Letter From Sundance
Big Tobacco, Hotter Than Ever
Monday, January 23, 2006
PARK CITY, Utah -- There were no ashtrays stuffed with crushed butts at the dinner party for the cast of the wicked little comedy "Thank You for Smoking," now showing at the Sundance Film Festival. But then again, smoking isn't really the point of the new film. Spin is.
"Actually, it's about freedom," says its first-time director, Jason Reitman, who also said, "What this movie is really about is good parenting."
He says this with a straight face. So as you can see, it is about spin.
The film, based on the Washington novel by Christopher Buckley, follows the adventures of Nick Naylor, chief spokesman for the barely ficticious Academy of Tobacco Studies, whose job is to defend the manufacturers of coffin nails from the likes of a goody-two-shoes senator (William H. Macy), naughty Washington Probe reporter (Katie Holmes), and Hollywood super-agent (Rob Lowe). It is a twisted take on "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," except there are no innocents here. It is scheduled to open in Washington on March 17 and could be popular with the K Street crowd. Or not.
"It fits nicely into the current hysteria over lobbyists," says a hopeful Reitman, pointing to the Jack Abramoff scandal currently playing on Capitol Hill. "Which has got to be good for the movie, right?"
In the film, Nick (played throughout with a rakish grin by Aaron Eckhart) is asked by his young son: Dad, what makes America the greatest country on Earth? Without a beat, he answers, "Our endless appeals process."
As Nick says, "If you argue correctly, you're never wrong."
On Saturday night, Buckley clutched a glass of chilled white, ignored the pecan-crusted fowl served in a hulking chalet perched up Summit View Drive above Park City, and explained that Hollywood moves in slow, expensive and mysterious ways.
His satiric novel was bought by Mel Gibson even before it was published in 1994. Gibson, Buckley recalled, was particularly attracted to the vision of himself playing Nick -- and running naked, covered in dozens of nicotine patches (applied during a kidnapping by anti-smoking terrorists) down the Mall.
Alas, an image not meant to be. The smoking project wheezed on and on in development purgatory. Gibson and Warner Bros. somehow just couldn't bring themselves to release a big broad comedy that features a hairless cancer boy and the MOD Squad, aka the Merchants of Death. These are the lobbyists for the alcohol, tobacco and firearms industries, who spend boozy luncheons fighting for bragging rights -- in this case, the most customers killed by their products.
Buckley eventually told Gibson and company to send him a postcard on the day that principal photography would begin. He assumed the film would never get made. Until, that is, Reitman, the 28-year-old son of director-producer Ivan Reitman ("Animal House," "Ghostbusters," "Old School"), read the Buckley book and decided it would be his first film. "I loved it from the first line," Reitman says. "I just had to make it."
Hubris? Well. Reitman says despite what one may think, being the fruit of hugely bankable Hollywood loins is not the ultimate calling card. Most show business spawn, Reitman says, "are assumed to be uneducated arrogant brats with drug problems." Reitman does not seem like any of that. He readily admits he was bombing out of the pre-med program at Skidmore College, so he transferred to the English department at University of Southern California. He made some shorts, then commercials (Burger King, Amstel Light) and had secured the attentions of an agent by the time he begged for a chance to write the "Thank You" screenplay. One day, Gibson called him -- from his airplane -- and said he loved the draft.
Reitman never heard from Gibson again. Poof, the project disappeared again like a smoke ring.
As it turned out, the movie got made only after Reitman joined forces with young David Sacks, who had just cashed out of Silicon Valley and moved to Los Angeles after selling his company PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion. Even so, Sacks says, it took him 18 months to buy the rights to "Thank You" from Gibson and Warner Bros. "They wouldn't even return his calls," Reitman says. "It's one of the funny things about Hollywood. Nobody wants to part with things."
The fun wasn't over yet. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, where it was an audience favorite. Paramount Classics announced, on what they said was a handshake deal, that they had bought the movie. Not so fast. Sacks actually inked a contract with Fox Searchlight, which is now distributing the film. By the way, Paramount Classics co-presidents Ruth Vitale and David Dinerstein were relieved of duty in October. Indie film is a rough playground (though a small one; it's worth remembering that the movie cost $10 million to make; the McMansion where the cast party was held was for sale for $9 million).
Reitman says he hopes "Thank You" plays well across political lines. Targets include not only lobbyists but daytime talk show hosts, the Red Cross, Hill staffers, Washington journalists and Hollywood itself. Anti-smoking advocates might enjoy the drubbing that Big Tobacco gets. With sales slipping, the exasperated head of the Academy of Tobacco Studies lights into his team: "We sell cigarettes. They're cool. They're available. And they're addictive. Our job is almost done for us."
The movie's point of view is not so much Democrat or Republican as libertarian, meaning that Nick professes at a Senate hearing that when his son reaches 18, and if he really wants to smoke, Dad will buy him his first pack. "It's a comedy, but I think it says freedom is tough, liberty is tough, which by the way, is something I believe in too," Reitman says. "I don't like government making decisions for us. I don't like authority."
Reitman doesn't smoke; says he never has. Some of the actors confessed they did when they were young and reckless. Funny, though, none of the characters smokes in "Thank You for Smoking." Except Robert Duvall, who plays the Captain, a North Carolina tobacco baron, who does a scene in a hospital bed, waving an unlit cigar after having another heart attack.
"The fear was that this would somehow be pro-tobacco," Reitman says. "And that just seemed to make people nervous."