Plot Washington DC. Present day. Nick Naylor, the Chief Spokesperson of the Academy of Tobacco Studies, a pro-tobacco lobby group, is a guest on a television chat show. He initially receives a scathing reaction from the studio audience and fellow guests. However, through his unconventional and charismatic reasoning, he manages to win them round. Returning to Washington, Naylor attends a “What My Dad Does” day for his son Joey, and is so convincing in his argument that the teacher has to ask him to leave. At a press conference, Senator Finistirre proposes the labelling of cigarette packets with the word ‘POISON’. Naylor is summoned to see Captain, the boss of Big Tobacco. Captain asks Naylor to convince studio heads and legislators to allow cigarettes to be endorsed in the movies. Naylor is interviewed by journalist, Heather Holloway, who he also sleeps with. Captain sends Naylor a large amount of money, telling him to give it to Lorne Lutch, the original ‘Marlboro Man’, who is dying of cancer and denouncing cigarettes to the press. At first Lutch is reluctant, but Naylor persuades him to keep the money, and keep quiet. Returning to Washington, Naylor is kidnapped by an anti-smoking group and almost killed by being covered with nicotine patches. When he awakes in hospital Naylor is told that the nicotine overdose sent him into a coma, and that due to the stress his body has been through he will never be able to smoke again. Holloway’s story on Naylor is printed, with incriminating information that Naylor considered ‘off-record’ included. Naylor loses his job, but decides to attend the congressional hearing that Finistirre invited him to. Outwitting Finistirre, Naylor prevents the bill from passing and starts a PR company through which he will advise on the link between mobile phone use and brain cancer.
Film note Thank You For Smoking (TYFS) received a world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2005, where its positive reception triggered a bidding war won by Fox Searchlight who paid $7m to distribute the film. The film was Reitman’s directorial predecessor to Juno (2007), one of the most profitable films of the early 2000s. Both films were funded independently and had a production budget of around $7.5m, with Juno making an impressive $143.5m at the box office. Despite the festival buzz, TYFS was not as financially successful as Juno; it did, however, bring in a healthy profit of roughly four times its budget. This return was equivalent to Reitman’s latest film Up In the Air (2009), which was his first to be funded and produced not as an independent but by a recognised Hollywood studio (Paramount).
A mainstream indie Despite its indie pedigree, the film, both in production value and narrative style, displays a mainstream sensibility. The film is shot with Panavision equipment and the image resolution is sharp and glossy. The cast is star-studded and scenes are layered with visual in-jokes courtesy of the art department (something that’s not exactly a common element of a first time independent film). In the offices of Big Tobacco or Senator Finistirre the level of detail in the mise-en-scene stretches to include a collection of Vermont maple syrup bottles and the almost imperceptible appearance of cigarettes in the form of the Venetian blind design. Such attention to detail is more frequently seen in studio films with larger budgets.
Compared to other independent success stories, TYFS is clearly not a project tailored to fit the meagre resources available to its creators, such as a narrative told through a handheld camera, like in The Blair Witch Project (1999), or set in a specific location that just happened to be freely available, such as the convenience store in Clerks (1994). The film was never intended to be an independently funded production, and to look at the finished result it would be hard to recognise it as such. For this reason, TYFS does not fit comfortably under the bracket of independent cinema. In fact, the film’s industrial status is indicative of the increasing difficulty of adjudging what counts as an independent film in contemporary US cinema.
