LIANE HANSEN, Host:
The film adaptation of Christopher Buckley's 1994 satirical novel, Thank You For Smoking, opens this Friday across the country. We sat down to talk with him about it in a swanky smoke-filled bar not far from K Street where Washington lobbyists often meet.
Christopher Buckley, welcome to the program.
CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Good to be here.
HANSEN: Is this the kind of place, the Caucus Room, I mean it's got this dark wood and this atmosphere of, you know, kind of a smoky back room. Is this the kind of place the characters in Thank You For Smoking would feel comfortable?
BUCKLEY: There's something about wood paneling that just screams lobbyist. Yeah, in the book and the movie, my lobbyists hang out at a place called Burt's, which doesn't exist. And I'm frequently asked, where is Burt's. So it might as well be right here. In the movie, the so-called Mod Squad scenes, where these three lobbyists get together, was, and is very woody, looks very much like the Caucus Room. But it in fact turns out to be a Korean restaurant somewhere in L.A.
HANSEN: Your book was originally published in 1994. What was the inspiration for it then?
BUCKLEY: Well, as near as I can remember one night I was watching the, as it was then called, McNeil-Lehrer News Hour. And you know, the scientific community had just come up with reason number 10,678 not to smoke. You know, and I mean they had found that it did something else to you. You know, circulatory disease, whatever. And there was a woman on from the tobacco institute. And her job was to sort of pooh-pooh this, and make these PhDs sound like they were Homer Simpson and didn't know a thing about science.
And I became sort of intrigued by people who would do that for a living.
HANSEN: Now your protagonist, who is played in the film by Aaron Eckhart, he's chief of communications for the Academy of Tobacco Studies. He's very handsome. He's very slick. Obviously, he is a creature of your imagination 'cause your book is fiction. But I wonder what are the characteristics of a Washington spinmeister that you wanted him to embody?
BUCKLEY: A certain feistiness. A certain sort of Libertarian point of view. I hung out with actual people who do this, 'cause I was curious to see what motivated them. And the common strand that they seem to have, you know, the person from the tobacco institute, the person from the NRA, the person from the beer institute, he was wonderful, was what I would call a Libertarian streak. I don't think they particularly were proud of making the world safe for tobacco, or beer or guns. What motivated them, and these weren't particularly high-paying jobs either. So I don't think they were in it for large sums of money. But they didn't like being told what to do.
They were reacting. This was when I was researching the book was sort of a high water mark of P.C., of political correctness. And there was an awful lot of finger ragging going on.
HANSEN: And by Libertarian point of view, frankly when the character of Nick actually is asked what are you going to do when your son turns 18 and he wants to smoke and he says, buy him his first pack of cigarettes, it is that idea of being able to choose.
BUCKLEY: Yeah, it's an interesting moment in the movie. You wonder whether or not he's going to flinch, and he doesn't. And I give the filmmaker Jason Reitman, full credit for leaving that in.
You know, a couple of studios turned down the movie. Well, said they wouldn't make the movie unless he gave it a moralistic ending. And he dug in his heels and didn't do that. But I think it's a better movie for that.
HANSEN: Are we suppose to like Nick, hate him, relate to him, laugh at him?
BUCKLEY: Well you certainly invited to laugh at him because he's doing a laughable thing. He's trying to make the world safe for big tobacco companies.
(SOUNDBITE OF THANK YOU FOR SMOKING)
JOAN LUNDEN: This is obviously a heated issue and we do have a lot that we want to cover today. Nick, do you have a question?
AARON ECKHART: Joan, how on earth would big tobacco profit off of the loss of this young man? Now, I hate to think in such callous terms, but if anything, we'd be losing a customer. It's not only our hope. It's in our best interest to keep Robin alive and smoking.
Unidentified Female #1: That's ludicrous.
ECKHART: Let me tell you something, Joan, and please, let me share something with the fine concerned people in the audience today. The Ron Goodies of this world want the Robin Willegers(ph) to die. And you know why? So that their budgets will go up.
