Three Films

Smoke, Blue in the Face, and Lulu on the Bridge

Paul Auster

Picador

Three Films
Smoke
The Making of Smoke
Annette Insdorf: I gather that Smoke began with a Christmas story you wrote for The New York Times.
 
Paul Auster: Yes, it all started with that little story. Mike Levitas, the editor of the Op-Ed page, called me out of the blue one morning in November of 1990. I didn't know him, but he had apparently read some of my books. In his friendly, matter-of-fact way he told me that he'd been toying with the idea of commissioning a work of fiction for the Op-Ed page on Christmas Day. What did I think? Would I be willing to write it? It was an interesting proposal, I thought--putting a piece of make-believe in a newspaper, the paper of record, no less. A rather subversive notion when you get right down to it. But the fact was that I had never written a short story, and I wasn't sure I'd be able to come up with an idea. "Give me a few days," I said. "If I think of something, I'll let you know." So a few days went by, and just when I was about to give up, I opened a tin of my beloved Schimmelpennincks--the little cigars I like to smoke--and started thinking about the man who sells them to me in Brooklyn. That led to some thoughts about the kinds of encounters you have in New York with people you see every day but don't really know. And little by little, the story began to take shape inside me. It literally came out of that tin of cigars.
 
AI: It's not what I would call your typical Christmas story.
 
PA: I hope not. Everything gets turned upside down in "Auggie Wren." What's stealing? What's giving? What's lying? What's tellingthe truth? All these questions are reshuffled in rather odd and unorthodox ways.
 
AI: When did Wayne Wang enter the picture?
 
PA: Wayne called me from San Francisco a few weeks after the story was published.
 
AI: Did you know him?
 
PA: No. But I knew of him and had seen one of his films, Dim Sum, which I had greatly admired. It turned out that he'd read the story in the Times and felt it would make a good premise for a movie. I was flattered by his interest, but at that point I didn't want to write the script myself. I was hard at work on a novel [Leviathan] and couldn't think about anything else. But if Wayne wanted to use the story to make a movie, that was fine by me. He was a good filmmaker, and I knew that something good would come of it.
 
AI: How was it, then, that you wound up writing the screenplay?
 
PA: Wayne came to New York that spring. It was May, I think, and the first afternoon we spent together we just walked around Brooklyn. It was a beautiful day, I remember, and I showed him the different spots around town where I had imagined the story taking place. We got along very well. Wayne is a terrific person, a man of great sensitivity, generosity, and humor, and unlike most artists, he doesn't make art to gratify his ego. He has a genuine calling, which means that he never feels obligated to defend himself or beat his own drum. After that first day in Brooklyn, it became clear to both of us that we were going to become friends.
 
AI: Were any ideas for the film discussed that day?
 
PA: Rashid, the central figure of the story, was born during that preliminary talk. And also the conviction that the movie would be about Brooklyn ... . Wayne went back to San Francisco and startedworking with a screenwriter friend of his on a treatment. He sent it to me in August, a story outline of ten or twelve pages. I was with my family in Vermont just then, and I remember feeling that the outline was good, but not good enough. I gave it to my wife Siri to read, and that night we lay awake in bed talking through another story, a different approach altogether. I called Wayne the next day, and he agreed that this new story was better than the one he'd sent me. As a small favor to him, he asked me if I wouldn't mind writing up the treatment of this new story. I figured I owed him that much, and so I did it.
 
AI: And suddenly, so to speak, your foot was in the door.
 
PA: It's funny how these things work, isn't it? A few weeks later, Wayne went to Japan on other business. He met with Satoru Iseki of NDF [Nippon Film Development] about his project, and just in passing, in a casual sort of way, he mentioned the treatment I had written. Mr. Iseki was very interested. He'd like to produce our film, he said, but only if "Auster writes the script." My books are published in Japan, and it seemed that he knew who I was. But he would need an American partner, he said, someone to split the costs and oversee production. When Wayne called me from Tokyo to report what had happened, I laughed. The chances of Mr. Iseki ever finding an American partner seemed so slim, so utterly beyond the realm of possibility, that I said yes, I'll do the screenplay if there's money to make the film. And then I immediately went back to writing my novel.
 
