- The fake drugs in the movies not only have to look precise and be safely ingested, but they also have to act like the drugs.
- Most fake drugs are created from foods or vitamins so that actors can safely ingest them.
- If the actors want to avoid ingesting drugs altogether, a suction platform can be built that sucks up the fake powdery drugs through a hidden tube.
- Visit the Insider home page for more stories.
Here is a full transcript of the video.
Joël Barkow: Three two one.
Ben Nigh: Yes.
Drug scenes are a feature of many movies and TV shows. In “Breaking Bad,” the methamphetamine they were smoking was actually blue rock candy.
Joel: Right now, I’m crushing this “meth”, so we can turn it into a more smokable consistency.
While all of these drugs look real, accuracy is only part of the job. Any fake medicine, whether snorted, blown or injected, must be safe for the actor, which has not always been the case on film sets.
Finding that perfect balance is where a master of props like Joel Barkow comes in. Joel made fake drugs for shows like “The Sopranos” and “Blue Bloods,” and he says getting those drugs actually taking action is always the first obstacle.
Let’s take a simple example to start. It is not enough for a propeller seal to look realistic. It must also produce the right kind of smoke. Substituting cannabis for tobacco seems like an easy fix, but tobacco smoke isn’t as heavy as cannabis smoke, and that means it won’t look quite right. The prop masters therefore use a strain of cannabis that lacks THC for scenes involving the smoking of weed.
I can’t say it’s any different from the cannabis smoke I’ve seen in my life. Looks like a real joint. It’s like that too.
It’s pretty hard.
For other drugs, like heroin, the prop masters must have different mixes of the dummy drug, depending on whether the scene calls for melting it or not. For the static shots, Joel discovered that the most beautiful fake heroine comes from a combination of pancake waffle mix and cocoa powder.
Joel: It’s just about getting the color. All of those things are about color, consistency, et cetera. It reads very well on camera.
Ben: But for scenes that require the drugs to be heated on camera, a completely different faux heroine mix is swapped out, as the pancake mix doesn’t melt very well.
Joel: I use brown sugar, a little water to achieve the sparkling effect.
Ben: Although brown sugar doesn’t look much like powdered heroin, it mimics melted heroin quite well, matching the sticky appearance of the bubbles. Creating realistic fake drugs that look great in close-ups is one thing, but it gets even more complicated when an actor has to take those fake drugs onscreen.
For scenes that require an actor to shoot with a needle, the needle cannot actually penetrate the actor’s skin, but they must show the syringe injecting the fake drugs. So, for these situations, a specially designed needle is used.
Joel: This is a retractable syringe. This is the best syringe to use for the camera because what it does is have the plunger ready to just force forward, and it will retract on itself, along with the needle. When you push the pump into the syringe, the liquid disappears inside a tube, and vice versa as well. Let’s say a scene where you had to draw blood from an actor, you can do the same, you already have red liquid, red liquid in it, and take it out.
Ben: Joel also provides real needles to use for injections that do not require false injections or blood draws.
Joel: When I send them out, you will have a kit. In this case, this one is blunt, so I don’t send, like, very specific advice, and that way they can do it on camera when they’re about to inject, and then if they are actually going to do the injection, they would have a retractable one as a replacement.
Ben: Nailing down the appearance of a substitute is only part of the job. Joel has the added challenge of making sure that any fake medication is also safe for the actor, and Hollywood doesn’t always get it right.
For example, the fake cocaine used on the set of “Scarface” caused minor but permanent damage to Al Pacino’s nasal passages. This injury was likely the result of the amount and quality of the film’s fake cocaine, which in this case was powdered baby laxatives.
In order to avoid any sort of accidents or injuries like this, Joel works directly with the actors to prepare them for the use of fake drugs.
Joel: You have to think about them all the time. Have you told them about allergies? It’s almost like being an incidental doctor.
Ben: Joel said that one of the most common allergies he needs to watch out for is lactose intolerance, as powdered lactose is often used as fake cocaine.
Joel: And so if they’re lactose intolerant, obviously you’re not going to use lactose. This gives you the next option, which is inositol.
Ben: Inositol is a vitamin B complex that can be safely ingested. It looks so much like cocaine that drug dealers are known to use it to cut the substance. Joel said that this incidental cocaine is so harmless that it shouldn’t even irritate an actor’s nostrils when he sniffs it.
Joel let me snort some inositol so I could check it for myself.
Soft. It’s wild.
Ben: It really doesn’t look like anything.
No tingling or anything like that. Wow. Yeah, it was easy.
Ben: I actually am, I’m just shocked at how – it’s not that it was enjoyable. It was an extremely neutral experience.
Ben: Which I guess you would like.
Joel: This is what you want. You want them to be able to act.
Joel: And not, you know, cry and cry.
Ben: Yeah, totally.
Joel: When an actor sniffs, ingests fake cocaine, it’s also good to have a nasal spray nearby, to offer them, you know, right after or between takes if you need to clean everything up.
Ben: While prop drugs have become safer since the days of “Scarface,” things can still go wrong.
While filming “The Wolf of Wall Street” in 2013, actor Jonah Hill fell ill after sniffing too much
powder during manufacture.
Jonas Hill: I did so much fake cocaine in “Wolf of Wall Street” that I had bronchitis for three weeks and had to be hospitalized.
Bill Simmons: Seriously?
Ben: While vitamin D powder is theoretically completely safe to ingest, inhaling the powder almost every day for several consecutive weeks caused an infection in his lungs.
Just as actors stopped using real cigarettes onscreen after the health risks of smoking became widely publicized, recently actors have become more aware of the fake drugs they might have to ingest. Some prop masters have created platforms with a suction device that will suck up fake drugs for the actor.
To hide this rig, the end of the pipe is wrapped in a dollar bill. The pipe can then be pushed up an actor’s shirt and out of his sleeve, then the correct camera angle and lighting is used so that only the tip of the dollar bill is exposed.
You can see this technique without ingestion in a scene with Armie Hammer in “Sorry to bother you”. They chose to use the platform because there was so much fake cocaine that you had to sniff.
For Joel’s suction platform, he uses a hand pump to make it work more like a human lung.
Joel: You could also use a compressor with that, but I thought it was going to be, a compressor would be way too powerful.
Ben: Okay, that looks good.
OK, so three, two, one. Go. OKAY.
Joel: Three two one.
As you can see, the final shot is pretty good, especially for such minimal setup time. Joel said these platforms aren’t used very often, but I expect to see them become more common in the future. It was pretty easy to use and I didn’t have to snort anything myself. It would definitely be a good option to have if there was a scene where I knew I would be doing a lot of takes.
Finding fake drugs for movies is not as easy as finding a solution. As with cocaine, it’s about finding better alternatives that look great on-screen and keep actors safe, with each iteration becoming a small part of Hollywood history and constantly reaching a new one. Mountain peak.
We haven’t done everything.
Joel: Alright, hold on. Raise.
Ben: I’ve mentioned it before, but this whole table looks like a DARE ad that I would see every time I was in grade school, with, like, the dirty spoon and everything.