BUCKLEY: Traditionally, he would be the villain of the piece. And the moralistic Senator played to perfection by William Macy would be the hero. But those roles are inverted. It was a bit of a challenge to make a tobacco spokesman a hero, but it seems, it seems to have worked.
HANSEN: Has the character changed much from the page to the screen?
BUCKLEY: No. It's a marvelously faithful adaptation and when I saw the movie, I went back and looked to see if some of the best lines were mine. And indeed they were not. So I was going, Darn it, darn it, oh gosh darn it. But it's nonetheless a faithful adaptation. But for instance, there's a marvelous line where the Senator from Vermont who is going after Nick, and he's played by Bill Macy, and there's a wonderful moment in the movie where Nick is counter attacked by saying, Why, why do you have such a problem with tobacco? You're the one who should be on trial here. Vermont is clogging the nation's arteries with cheddar cheese. It's an outrageous claim. And there's marvelous moment when William Macy says, The Great State of Vermont will not apologize for its cheese. He improvised that line on the set.
BUCKLEY: Uh huh.
HANSEN: How much input did you have?
BUCKLEY: Absolutely none.
BUCKLEY: Absolutely none. Nor did I really want any. Jason Reitman knew what he was doing.
HANSEN: In one sort of plot line, Nick tries to convince Hollywood to put cigarettes in the mouths of their stars.
(SOUNDBITE OF THANK YOU FOR SMOKING)
ECKHART: Now what we need is a smoking role model, a real winner.
Unidentified Male #1: Indiana Jones meets Jerry McGuire.
ECKHART: Right, on two packs a day.
Male #1: Only he can't live in contemporary society.
ECKHART: Why not?
Male #1: The health issue is way too prevalent. People would constantly be asking the character why he's smoking. And that should go unsaid.
How do you feel about the future?
ECKHART: The future?
Male #1: Yeah, after the health thing's blown over. The world where smokers and nonsmokers live together in perfect harmony.
Sony has a futuristic sci-fi movie they're looking to make. Message From Sector Six. I know it takes place in space station, and they're actively looking for some co-financing.
ECKHART: Cigarettes in space?
Male #1: The final frontier, Nick.
ECKHART: Wouldn't they blow up in an all oxygen environment?
HANSEN: Product placement is now a huge part of the film industry. Was it when you wrote the book?
BUCKLEY: Yeah. A certain amount of it had gone on. And actually after the book came out, it was discovered that cigarette companies were doing just that. I made that up. But, well, sometimes fiction is not as strange as the truth. That's the hard part of writing satire in America. You're in, you're in competition with the front page of tomorrow's newspaper.
HANSEN: One scene in the film we actually see you on the platform of a metro station, Cleveland Park actually.
BUCKLEY: Cleveland Park Metro Stop.
HANSEN: Right, a real one. Your metro stop.
BUCKLEY: My home metro stop.
HANSEN: And you're reading the paper, the Washington Sun, in which there's an article about the protagonist Nick. Was the cameo part of your deal?
BUCKLEY: No, no. They were just really sweet and asked me to do it. And I was, you know, I was appalled to, when I arrived at the Cleveland Park Metro stop to find there were like 40 human beings involved in making that three second clip, including you know D.C. Police who were, you know, having to. So it's tremendously complicated making a film. I've learned quite a lot. You know, it's tremendously, from an equipment point of view, being a writer is very easy. As I think William Faulkner once said, all a writer needs is a piece of paper, a pencil and a bottle of whiskey.
HANSEN: But it's kind of a neat thing because it goes by and anyone who doesn't know what you look like, they're not going to be sure who that is.
BUCKLEY: People have said to me, oh, I liked your Hitchcockian moment. I said I assume you're referring to my girth.
HANSEN: No, you're just in silhouette is the way it works.
Christopher Buckley is the author of the novel Thank You For Smoking. The movie opens March 17th. And Chris, thank you for joining us here in the Caucus Room in Washington.
BUCKLEY: Thanks for having me on.
HANSEN: This feature was produced by Jesse Baker and recorded by Burt Hunn. To hear more from Christopher Buckley on satire in American and the real mod squad, visit our website at npr.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Liane Hansen.