AI: But they did find a partner, didn't they?
 
PA: Sort of. Tom Luddy, a good friend of Wayne's in San Francisco, wanted to do it at Zoetrope. When Wayne told me the news, I was stunned, absolutely caught off guard. But I couldn't back out. Morally speaking, I was committed to writing the script. I had given my word, and so once I finished Leviathan [at the end of '91], I started writing Smoke. A few months later, the deal between NDF and Zoetrope fell apart. But I was too far into it by then to wantto stop. I had already written a first draft, and once you start something, it's only natural to want to see it through to the end.
 
AI: Had you ever written a screenplay before?
 
PA: Not really. When I was very young, nineteen or twenty years old, I wrote a couple of scripts for silent movies. They were very long and very detailed, seventy or eighty pages of elaborate and meticulous movements, every gesture spelled out in words. Weird, deadpan slapstick. Buster Keaton revisited. Those scripts are lost now. I wish to hell I knew where they were. I'd love to see what they looked like.
 
AI: Did you do any sort of special preparation? Did you read scripts? Did you start watching movies with a different eye toward construction?
 
PA: I looked at some scripts, just to make sure of the format. How to number the scenes, moving from interiors to exteriors, that kind of thing. But no real preparation--except a lifetime of watching movies. I've always been drawn to them, ever since I was a boy. It's the rare person in this world who isn't, I suppose. But at the same time, I also have certain problems with them. Not just with this or that particular movie, but with movies in general, the medium itself.
 
AI: In what way?
 
PA: The two-dimensionality first of all. People think of movies as "real," but they're not. They're flat pictures projected against a wall, a simulacrum of reality, not the real thing. And then there's the question of the images. We tend to watch them passively, and in the end they wash right through us. We're captivated and intrigued and delighted for two hours, and then we walk out of the theater and can barely remember what we've seen. Novels are totally different. To read a book, you have to be actively involved in what the words are saying. You have to work, you have to use your imagination. And once your imagination has been fully awakened,you enter into the world of the book as if it were your own life. You smell things, you touch things, you have complex thoughts and insights, you find yourself in a three-dimensional world.
 
AI: The novelist speaks.
 
PA: Well, needless to say, I'm always going to come down on the side of books. But that doesn't mean movies can't be wonderful. It's another way of telling stories, that's all, and I suppose it's important to remember what each medium can and can't do ... I'm particularly attracted to directors who emphasize telling stories over technique, who take the time to allow their characters to unfold before your eyes, to exist as full-fledged human beings.
 
AI: Who would you put in that category?
 
PA: Renoir, for one. Ozu for another. Bresson ... Satyajit Ray ... a whole range, finally. These directors don't bombard you with pictures, they're not in love with the image for its own sake. They tell their stories with all the care and patience of the best novelists. Wayne is that kind of director. Someone who has sympathy for the inner lives of his characters, who doesn't rush things. That was why I was happy to be working with him--to be working for him. A screenplay is no more than a blueprint, after all. It's not the finished product. I didn't write the script in a vacuum. I wrote it for Wayne, for a movie that he was going to direct, and I very consciously tried to write something that would be compatible with his strengths as a director.
 
AI: How long did it take you to write it?
 