While the involvement of a Hollywood studio seems to be the deciding factor in whether a film will get effective distribution, and therefore make the largest profit possible, Geoff King notes that “a great deal of Hollywood production today can be described as ‘independent’ [as] projects are often initiated and pursued by entities that exist formally beyond the bounds of the majors [and] in most such cases the films that result belong solidly to the Hollywood mainstream” (5). This business model is a mutually beneficial form of risk management, that stops the studio sinking too much of their money and resources into a film that doesn’t already fit a trend or style that has been proven to make a profit. TYFS appears to fit this “semi-independent” model. The rights of the satirical novel by Christopher Buckley were sold to Icon Productions, who purchased it with the hopes of making it as a Mel Gibson vehicle. It was at this point that Reitman, a young aspiring filmmaker with only a few shorts to his name, approached the production company with his draft of a screen adaptation. Reitman was hired but the project was held in pre-production limbo before being dropped by Icon. Reitman then found funding from a source outside of Hollywood in David O. Sacks’ production company, Room 9 Entertainment. Sacks, a co-founder of the internet money transfer service Paypal, set up an equity fund in which Room 9 could develop, produce and finance independent features. The mandate of the company is “to find smart, original stories based on outstanding and unique source material that, while independent in flavour, can resonate with mainstream audiences and attract top talent” (qtd. in Newman). This emphasis upon attracting “top talent” is most obvious in the film’s casting, an aspect that clearly singles out TYFS as an anomaly in the history of independent US cinema. The sheer number of recognised stars in the ensemble cast–including Aaron Eckhart, William H. Macy, Robert Duvall, Katie Holmes and Rob Lowe–gave the film a bankability that was without precedent for the first feature-length film by a director with virtually no experience. Recognised stars have been known to get involved in independent films with miniscule budgets at a fraction of their usual salaries; James Spader in Steven Soderburgh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), for example. However, being able to attract so many well-known names is a distinctive feature of TYFS.
In the director’s commentary on the DVD release, Reitman cites a number of factors explaining why so many big names were attracted to the project, including the talent of casting director Mindy Marin and the more pragmatic reason that the film was an “ensemble piece, that worked like an odyssey in which we could bunch everyone’s scenes in to two to five days at a time”, noting in particular how Rob Lowe shot all his scenes in one day. Reitman also recognises the magnetic pull of lead actor, Aaron Eckhart, stating that “when Aaron signed on to do this movie […] people wanted to work with him and they believed in the project”. Indeed, the charm of Ekchart, and the character he plays, Nick Naylor are crucial in making the film accessible. Reitman worked to make Naylor more likeable through a significant change to the plot of the novel, stating that although much of the dialogue featured in the film is “a direct lift from the book [I also] wrote more scenes of Nick and Joey bonding because I wanted to see the two of them come together. I thought that Joey humanized Naylor, that if this young boy could love his father, then the audience could’ (Reitman & Buckley, 2005). The character of Joey is expanded from a name-only mention in Buckley’s novel into a solid supporting character in the film. Reitman uses Joey as a narrative device to make Naylor seem more sympathetic to the audience, and it is through the interactions between the two that Naylor has the opportunity to try and justify who he is and what he does.
On the film’s release, it was widely speculated in the press that the reason for the quality of the cast on a first-time feature was due to nepotism. The director is the son of Ivan Reitman, the successful director of films such as Ghostbusters (1984) and Kindergarten Cop (1990), and the producer of Old School (2003). The writer Sharon Waxman dryly observed how “Mr. Reitman is not starting from the bottom; he drives a BMW sport utility vehicle and is a regular at a pricey sushi joint’ (Waxman). Such an assumption would appear to be logical, as Hollywood (much like any creative industry) has a tendency to look after its own. Directors such as Jennifer Lynch and Sofia Coppola have, through films such as Lost In Translation (2003) and Surveillance (2008), defined themselves beyond their filmmaker fathers, however it is interesting to note that on these projects both David Lynch and Francis Ford Coppola were credited as executive producers. Despite this trend, Reitman claims that his father had nothing to do with the production of his first feature film.
