In a kind of verbal pingpong, director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) and novelist Paul Auster (Leviathan) laugh and reminisce about Smoke and its high-jinks improvised postscript, Blue in the Face. Wang, a native of Hong Kong who lives in San Francisco, shares with Brooklyn author Auster an offbeat sense of humor. Wang can't tell any story without a twinkle and an irrepressible laugh. Auster's wit is sly and somewhat sardonic.
The two collaborated on Smoke (based on Auster's “Auggie Wren's Christmas Story,” published in the New York Times in 1990), whose plot revolves around a cigar-store owner (Harvey Keitel) and a cigar-smoking writer (William Hurt) who feels a strange protectiveness for a black youth (Harold Perrineau Jr.) who saves his life when he's jaywalking.
But during rehearsals something unusual happened. The three minor characters who hung out with Keitel in the smoke shop (Giancarlo Esposito, Jose Zuniga, and Stephen Gevedon) wanted to improvise their own histories. “We figured out a couple of situations,” Wang explains, “and they were full of energy and funny and moving. And that's when my eyes opened. I said, 'We have the location. We have the guys. Why not make another movie? We can do it in three days at the end of the shoot. Let's write up to 12 to 15 situations, all based on what goes on inside the cigar store.' “
“We cooked up all this,” Auster chimes in, “in the back seat of a car every night after seeing the dailies. … It got pretty hysterical at times.”
“I have a very outrageous, nonserious side,” Wang interjects, “and Paul does, too. He wanted to get away from the meticulousness and seriousness of Smoke and do something very instinctive and organic.”
“We didn't want written dialogue,” Auster adds, “but it's not as if the actors walked in without an idea of what they were going to do.”
As word spread, a new crowd got into the helter-skelter act. Roseanne, who had read for a part in Smoke, was determined to be in Blue. She was going through her divorce from Tom Arnold, so her improvised lines about her anger and frustration as the cigar-store owner's wife have a strong whiff of reality. Miramax brought in Madonna as a singing telegram messenger. Almost unrecognizable, Lily Tomlin comes on as the Belgian Waffle Man. Michael J. Fox volunteered. Then there's Lou Reed philosophizing about New York. Jim Jarmusch shows up to smoke his last cigarette and Mel Gorham, the cigar-store owner's peppery Puerto Rican girlfriend, pops up with a couple of surprises, including one not in the early version shown at the San Francisco Film Festival. John Lurie's Lounge Lizards band gets in a few hot licks. And the ghost of Jackie Robinson, the baseball hero of the long-gone Ebbets Field, adds a nostalgic note.
The stars were paid the lowest Actors Guild scale — (about $500 per diem) and get a point of the gross if the $1 million movie ever turns a profit.
Nobody knew what the final film would look like. As one producer says, “It was like the lunatics taking over the asylum.”
Still, the common thread in these totally different movies is a warm sense of diverse people living together. In a way, Blue is a comic hymn to Brooklyn brotherhood. “I wanted to show somehow that not all black people and white people hate each other,” Auster says. “Not everyone is filled with resentment and suspicion every minute. People actually talk to each other in Brooklyn.”
Even the stars did. “You read about people who are supposed to be obnoxious and difficult,” Auster remarks, “but everyone in both films — particularly in the crazy situation of Blue — worked hard and were easy to deal with. And we shot it in six days during the worst heat wave.”
“I was sick for two days,” Wang says. “I knew Paul could take over the direction. But I was truly scared, too, because there was so much going on and it was so chaotic. I panicked.”
Auster looks surprised: “I didn't know that. I only panicked when I had to say, 'Cut!' … The assistant director kept whispering, 'Say it! Say it!' It's yet another strange chapter in my life, and I can't wait to get back to work on my next novel.”
But wait a minute. Keitel wants to do another improvised movie. “I know,” Wang predicts, “that we're all fated to come back.