Sunday, March 12, 2006

An Interview with Director Jason Reitman

This interview was conducted around March 12th, 2006 at a hotel in Seattle, to promote writer/director Jason Reitman's adaptation of Chris Buckley's book, Thank You For Smoking. It was originally written for a college newspaper, and because it is a roundtable interview, the majority of the questions are not by Tyler Foster.

Question: So, do you consider this film to be the biggest challenge of your career so far?
Jason Reitman: Oh, yeah, I mean, I wrote this thing over five years ago, so, I had opportunities to make other films in the interim because of my short films, because I was directing commercials, but this is what I wanted to say as a filmmaker, as my first step into a professional career. This is the kind of filmmaker I wanted to establish myself as, so I could kind of continue down a career line of making smart comedies. It was a big challenge, it took five years, it was a challenge just to get the job originally, it was a challenge to find someone to actually put up the money and make it. What was amazing was once we finally had the rights and the money, how quickly the cast came together and how quickly we got it to its premiere in Toronto.
Question: Is that like your anti-pigeonholing exercise, to get your first film out there and have it be what you want to do, so if people try to lump you into certain categories, then --
Jason Reitman: Yeah! Certainly! Well, you're gonna be lumped into a category no matter what, and I think that's important to understand if you want to be a filmmaker, and I just didn't want to be lumped into the category of high-school teen romantic-comedy director, which was basically what was available to me before I wrote my own script.
Question: How much of a part did the writer of the book play in the production?
Jason Reitman: A lot! You know, it's funny, there were previous writers to me who took stabs at writing this screenplay, and they never spoke to him, so the day I called him, he was really surprised. I left a message on his machine, and I said 'Hi Chris, this is Jason Reitman, the guy they hired to f--- up your book.' He called me back, and we started this fantastic relationship, and we're now good friends, and I would send him drafts of the screenplay, and he would send me notes, and he actually came to set, and he's in the film. It's a small part, I'm not sure if you remember it, but at the point when Heather Holloway releases her article, we go across the city and we see people reading it, and there's one guy in a subway station, an older guy -- well, I shouldn't say older guy, cause now Chris will be pissed -- there's a guy in the subway station, and he's reading the newspaper, and he just frowns and shakes his head, and that's Chris Buckley. He showed up at Toronto and he showed up at Sundance, and I think he's very proud of the film, and proud to have ownership over it, and he and I are constantly talking about what we could do together next.
Question: You mentioned your short films...I noticed they're all sort of hot-button topics, so are you interested in controversy, is that something you sort of look for in making a film?
Jason Reitman: You know, I think if you look at my short films, you look at my feature, what it really says about me is I don't like authority, I don't like being told what to do, so a lot of my films deal with that subject. As far as controversy...[laughs] feature has certainly found its own controversies, but my short films have generally been accessible and always been more entertaining actually than normal short films, which usually are the thought-provoking rantins of a college student. And that's not bad, but when I went to film festivals, I noticed that, and it was my desire to come back and make...bring entertaining comedies that could really break from the norm in the film festival world.
Question: You think those short films will be on the DVD or anything?
Jason Reitman: Uh, they probably won't be on the DVD, they are available online at, and I know, we're entering into a really interesting time as far as short films go, in that...there's all these available ways to watch short films now, on, if you have a Video iPod, if you have Video On-Demand through a cell phone, the short film is actually going to become a necessary part of the marketplace, and you can tell by the amount of email clips we all send our friends. And right now, it's goofier stuff, it's like a bear falling out of a tree, but that will develop, and the bite-size entertainment will be a meaningful thing, and at that point I hope to finally make a fortune off my short films. [laughs] No, I just they become a part of the marketplace.
Question: When did you actually finish writing it, you were saying five years ago?
Jason Reitman: Yeah, the actual writing process was only three or four months, it happened end of 2000, beginning of 2001, we didn't shoot this film until the beginning of 2005.
Question: It's uniquely appropo, especially in Washington with our anti-smoking laws that just went through, that this is what you were thinking of five years ago.
Jason Reitman: Right. Well, it's funny, throughout the process of this, even when I just found the book in the late '90's and the book was seven years old, the question I would always be asked was, 'well, is this still relevant, is this still relevant?' There was a big tobacco settlement in '98, and does the film still mean anything after that, and it does, because people continue to want to tell other people what to do. And I know I'm sitting at a table of Seattleites or Washingtonians, where you have passed this kind of ban on public smoking, so I hope I don't offend any of you, but I think that's ridiculous! I'm not a smoker, I don't like smoking as much as the next guy, but I don't think as long as it's a legal product, I think there's something very wrong about telling people they can't smoke outside, and it's just as ridiculous as telling people they can't drink Coca-Cola outside.
Question: That's next.
Jason Reitman: That'll be next, and then next will be the Whopper.
Question: Burger King's almost gone anyway. Going along this line, what's the message of the film you want people to get, because you're not really promoting or being negative about cigarettes. You're kind of saying people should choose for themselves, that's the message I got.
Jason Reitman: Yeah, I think the message of the film is about personal responsibility, you have the freedom to do very dangerous things in life, and if you're going to do them, that's fine, but you have to take responsibility for those actions. Look, if you want to kill yourself, that's okay, you have the choice to shoot yourself, that'd be faster, you smoke cigarettes, it will take 20-30 years, but don't go blaming the tobacco industry at this point. Or at least don't talk to me about that, because I just don't buy it. I have a hard time believing that you went into this habit unknowing, unless you're 80 years old, and you have to take responsibility for that. And it's a message to parents, you know, there's a big father-son relationship in this film, and there's a parenting message in this film, which says we have to prepare our children so that they can make these types of decisions when they get older, and that's not the responsibility of corporations and not the responsibility of the government.
Question: So you're not worried that Katie Holmes is going to overwhelm your movie?
Jason Reitman: [laughs] No! You know, it's funny, because I made a political comedy, so there's a very specific audience for that, and I presume up until Katie Holmes, we were gonna find people who normally like indie films, political comedies, smart comedies, and she has opened us up to the 14-year-old boy demographic, so I'm thrilled.

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