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Lights, Camera, Cigars

Set in a cigar club, the new film Blowing Smoke elevates the stogie to a starring role to help explore man's essential nature
Joel Drucker
From the Print Edition:
Greg Raymer, Sept/Oct 2004

Set in a cigar club, the new film Blowing Smoke elevates the stogie to a starring role to help explore man's essential nature gangster and the ambitious swagger of the business titan. No question, the cigar amplifies. Yet despite its many credits and reliability, the cigar has always been strictly a character actor, a sidekick never showcased on the marquee.

That's all about to change with the fall release of Blowing Smoke, the first feature film that places the cigar front and center as both star and venue. Set to make its debut this fall, every scene of Blowing Smoke takes place in what's called The Havana Club, an exclusive cigar club patterned, right down to the humidor and plush couches, after the Grand Havana Room located in Beverly Hills, California.

But Blowing Smoke is no mere travelogue. Its title reveals a story laced with double entendres. On the surface, the plot focuses on six male cigar lovers. Most of these gentlemen hold jobs in the entertainment industry—a business, of course, where blowing smoke in pursuit of fame and riches is no mere tactic, but a fundamental strategy. Each week they gather at The Havana Club after midnight for a high-stakes poker game. As they enjoy their cigars, they continually blow smoke in their conversation. "This is a film about what men talk about among themselves," says writer-director James Orr (other credits include writing Three Men and a Baby and producing Father of the Bride). A charter member of the Grand Havana Room, he wrote, narrated and produced the two-part documentary film The Fuente Family: An American Dream and Fuente Fuente OpusX: Making of a Legend. "You're talking about sports or business, but there's also one thing they talk about most of all when they're by themselves: women. And that's what becomes the big topic in this movie."

In this case, Orr's six male stars are blowing smoke both literally and figuratively. Says Ray (played by Daniel Roebuck), The Havana Club's owner who always keeps a spare bathrobe in his office for a welcome guest, "Women hate football. You cannot bribe a female into talking about football, not even with credit cards or trips to the Caribbean." As the men continue talking, as the poker game's ante rises, their voices rise and the verbal smoke becomes even thicker than that generated by the cigars. "The main problem, as I see it," says the character Michael (Shaun Baker), a music producer, "is that love just doesn't last. Maybe a couple of centuries ago, when we only lived to be 35, love would last forever, but not now. Serial monogamy, that's my advice." And this is only the "G"-rated dialogue. If you're familiar with the work of playwright David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo)—at once profane, pointed and even poignant in its ability to mix male bluster with unintentional vulnerability—you've got an idea of the territory occupied by Blowing Smoke.

Everything changes when a woman enters the room. And not just any woman, but an extremely attractive one played by Estella Warren, a one-time Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue model. Her character, Faye, is on the run from a dangerous boyfriend. Says Orr, "So suddenly these guys who've been whining about women start pursuing her. It starts off good-natured, but soon it's escalating, and as the story goes on, a lot is revealed about men—all in this one-room cigar club."

According to Warren, "I sort of wreak havoc on the evening, and they all come up to me and try to seduce me. Little do they know that I'm the one playing them. It's not often you see a script with so many interesting twists."

Though Warren's damsel in distress becomes the object of affection (or, more accurately, desired affection), the film is truly an ensemble piece. The entire cast was so drawn to the script written by Orr and his partner, Jim Cruickshank, that each actor worked for scale and shot the film in 18 furious days (most shoots take at least twice as long).

But no single actor in Blowing Smoke dares take the spotlight away from its true star, the cigar. The film is at once a celebration and exploration of the cigar as everything from bonding agent to sexual symbol to, most of all, escape valve from the stresses of contemporary life. As Michael notes, "Each cigar represents a unit of time. A robusto is half an hour, for example; a Churchill is 45 minutes and a double corona is an hour. It's a gift of time you give yourself." Or as Nick (Brian Scolaro), a swift-talking agent with the legendary William Morris Agency, explains, "The difference between a woman and a cigar is: A cigar doesn't judge. It just provides pleasure." And as another character, Steven (Chris Elwood), a Brad Pitt wannabe actor, notes, "Men need an excuse to come together and share their experiences. A cigar is like smoking in the hunting lodge at the end of a hard day, comparing stories of the day's battles. It's a bonding experience. It allows our true selves to emerge."

With the all-male lair suddenly transformed, the question hangs in the air: which self is most true? These guys may beef all they want about the toxic qualities of women, but when given a chance to cozy up to one, they blindly shift into autopilot. As the film's poster declares in all its overt bluntness, "My cigar is bigger than yours." It's notable that when Faye declares she's never smoked a cigar before, Steven offers her a nine-inch Monte "A." Then again, it's Ray, the most cigar-savvy of all the film's characters, who asks, "Do you really think that if this were a symbol for a man's most sensitive organ, we would cut one end and set the other end on fire?" The answer is yes. In that mix of the phallic and the philosophical rests the film's humorous and serious effort to grasp an understanding of man's elemental nature.

The idea for Blowing Smoke came to Orr in the mid-1990s. For a month during his daily trips to The Grand Havana Room, he and Cruickshank paid close attention to nearby conversations. "We'd see all sorts of people from all over town come here to eat and talk and sit back with their cigars," says Orr. "I think there's something about the cigar that helps a man unwind more. You can't rush your way through a cigar. And I'd watch these guys talk, and never did they get more vocal than when they talked about women. We thought it was hysterical, particularly one day when a beautiful woman walked in and the whole room suddenly went silent. It's like you could hear a pin drop."

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