Prop masters explain
the movie magic of
Author: Joe Bernardi
Photographer: Lia Bekyan
What are actors actually snorting on film? How does it all work? For Goodfellas' 25th anniversary, we got technical with the prop masters behind The Knick and other productions.
Ken Finn has been a prop master for television and film for almost a decade, working on projects as diverse as Safe, a Jason Statham gangster movie, and Pan Am, a Christina Ricci period drama about flight attendants. Most recently, he worked on the Cinemax series The Knick.
Natalie Kearns is a theatrical prop artist currently based in London, Ontario, where she is the head of Props for the Grand Theatre. In the past, she's worked on projects such as an "emo musical" called Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream set in seven cast-iron bathtubs.
Something about the cocaine monomyth extends deep into the American psyche. Almost every story about it begins by saying "cocaine is bad," but eventually adds a whisper of, "but it's expensive and makes you feel assertive, so it's actually good." That seductive feeling of getting away with something, or of getting-caught-but-what-a-ride, is as American as is it gets: You can see it in movies like Goodfellas, but also anytime anyone namechecks Bonnie and Clyde, or in every image of Paul Newman ever shot. For better or worse, cocaine's mythology embodies that feeling perfectly. Which makes it an ideal thing to put in your movie (or TV show). Which, in the grand American tradition of co-opting dangerous things, means it must be faked.
Ken Finn is a prop master who's been helping filmmakers do just that since his first gig involving fake cocaine, on "one of the early seasons of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." These days, one of his primary jobs is on the television show The Knick, which, to put it bluntly, stars Clive Owen as a turn-of-the-century surgeon who invents powdered cocaine. At this point in his career, however, Ken feels like he's got his work cut out for him.
"Cocaine is probably one of the two or three easiest [drugs to fabricate]," Finn tells Hopes&Fears. "It's just a white powder."
Not just any white powdery substance will do, of course. Says Ken: "You don't want to use powdered sugar because it gets sticky. You really don't want to use flour either because if it gets damp at all it just becomes clumpy." Instead, it's almost always inositol, a B-vitamin compound. "In fact," says Ken, "if you ever snort it, you might get this familiar feeling. A certain memory, like, 'Hey, I've tasted this in the back of my throat before.' What I've learned since then is that actual cocaine is oftentimes cut with this stuff. If you ever do shitty [cocaine], You might actually be ingesting this stuff without even knowing it."
Natalie Kearns, a veteran stage prop master, seconds the use of inositol: "It absorbs easily into the sinuses and doesn't affect vocal chords, so it's a good choice for musicals and has been reliably used by some big names on Broadway for extended runs."
In addition to any and all drugs, prop masters are in charge of almost everything in a production that isn't a person. "Imagine you're moving," says Kearns. "Everything you pack up in your moving truck would be a prop. That includes your giant dragon puppet, machine gun, iron lung, breakaway bar stool, and parchment scrolls, of course!"
According to Ken, part of a prop master's job involves translating the often-giddy demands of directors into actualities, even when the director is as seasoned as Martin Scorsese. A couple of Ken's friends have been helping Scorsese on his new television show Vinyl, and Ken relays their cocaine experience thusly (his Scorsese impression is impeccable):
"Marty's like, 'I want a bunch of cocaine. I want a ball. A ball of cocaine.' My friends are like, 'What the fuck you talking about? Ball?' Thinking he meant an eight-ball which, of course, is not a ball at all. Steve was like, 'You mean you want a rock?' Martin's like, 'Ha ha! Yes. A rock. I want a rock of cocaine.'"
The Most Iconic COCAINE scenes in film
Super Fly (1972)
Super Fly's unrelenting glamorization of the cocaine lifestyle remains unrivaled almost 45 years later. Cocaine, Super Fly says, bestows you with a name like Youngblood Priest. It gives you excellent sideburns, and lets Curtis Mayfield to write songs about you. On a personal note: For reasons that remain a mystery, my dad suggested I rent this movie when I was about 13 years old. I don't remember getting any of it beyond really enjoying Mayfield's immortal score, and I have no idea what lingering effect it had on me, but—hand to god—I almost bought a turtleneck earlier today.
Annie Hall (1977)
In this iconic inversion of the de rigeur 1970s coolguy cocaine scene—as in the rest of his entire onscreen and offscreen life—Woody Allen proves himself to be awful at everything except for directing movies and, maybe, talking about the Knicks. In addition to that, however, the total dorks inhabiting this scenario serve as a solid insight into just how defanged cocaine use had become by the end of the seventies.
When it comes time for an actor to shoot a realistic scene involving, say, a "rock" of cocaine, the logistics of ingesting—or appearing to ingest—the stuff can get a little complicated. Kyle Salvatore, Ken's friend and colleague, mentions that when he's setting up a rig for doing prop cocaine, he, "obviously want[s] to find something unobtrusive because the [performer] could have had some problem or another. When they're doing [prop cocaine], it could instigate some kind of physical trigger." He adds that he initially assumed "people blew out instead of blowing in."
