While depictions of smoking might now be banned by a lot of TV networks, puffing on a cigarette remains too cinematic for many filmmakers to resist, giving their characters instant pensiveness (just look at this year’s Oscar contender Carol, which is 95% shots of Cate Blanchett smoking while looking sultry and thoughtful).
The ‘slow smoke’ and ‘rapid pan out as character does line of cocaine’ are so ubiquitous in film they verge on being tropes, but how do films achieve the effect without a) breaking the law and b) endangering the actors’ health? Upvoted ask Jeff Butcher, a veteran prop master who has worked on drug-laden movies Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler.
Up until the 90s, most used the real thing.
“You used to be able to call up a company and say, ‘I’m doing a movie and need cigarettes,’ and they would send you a case,” Butcher recalled. “For the movie Mystery Train, I remember getting a giant case of Silk Cut cigarettes and we all smoked them.”
Nowadays, most smoke herbal cigarettes made from non-addictive plant materials, which, while not completely without damage, are a healthier alternative. The heavy-smoking Mad Men’s brand of choice was Ecstasy Cigarettes.
Special herbal smokes have even been created for some actors. For Non Stop, Liam Neeson smoked chamomile tea cigarettes rolled by the crew.
Butcher favours fake marijuana from International Oddities, apparently a “high grade, low priced legal bud” which was used for Pineapple Express.
Companies like this claim their products yield a natural high, but likely nothing severe enough to make an actor ruin their take.
Powdered milk and baking soda have been popular choices in the past, but now inositol is apparently the coke stand-in of choice, a vitamin B powder often actually used in cocaine as a cutting agent.
It apparently can cause a “slight energy lift”, something which Mickey Rourke was not informed about when shooting The Wrestler and caused him to “freak out”.
“He was like, ‘I have anxiety issues—now you tell me?'” Butcher explained. “He was truly upset. But he was okay a couple minutes later.”
Many films will choose to just imply the injection, cutting away before the moment, but when it is shown, the syringes being used are of course fake. Fluid can be added using CGI in post-production, and spring-loaded syringes are thought to have been used - the needle retracting into the syringe but still providing a realistic pucker effect.
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