Nearly a year ago, a T-shirted twentysomething suffered silently in a cramped middle seat as he and his equally unassuming wife flew coach class to Toronto. Hoping to penetrate a business in which disposable flicks like "Tomb Raider," "Godzilla" and "Men in Black II" open huge and vanish a week later, the 27-year-old quietly stood alongside everyone else at baggage claim, then took his luggage and a small independent film over to the Toronto International Film Festival.
Now, as the year's first true word-of-mouth hit continues its Cinderella story, first-time filmmaker Jason Reitman has a message for audiences: Thank you for coming.
"I was literally getting hourly calls from Fox Searchlight telling me how well we were doing over the weekend — it was just an absolute thrill," a glowing Reitman recently said of his first opening weekend, when his film "Thank You for Smoking" made nearly eight times the per-screen average of the heavily hyped "V for Vendetta." "An indie satire can easily be swept under the rug, and people seem to be really embracing this film. It's exciting that people are seeing it."
Now, while "Vendetta" has turned into another stalled-out blockbuster, the former Toronto Fest sensation has emerged as the buzzworthy film of the season. As stars Aaron Eckhart, Adam Brody and Katie Holmes promote the anti-smoking, anti-spin, pro-guffawing satire (see " 'Thank You For Smoking' Is Funny, Serious Business"), the film continues to grow the type of buzz that propelled flicks like "March of the Penguins" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" into full-blown phenomena.
"When you make an indie film, you don't know if anyone's ever going to see the thing," said Reitman, the easygoing son of "Ghostbusters" and "Stripes" director Ivan Reitman. "You go to a film festival, where there's a very good chance you don't get picked up, but we did. Then it gets thrown in the theaters, and there's a very good chance that people could be unaware of your film. But they are [aware of it], and it's the biggest thrill in the world."
Asked what the film's success means to him, the son of a comedy legend handles the question appropriately. "My film will probably change the world as we know it," he deadpanned. "About a year from now, we'll refer to the time before 'Thank You for Smoking' came out and the time after 'Thank You for Smoking' came out in the same way we refer to Christ."
So in this, the third week A.T.Y.F.S., Reitman is already making plans to follow up his success in the most American way possible. "I'll sell out big-time," he grinned. "I'll sell out bad, horrible. I'm just gonna make a fortune making the worst comedy of all time."
One thing he won't do, however, is lean too much on his dad for support. "There are a few hurdles to overcome," he said of the curse of having a famous last name. "What hurts is that people presume the worst of you if you are the son of someone famous. People think that you're gonna be an idiot, that you're talentless. They probably think that you have a drug problem."
When the younger Reitman set out to make his filmmaking debut, he knew he didn't want to make "Ghostbusters 3," but he also knew that his dad (currently developing the sequel to "Old School") would always be in his corner. "Being my father's son has been a tremendous help in that I grew up on film sets, and he raised me to be a good person and a good storyteller," Reitman said. "I did show my dad my screenplay as I was writing it. I showed him the cut as I was editing it, and he offered me invaluable advice."
After a long, unusual release pattern that had the small film visiting Toronto, Sundance and countless schools across the country, Reitman's sense of humor is now tapping into the national consciousness in ways reminiscent of his father's best work.
"I've been on a tour for the last two months, showing the film to college students who have completely embraced it," he said. "Because it says 'f--- you' to all the people who are trying to tell us how to live. It's the same reason why 'The Daily Show' is so successful. It's a show that, unlike everything else on TV, which is pushing an agenda, simply holds a mirror up to both sides and says, 'Don't you see how ridiculous you're being?' I think the film does the same thing."
Reitman is appreciative of the praise he's been receiving and is looking forward to the wider opening this weekend. But, he humbly insists, all those critics talking Oscar need to settle down.
"This is a comedy," he said matter-of-factly. "No one gives an award to a comedy. There are certain movies you look at and you go, 'Man, were they fightin' for an Oscar!' This is not one of those films. I just wanted to make people laugh and, in the best of worlds, make them think that perhaps they should take a little more responsibility for their own lives instead of telling other people what to do."
With a recently signed multi-picture deal in his pocket, it looks like Reitman can sell out anytime he wants, but the writer/director hopes to keep making smart comedies. "Scripts have started to come in, and that's really exciting," he said. "People are interested in working with me."
In the meantime, make sure you keep an eye peeled for the unassuming filmmaker who has Hollywood at his feet — he just might be sitting in the cramped middle seat next to you. "I still fly coach," he laughed. "Fox Searchlight is an indie division, so they have to save money any way possible. They've looked into shipping me freight."
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