Berlinale 2011: Twenty Questions for James Benning on Twenty Cigarettes

By Mark Peranson

1. When was the first time you smoked a cigarette?

I was about eight years old. My parents weren’t at home. I lit up one of my father’s Camels using the kitchen stove and burnt my eyebrows.

2. When was the last time you smoked a cigarette?

I never smoked again. My mother offered me $200 if I wouldn’t try smoking until I was 18. My mother was very smart.

3. Why did you want to make a portraiture film about people smoking?

So I could look at someone for an extended period of time without making excuses. The portrait would last as long as the cigarette: each smoker determined the length of each shot. I like how nicotine slowly reduces self-consciousness.

4. How did you choose your smokers?

They are friends of mine: old/young, female/male, rich/poor, more/less sane, straight/gay, etc.

5. Did you give them any directions?

I told them to stand, to look wherever they wanted, not to move out of the frame, to smoke however they liked; and then I turned on the camera and left them alone, hiding behind a tree or leaving the room.

6. How did you choose the locations?

I chose locations to represent my friends in their environments. I wanted the background to be minimal so it wouldn’t draw too much attention.

7. Who smoked the fastest? The slowest?

The fastest was Tanya Baker, a bartender at The Palms, located in the middle of Wonder Valley on Amboy Road. My favourite bar. The slowest was Dick Hebdige, an expatriate British critical thinker most commonly associated with the study of subcultures and their resistance to the mainstream. He also likes The Palms.

8. Did anything surprise you about the way anyone smoked?

Yes, I found one of them to be extremely sexy.

9. How many times did you make someone smoke more than one cigarette?

Only once.

10. How did you choose the order of the portraits for the final film?

The first smoker never smoked before; it’s his first cigarette. The last one is my favourite. The others just fell into place—it was a matter of ordering diversity and action along with shot length.

11. Is there any invisible editing in terms of image or sound in Twenty Cigarettes?


12. Did you have work in mind (or the “smoking break”) when conceiving the film?

Yes. I am always interested in work: in one of the shots you hear the sounds of a maid working off-screen; another takes place in a workshop; another in an artist’s studio, and another is a worker outside of a disco.

13. What does smoking mean historically for American society as far as you are concerned?

Lots of money for the manufacturers; sex, pleasure, and disease for smokers; and increasing government control.

14. Is smoking subversive today and are smokers the most militant members of the population?

Smokers make strange bedfellows: some of my friends are radicals, some have gun collections.

15. Is it subversive for you to make a film about people smoking?

No, but the structure is.

16. Like Reforming the Past, Twenty Cigarettes brings to mind Warhol’s Screen Tests—and Warhol also made a 99-minute film of the curator Henry Geldhalzer smoking a cigar. Do you see Twenty Cigarettes as an homage to Warhol?


17. What makes Twenty Cigarettes suitable for a theatrical screening as opposed to as an installation, like Milwaukee/Duisberg, which is also being mounted at this year’s Forum Expanded?

It isn’t, as you can’t smoke in a cinema. But Twenty Cigarettes is about duration, and there is no place like a cinema to pay attention to time.

18. What would this film look like as a mathematical equation?

(1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1) = 20, both elegant and democratic.

However, the cast wrote this equation:

6:15+ 4:32+ 4.53+ 7:42+ 3:22+ 2:55+ 4:51+ 4:37+ 4.50+ 7:43+ 3:49+ 3:56+ 5.39+ 2:39+ 4:24+ 4:17+ 4:08+ 3:06+ 7:01+ 5:36= 96:15, revealing and precise.

19. What advice would you give the audience coming to see Twenty Cigarettes?

It’s 99 minutes long.

20. Is filmmaking a kind of addiction for you?


James Benning’s second digital work, Twenty Cigarettes, premiered as a special screening in the International Forum of New Cinema at the 2011 Berlinale. A version of this interview also appears in the Forum catalogue.