PA: The first draft took about three weeks, maybe a month. Then the negotiations between NDF and Zoetrope broke down, and suddenly the whole project was left dangling. It was probably dumb of me to start without a signed contract, but I hadn't yet understood how iffy and unstable the movie business is. At that point, however, NDF decided to go ahead and "develop" the script anyway whilethey searched for another American partner. That meant that I'd be given a little money to continue writing, and so I kept at it. Wayne and I discussed the first draft, I tinkered with it a little more, and then we both moved on to other things. Wayne went into preproduction for The Joy Luck Club, and I began writing a new novel [Mr. Vertigo]. But we stayed in close touch, and every once in a while over the next year and a half we'd talk on the phone or get together somewhere to discuss new ideas about the script.
I did about three more versions, and each time that entailed a week or two of work--adding elements, discarding elements, rethinking the structure. There's a big difference between the first draft and the final draft, but the changes happened slowly, by increments, and I never felt that I was changing the essence of the story. Gradually finding it is probably more like it. At some point in all this, Peter Newman came in as our American producer, but the money to make the movie still had to be found. Meanwhile, I kept working on Mr. Vertigo, and by the time I finished it, Wayne's movie was about to be released. And so there we were, ready to tackle Smoke again.
By some twist of good luck, Wayne decided to show the script to Robert Altman. Altman had very nice things to say about it, but he felt it lagged a bit in the middle and probably needed one more little something before it found its definitive shape. Robert Altman is not someone whose opinion should be discounted, and so I went back and reread the script with his comments in mind, and lo and behold, he was right. I sat down to work again, and this time everything seemed to fit. The story was rounder, fuller, more integrated. It was no longer a collection of fragments. It finally had some coherence to it.
 
AI: A very different process from writing a novel, then. Did you enjoy it?
 
PA: Yes, completely different. Writing a novel is an organic process, and most of it happens unconsciously. It's long and slow and very grueling. A screenplay is more like a jigsaw puzzle. Writing the actual words might not be very time-consuming, but putting thepieces together can drive you crazy. But yes, I did enjoy it. I found it a challenge to write dialogue, to think in dramatic terms rather than narrative terms, to do something I had never done before.
 
AI: And then Miramax stepped in and decided to back the film.
 
PA: The Joy Luck Club turned out to be a big success, the screenplay was finished, and Peter Newman happens to be a very droll and persuasive man. I was out of the country for a couple of weeks last fall, and when I came home, it seemed that we were in business. All the arrangements were in place.
 
AI: And that's when the screenwriter is supposed to disappear.
 
PA: So they say. But Wayne and I forgot to pay attention to the rules. It never occurred to either one of us to part company then. I was the writer, Wayne was the director, but it was our film, and all along we had considered ourselves equal partners in the project. I understand now what an unusual arrangement this was. Writers and directors aren't supposed to like each other, and no one had ever heard of a director treating a writer as Wayne treated me. But I was naive and stupid, and I took it for granted that I was still involved.
 
AI: Not all that naive, though. You'd been involved in another film once before--The Music of Chance.
 
PA: Yes, but that was completely different. Philip Haas adapted a novel of mine and turned that adaptation into a movie. A different story altogether. He and his wife wrote the script, and he directed it. He had a free hand to interpret the book as he chose, to present his particular reading of the book I had written. But my work was already finished before he started.
 
AI: Yes, but you also wound up playing a role in that film, didn't you? As an actor, I mean.
 
PA: True, true. My thirty-second cameo appearance in the final scene. Never again! If nothing else, I emerged from that experience with a new respect for what actors can do. I mean trained, professional actors. There's nothing like a little taste of the real thing to teach you humility.
 
AI: Back to Smoke, then. Were you involved in the casting, for example?
 
PA: To some degree, yes. And Wayne and I discussed every decision very thoroughly. We had some disappointments along the way, and also some very hard decisions to make. One actor I made a very intense plea for was Giancarlo Esposito. His role is very small. He plays Tommy, the OTB Man, and appears only peripherally in two scenes. But his character gets to speak the first lines in the movie, and I knew that if he accepted, things would get off to a flying start. It was a great moment for me when he said yes. The same with Forest Whitaker. I couldn't imagine any other actor playing Cyrus, and I can't tell you how thrilled I was when he agreed to do the part ... . Other than that, I sat in on a lot of the auditions. What a heart-breaking spectacle that can be. So many talented people marching in with their high hopes and tough skins. It takes courage to court rejection on a daily basis, and I must say that I was moved by all this ... .
Looking back on it now, though, I would say that the single most memorable experience connected with the casting was an open call organized by Heidi Levitt and Billy Hopkins. A bitter cold Saturday in late January, snow on the ground, howling winds, and three thousand people showed up at a high school in Manhattan to try out for bit parts in Smoke. Three thousand people! The line went all the way down the block. What a motley collection of humanity. The large and the small, the fat and the thin, the young and the old, the white, the black, the brown, the yellow ... everyone from a former Miss Nigeria to an ex-middleweight boxing champion, and every last one of them wanted to be in the movies. I was astonished.
 
