Does Comedy Run in the Family?
Friday, March 17, 2006
Well into the publicity tour for "Thank You for Smoking" (see review on Page 31), a new film satirizing the tobacco lobby, it might be safe to assume that writer-director Jason Reitman is getting a little sick of being asked about his famous father (director-producer Ivan Reitman of "Meatballs," "Stripes" and "Ghostbusters" fame, to name just a few of his dad's hugely successful comedies).
"So is Buckley, by the way," jokes Reitman, during a recent stop in Washington. (That would be Christopher Buckley, son of William F. Buckley Jr. and author of the best-selling novel on which Reitman's first feature is based.) On this day, the two are holed up in neighboring rooms at the Ritz Carlton.
At the same time that Reitman questions whether there's such a thing as comedy genes, and whether he has them -- "I'm not sure I consider myself a funny person," he protests -- the 28-year-old filmmaker, who as a child appeared as an extra in a few of his father's movies, is quick to acknowledge that there may have been some benefit to hanging around the same sets as Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd in his youth. "Look," he says, "I grew up around some of the funniest human beings on Earth, from a few days old, so some of that hopefully rubbed off."
More important than the ability to tell funny from not, though, according to Reitman, is the talent to recognize what serves the story and what doesn't. "There's actually something my father calls 'set funny,' and you have to be kind of ruthless about it," he says, referring to unscripted moments that may crack up the people on the set but that are totally wrong for the film. "It's the hardest thing to deal with, because often it happens after a long day. You've been doing the same dialogue over and over. The actor changes it up, does something funny, and the whole crew laughs. . . . Some of my favorite lines in this film were created by the actors. William H. Macy [who plays Vermont Sen. Ortolan Finistirre] came up with the line, 'The great state of Vermont will not apologize for its cheese.' "
But, Reitman says, "for the most part, you have to be really strict and say, 'That was really funny. I'm glad we have it on film, but I think we should stick to the script because that's what the scene is about.' "
"I consider myself a decent judge of comedy," says Reitman, who cut his teeth directing a few well-received comic shorts while honing his craft in the more lucrative field of commercials. Nevertheless, he says, despite the large budgets, expensive equipment and talented crews common to both commercial and film shoots, there is a big difference. He still remembers this advice he got from a Burger King honcho while shooting his first commercial at the ripe old age of 22: "You may have the take of your life; the camerawork is perfect; the actors are pitch-perfect; the lighting is exactly how you want it; the movement is beautiful. If the Whopper don't look good, we're goin' again."
For Reitman, then, the biggest leap he took on "Smoking" was not in adapting Buckley's work for the screen. There was, he says, a lot of direct "cut-and-pasting" of dialogue from the "wall-to-wall funny" book. Nor was it in his confidence in what's funny, or in the "extreme managerial" skills necessary to run a set. Rather, it was in graduating from a world in which actors were props that serve the product to one in which, well, Robert Duvall is working for you.
Working with the cast, according to Reitman, was "incredibly intimidating," especially Duvall, who plays the Big Tobacco baron known as the Captain. "He's literally one of the top 10 greatest actors of all time," gushes Reitman (on whom Duvall's Independent Spirit Award for directing "The Apostle" was also not lost). "I didn't say much to him. 'Action' and 'cut.' I didn't have to say much."
With his ongoing employment in commercials, Reitman says he can, in a perverse sense, identify with "Smoking's" charming antihero, tobacco spin doctor Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a character who believes that even cigarettes deserve the best possible representation. After finishing the film, Reitman says, he did "two Wal-Marts, a Buick and a GM" ad.
Unlike Nick, however, Reitman draws the line on what he will shill.
"I don't think I'd ever do a commercial for the military," he says, particularly in their current campaign, which he parodies as follows: "Do you like snowboarding? I bet you do. Well, if you like snowboarding, you'll love killing people in the Air Force!"
He also wouldn't do a commercial for smoking, even if they existed. Despite his belief that people should be allowed to make up their own minds, he describes smoking as a slow form of suicide. All the same, he insists that the movie is neither pro- nor anti-smoking.
That artistic neutrality, and not the health risks of cigarettes, Reitman explains, is why there's no smoking shown in the film, even by Nick, whose character survives a nicotine patch overdose thanks to his unnaturally high tolerance for the substance.
"I don't need to show people smoking," he says. "We've seen smoking enough in films. And really, if you're going to show it, there would have to be a lot of smoking. Open the floodgates, and that's all people would see. It'd be the bad version of 'Good Night, and Good Luck'--you know, 'God, they're smoking a lot of cigarettes.' "
If he did his job right, Reitman says, you won't be paying attention to cigarettes -- or their absence -- in his film, but to what the movie has to say about the culture of spin in which we live, and whose methods Reitman knows only too well. "Hopefully, you're listening to the talk, because that's what this movie is about."