Welcome to Faking It, our new monthly guide to the magic of filmmaking. What exactly are two actors doing when they're "having sex" on camera? How do they "do drugs"? What are those phony cigarettes really made of? Join us as we explore the not-so-glamorous underground of faking sex, drugs, violence, and more.
What makes a good drug scene so memorable? Is it the dramatic way in which Penny Lane ingests a handful of quaaludes? Or the glamorous appeal of Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz celebrating their nuptials with a coke fest in Blow? Or even Mia Wallace's dainty snorting of copious amounts of heroin in Pulp Fiction?
Maybe it's just as Mark Renton says in the opening scene of Trainspotting: "Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?"
All I know is, when done right, drug scenes can elevate a movie to cult status. And with T2 Trainspotting in theaters, I've been thinking a lot about what goes into making them. What's in that white powder? Where does one buy fake joints? And how, exactly, do actors shoot up without actually injecting?
To find out, I asked Jeff Butcher and Eric Cheripka, prop masters who have worked on films like The Wrestler (2008) and American Gangster (2007), respectively, about what it takes to create a believable drug scene based on their own experiences.
But first, some context (I was that kid who actually liked history class, so bear with me, please): Believe it or not, the first movie ever to show drugs onscreen was produced by Thomas Edison, American hero and inventor of the lightbulb. It was called Chinese Opium Den and came out in 1894, setting the scene for what would become an iconic cinematic genre. (Interestingly, very little is known about the actual content of this movie, because only one 22-second snippet still survives to this day. But Edison was apparently a drug movie buff, because he made another film 10 years later called Rube In An Opium Joint.)
Surprisingly, early Hollywood movies were pretty drug-heavy. Films like For His Son (1912) and Mystery of The Leaping Fish (1916) used cocaine and opium addiction as central plot-points, and in some cases for humor — Mystery of The Leaping Fish features Douglas Fairbanks as a man whose name is Detective Coke Ennyday. (Say it out loud. Yes, really.)
Eventually, the permissive attitudes towards drugs in the Silent Era soon gave way to strict regulations about the way drugs could be portrayed onscreen. 1937's Reefer Madness declared marijuana to be public enemy number one, and the cocaine glamorized by the Hollywood celebrities who discreetly indulged in the early days of cinema slowly faded from the screen. But by the late 1960s, America was high on hippies and counter-culture (I had to, I'm sorry), and drugs came back to movies in a big way. And there they stayed, giving us such cinematic masterpieces as The Panic In Needle Park, Drugstore Cowboy, Requiem for a Dream, and Pineapple Express (or any Seth Rogen/James Franco movie, really).
Now, on to the good stuff.