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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

(continued from page 1)

Orr and Cruickshank first wrote Blowing Smoke in 1997. Five different producers contemplated making the film, but never put the right deal together. Finally, in 2003, Orr joined forces with Kamal Aboukhater, a former investment banker and Grand Havana Room member who agreed to put up the $1.2 million budget and fund a production independent of any major studios.

The key, notes Aboukhater, "was to make the film as authentic to the spirit of cigars as possible." A set resembling The Grand Havana Room was built, with a nicely appointed bar, dozens of lockers for cigars, a big-screen TV and velvet couches. A consultant was hired to teach the actors the nuances of holding, toasting, smoking and wielding cigars, to the point where, as Orr says, "the cigar is nothing more than an extension of your hand." A crew member was specifically assigned the task of monitoring how much of each character's cigar was smoked so that whenever shooting was stopped and resumed, all would be in sync. To keep every scene accurate, the production required 200 cigars per character.

Most notable was Orr's contact with executives at seven leading cigar companies. He had a vision of a specific cigar to reflect the sensibilities of each character. As befits a man in the music industry, Michael favors the $40 Zino Platinum Crown Series, the most popular cigar in the world of hip-hop. Ray, owner of The Havana Club, would invariably have the most refined palate and be drawn to the cigar equivalent of a Bentley: the stylish Padrón Anniversary Series. Steven, the young actor eager to make a name for himself, enjoys the most famous non-Cuban cigar in the world, the Fuente Fuente OpusX. For Nick, the results-oriented agent, it's a rich and hearty Diamond Crown Maximus. Eric (Sean Barnes), the erudite attorney who quotes poetry, smokes an Ashton VSG, a cigar, says Orr, "for men who discriminate." Bob (Eyal Podell), an impish young documentary producer who's making a movie about the weekly poker game, smokes the OneOff, a cigar with a peace symbol on the band. And Phil (Lennie Loftin), the brutally honest business manager, puffs a strong cigar, the La Flor Dominicana Chisel, because, as Orr puts it, "he chisels through everything." And Faye, it turns out, is not exactly a cigar novice.

Executives within the cigar industry are impressed by Orr's creativity and meticulousness. Says Keith Park, president of Prometheus International, a manufacturer and distributor of cigar accoutrements who provided Blowing Smoke with a range of humidors, cutters, lighters and ashtrays, "I visited the set, and it was amazing to see how accurately they'd created the atmosphere of a cigar club." Among the manufacturers who willingly donated their cigars, Robert Levin, president of Ashton, says, "James is very talented. He knows what he's doing. He has a very good palate, a real taste for the finer things in life—able to really tell what makes for a good cigar."

None of the actors had ever smoked cigars prior to making the film. Warren admits it wasn't always easy to smoke five cigars by noon on shooting days, but in time was surprised by what she learned. "I have a lot of respect for the craft of making a cigar," she says. "It's very elegant, very sexy. It's something I appreciate a lot more than I thought I did. It's an art form."

If the upside of independence from major studios for Blowing Smoke was creative control, the downside for Orr and Aboukhater is a lack of the classic distribution and promotional resources that typically make an independent film widely known. Instead, using film festivals as springboards, they'll need to individually entice various theater owners. In other words, they'll have to blow some smoke of their own.

But then again, Orr and Aboukhater are confident they've created something that's simultaneously an intimate look at cigars and a big-picture portrait of how, if you look closely enough, they stand for something far more significant. As Wayne Suarez, an executive with Fuente, says, "You can go into a room and if you're not familiar with a lot of people there, the cigar is a great tool for meeting and getting to know people. The cigar brings everybody together." And as Blowing Smoke shows, that's only half the story.

Oakland-based Joel Drucker's first book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, was published in the summer of 2004.

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