DETROIT _ The first question everyone asks Jason Reitman is whether he smokes.
This is not because they are concerned about the health of the 28-year-old movie director, but because they want to know if he stands behind his first movie, “Thank You for Smoking,” a comedy about the travails of a Beltway tobacco lobbyist.
“The answer is no, I don’t smoke,” says Reitman in a hotel suite, doing the publicity rounds for “Thank You for Smoking.” “But I also don’t want government or anybody else telling me how I ought to live. This movie isn’t pro-smoking or pro-Big Tobacco. It’s a stab at political correctness. Or maybe, more like a jab.”
The second question everyone asks Reitman is if he learned how to make funny movies _ and one thing anti-smokers and libertarians can agree on is that “Thank You for Smoking” is a funny movie _ at the feet of his father. Ivan Reitman is the director of comedy classics “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters,” as well as the uncredited voice of the Slimer in the latter.
The answer: Yes and no.
“Obviously, if you live in a house where people like Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Harold Ramis are hanging out, you pick up some stuff at an early age. And I was definitely Daddy’s boy, I loved hanging out with him. But the primary lessons I learned from him was to follow my heart, to find my own voice and that casting is super-important.”
Reitman certainly appreciated the wisdom of the latter when he finally got the opportunity to make “Thank You for Smoking,” based on the satirical best-seller by Christopher Buckley. The movie rights had been acquired by Warner Brothers for Mel Gibson’s Icon production company after the book was published in 1994.
The original plan was for Gibson to play the lobbyist, but the movie languished in the usual development hell. Reitman believes that was because Warner Brothers believed the only way for the film to really work was “for the lobbyist to be redeemed at the end and devote his life to helping people, like working at the Red Cross.”
Reitman thought that was a comedy killer, and that was what he told Gibson and the team at Icon. He received an audience based on the positive reaction to his short film “In God We Trust,” which had won a number of awards and more importantly, secured Reitman an agent. “A friend had given me the book a couple of years before, and I had sort of mapped it out as a movie in my mind long before I thought I would ever be involved. And the movie I had in mind was a darker, smarter comedy along the lines of `Citizen Ruth.'”
“Citizen Ruth” is the first movie by director Alexander Payne, who would go on to make acclaimed films like “About Schmidt.” But it received only marginal release because its topic, abortion, was considered a controversial comedy-killer by its distributor _ just like “Thank You for Smoking.”
The rest, as they say, is history, or at least a confluence of fairly unlikely events. After Reitman completed a script faithful to Buckley’s book, Warner’s remained uninterested, and no other major studio wanted to get involved. Reitman had pretty much given up hope it would ever get made when he made the acquaintance of David Sacks, whom he calls a “white knight” _ a very successful dot-com entrepreneur who also thought “Thank You for Smoking” could be a very funny movie.
He gave Reitman enough money to get it going, some of which, of course, went to Warner Brothers, “who didn’t want to make the movie but didn’t want anybody else to prove it could be done, either,” says Reitman.
This is where Dad’s lesson about casting comes in. Reitman sent the script to Robert Duvall, one of the movie business’ more famous contrarians, and whose family once farmed tobacco. With Duvall signed up to play an unrepentant tobacco magnate dying of lung cancer, the project now had credibility. Reitman was able to “get just about everybody else I wanted,” including Aaron Eckhart, who plays the lobbyist who does Duvall’s _ and the devil’s _ work in Washington.
Reitman took the finished film to the Toronto Film Festival in September in hopes of creating a bidding war. That proved successful after the buzz resulted in a screening so packed that even the cochairman of Sony Classics had trouble getting in. The film was ultimately sold to Fox Searchlight for $6.5 million, the biggest deal of the festival .
Reitman got another boost from the publicity gods when the film was screened at Sundance this year, absent Eckhart’s athletic sex scene with Katie Holmes, who plays a duplicitous reporter. The rumor was that Tom Cruise had somehow intervened to get the scene trimmed, but the truth was that a projectionist just screwed up the reel changeover. Still, Reitman admits, “it had more people talking about it.”
“In the end, I think whether the movie is successful or not will be up to my generation, people who get the news from `The Daily Show,’ you know? All I wanted to do was make a really funny movie that actually questions a lot of assumptions. It’s not about being on one side or another all the time.
“You know what the problem is with politics for me? It’s just too political.”