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

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."

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.