When Australian film critic David Stratton broached this question in an interview, Reitman reasoned that “if my father had called any of those people and said, ‘Would you do my son’s movie?’ the reaction of someone like Robert Duvall would be, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? I’m not going to do a movie because your son’s making a movie. I’m an actor. I’m a professional’” (qtd. in Stratton). Also, Ivan Reitman was not credited in either of his son’s first two films, appearing as a producer only on his first studio film, Up In The Air. In the interview with Stratton, Reitman even suggests that the connections to his father worked against him when he was first looking for financial backers, singling him out as a Hollywood brat, explaining that “I tried to make this movie in Hollywood, I went to every studio with my screenplay and no one would make it. It was finally made completely independently […] so, if nepotism works, I’m doing it wrong.’ (qtd. in Stratton). It is worth noting here how Reitman acknowledges that TYFS began as a studio picture, but then defines the film as outside of the Hollywood system; a clear indication of the position the film occupies somewhere between the two sectors.
Pro-choice TYFS’s acerbic tone is what divides the film most obviously from the more mainstream work of Ivan Reitman and Hollywood at large. This tone is set and sealed in the opening scene as Naylor manages to talk his way into the favour of an aggressive studio audience on a fictional talk show. Through his charm, Naylor manages to persuade the guest brought on to the show to indict him (a child given the label, ‘Cancer Boy’) into supporting him, ending the scene with him shaking the hand of the boy as he waves to the audience. Naylor approaches the ever-rising smoking death toll he is held partially responsible for with a caustic, deliberately careless humour, comparing himself with Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan. His cavalier attitude is most evident in the scene where the MOD-squad argue over who has to defend their company against the most deaths per year. It ends with Naylor triumphantly declaring, “how many alcohol related deaths are there a year? One hundred thousand, tops? That’s what, two hundred and seventy a day? How many gun related deaths a year? Eleven thousand – are you kidding me? That’s [only] thirty a day”. Of course, smoking-related deaths – his remit – trump all others.
Naylor’s slick performance brought TYFS criticism, with reviewers accusing the film of being “amusing and clever, but only skin deep” (Kit 2006) and “as harmless and inconsequential as a candy cigarette” (Winter, 2006). Others identified the performance as central to the film’s acerbic wit. Kenneth Turan wrote in the Los Angeles Times that in this role as an anti-hero, Aaron Eckhart creates “a character who can be convincingly amoral but also engaging and likable, someone whose actions horrify us but whose enthusiastic brio and ability to make the system do his bidding turn him into the hero almost against our will” (2006). Indeed, Naylor is a strong example of the appeal of the anti-hero that has been dominant within Hollywood cinema for much of the contemporary period. With the popularity of characters such as Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Wolverine from the cinematic adaptations of X-Men and the revival of the Batman franchise, it seemed that there has been a desire for heroes who are a good deal less than perfect, and have a greater charm, charisma and strength of personal identity rather than being ciphers of simple virtue or patriotism. In this context, a protagonist that is as openly self-serving and unapologetically politically incorrect as Naylor was well received.
Reitman has claimed that he does not inhabit a particular political position, asserting that TYFS is first and foremost a comedy, with no strong ideological stance or moral perspective. Reitman’s core message is simple that individual choice is paramount – people should be permitted to make up their own minds about an issue. For example, the exact message that’s intended to be taken from the kidnap of Naylor and the attempt on his life is left very open: after Naylor receives a death threat, he refuses to acknowledge it as a genuine danger until it is too late. What his attackers do to him is against the law, and by pursuing their cause – something which is never explicitly defined in the film, yet assumed to be involved with raising awareness to the dangers of smoking – through terrorist methods the positivity of an anti-cigarette message is negated. Similarly, the exact nature of their attack – covering Naylor from head to foot with nicotine patches– can be read as a twisted form of justice, particularly when considered against the previous scene, in which Naylor boasts about the smoking death-toll to his MOD-squad buddies.
