Birthplace: Montreal, Canada
Favorite Authors: Christopher Buckley, Raymond Chandler, John Cheever, T.C. Boyle
Favorite Bands: Beastie Boys, Madlib, Jurassic 5, Cut Chemist
Inspirational Directors: Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater
Fun Fact: Ran track-and-field at the Junior Maccabiah Games (the Junior Jewish Olympics)
Jason Reitman grew up around film. Days after his birth in 1977, he joined his producer/director dad, Ivan, on the set of Animal House. By 10, he was making home-video shorts; at 13, he got his first job in film, as the production assistant on the elder Reitman’s Kindergarten Cop; and at 15, he directed an award-winning public-service announcement with actors from his high school. As son of the man who directed blockbusters Stripes, Ghostbusters, Twins and Dave, he was immersed in comedy, but it took smaller-scale, more idiosyncratic comedies to convince him film was his future.
“I was probably 15 or 16 years old the first time I saw Slacker and Clerks, and then Bottle Rocket,” Reitman explains at Sundance, where his first feature Thank You for Smoking had its U.S. premiere. “And those three films in succession really changed my view of what a comedy could be. I’d grown up watching big-time comedies, but when I saw what Kevin Smith did with Clerks, it just changed me. I suddenly said, ‘Oh, that can be a movie and that can be a comedy. That’s fantastic.’ It just broadened my horizons, and it set me free.”
This freedom to revel in small details is on display in Smoking, a witty, biting satire with insight and soul. Based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, the film follows Nick Naylor—head lobbyist for Big Tobacco—and his journeys across America as he spins on behalf of his industry while still trying to be a role model for his 12-year-old son. Supported by a wonderful cast that includes Maria Bello, William H. Macy, Robert Duvall, Adam Brody, Rob Lowe and Sam Elliott, Aaron Eckhart perfectly captures Naylor’s unique combination of cleverness, confidence, moral slickness and persistent likeability.
Inspired by a question a reporter asks Naylor in Buckley’s novel (“What does your son think of what you do?”), Reitman added a more human dimension to the story by emphasizing the lobbyist’s relationship with his son. “Beyond the dancing [of Naylor’s actual answer], it’s an important question,” the director explains. “I thought that’s one that Nick probably wouldn’t have a real answer to, and that kind of formed the plot of the movie. I wanted him to deal with that question as a human being. I think you gain and lose friends, and you can even sometimes gain and lose your family, but your own children, I have to imagine you fight to death for their admiration. It also struck upon the important political idea that—beyond the importance of personal responsibility—we have to be responsible for our children, and parenting is the real key to having people make smart decisions.”
Advice from Reitman’s dad proved instrumental in his decision to become a director. Despite his early interest in film, Jason entered a pre-med program in college. “I went to college and got scared out of wanting to make movies,” he explains. “I thought, ‘I’ll only live in my father’s shadow; I’ll never have any true success of my own.’ People meet you and you’re the son of a famous filmmaker, and they think that you’re arrogant, uneducated and you have a drug problem.” But one winter break, his father intervened. He told Jason that when he was 19 years old, he’d discovered foot-long submarine sandwiches and asked his father for money to start a sandwich shop. “And my grandfather said, ‘You know, there’s probably a lot of money in that, but there’s not enough magic in it for you.’ And my father went to college and started a film club. So my father took me out to dinner at some cheap diner, and he told me [this] story and said, ‘Jason, you know, being a doctor is an incredibly noble profession, and I would be very proud of you if you became a doctor. But I just don’t think there’s enough magic in it for you.’” With that, Jason Reitman returned to Los Angeles, begged his way into the USC School of English and began making short films.