Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Cigarettes: Cancer Sticks or Instant Cool

At this year’s Tisch graduation writer/director Amy Heckerling (Clueless, Fast Times at Ridgemont High) was invited to say a few words to the class of 2008. She cautioned the next generation of struggling screenwriters about smoking and the portrayal of smoking in their films, among other things. I didn’t attend the graduation, but from what I hear she touched on how quick many of us writers are to put a cigarette in a character’s mouth because it gives them something to do or it just provides instant cool. The tobacco execs aren’t complaining, and upon thinking back to some of my writing they’d probably give me a big pat on the back. The kind of pat fitting of a large, well fed Carolinian.

I recently finished the first draft of my action/horror western. I’ve got one character who might as well be the Marlboro Cowboy, except cooler and deadlier. After thinking about what Ms. Heckerling was saying I wanted to see if I could trim down on the smoking. I mean, we’re intelligent writers. We can make our characters do other things right? But after reading over the script I didn’t touch a single cigarette/cigar. For draft two I might have him aggressively smother a cigar under his boot, but that’s as far as I go for now. I don’t smoke, nobody in my family smokes, and I hate being around cigarettes, but I can’t seem to cut those pesky cancer sticks.

Let’s face it, cigarettes are kind of cool up until the lung cancer part. Google Clint Eastwood and you don’t have to look past the first page for the rogue gunman image with the poncho and the small cigar that lives in the corner of his mouth. Let’s go for a different kind of cool (googling as I write) and check out Humphrey Bogart. Man, he sure looks cool. And what do you know, he’s smoking in the first three pictures. Let’s try Frank Sinatra. Ha! Sure enough, ol’ blue eyes is lighting up. So it’s settled, the tobacco companies own cool, and probably google.

Back to our characters and smoking. Sometimes you can’t avoid it. Sometimes you have a character that just smokes. I don’t feel so bad because my script is set in the wild west, and as the film industry has shown me, everyone smoked in the wild west. Actual writing aside, what can we as writers do to provide new cool habits? I always thought the guy twirling the pen in Top Gun was pretty cool. Was that Slider or Hollywood? Anyway, any of you guys ever struggled with this sort of thing?

1 comment:

Zombie said...

There's just something badass about lighting up - it's simple, and that's probably why there are so many problems with showing smoking on television and in movies nowadays. People see that, and they want to look *that* cool.

True story: I started smoking Phillies Blunts in 9th grade because I loved Groucho Marx so much. So yes! Kids emulate what they see on TV.

I've been watching through all of the Twilight Zone episodes on DVD recently, and I'm sure those sets had to be filled with smoke by the end of the day. There's rarely a character in an episode that doesn't have a cigarette between their fingers, and then you've got Rod Serling chainsmoking 24/7...