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Seriously smoking satire

Stewart Oksenhorn
Jason Reitman with Robert Duvall, on the set of "Thank You For Smoking." (Courtesy Aspen Filmfest)
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The team of Jason Reitman and Dan Dubecki, 28-year-olds who have been making films together for 10 years, did not dip their toes in when it came time for their feature-film debut. Reitman, the director and screenwriter, and Dubecki, a co-producer, recently saw the release of “Thank You for Smoking.” The film is a satirical comedy, a tricky style to nail, requiring the proper balance of jabs and humor. The subject of this particular film, cigarette smoking, was enough to chase away most potential backers. Reitman and Dubecki’s refusal to waver from the anti-preaching ethos of the source material, Christopher Buckley’s 1994 novel of the same name, meant the two had to wait nearly five years to bring their vision to the screen. And in casting “Thank you for Smoking,” the team didn’t hesitate to get actors whose credentials alone might scare the hell out of them on the set. The film’s cast includes Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, Maria Bello, Sam Elliott and Katie Holmes.

The film stars Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, a silver-tongued lobbyist for the tobacco industry. What made Nick so scary to prospective backers of the film – and likely to a decent percentage of viewers – is not merely the presence of cigarettes, or even that Nick is so very good at his job. It is how aggressively unapologetic he is for the service he provides – namely, working to keep the cigarette industry running at full speed. And Reitman and Dubecki were equally hands-off in passing judgment on Nick.”It’s libertarian,” said Reitman of the film’s tone. “And that, from the beginning, makes it unique. Because most films, especially films about something like smoking, are really liberal. “Erin Brockovich,’ ‘A Civil Action.’ ‘The Insider.’ They’re hellbent on pushing a liberal message.”Mine is an anti-message film. It tells people we should all let each other live.”Because of its unfamiliarity, because Reitman opts not to preach, even about one of the easiest targets imaginable, the tone of “Thank You for Smoking” is elusive. This is doubly so because Nick goes through potentially life-altering events, engages in thorough self-examination – and continues unabashedly to lobby for Big Tobacco. Audiences can never get a firm grasp on just what Reitman is trying to say, or avoid saying.”So there’s a moment where you don’t know if I’m heroizing cigarettes, or totally satirizing them,” he said. “Hopefully, you get the idea that this is just a guy, with a job which he happens to be very good at, and he’s not villainous or virtuous.”Reitman handles the material with a steady hand throughout. The New Yorker called “Thank You for Smoking” “a winner”; Reitman earned the Breakout Filmmaker award at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen last month.

Reitman was onboard with the story from the minute he opened Buckley’s novel, a gift from a friend. “She said, ‘This book was written for you,'” recalled Reitman. “And she was right. I read the first line” – in which Nick expresses mild surprise about being put in league with the devil – “and I was hooked. Its attitude, from line one, was saying, ‘We’re never going to apologize for this humor. And in the movie, we never do.”There is a moment when the audience is led to wonder if some sort of apologia is forthcoming. Nick is forced to square his life’s work with his obligations as a parent, and moviegoers are so accustomed to seeing a character compromise that we expect Nick to follow suit. He doesn’t, sealing “Thank You for Smoking” as a triumph for social incorrectness and libertarian values.”If Nick Naylor went to work for the Red Cross, or saw the wrongs of his ways, it would be an apology,” said Reitman. “And you’d invalidate everything you’ve said up to that moment.””Thank You for Smoking” is not reminiscent of any recent film that comes to mind. But in its vantage point, Reitman likens his film to “Citizen Ruth,” Alexander Payne’s abortion-centered satire. Payne’s film takes no position on abortion, but skewers the fanaticism the subject stirs up, and Reitman’s film has a similar ambivalence toward its nominal subject matter.”‘Citizen Ruth’ looked at abortion the same way we looked at cigarettes,” he said. “It’s more location than subject matter, a place from which you can look at people on both sides of the issue, look at the mania they get into in telling everybody else how they should live.”To Reitman, “Thank You for Smoking” is about lots of things beyond the cigarette debate. “It’s about talking,” he says, echoing a line of Nick’s. “It’s about the ability to speak. The gift of gab.”It’s also about taking a stab at political correctness, taking a stab at the do-gooders who want to parent the world.”

Reitman and Dubecki have been traveling with their film to festivals and college campuses over the last few months. This week, they bring the film to a familiar setting; “Thank You for Smoking” will be screened in an Aspen Shortsfest Director Spotlight event Sunday, April 9.Reitman has been visiting Aspen since he was 7 or 8; a few years later, his parents – his father is Ivan Reitman, director of “Ghostbusters” and “Stripes” – bought a house in Snowmass Village, and Jason visited regularly. The family sold the house some years ago, which grieved Reitman.For the past few years, Reitman and Dubecki, who have known each other since their years at neighboring Los Angeles schools and who attended the USC film school together, have been visiting Aspen as filmmakers. In 2000, their film “In God We Trust,” about a young man in purgatory trying to avoid a date with Satan, earned the Audience Award and the jury’s Best Comedy award at Aspen Shortsfest. In 2001, they returned with “Gulp,” made as a commercial for a car company. (Reitman was so pleased at the time with my comment that I didn’t know it was a commercial, he gave me an unexpected hug.) “Consent,” about the legal formalities preceding a first kiss, won the Best Short Short title at Shortsfest 2004.

All of which prepared them, slightly, to make a feature film with a budget around $7 million (as estimated on imdb.com).Reitman said that short films gave him and Dubecki the chance to make mistakes and learn from them. And the commercial work taught them to work with bigger budgets, other people’s money and unfamiliar locations.But it was “Thank You for Smoking” that introduced them to the idea of real actors. “All of a sudden, you have some of the greatest actors in the world,” said Reitman. “On the production side, you have to arrange their schedules. And on the directing side, what in the world am I going to say to Robert Duvall, Sam Elliott, William Macy, who know so much more than I do?””In short films and commercials, the actors are like props. You just put them in front of the camera,” added Dubecki. “With features, you’re dealing with actual personalities.”Despite their age, Reitman and Dubecki had time on their side in creating “Thank You for Smoking.” Reitman completed the script in 2001 (at the age of 23). The rights to the book were held at the time by Mel Gibson’s company, Icon, which was trying to make a broad comedy of the story, an idea that went nowhere. The two tried developing their concept for the film with a string of studios.

“Every studio had a problem,” said Reitman, “especially with the third act. They wanted Nick to have a change of heart, and I didn’t want to do that. So we held off.”Enter David O. Sacks, an originator of PayPal, the payment method used by eBay. “He was my white knight. He signed a check and let me make the movie,” said Reitman. The waiting game gave Reitman years to let his ideas marinate before shooting started. “I was nervous, but I knew what I wanted to do. There was a long time to think.”And Reitman and Dubecki also have had time to let their sensibilities mature. Commenting on their achievements to date, Reitman says, “I didn’t have a childhood. You make a trade.”It is true that the filmmakers look … experienced. Reitman has gray hairs; Dubecki is mostly bald. They laugh when I point this out.”When we started, I was thin and he had hair,” said Reitman.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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