The equal-opportunity satire Thank You for Smoking throws political correctness out the window. Its hero, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), is the tobacco industry’s chief spokesman, a smooth-talking spin doctor whose genial amorality suffers only a momentary hiccup when he begins to question what kind of example he is setting for his young son (Cameron Bright).
In a fairly unusual step for a comedy, director Jason Reitman and cinematographer James Whitaker decided to shoot the picture in anamorphic 2.40:1. “People generally don’t think of comedies as being widescreen,” concedes Whitaker (Running Scared, The Cooler). “But I like the way the backgrounds become soft and slightly dreamy, like a Monet painting. Anamorphic gives a look to something that is notoriously difficult to assign a look to, unlike, say, a chiaroscuro film-noir world.”
Reitman tapped Whitaker for Thank You because he was impressed by the cinematographer’s gritty, tobacco-stained imagery in The Cooler (see AC Dec. ’03). But somewhat ironically, the palette for Thank You is at the opposite end of the spectrum. “Although Jason and I wanted parts of the film to have a slightly tobacco feel, overall we emphasized clean and bright and a feeling of airiness to help make the controversial subject more accessible,” says Whitaker. To get that look, he used large, soft sources whenever he could. For day interiors, he lit through windows with a pair of 18Ks through 12'x12' or 20'x20' frames of 1/4 or 1/2 grid cloth, flooding the room with light. “For close-ups in those scenes, we’d bring something inside the room, like a 4K Par through full grid placed about 5 feet from the actor. I love the way grid cloth wraps light around faces.”
Most of the picture was shot on location in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. For the office where Naylor works, the production found a spot on the 13th floor of L.A. Center Studios. “That required a bit of improvising,” Whitaker recalls with a laugh. “I discovered that if I took six or eight Kino Flo Image 80s, lined them up against the wall on the window side of the room, and put a 12-by frame of 1/2 Frost in front of them, it created a beautiful window-light feeling. The fixture is only 3 feet deep with the rag in front of it, so we could easily fit it inside the room and keep it out of frame.”
Although Whitaker loves to use toplight, he reserved it for two settings in Thank You: the tobacco club where Naylor meets the industry’s head honcho (Robert Duvall), and Bert’s Bar, where Naylor lunches with his two lobbyist buddies (played by Maria Bello and David Koechner) from the alcohol and firearms industries. The threesome refers to itself as “the MOD Squad” — for “merchants of death.”
The tobacco-club sequence was filmed at a former hotel in Pasadena, and it commences with a long Steadicam shot that follows Naylor down a staircase, through two rooms and into the main room. Although it was filmed as one long shot, the material was cut up in the final edit. “We thoroughly pre-rigged that location,” says Whitaker. “My gaffer, Patrick Lennon, and key grip, Stuart Abramson, hung several Par cans in the foyer area and then hung 30 or 40 Babies and Tweenies throughout the rest of the location to create pools of light.” All units were gelled with 1?4 CTO, and a bit of smoke was pumped into the room for added atmosphere.
This warm, moody look is repeated at Bert’s Bar, where the MOD Squad eats lunch. Three or four scenes take place there, all of them in the same corner booth at the back of the room. The scenes were shot at a bar in Los Angeles. “That was probably our most challenging location,” says Whitaker. “I really wanted to pull them out of that corner booth into the center of the room so I’d have an easier time lighting!” Instead, he used toplight: Gem Balls going through a frame of either 250 or 1/4 grid. “We boxed it in so the light wasn’t spilling everywhere and added whatever we needed for fill.”
During prep, Whitaker and first-time director Reitman talked a lot about Wes Anderson’s films. “Everything in those movies is carefully set up and kind of presented,” muses Whitaker, “and we wanted [a similarly] conservative yet stylized look and feel. We moved the camera only when we wanted to accentuate a point.” An example is the sequence in which Naylor reads a damning article that a journalist (Katie Holmes) has written about him. The sequence consists of four or five vignettes: a Hollywood agent (Rob Lowe) reading the article in a newspaper; Naylor’s boss reading it in his office; members of the public reading it; and a man reading it on the subway. “Those compositions are almost architectural in nature,” says Whitaker. “When we get to the shot of Naylor, there’s a slow push in and then — wham! — he slams the paper down on the table and we go right into his face.”
Throughout the shoot, Reitman and Whitaker would “go into a room, look around, and say, ‘This room would look great from here. Now let’s put the actors in it,’” recalls the cinematographer. They deviated from that only for scenes of Naylor and his son. “We’d go for more traditional coverage — longer lenses, more two-shots, more over-the-shoulders,” affirms Whitaker. “The goal was to emphasize them together.”
Thank You was predominantly shot with a single camera, a Panaflex Millennium that Whitaker operated, but occasionally a Millennium XL (operated by Danny Nichols and Tom Lohmann) was added to the mix. Whitaker notes that Lori Killam and Jim Roudebush at Panavision Woodland Hills “took great care of me.” He used Primo primes, C-series lenses (for Steadicam and handheld work), E-series 135mm and 180mm lenses, and an 11:1 (48–550mm) Primo zoom. The 40mm lens turned out to be ideal for the look the filmmakers wanted, so it was the workhorse lens. 1st AC Donald Burghardt “did a great job,” adds Whitaker.
Day interiors and exteriors were shot on Kodak Vision2 250D 5205, and Vision2 500T 5218 was used for all night material and for a fe¬w day scenes that needed the extra speed.
Several sequences in the picture were shot on video. When Naylor appears on two talk shows, “we used the Digi-Beta cameras that existed in the studios where we shot,” says Whitaker. “When we wanted to show things happening from Naylor’s perspective, we switched to film.” For a “safety video” Naylor watches in his hotel room, Reitman wanted a really low-quality look and opted to use an old video camera. A montage of Naylor’s trip with his son was recorded in the MPEG mode of a digital still camera, as though father and son had shot it themselves.
Whitaker tested some special lab processes during prep, including Deluxe Laboratories’ propriety CCE and ACE silver-retention processes, but he always thought a digital intermediate (DI) would be the best way to finish the film. The filmmakers received approval to do a DI after wrapping, and Whitaker subsequently graded the picture at EFilm with colorist Natasha Leonett.
He says he is particularly pleased with a scene depicting a U.S. Senate hearing that was shot on a very short schedule. “We lit the room [the Mason’s Lodge in Pasadena] with two 8,000-watt Fisher helium balloons, and we supplemented that with small, homemade box lights. We used 60-watt household bulbs in the box lights, which are made of metal and have foamcore sides. You can put in whatever diffusion you want; we went mainly with full grid. We had box lights in two sizes, 2 by 2 feet and 4 feet by 16 inches. They’re beautiful, and you can mount them on C stands or anything else.”
Over the course of his chat with AC, Whitaker repeatedly praised Lennon, his regular gaffer for the past five years. “Pat’s collaboration is really valuable to me and I trust him completely. We’re just in sync on things, which saves a lot of time.” He also cited Thank You’s production designer Steve Saklad and costume designer Danny Glicker, with whom he was collaborating for the first time. “There were no interdepartmental conflicts at all,” he says with a smile. “It was a thoroughly pleasant experience.”