7 Tips for Getting Your Politically Incorrect Comedy On the Big Screen

IFC News
March 2006

First-time feature director Jason Reitman spent a long time trying to turn Christopher Buckley’s novel “Thank You For Smoking” into a movie. In addition to the usual hurdles, Reitman was dealing with a political satire whose hero is a spokesperson for the tobacco industry, i.e. the kind of story that scares the hell out of Hollywood. That said, the project had certain things going for it, namely the hilarious, beloved 1994 novel, a “New York Times” Notable Book of the Year that boldly and deliciously takes on the “culture of spin” through a character, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), whose job it is to spin wildly to protect the rights of smokers and Big Tobacco. Mel Gibson’s company Icon Productions snatched the rights to the book and proceeded to hire screenwriter after screenwriter to take a crack at adapting it, but the right script never emerged.

Cut to: The then 23-year-old Reitman reads the book, goes gaga, contacts Mel, gets hired to try his hand, receives a personal phonecall from Mel who hearts his script. It nevertheless languishes in development hell.

After peddling his masterpiece to every other production outfit in movieland, Reitman finally resigned himself to the idea that the most he was going to get from the experience was an impressive writing sample that he could use to get the next job. But then the moviemaking gods smiled. And Reitman suddenly found himself being rained upon by millions of dollars and real live movie stars like Aaron Eckhart, Katie Holmes and Robert Duvall who were willing, even excited, to make his movie. With a little help from Reitman, Buckley, Eckhart and producer David O. Sacks, IFC News’ Andrea Meyer has compiled 8 Tips for Getting Your Politically Incorrect Movie Seen.

Base your movie on a book by Christopher Buckley:
If you’re going to attempt the impossible, the least you can do is start with brilliant raw materials, preferably written by political satirist Christopher Buckley, author of nine books, former managing editor of “Esquire,” founding editor of “Forbes FYI” and one-time chief speechwriter to the first George Bush (when he was the VP). In New York recently promoting the film, Reitman admits that the adaptation came easily. A lot of it was a cut-and-paste job,” he said. “The book is brilliant and hilarious.”

Give the protagonist a cute kid:
In Buckley’s novel, Nick’s son, Joey (Cameron Bright), is an incidental character. One of Reitman’s most radical changes was buffing out the father-son relationship, building on the idea that if a sweet kid could love this morally questionable character, so could the audience. “[Katie Holmes’ character, journalist] Heather Holloway asks Nick in the book, ‘What does your son thinks about what you do? “ Reitman said. “I thought this is the most important question in the book. Even Nick Naylor must care in his heart what his son thinks of him…Joey is really the window into Nick’s soul.”

Stick to your guns:
Once it as clear Icon was not making the film, Reitman knocked on a lot of doors with little success. “People said they would make the film if I would rewrite the third act so that Nick Naylor realizes what he’s doing is wrong, has a big change of heart, drops tobacco and goes to work for the Red Cross,” he said, “which I hated. And I was getting this note from indies, the tough guys who are supposed to make unique, ballsy films.” The director told them all to piss off (in politer terms, I assume).

Nab yourself an idealistic dotcom billionaire to produce:
Reitman’s miracle took the form of David O. Sacks, COO of PayPal who had sold his company to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion and decided to make movies. Soon after he moved to LA and started a production company, Reitman’s script landed on his desk. Not only did Sacks have the money and the patience it took to obtain the rights to the project (a process that took 18 months), but he had so much money he could afford to be as uncompromising as Reitman himself. “My attitude going to Hollywood was if I made a movie that I loved that lost money, at least I’d have the movie,” Sacks said. “I love the project. It wasn’t completely rational from a strictly financial standpoint, but that’s also probably why no one else had made it and for all those reasons it created an opportunity to do this.”

Cast Aaron Eckhart:
“Aaron Eckhart was born to play this role,” Reitman said. “Beyond being incredibly handsome, he has this charm that allows him to say incredibly subversive things and get away with it. When I saw “In the company of Men,” he plays a monster, but you want to watch him, and then I saw “Erin Brockovich” and he plays this biker you want to let baby sit your kids.” The actor agrees with this assessment, adding, “The movie plays into one of my strengths, which is the ability to be unabashedly shameless.”

Stir up a scandal:
If no behind-the-scenes, actor-leaving-his-wife-for-his-hot-costar-esque brouhaha emerges organically, create one. At a Sundance screening, a sex scene between Eckhart and Holmes was mysteriously missing. While the director later learned that a projection error was responsible for the omission, and the errant footage—of a comedic, fully-clothed romp—was reinstated, the Mystery of the Missing Sex Scene provoked the kind of publicity that moviemakers can’t buy. The blogs were a-buzz, the “LA Times” ran a piece that wondered aloud whether puritanical Mormons or one particular jealous Scientologist were to blame, and suddenly the movie became the little indie that could get the whole world yapping. When Reitman screened the film for college kids in Boston, during a Q&A one student who had heard the noise and wrongly expected to “see tits” expressed his disappointment. Unapologetic about the scant nudity, Reitman said, “The exciting thing is we finally cracked the 15-year-old boy demographic.”

Follow your passion:
Reitman says when he read the first line of Buckley’s book, it was like love at first sight: He saw the whole movie unfold before his eyes. Sacks also uses the word “love” to describe his feelings for the project. Buckley describes his first encounter with Reitman similarly: “He called me up and he charmed me right away. The first thing he said was, ‘I’m the guy they hired to fuck up your book.’ I thought what a charming young man this is. It was love at first sight.”