AI: Well, you wound up with an extraordinary cast. Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Stockard Channing, Forest Whitaker, Ashley Judd ... and Harold Perrineau in his first role. It's a great line-up.
 
PA: They were good people to work with, too. None of the actors made a lot of money, but they all seemed enthusiastic about being in the film. That made for a good working atmosphere all around ... . About two months before shooting began, Wayne and I started meeting with the actors to discuss their roles and examine the nuances of the script. I wound up writing "Character Notes" for many of the parts, exhaustive lists and comments to help fill in the background of each character's life. Not just biographies and family histories, but the music they listened to, the foods they ate, the books they read--anything and everything that might help the actor get a handle on his role.
 
AI: Marguerite Duras used precisely that approach when she wrote her script for Hiroshima Mon Amour, one of my favorite films of all time. There is a sense of texture about the characters, even though we aren't told very much about their backgrounds.
 
PA: The more you know, the more helpful it is. It's not easy pretending to be someone else. The more you have to hold on to, the richer your performance is going to be.
 
AI: I take it there were rehearsals for Smoke--something for which there isn't always time with movies.
 
PA: It seemed essential in this case, given that there's so much talk in the film and so little action! Rehearsals went on for several weeks in a church near Washington Square. Harvey, Bill, Harold, Stockard, Ashley ... they all worked very hard.
 
AI: Were there any other aspects of preproduction that you were involved with?
 
PA: Involved might be too strong a word, but I did have numerous conversations with Kalina Ivanov, the production designer. Particularly about the apartment that Bill Hurt's character lives in. That was the only set constructed for the movie--on a sound stage in Long Island City. Everything else was filmed in real places. Considering that the apartment is lived in by a novelist, it made sense that Kalina should want to consult with me. We talked about everything: the books on the shelves, the pictures on the walls, the precise contents of the clutter on the desk. I think she did a remarkable job. For once, there's an authentic-looking New York apartment in a movie. Have you ever noticed how many supposedly ordinary people in Hollywood films manage to live in three-million-dollar TriBeCa lofts? The apartment that Kalina designed rings true, and a lot of work and thought went into what she did, things that often aren't even visible on screen. The little coffee-cup rings on the table, the postcard of Herman Melville over the desk, the unused word processor sitting in the corner, a thousand and one minute details ... . Philosophically speaking, production design is a fascinating dicipline. There's a real spiritual component to it. Because what it entails is looking very closely at the world, seeing things as they really are and not as you want them to be, and then recreating them for wholly imaginary and fictitious purposes. Any job that requires you to look that carefully at the world has to be a good job, a job that's good for the soul.
 
AI: You're beginning to sound like Auggie Wren!
 
PA: (Laughs) Well, Auggie didn't come out of nowhere. He's a part of me--just as much as I'm a part of him.
 
AI: Once the shooting started, did you go to the set?
 
