about what people thought of how I got there. I never really thought that I could just go to a studio and say, you know, ‘My father is a filmmaker. I want to direct a movie. Give me a movie.’ That idea never really made sense to me.

So I used the film festival world as a kind of even playing field for me to throw my short films out there against everyone else who was making them at my age. I figured if my short films were no good they wouldn’t get programmed or they wouldn’t win awards or get seen by agents but they just got better and I think that’s why they worked for me. I think that’s why I got hired in the end. (Not to mention the fact that no studio would touch my first feature film—that was the biggest evidence for me that even nepotism has its limits.)

People are mean, though. I go to IMDB.com and I read the message boards and it’s so nasty. There are really angry posts about how I’ve only achieved things through my father’s name and that I’ve never earned one thing in my life, that I’m a spoiled brat. They’re comical but they’re so mean. I went over to Sofia Coppola’s and I went to Breck Eisner’s; I went to check on the other sons and daughters pages, and they were being blasted just as much so then I felt fine. If Sofia Coppola can get those attacks after making one of best films in the last 10 years, then I think I can take a few hits myself.

MM: How was the experience going to Sundance this time, with a feature film rather than a short film?

JR: It was incredible. Ever since I wanted to be a director I’ve wanted to have a film at Sundance. When I made a short film, the dream was to bring it to Sundance. I’ve spent the last 10 years going to Sundance; I’ve been to Sundance seven times, watching directors get on stage and introduce their feature films. I think most people grow up imagining what their Oscar speech would be; I grew up imagining what my Sundance intro speech would be.

MM: Operation, In God We Trust, Gulp, Consent—these are just a few of the award-winning shorts you’ve directed, which have played in over 100 film festivals worldwide. Would you recommend that moviemakers begin with shorts before moving on to features?

JR: Absolutely. It’s interesting that you bring that up, because I still make short films. I go to a lot of short film festivals, I go talk at USC, to short film classes sometimes, and I meet a lot of young filmmakers who bring this up now because you could basically make a DV feature for the same price as a 16mm or 35mm short film.

And so they start going, “Well, shit. If we can make a film like El Mariachi, bring it to Sundance, make a fortune, then why are we screwing around making a short film?” and I think that’s a mistake. I think that the short film is, first of all, a really viable medium. But beyond that, it allows you to make mistakes.

Your first time out you’re going to make a ton of mistakes. I watch my first short film now and I’m nothing but embarrassed by it. Filmmaking is not like writing or painting, where you spend years at home kind of developing who you are. The first time that you make a film you’re not going to know what you’re doing ‘til you’re in the editing room going, ‘Holy shit! I can’t believe that I didn’t get this and that I made that mistake.’ It doesn’t matter how talented you are, I think that the short film is a good time to make mistakes.

MM: On your Thank You For Smoking blog, you stated that you are currently closing the deal on your next feature. Can you give us any details?

JR: I can’t really go into detail about that yet. Suffice to say that I’m going to attach myself to a script in the following weeks and then I’m going to start working on adapting a book. In general though I’m going to be starting a company whose sole purpose will be to make small, dangerous comedies. And that’s going to have a wide presence online, both with short films and feature films.

MM: What constitutes a “dangerous comedy?”

JR: A dangerous comedy is a non-studio-style comedy that is political or subversive or simply unusual enough that it wouldn’t normally be made. I want to be a conduit for like-minded comedic directors looking for an outlet.

For more information, visit http://www2.foxsearchlight.com/thankyouforsmoking.