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 Bright Leaves

“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 rural residence.

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 home movies.

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.


As a native North Carolinian whose great grandfather created the famous brand of tobacco known as Bull Durham, writer/director Ross McElwee (Sherman's March) takes a journey across the social, economic and psychological tobacco terrain of his home state. McElwee's subjective, autobiographical meditation on the allure of cigarettes and their troubling legacy is more than just a film about loss and preservation, addiction and denial. Blending home movies with documentary and fictional filmmaking, McElwee also fences with the legacy of an obscure Hollywood melodrama that is purportedly based on his great grandfather's life.