PA: Occasionally. Every now and then I'd stop by to see how things were going, especially when they were filming the cigar store scenes, since that set was within walking distance of my house. And I was up in Peekskill for the last three or four days of shooting. But in general I kept myself at a distance. The set was Wayne's territory,and I didn't want to get in his way. He didn't sit in my room with me while I wrote the script, so it seemed only right to do the same for him ... . What I did do, however, was attend the dailies every evening at the DuArt Building on West 55th Street. That proved to be indispensable. I saw every inch of footage, and when we went into the cutting room in mid-July, I had a pretty good understanding of what the options were ... . The dailies were also instructive in teaching me how to cope with disappointment. Every time an actor blew a line or strayed from the script, it was like a knife going through my heart. But that's what happens when you collaborate with other people, it's something you have to learn to live with. I'm talking about the smallest deviations from what I wrote, things that only I would notice, probably. But still, you work hard to get the words to scan in a certain way, and it's painful to see them come out in another way ... . And yet, there's another side to it, too. Sometimes the actors improvised or threw in extra lines, and a number of these additions definitely improved the film. For example, Harvey yelling at the irate customer in the cigar store: "Take it on the arches, you fat fuck!" I'd never heard that expression before, and I found it hilarious. Just the kind of thing Auggie would say ... .
 
AI: So, even if you didn't go to the set every day, you were prepared to contribute after the shooting was finished.
 
PA: I hadn't really planned to get so involved in the editing, but like so many other things connected with Smoke, it just seemed to happen on its own. Maysie Hoy had worked with Wayne on his last movie, Wayne and I already knew each other well, and it turned out that Maysie and I hit it off--as if we'd been friends in some previous incarnation. It was an excellent three-way relationship. We all felt free to express our opinions, to talk through every little problem that arose, and each one of us listened carefully to what the other two had to say. The atmosphere was one of respect and equality. No hierarchies, no intellectual terrorism. We worked together for weeks and months, and there was rarely any tension. Hard work, yes, but also a lot of jokes and laughter.
 
AI: When it comes down to it, that's where every movie is really made. In the cutting room.
 
PA: It's like starting all over again. You begin with the script, which establishes a certain idea of what the film should be, and then you shoot the script, and things begin to change. The actors' performances bring out different meanings, different shadings, things are lost, other things are found. Then you go into the cutting room and try to marry the script to the performances. At times, the two mesh very harmoniously. At other times, they don't, and that can be maddening. You're stuck with the footage you have, and that limits the possibilities. You're like a novelist trying to revise his book, but fifty percent of the words in the dictionary are not available to you. You're not allowed to use them ... . So you fiddle and shape and juggle, you search for a rhythm, a musical flow to carry you from one scene to the next, and you have to be willing to discard material, to think in terms of the whole, of what is essential to the overall good of the film ... . Then, on top of these considerations, there's the question of time. A novel can be ninety pages or nine hundred pages, and no one thinks twice about it. But a movie has to be a certain length, two hours or less. It's a fixed form, like a sonnet, and you have to get everything into that limited space. As it happened, the script I wrote was too long. I cut things from it before we started shooting, but even so, it was still too long. The first assemblage that Maysie put together was two hours and fifty minutes, which meant that we had to cut out almost a third of the story. To tell the truth, I didn't see how it could be done. From what I understand, nearly everyone who makes a movie has to face this problem. That's why it always takes longer to cut a film than to shoot it.
 
AI: What was the biggest surprise that turned up in the cutting room?
 
PA: There were many surprises, but the biggest one would have to be the last scene, when Paul tells Auggie the Christmas story. As originally written, the story was supposed to be intercut with black-and-whitefootage that would illustrate what Auggie was saying. The idea was to go back and forth between the restaurant and Granny Ethel's apartment, and when we weren't watching Auggie tell the story, we would hear his voice over the black-and-white material. When we put it together that way, however, it didn't work. The words and the images clashed. You'd settle into listening to Auggie, and then, when the black-and-white pictures started to roll, you'd get so caught up in the visual information that you'd stop listening to the words. By the time you went back to Auggie's face, you'd have missed a couple of sentences and lost the thread of the story.
We had to think through the whole business from scratch, and what we finally decided to do was keep the two elements separate. Auggie tells his story in the restaurant, and then, as a kind of coda, we see a close-up of Paul's typewriter typing out the last words of the title page of the story Auggie has given him, which then dissolves into the black-and-white footage with the Tom Waits song playing over it. This was the only plausible solution, and I feel it works well. It's a rare thing in movies to watch someone tell a story for ten minutes. The camera is on Harvey's face for almost the whole time, and because Harvey is such a powerful and believable actor, he manages to pull it off. When all is said and done, it's probably the best scene in the film.
 
