Director Jason Reitman discusses his controversial Thank You for Smoking

By Matt Zakosek

Director Jason Reitman is someone who deserves our respect, even if we can’t entirely believe him—much like the shady tobacco lobbyist in his current satire, Thank You for Smoking.

I interviewed Reitman in his room on the twelfth floor of downtown Chicago’s Ritz Carlton with two other college journalists. Not surprisingly, the first question anyone thought to ask was, “Are you a smoker?” Reitman isn’t. He is a fan of bears and the novel Devil in the White City, which goes a long way toward describing the circuitous route of our conversation.

Reitman, son of Hollywood megaproducer Ivan Reitman, says he avoided working in film for several years for fear of “daddy’s boy crap.” He entered his short film, Gulp (“about a guy trying to rescue a goldfish”) into the Aspen Shorts Festival because it was more “democratic” than the bigger ones. He didn’t want anyone to say he got where he was on his famous last name.

I believed that for the majority of our interview. Then another one of the college journalists asked if he has any Chicago connections. “Just running around the United Center,” he told us, “when I was PA-ing for my dad on the set of Space Jam.”

Reitman is 28 years old. Assuming that he hasn’t had his birthday yet this year, he was 18 when Space Jam was released, and even younger when it was being made. You show me a high-school kid with a gig as good as that, and I’ll show you…well, someone whose dad is Ivan Reitman. “Everyone [in the cast] was our first pick,” Reitman explains, and I couldn’t shake the thought that this was because they knew they would be working with Hollywood royalty.

Reitman’s connections served as the elephant in the room for the majority of the interview. When the same student asked Reitman, “What’s your favorite Ivan Reitman film?” I wanted to stand up and cheer—admittedly since I was too cowardly to ask the question myself. (For the record: “Probably Stripes or Dave,” Reitman responds, “although I probably shouldn’t enjoy Dave, since I’m in it.”)

Reitman seems like a decent guy, though, when he doesn’t come off as a slick L.A. shark (much like the character Adam Brody plays in Smoking). He refers to Jack Black’s band, Tenacious D, as “the D,” and David Koechner’s band, Naked Trucker, as “the Trucker,” which a lot of people do, but it rolls a little too easily off his tongue. But Reitman also seems interested in helping aspiring filmmakers gain a foothold in the industry. His new company, Hard C, will provide a forum for “bite-sized entertainment” (read: short films) that may not otherwise garner attention.

Reitman’s goofy hipster charm recalls another Jason: Lee. He brags about playing the theme to Hockey Night in Canada at his wedding reception, even if it was his wife’s idea. When he laments a lost scene from Smoking—a character tells tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor “You are the fucking Devil,” and Naylor responds, “Hi there”—the joy he takes in his work shines through. The Thank You for Smoking DVD is going to have a great commentary track.

My one regret is not asking about Reitman about the controversy that swirled around Thank You for Smoking at Sundance: After Paramount Classics claimed they’d made a verbal agreement with producer David O. Sacks to distribute the film, rival studio Fox Searchlight acquired the rights—on paper. Regardless of the legality of the situation, one can’t help but feel for Paramount Classics, who thought making a gentlemen’s deal (among gentlemen) would be enough. It would lend valuable insight into Reitman’s personality to know how he felt about the situation.

Reitman is refreshingly honest regarding the film’s publicity. When asked if he thinks the Tom Cruise–Katie Holmes romance overshadows the film’s bigger issues, he evokes the old truism: that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. “I feel sorry for Katie, and I feel more so every day,” he says, and this was on March 8 (way before the paparazzi snapped photos of Scientologists bringing “silent birth” placards into Holmes and Cruise’s home). “She gets hammered left and right [by the press],” he elaborates, and he sounds like he genuinely means it.

Among Reitman’s other accomplishments: He introduced his dad to Todd Phillips, the director of Road Trip and Old School, when the two were at Sundance. This reminds me of the reason Phillips was at Sundance ’98 in the first place: His acclaimed documentary, Frat House (“A story about naked women, humiliation, and kegs”) exposed the cruelty and misogyny that underlie many of today’s fraternity traditions. Odd that Phillips then forged a mainstream career celebrating the very misogyny his first feature denounced. It made me wonder if Reitman will be able to hold on to his integrity in a studio system that often aims for the lowest common denominator.

So far, I think so, but one anecdote Reitman tells makes me believe he’s still on the fence. (Skip this next paragraph if you have yet to see the movie.) A pivotal scene in Smoking comes when Naylor’s tobacco lobbyist must convince Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott), a former Marlboro Man who now has lung cancer, to take a large cash pay-out in exchange for his silence.

According to Reitman, Elliott didn’t believe the character should (or, more importantly, would) take the money. After a three-hour discussion—during which Reitman says, “I was in the role of Nick Naylor”—Reitman finally convinced Elliott with this statement: “It’s a character, not a human being.”

Ah, but to make a deeply felt movie, don’t we need to consider the characters as human beings? Smoking is a strong first feature, but it’s statements like this that make me wonder if Reitman will go down the ill-advised path of Todd Phillips, or the one forged by, well, his father. “Our generation has been spun to since the cradle,” Reitman says, but the jury’s still out on whether he believes that spin himself.