It’s a hazy mid-morning on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, and a Hawaiian-shirted Harvey Keitel is getting a hug from an eye-patched Stockard Channing. Keitel’s Auggie Wren, manager of the Brooklyn Cigar Co. shop, has just given his old sweetheart, Channing’s Ruby McNutt, an envelope containing $5,000, and Ruby, much to Auggie’s embarrassment, is starting to blubber. After the fifth take, director Wayne Wang calls a halt and plays out a scene almost unheard of in the world of filmmaking — he walks away from the camera to consult with the screenwriter.
Smoke’s author, a swarthy 48-year-old man standing quietly to the side and smoking a Schimmelpenninck mini-cigar, is novelist Paul Auster, and his collaboration with Wang has been unusually harmonious for an industry in which writers are often marginalized if not banned outright from sets. On Smoke, Auster and Wang (The Joy Luck Club) even agreed to share the ”a film by.” credit that’s usually reserved for directors. The resulting movie, a street fable about a cigar-smoking novelist named Paul (William Hurt) and others who waft in and out of a Brooklyn corner store, recently opened around the country to good reviews. And the shoot was so copacetic that the director-writer team thought, Hey, why not make another movie right after this one?
”Harvey [Keitel] and the three OTB guys who hang out in his store were warming up one day, and Wayne and I were cracking up,” recalls Auster, the award-winning author of such offbeat novels as The Music of Chance and the New York Trilogy series. ”So Wayne, in a burst of enthusiasm, says, ‘You know what? After we finish Smoke, we should go back into the store and make another movie.’ And from that seed, a tree grew.”
Even for Keitel, who’s been involved in his share of unusual projects, the experience of shooting a ”companion movie” just days after wrapping the original film is a first. ”Blue in the Face was totally improvised and I was excited about doing it from the beginning,” says Keitel. ”It kind of makes sense because Smoke is all about telling stories, and we just came up with more stories we wanted to tell.”
Several weeks after the Brooklyn Promenade shoot, the last day of Smoke’s principal photography unrolls in Garrison, N.Y. After watching several takes, Auster walks off the set to rendezvous behind a junkyard with Michael J. Fox, who’s just tooled up in a sporty convertible. The Smoke spin-off, Blue in the Face, will start its impromptu six-day shoot on Monday, and Fox, playing a demented pollster, is a last-minute addition to an impressive if makeshift ensemble cast that also features Roseanne, Lou Reed, Jim Jarmusch, Lily Tomlin, and Madonna. The film, an interconnected series of vignettes set in and around Auggie’s cigar shop, will open in October without a screenplay credit because there was no screenplay; ”Situations Created by Paul Auster and Wayne Wang in Collaboration With the Actors” will be the official phraseology.