“I smoked for a while, but then quit after a year, because
I have asthma. So maybe asthma saved my life. But does this mean I’m
keeping myself alive just so I can suffer with asthma? Why not just
keep smoking? It’s so pleasurable.”
The above is an example of the demented logic of the addicted smoker—this
former smoker, the guy who made this film.
Being from North Carolina, I’ve known for a long time that I
should probably try to make a film that in some way dealt with tobacco
and smoking, since NC grows more tobacco than any other state. I mean,
my home state is utterly awash in tobacco. Some of my earliest memories
are sitting for hours in a stifling station wagon, driving past endless
acres of the vivid green leaves, on the way to our family reunion on
the Carolina coast. The further east we drove, the more the tobacco
took over the landscape. The leaves were bright green and huge—like
elephant ears—and shimmered in the hypnotic heat of Carolina’s
summer. Along that route to the beach, tobacco grew better there than
anywhere else in North America.
I knew I did not want to make another film that merely pointed out
the dangers of smoking or the evils of the tobacco industry. There have
been films that have done this, and done it well. And besides, I had
once smoked myself and understood all too well the complex and intoxicating
allure of smoking. It seemed to me there were more interesting places
to go with the subject. But if I didn’t want to make a film full
of dying cancer victims or lying tobacco executives, then how would
I approach the film? What or who would open the door for me?
John McElwee, a second cousin I had never met before, opened that door.
Someone in my family had told me that John owned “some kind of
a picture that has to do with our family and with tobacco” so
I arranged to meet him at his home. As I pulled into the driveway of
his modest ranch house, overlooking hay fields, a pasture, and the gentle
foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, I wasn’t at all prepared
for what awaited me. John greeted me in the driveway, and as we walked
through the carport and into the kitchen I noticed some 16mm film reels
lying on a stool—not something you normally expect to see in a
That was only the beginning, as John casually, over the next six hours,
revealed to me his extraordinary movie memorabilia and print collection.
In this pastoral setting, my cousin was creating a shrine to cinema.
I was amazed and could not stop filming as he gave me the grand tour.
He had a state-of-the-art underground, soundproofed 16mm film projection
facility that sat six people in the most comfortable film viewing seats
I have ever experienced. He was in the process of building another twin-projector
facility, with seating for twelve, lovingly constructed by local craftsman
who had used only the finest beech and oak to fashion the custom cabinets
that would house his collection. But even more impressive than my cousin’s
collection was the breadth and depth of his knowledge of American cinema
from the 1930s to the early 1970s. He talked for an hour about the beauty
of the 1940s IB Technicolor® process, with its startling clarity
and vividness that in some way surpasses anything digital technology
has yet come up with, and then projected a reel from Blood
and Sand, a 1941 bullfighting melodrama starring Tyrone Power
and Rita Hayworth, to prove his point. He was right—it was extraordinary
color! He discoursed eloquently on the golden age of animation at Disney
Studios when animators were quite simply going wild with their newfound
techniques, creating works that can only be described as hallucinogenic,
and then he showed me a 1948 Disney piece called Blame
It on the Samba, which was truly brazenly bizarre.
John declaimed on this and many other aspects of American cinema with
the precision of an attorney, which was, in fact, his day job. With
my passion for making films, and his for collecting and exhibiting them,
how was it we had never met before? I can only say that it has something
to do with the size of the McElwee clan in North Carolina—there
are hundreds of us—and somehow we never crossed paths.
Anyway, John eventually got around to screening the “picture”
he wanted me to see. He showed me how to adjust my movie seat for maximum
comfort, handed me a box of freshly popped popcorn (with real butter),
and began projecting a Hollywood movie called Bright
Leaf, starring Gary Cooper, which I had never heard of before.
As I watched, it became clear that this movie could not only provide
a way to begin to explore the complex psychological terrain of Carolina
tobacco, but could also lead into an exploration of what it means to
make movies—Hollywood movies, documentary movies, and especially
Bright Leaves premiered at the Cannes Film
Festival’s Director’s Fortnight, and certainly did well
enough there, getting a prolonged standing ovation from the French,
who probably smoke more than any other people on the planet. But now,
finally, we’re bringing Bright Leaves,
a film which is in many ways about going home, back home to the USA,
and especially to North Carolina.
As a footnote, I’d like to dedicate this article to Gary Cooper,
a heavy smoker who tried more than once to quit, and ended up dying
of lung cancer at far too early an age.