It was this lack of commitment to a moral position that caused the greatest debates with both Icon Productions, and with the studios that were approached by Reitman when Icon abandoned the project. It appears that Hollywood was keen for Reitman to give his adaptation a “happy ending” that settled on the side of the anti-smoking lobby instead of upholding a seeming apolitical moral ambiguity, or as Naylor describes it “flexibility”, over the issue of social wellbeing against the freedom of speech and personal choice. Indeed, it was revealed after release that an alternative ending was actually filmed, in which after defeating the proposition for all cigarette packets to be marked with a ‘POISON’ label, Nick reacts badly to his son Joey putting a cigarette to his lips and getting ready to light it. Yet, cigarettes are subtly absent for the majority of the film, with the only person smoking on screen being John Wayne in some archive footage, and the poignant ending would have problematized the audience’s finely balanced empathy for the father/son relationship, prompting Reitman to cut the scene.
The exposé genre in general is a common one (The Insider (1999), Erin Brockovich (2000)), but in the previous decade the genre has seen a sharp rise in popularity in independent film, with a number of films seeking to show the “truth” behind capitalist corporations, political parties, and big business. The offer of a look behind the glossy, defensive advertising/PR images has proved to be an appealing one, with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), for example, grossing a massive $119.2m at the box office – almost twenty times its production budget – and Morgan Spurlock’s personal approach to exposing the dangers of McDonalds, Super-Size Me (2004) taking in $11.5m on a shoestring budget of $65,000. The sudden popularity for these independent films is interesting in that they appear orientated towards exposing the consumerism that much of Hollywood endorses. Unlike these exposé style films, TYFS does not offer any kind of revelation, with an accompanying agenda of demonising a certain political figure or corporation, but instead presents the work of spin doctoring merely as fact and as satirical entertainment. Reitman states that “we’re so used to lying and spinning that when you finally hear the truth, it sounds pretty funny”, and it is this bald, if corrupted truth, combined with the film’s uniquely political stance that seems to give TYFS a comedic, rather than revelatory, resonance (qtd. in Waxman, 2006).
Most telling though is that, at the 64th Golden Globe Awards, TYFS was nominated in the Best Musical or Comedy category, but five weeks later went on to win the Best Screenplay at the 2006 Independent Spirit Awards. This idea of a film that exhibits mainstream Hollywood stylistics with a more independent thematic sensibility is one that has come to define the work of Jason Reitman. His films are very popular with audiences, yet they are regularly described as being ‘kooky’ or ‘left-field’. It appears that Reitman is part of a new wave of filmmakers, along with directors like Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze, who through work that blurs the distinction between independent and Hollywood filmmaking and which eschews the adoption of clear political positions, secures large audiences for seemingly left-field projects.
Buckley, Christopher. Thank You For Smoking. London: Allison & Busby, 1994. Print.
Kit, Borys. “Review: Thank You For Smoking“. Hollywoodreporter.com Jun. 21 2006. Web. 02.03.2011.
King, Geoff. American Independent Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. Print.
Newman, Michael R. “About Room 9 Entertainment”. Room9entertainment.com no date given. Web. 02.03.2011.
Reitman, Jason. “Jason Reitman Interview”. Thefilmlot.com no date given. Web. 02.03.2011.
Reitman, Jason and Buckley, Christopher. “Thank You For Smoking: Production Notes. Los Angeles: Fox Searchlight Press, 2005. Print.
Stratton, David. (2006) “Thank You For Smoking Interview: Jason Reitman”. Abc.net.au Aug. 16 2006. Web. 02.03.2011.
Turan, Kenneth. “Thank You For Smoking: film review”. Latimes.com Mar 17 2006. Web. 02.03.2011.
Voynar, Kim. “Interview with Thank You For Smoking director Jason Reitman’”. Moviefone.com Mar. 23 2006. Web. 02.03.2011.
Waxman, Sharon. “The Son Also Directs” Nytimes.com Sept. 10 2005. Web. 02.03.2011.
Winter, Jessica. “Thank You For Smoking review” Timeout.com Jun. 14 2006. Web. 02.03.2011.
Written by Jessica Bates (2009); edited by Tom Reynolds (2010).
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Copyright © 2009 Jessica Bates/Mapping Contemporary Cinema
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