Smoke: The Movie

A Neighborhood Smoke Shop--and the Folks Who Hang Out There--Become the Stuff That Movies Are Made Of
| By Joe Dziemianowicz | From Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

If there's one new film whose title alone will make cigar lovers sit up and take notice, it's Smoke.

Directed by Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club), Smoke jigsaws together the stories of several characters who seem to have nothing in common, except that they drift in and out of a Brooklyn tobacco shop. But over the course of several weeks, they touch each other's lives in memorable ways--thanks to serendipity, twists of fate and simple human kindness.

The Miramax film, premiering this month, features Harvey Keitel as Auggie Wren, manager of the fictitious Brooklyn Cigar Company; William Hurt as Paul Benjamin, a novelist grieving over the death of his wife, who was gunned down in a bank robbery; newcomer Harold Perrineau as Rashid, a teenager in search of his identity and his father; Forest Whitaker as Cyrus Cole, a man bedeviled by his past; and Stockard Channing as Ruby McNutt, a woman who returns to Brooklyn after nearly two decades to tell her former flame that he's the daddy of her daughter. Added to the antics for combustion's sake are a couple of creepy thugs, a cache of illegal Cuban cigars, a get-rich-quick scheme that's destined to go down the drain, and a bag of money that keeps changing hands.

Smoke marks the screenwriting debut of novelist Paul Auster. It was inspired by "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story," a short story he wrote for The New York Times five years ago. It tells the tale of a cigar-store counterman and a blind woman he dupes and steals a camera from. Curiously, his actions end up being good deeds. Wang was taken by the story's mix of emotions and sense of irony, and he called Auster to discuss the idea of turning it into a full-length film.

People may wonder if the big-screen character of Paul Benjamin is really Paul Auster. After all, they're both writers, they both live in Brooklyn (Auster's been a resident for 15 years), and they both have a penchant for puffing Schimmelpennincks. But that's where the similarities end, says the author. Likewise, Auggie Wren isn't based on a real person. "For some unknown reason, the original story just took shape for me in a cigar store," says Auster. "I wanted to explore the fact that smoke is a substance that's continually changing shape, just as human relationships continually change. In the film, characters are constantly affected by the other characters. Also, there's the idea that people send up smoke screens when they talk to each other." In other words, there's a lot of storytelling--and a lot of lying--going on in Smoke.

What also sparked Auster's imagination was the idea of exploring the soul of a seemingly unremarkable man. "Working behind the counter of a cigar store seems like such a nothing job," he says. "One that's absolutely without interest. But is it really? Everyone has a story. Everybody is interesting, no matter what they do. If you just keep your eyes and ears open, someone very ordinary becomes quite amazing." Or, as Paul says to Auggie, "So you're not just some guy who pushes coins across a counter" and Auggie replies "Well, that's what people see, but that ain't necessarily what I am."

The heart of Smoke, according to Wang, is the scene in which Auggie reveals his true self--along with his unique philosophy about the world--by showing Paul his photo project. It's a collection, a lifework of more than 4,000 photographs he's taken of his storefront every morning at precisely 8 o'clock. In the scene, Paul flips hurriedly through the photos and Auggie says, "You'll never get it if you don't slow down." To wit, details matter, and by looking very closely at what's around you, you'll see a lot--more than you ever dreamed of.

"One way of exploring the world is by becoming a great traveler, by going all over the place and seeing things firsthand," says Auster. "But there's another way of seeing the world, which is staying in one place and digging in very deeply."

It is precisely this attention to detail that gives Smoke's cigar-store scenes an authentic look. "I wanted the shop to be a throwback, not some elegant, New Age cigar store for the '90s," says Auster, "and I believe it helped to film out in the real world, in a real neighborhood." For the film, a former post office at the corner of 16th Street and Prospect Park West in Brooklyn underwent a total transformation--inside and out--at the hands of production designer Kalina Ivanov (who designed Naked in New York) and her crew.

"There are props in the store from the '80s, '70s, '50s and '40s--you name it," says Ivanov. And the eclecticism is intentional. After poking around cigar stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan for ideas (a store on 22nd Street and Fifth Avenue became something of a model for the film), Ivanov created a set that evokes "layers of history, as if the store had gone from one generation to the next." The result: The Brooklyn Cigar Company is a "total hodgepodge" that reeks of reality--from the cigar-store Indian and display cases to the canisters of tobacco and photographs of celebrity cigar smokers to a sign that reads: RELAX, HAVE A CIGAR--and blends perfectly into the neighborhood.

The proof? "The best compliment I got was that people would walk in thinking they were in a real store and try to buy cigars," says Ivanov. "Or they'd take a newspaper and leave money on the counter. We'd run after them yelling, 'Wait a minute! That's last week's paper!' " And it seems that wasn't the only way props disappeared. "My cigars vanished at an astounding rate," she says with a laugh. "I've never seen so many men smoking on a set."

Joe Dziemianowicz is a writer living in New York.