Johnny Depp smoking a cigarette in a clear holder behind orange-tinted aviators while chatting about the collection of uppers and downers he has in the car. Al Pacino slumped back on a leather throne facing a cocaine mountain. A cold turkey Christiane F. writhing on a bed, fighting her boyfriend for heroin. Whether they signal the tragic downfall of a character or are the impetus for a feature-length joke, drugs in movies—when done well—invariably make for interesting cinema, even if drugs don't interest you in your own life.
Obviously illegal drugs wouldn't be allowed on set, so it's a prop master's job to figure something out. He or she coordinates with the production designer, actors, and directors to provide every single item handled directly by the characters—food, books, money, and even drugs.
Sean Mannion is a prop master in LA and has been in the industry for years, working on everything from The Craft to Bridesmaids. Much of his work, however, has been on drug-centered comedies such as Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Get Him To The Greek, so he's built his career making fake spliffs and sourcing baggies. If anyone knows how to make fake drugs look real, it's Mannion.
"Back in the old days, I'd be using basil, oregano, any herbs that looked real and were smokeable. In a joint, that stuff was really heavy," he says. "Twenty-plus years ago I did a movie with Madonna, and she was like, 'Oh my God, this is terrible.' To make the big clumps of pot, I'd take spray glue and the herbs and just throw them on the table. You would leave the stems from oregano in there for authenticity." Today, it's a lot easier and less DIY. The movie industry has rapidly expanded, and hundreds more movies are released every year. If Mannion needs a lot of weed, he'll go to the Independent Studio Services (ISS), and they'll make it for him.
"I asked them to provide whole wheelbarrows of pot for Neighbors. Sometimes you need a lot of weed. In a film I did last year, day after day, we had a guy who'd do nothing but roll joints. I needed to have a Tupperware filled with easily four hundred joints. People would take a joint from the Tupperware as you walked through the crowds with it."
A lot of the time now, Mannion will buy his "weed" from a brand of herbal cigarettes called Ecstacy, as it's such an effective substitute for a number of reasons. "It's fully herbal, and it's much more palpable to use. It actually smells like pot, with this strong potent smell, to the untrained nose. Obviously if you're a pot smoker, you'd know the difference. A producer on this thing I'm working on actually walked up to me, and said, 'What are they smoking?' and I said to him 'Well the actors actually wanted to smoke pot, so we're really smoking pot.' And his eyes bugged out of his head. He goes, 'Are you kidding me?' And I go, 'Of course I'm kidding you—it's a herbal.' There was another time when a pretty famous actress—I won't tell you her name—was involved in an all-night party scene where they were passing around a joint. She asked me for a real one. So I give her a herbal one, and after a while, she and her friends, who were extras in the movie, were completely convinced they were stoned. It was funny—there's a great satisfaction in that."
Presumably cocaine can't just be any old white powder? "We used to use the filler stuff they used in medicine. It became tough to find that over the years, and it was a prescription sort of thing to get it." Now he uses sorbitol, a sugar alcohol, often used in diet foods. "It's so good you have to do very little to it to make it look real, maybe add a little refined sugar in there and just pile it or wrap it up like a kilo. It can be snorted and has a weird sort of sugary taste to it. It would take an expert to come in and see it on the table and not go, 'Wow, that's coke.'"
Marrion is no expert on drugs, but he does laugh about some experience in his past ("And I will stress past"). When it comes to crack or heroin, it's mostly a case of googling images and researching to make it as real to life as possible. Luckily, not many drug scenes actually require showing the drugs being taken. "A lot of times it's just in evidence, so it's only hinted at. You have a crack pipe or syringes lying around. You go to a medical supplier and get the equipment to make meth, that sort of thing."
Paradoxically, you might say, while studios have no problem with showing illegal drugs and drug use on film, there's been a huge turnaround in actors smoking cigarettes. "Pretty much all studios are anti-tobacco and have eliminated their use entirely," explained Marrion. "It's rare to see anyone smoking a cigarette in a movie. I'm doing a bar scene at the moment, and it's screaming for the bouncer to be smoking a cigar, and the room filled with everyone smoking cigarettes, but it can't be. And in the back room, people are smoking pot and doing coke." This is in line with a public health move to stop glamorizing their use and in any case, Marrion says, hardly any actors smoke because they're so health conscious. If they're smoking a cigarette in a movie, it'd be a herbal one.
In a similar vein, when you see a character getting drunk at a bar or one whose whole reality revolves around alcohol and stimulants—Miles from Sideways, everyone in The Wolf of Wall Street—you might assume they're genuinely drinking. When Josh Hartnett and Kirsten Dunst share a sip of peach schnapps in The Virgin Suicides, you can taste its sickly sweet liqueur on your lips as they press the bottle to their own. Some method actors have been open about using booze to bring reality to their performance. Shia LeBeouf said that when he played a Prohibition-era bootlegger in Lawless, he was pissed all the time so he could turn up on set with red eyes and a drunk bloat. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton were wasted when they were drunkenly firing golf balls at nearby buildings in Fight Club.
These are exceptions, however. "I've never had someone take more than a couple of shots," Marrion says. "I've had a few actors ask me if they can drink real alcohol, but I'd never do that without getting permission from a director. People are having to do twenty or so takes, so long-term, it would probably just restrict them from performing." Instead, they're chugging either tea or a caramel-colored water for liquor. If an actor's drinking from a brown beer bottle, it's water.
Whether it's alcohol, smoking, or hard drugs, it's easy to look fake or try-hard, that that's where the satisfaction arises as a good property master. "It's always more work because there is no faking it," says Marrion. "There are keen eyes that will spot it if you're doing it wrong. Your job is to uphold the integrity and make that environment so real, and that is truly rewarding when you get it."
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