AI: The camera moves in very close in that scene, right up against Harvey's mouth. I wasn't expecting that at all.
 
PA: Wayne worked out the visual language of the film in a very bold and interesting way. All the early scenes are done in wide shots and masters. Then, very gradually, as the disparate characters become more involved with each other, there are more and more close shots and singles. Ninety-nine percent of the people who see the film probably won't notice this. It works in a highly subliminal way, but in relation to the material in the film, to the kind of story we were trying to tell, it was the right approach. By the time we get to the last scene in the restaurant, the camera has apparently moved in on the actors as close as it ever will. A limit has been established, the rules have been defined--and then, suddenly, the camera pushes ineven closer, as close as it can get. The viewer is not at all prepared for it. It's as if the camera is bulldozing through a brick wall, breaking down the last barrier against genuine human intimacy. In some way, the emotional resolution of the entire film is contained in that shot.
 
AI: I like the title of the film, Smoke. It's catchy and evocative. Would you care to elaborate?
 
PA: On the word "smoke"? I'd say it's many things all at once. It refers to the cigar store, of course, but also to the way smoke can obscure things and make them illegible. Smoke is something that is never fixed, that is constantly changing shape. In the same way that the characters in the film keep changing as their lives intersect. Smoke signals ... smoke screens ... smoke drifting through the air. In small ways and large ways, each character is continually changed by the other characters around him.
 
AI: It's hard to pin down the tone of the film. Would you call it a comedy? A drama? Perhaps the French category "dramatic comedy" is more appropriate?
 
PA: You're probably onto something there. I've always thought of it as a comedy--but in the classical sense of the term, meaning that all the characters in the story are a little better off at the end than they were in the beginning. Not to get too high-flown about it, but when you think about the difference between Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies, it's not so much in the material of the plays as in how the conflicts are resolved. The same kinds of human problems exist in both. With the tragedies, everyone winds up dead on the stage. With the comedies, everyone is still standing and life goes on. That's how I think of Smoke. Good things happen, bad things happen, but life goes on. Therefore, it's a comedy. Or, if you prefer, a dramatic comedy.
 
AI: With some dark spots.
 
PA: Definitely. That goes without saying. It's not farce or slapstick, but at bottom it takes a fairly optimistic view of the human condition. In many ways, I think the screenplay is the most optimistic thing I've ever written.
 
AI: It's also one of the very few American films of recent years in which the characters take pleasure in smoking. And there's no one walking into the frame telling them not to do it.
 
PA: Well, the fact is that people smoke. If I'm not mistaken, more than a billion people light up around the world every day. I know the anti-smoking lobby in this country has grown very strong in the last few years, but Puritanism has always been with us. In one way or another, the teetotalers and zealots have always been a force in American life. I'm not saying that smoking is good for you, but compared to the political and social and ecological outrages committed every day, tobacco is a minor issue. People smoke. That's a fact. People smoke, and they enjoy it, even if it isn't good for them.
 
AI: You won't get an argument from me.
 
PA: I'm just guessing now, but maybe all this is connected to the way the characters act in the film ... to what you might call an undogmatic view of human behavior. Does this sound too far-fetched? I mean, no one is simply one thing or the other. They're all filled with contradictions, and they don't live in a world that breaks down neatly into good guys and bad guys. Each person in the story has his strengths and weaknesses. At his best, for example, Auggie is close to being a Zen master. But he's also an operator, a wise guy, and a downright grumpy son-of-a-bitch. Rashid is essentially a good and very bright kid, but he's also a liar, a thief, and an impudent little prick. Do you see what I'm driving at?
 
AI: Absolutely. As I said before, you won't get an argument from me.
 