In fact, it can be far more complicated than that. It was here that Ken interjected to describe his friend Joel Weaver's "cocaine rig," a sort of Rube Goldberg machine to give the appearance of an actor doing as much cocaine as necessary. "[Joel] took a 3-gallon glass jar and hooked it up to a brake fluid extractor, which is basically a bike pump in reverse—for, like, siphoning shit—and then to [a length of] surgical tube. You run the tube up the guy's shirt or pants [and] down his sleeve. You pump out all the air out of the glass jar. It can literally be 100 feet away. You just hit the valve."
Not every performer requires something as elaborate as the Joel Weaver Cocaine Rig. Says Ken: "A term was recently coined in the industry. No names involved. We call it 'going hot.' If there's a long week, and it's toward the end of the day, and and there's a snorting scene, the actor might request that you 'go hot,' or you switch the fake stuff for the real stuff. It happens more frequently than you might think."
What's fake in real cocaine?
"Inositol, lactose powder, baby powder, crushed baby laxatives... all kinds of nasty shit."
Prepping fake cocaine
"You'd be surprized if you saw certain props or certain set dressing in real life with a naked eye, versus seeing them on film or digitally. They can look really terrible."
Acting with "cocaine"
"Very rarely do you do a scene where it's a single shot of the dumping, the processing, the chopping, the snorting... It's all cut and edited. To capture the beauty of it, you shoot tight and, once the line is snorted, you can't just come back and re-shoot the scene. There's different lens, different lighting for everything."
— Ken Finn
Among prop masters, working through the varying levels of comfort, health, and experience different performers might be bringing to the table is a primary concern. (The consideration is especially real when one or more of the performers is a current or recovering addict.) "I was in one situation where it was pretty clear who in the room had experience with it and who didn't," says Natalie. "I've had to demonstrate it myself in an effort to convince the actors it was a safe and convincing method. It's pretty funny to pass around a rolled up dollar bill and take turns getting a good snort of lactose powder!"
Natalie was also quick to point out that the most common way cocaine is used unrealistically onstage is often a result of simple ignorance: "The average person doesn't have a very extensive knowledge of how much cocaine a certain amount of money can buy, or how much you need to snort to get a decent high. I've seen shows where the bag of cocaine carried by a poor character is probably worth $1,000, and they're just dosing out lines that would be $100 worth of powder. It's way too much volume."
Given this common stage discrepancy and higher degree of visual detail allowed in film and television, it might make sense for Ken and Kyle to aim for a certain level of exaggerated surreality in their cocaine effects. A flashier-than-normal level of whiteness, for example, or the way a certain setup might move when it's being chopped up. They agreed that, by and large, simplicity is king. "These days there have been enough films and TV shows where coke is everywhere," says Ken. "From fucking Miami Vice in the eighties through every fucking drug movie. It's all about drugs and cash, you know?"
In an impressive display of humility, Kyle dramatically downplayed the role props play in a scene: "If we're talking about cocaine, you [can't give] too much credit to the actual prop. It's actually the actor's job to look convincing. He can really br sucking it up. He can be blowing it out. He can actually not even be doing it. It's up to the actor to sell it."
Passing off fake cocaine as real cocaine—or, in the case of "going hot," passing off real cocaine as fake cocaine as real cocaine—can be nearly as elaborate and convoluted an exercise as trafficking in the real thing the old-fashioned way. Supplies are run back and forth throughout a massive and highly sophisticated infrastructure. Infinitesimally unlikely contingencies must be accounted for. The stakes are high, but everyone involved is constantly improvising. Large amounts of money are on the line. Things are gotten away with. Whether it's the real thing or not, there's something alluring about that.
The most iconic coke scenes in film
It's impossible to talk about cocaine movies without talking about Brian De Palma's completely bonkers day-glo masterpiece. And it would be hard to argue that yayo was beginning to lose its luster by 1983, but exhaustion was beginning to set in. Protagonists weren't getting away with it anymore, but even when Tony Montana looks maudlin and burnt-out, Al Pacino invests him with a kind of heroic cool.
By the late nineties and early aughts, the world was ready for a retro-inspired trip back to cocaine's seventies heyday. This was arguably executed best in Paul Thomas Anderson's 1997 Boogie Nights, but nowhere is it more shameless than Blow, a movie predicated on little more than ridiculous clothing, even more ridiculous wigs, and nearly-unprecedented amounts of fauxcaine.
The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013)
By 2013, the retro appeal of coke had crawled up to the Wall Street-era 1980s, which makes a certain degree of sense given the terrible truth that the hookers-and-blow finance slimeball has replaced virtually everything—including the equally dubious cocaine-cowboy of Scarface or Blow—as the popular image of the self-made American man. It's no accident, then, that Scorsese has turned his attentions from the mafia to that other, less subterranean criminal empire—the corporate world. As his coked-up leading man, Leo DiCaprio is convincingly clammy and aggro.