Tracking down The Last Cigarette

It's hard to imagine making a documentary without a camera - or microphones, or a narrator. But when New York-based filmmakers Kevin Rafferty and Frank Keraudren of Drifting Smoke Productions created The Last Cigarette, that's exactly what they did. Rafferty describes...
July 1, 2000

It’s hard to imagine making a documentary without a camera – or microphones, or a narrator. But when New York-based filmmakers Kevin Rafferty and Frank Keraudren of Drifting Smoke Productions created The Last Cigarette, that’s exactly what they did. Rafferty describes the 82-minute film as ‘a 100% archival compilation documentary that takes a look at the culture and history of tobacco, and gets into the attitudes on both sides of the tobacco wars today.’ Footage includes cigarette commercials from the 1950s, public service announcements from the Cancer Society of Finland, and clips from what can only be described as ‘smoke-porn.’

Throughout the 16-month production period of The Last Cigarette, Rafferty searched out most of the footage himself- a task he had learned from his work on the 1982 doc Atomic Cafe, which is also 100% archival – while editing duties fell to Keraudren. By the time they wrapped in December 1998, they had a total of 34 footage sources, ranging from large commercial houses to individuals. From an overall budget of US$500,000 (financed with partners TLC, BBC, ARTE, Germany’s ARD/BR and German prodco Telepool), Rafferty says they spent around $115,000 acquiring footage rights.

The first step was to go after anything and everything related to smoking. In September 1997, Rafferty began with a round-up of the ‘usual suspects,’ which for him included such footage houses as Chicago’s MacDonald & Associates, Film Audio Services and Archive Films and Photos in N.Y. (the former since absorbed by the latter), and news footage source Conus in St. Paul, Minneapolis.

Rafferty’s strategy was to create his own library of material, a critical mass from which he could pick and choose clips for the final cut. He says when using large stock shops, a call asking for anything related to tobacco was generally enough to get them to send a demo tape. For smaller collections, a personal trip was necessary and often worthwhile. His week-long trip to the MacDonald library, for example, yielded around 30 hours of material, primarily the vintage cigarette commercials.

In an effort to provide some historical context, Rafferty went after clips from a number of Hollywood flics (the film’s opening scene is from a movie called Christopher Columbus), but it wasn’t always easy – or cheap. ‘Of the Hollywood studio copyright films that we used, the most we got were from MGM. They were the easiest to deal with – consumer-friendly,’ he says. ‘Some of the other studios just wouldn’t deal with me at all because of the subject matter, and some insisted on a one-minute usage fee, even if all you want is a five-second shot. So you’re looking at US$7,000 for five seconds – that’s assuming that they’ll sell it to you.’ Rafferty says they ultimately included 12 to 15 clips from MGM, which offered a 15-second minimum.

Around three months into production, the filmmakers had a conceptual breakthrough about how to structure The Last Cigarette. They decided to use the 1994 u.s. Congressional hearings in which the CEOs of the seven major tobacco companies testified under oath – answering such questions as: ‘Is nicotine addictive?’ – as the spine of the film. The final cut includes around 22 minutes of this material interspersed throughout, which set up themes explored through montages.

Rafferty says C-SPAN, which broadcast the hearings, ‘is like any other footage house. You pay and it depends on what rights you’re clearing.’ For their purposes, the filmmakers went after world television, U.S. limited theatrical (no more than six prints in circulation at one time) and U.S. home video.

Within the first four months of hunting down archival material, Rafferty says he had accumulated 60% of the total collection. However, ‘filling in the rest was a long, experimental process.’ The filmmakers enlisted the aid of interns, who helped search locally, and to add an international favor, hired a Paris-based researcher/filmmaker.

Rafferty spent a week in Cologne and Munich himself, but found it useful to have somebody based in Europe. ‘[The researcher] went to about four or five big archives, mostly in Germany and Paris, and she also coordinated follow-up on loose ends, like with the Danish Cancer Society.’ They ultimately used only a few minutes of the footage she uncovered, though Rafferty describes it as ‘prime stuff.’

The Internet was somewhat useful in the very early stages of researching, but not much. Says Rafferty, ‘I’m not a computer guy myself. We didn’t use it much. We used it in the beginning to sort of get a sense of what was out there, but it’s better to see the footage than to read about it.’

One of his favorite discoveries came at the end of 1997, and was completely unexpected. Rafferty was attending a neighbor’s New Year’s Eve party and during a conversation with the hostess, mentioned his research for The Last Cigarette. She said, ‘Oh, I have something that might interest you,’ and handed him a smoke-porn video. ‘It’s a whole little sub-genre of videos where what you see are fully dressed women sitting there doing nothing but smoke in seductive ways, close-ups of the smoke coming in and going out.’

Rafferty says he had never heard of this kind of film before, and it was the one instance in which the Net was quite useful. ‘Once we were on to the smoke-porn, we discovered that there are all kinds of websites, and all kinds of really outlandish things. We used the Internet to get printouts of what the various stock footage houses were offering.’ He eventually tracked down three companies to supply them with clips, Up in Smoke Productions in San Francisco, London-based Profile Pictures and Coherent Light Productions in Oklahoma.

Several of the animated sequences, particularly the simple diagrams of the inside of the human body, came into the filmmaker’s possession through sheer persistence. Rafferty explains, ‘The print we had seen was bad, so I called up the wctu [the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which had produced some of these films in the '40s and '50s] and wound up speaking to the president. She literally went and looked in the closet in her office where some 16mm cans of film had been sitting for 20 years and she said, ‘Well now, let’s see, there was this fellow who transferred them to video eight years ago,’ and I talked to that person.’ From there, Rafferty got the name of a person in Tennessee who had old 16mm prints of the films he wanted, and he bought them.

In the end, Rafferty and Keraudren crafted a film some have described as ‘the best anti-smoking film ever made,’ though that’s not how they intended it. ‘The film is laden with irony,’ Rafferty says. ‘It’s not an anti-smoking film, it’s not a pro-smoking film – people are kind of surprised to find out we’re both smokers.’

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