PA: That's the spirit.
 
AI: Another question--about Brooklyn. I'd like you to tell me why the film is set there. I know you live in Brooklyn, but was there any special reason--other than familiarity?
 
PA: I've been living there for fifteen years now, and I must say I'm fond of my neighborhood, Park Slope. It has to be one of the most democratic and tolerant places on the planet. Everyone lives there, every race and religion and economic class, and everyone pretty much gets along. Given the climate in the country today, I would say that qualifies as a miracle. I also know that terrible things go on in Brooklyn, not to speak of New York as a whole. Wrenching things, unbearable things--but by and large the city works. In spite of everything, in spite of all the potential for hatred and violence, most people make an effort to get along with one another most of the time. The rest of the country perceives New York as a hellhole, but that's only one part of the story. I wanted to explore the other side of things in Smoke, to work against some of the stereotypes that people carry around about this place.
 
AI: I'm curious why the novelist in Smoke is named Paul. Is there an autobiographical element in the film?
 
PA: No, not really. The name Paul is a holdover from the Christmas story published in the Times. Because the story was going to appear in a newspaper, I wanted to bring reality and fiction as close together as possible, to leave some doubt in the reader's mind as to whether the story was true or not. So I put in my own name to add to the confusion--but only my first name. The writer that Bill Hurt plays in Smoke has nothing to do with me. He's an invented character.
 
AI: Tell me a little about Blue in the Face. Not only did you and Wayne make this other film after Smoke, but you wound up as codirector
 
PA: Weird but true. It's a crazy project that was filmed in a total of six days. We're still in the process of putting it together, so I don't want to say too much about it, but I can give you the rough outline.
 
AI: Please.
 
PA: It all started during the rehearsals for Smoke. Harvey came in to work on some of the cigar store scenes with the OTB Men--Giancarlo Esposito, José Zuniga, and Steve Gevedon. As a way of warming up and getting to know one another, they launched into a few short improvisations. It turned out to be very funny. Wayne and I just about fell on the floor, and in a burst of enthusiasm he announced: "I think we should make another film with you guys after Smoke is finished. Let's go back into the cigar store for a few days and see what happens."
 
AI: It might have started out with those four, but the cast certainly grew. You had some of the other actors from Smoke--Jared Harris, Mel Gorham, Victor Argo, and Malik Yoba--but also Lily Tomlin, Michael J. Fox, Roseanne, Lou Reed, Jim Jarmusch, Mira Sorvino, Keith David, and Madonna. Not too shabby.
 
PA: No, not too shabby. Everyone worked for scale--with the best spirit in the world. They were all troupers, every last one of them.
 
AI: And you did it with no script?
 
PA: No script--and no rehearsals. I wrote out notes for all the scenes and situations, so each actor more or less knew what had to be done, but there was no script per se, no written dialogue ... . It was shot in two stages: three days in mid-July and three days in late October. It was wild, let me tell you, pure chaos from start to finish.
 
AI: And fun.
 
PA: Oh yes, lots of fun. I enjoyed myself immensely. The finished film is sure to be one of the oddest films ever made: wall-to-wall wackiness, a lighter-than-air creampuff, an hour and a half of singing, dancing, and loopy shenanigans. It's a hymn to the great People's Republic of Brooklyn, and a cruder, more vulgar piece of work would be hard to imagine. Strangely enough, it appears towork well with Smoke. They're opposite sides of the same coin, I guess, and the two films seem to complement each other in mysterious ways.
 
AI: Now that you've caught the bug, do you have any desire to direct again?
 
PA: No, I can't say that I do. Working on these films has been a terrific experience, and I'm glad it happened, I'm glad I got caught up in it as fully as I did. But enough is enough. It's time for me to crawl back into my hole and begin writing again. There's a new novel calling out to be written, and I can't wait to lock myself in my room and get started.
 
November 22, 1994
THREE FILMS. Copyright © 1995, 1998, 2003 by Paul Auster. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.