Take Harvey Keitel. William Hurt and a slow burner of a novel. and you have one of America‘s most enchanting movies in recent years. Trevor Johnston speaks to writer Paul Auster. who made it all possible.
f you wanted a definition of ‘tall. dark and handsome. Paul Auster would pretty liltlclt be it. Not exactly what you tnight
cypect lrom one of America's finest contemporary novelists. sometime poet and translator. and now movie
screenwriter and collaborative director with the wonderful character pieces Smoke and Blue In The Face. But. heck. if you're fabulously talented already. you might as well throw in ‘tall. dark and handsome‘. 'l'he gtty even dresses cool. Charcoal greys. 'l’estiles with texture you want to touch
Normally. I have one word for that kind of person — ‘Bastardl’ Yet an hour or so spent in Mr Auster‘s company reveals him to be the sort of
engaging. humane. razor-sharp kind of individual who must have written the hip. post— modern conundrum that is The New York
Trilogy: And the wise musings on life found in his latest prose collection The Red .Vorebook. And. indeed. the combination of friendly folk. fining chatter and downhome Brooklyn atmosphere of Smoke. and its disarming adjunct Blue III The line.
The mm'ie—making experience gained Auster a shared credit with director Wayne Wang and threw him together with acting talent including Harvey Keitel. William Hurt. Roseanne and Michael .1. Fox. ‘A good thing for me -- break the old pattern.‘ reflects Auster with a puffon a slim panatella tSmoke is largely set in Harvey Keitel‘s corner cigar store). ‘(iet out ofthc room for a while. See what the world looked like. Yeah. I learned a great deal about many things. not just movies.‘
18 The List l9 Apr-2 May 1996
For someone who's written so much abottt coincidence -— his novel The llusle Off/unite was the first of his works to be filmed. creditany adapted by director Philip llaas — it is appropriate that Auster‘s venture into the realms of celluloid began out of the blue. The New York
limes rang him up one day to ask for a piece of
short fiction for its l‘)‘)() Yuletide edition. ()n the other side of the country. thousands of miles away frotn Auster‘s Brooklyn moviemaker Wayne Wang. of Dim Sam and Joy l.uek ('lul) fame. was so entranced by the results. xluggie Wren iv ('ltristmus Story. tltat the wheels began cranking that would turtt it into a feature film five years later. And not just any feature film. During rehearsals for Smoke. Harvey Keitel and (iiancarlo lisposito were so
‘We certainly weren’t going to speed things up to accommodate the taste of nine-year-olds. The culture of advertising and all that. I hate it.’
into their roles. that Wang persuaded Miramax's head honcho to back an extra week‘s shooting so they could make a second picture with the same characters. The result. Blue In lllt’ knee. was a first in film history.
The actors are the key to .S'moke‘s enduring glow. Keitel's hustling. good-hearted tobacco shop manager. William llurt‘s successful novelist gradually emerging surrounding the loss of his wife. ()ne-cyed Stockard (‘hanning as the unexpected blast from llarvey"s past. ()ne-armed l’orest
from the grief
Whitaker as just a part of the father-son motif that knits the action together.
'l‘he movie‘s highlight is the single camera shot while lx'citel climactic. incsmerising monologue. lt takes as long as it takes and .-\uster is utulerstandably proud of it. 'lt‘s funny.’ he smiles. ‘We made a movie without images. Leave it to a novelist to do that. It‘s not as it' it’s an arty piece either. .lust very simple. straightforward storytelling. The audience can rela\ into the pacing. because we certainly weren’t going to speed things tip to accommodate the taste of nine—year-olds. The culture of advertising and all that. I hate it.‘
During most of the film we see only the characters. faces. The rest is left to our imagination. mirroring the minimalist approach .-\uster has favoured in the string of novels that have tnade his name since lllt' New York ’l'rilogv burst on to the scene more than a decade ago.
"l‘he more the leader is allowed to participate. the tnore engaging the book becomes.‘ says .-\uster. 'My novels don't feel like films at all. 'l‘here‘s very little visual detail. they’re mostly to do with narration. 'l‘here's this voice talking in your head. and. when you hit the basic. that‘s what storytelling and human conununication amount to.’
Smoke opens on l'rltluv l‘) :l/trll (ll l/te ('o/m'o. lirli/l/miglt mn/ l'il‘lrltlt‘ 3 Nov (1/ l/l(' (1/77: Glasgow ll/He lit The line opens on /7 May u! the (‘umeo (lllll llte (ll-"l:
l’tml .‘lll.\'l(‘l' is pull/[shed lll paper/ital. ltv l'lllH’l' A'- l'o/n'i; [Helm/me tlie Sotoke tt/nl />’lue lit The I’m-e .vt‘l‘t'e/l/lltly [3.0” (lllrl i/l'lt' lt’t'tl .\'()l('l)(l/Il\ [7.09.
Where there’s smoke there’s tire: William Hurt (left) and Harvey Keitel in Smoke and (right) Paul Auster