How fake drugs are made for movies

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  • Not only do fake drugs in movies have to look accurate and be safe to ingest, they also need to act like the drugs.
  • Most fake drugs are created from food or vitamins so that actors can safely ingest them.
  • If actors want to avoid ingesting drugs altogether, a suction rig can be constructed that sucks up fake powdered drugs through a hidden tube.

Following is a full transcript of the video.

Joel Barkow: Three, two, one.

[Ben snorts]

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[video clicks]

[video rewinds]

One.

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Ben Nigh: Yeah.

[laughs]

Drug scenes are a part of a lot of movies and TV shows. In "Breaking Bad," the meth that they smoked was actually blue rock candy.

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Joel: Right now I'm crushing up this "meth," so we can get it into a consistency that is more smokable.

[Ben snorts]

[clears throat]

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Wow.

While all these drugs look real, accuracy is only one part of the job. Any fake drug, whether it's snorted, puffed, or injected, has to be safe for the actor -- something that hasn't always been the case on film sets.

Striking that perfect balance is where a prop master like Joel Barkow comes in. Joel has made fake drugs for shows like "The Sopranos" and "Blue Bloods," and he says making these drugs act real is always the first hurdle.

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Let's take a simple example to start. It's not enough for a prop joint to look realistic. It also has to produce the right kind of smoke. Substituting tobacco for cannabis seems like an easy solution, but tobacco smoke isn't as heavy as cannabis smoke, and that means it won't look quite right. So prop masters use a cannabis strain that lacks THC for scenes that involve smoking weed.

I cannot say that this looks any different than the cannabis smoke that I have seen in my life. Looks like a real joint. Hits like one too.

[coughs]

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That's pretty harsh.

For other drugs, like heroin, prop masters need to have different mixtures of the fake drug ready, depending on if the scene calls for melting it or not. For static shots, Joel has found that the best-looking fake heroin comes from a combination of pancake waffle mix and cocoa powder.

Joel: It's just all about getting the color. All these things are about color, consistency, et cetera. It just reads really well on camera.

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Ben: But for scenes that require the drug to actually be heated up on camera, a completely different fake-heroin mixture is swapped in, because the pancake mix doesn't melt very well.

Joel: I use brown sugar, little bit of water to get the bubbly effect.

Ben: While brown sugar doesn't look very much like powdered heroin, it mimics melted heroin quite well, matching the sticky look of the bubbles. Creating realistic fake drugs that look good in close-up shots is one thing, but it gets even more complicated when an actor has to take these fake drugs on screen.

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For scenes that require an actor to shoot up with a needle, the needle can't actually penetrate the actor's skin, but they need to show the syringe injecting the fake drugs. So for these situations, a specially engineered needle is used.

Joel: This is a retractable syringe. This is the greatest syringe to use for on camera, because what it does is the plunger is ready to just force forward, and it'll retract into itself, along with the needle. As you push the pump into the syringe, the liquid disappears inside a tube, and vice versa too. Let's say a scene where you needed to draw blood from an actor, you can do the same thing, you have red fluid, red liquid already inside there, and pull this out.

Ben: Joel also provides real needles to use for shots that don't require faking injections or drawing blood.

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Joel: When I send them out, you'll have a kit. In this case, this one's dulled, so I don't send, like, a really sharp tip out, and so that way they can do this on camera as they're about to inject, and then if they're going to actually do the injection, they'd have a retractable one as its stand-in.

Ben: Nailing the look of a substitute is just one part of the job. Joel has the added challenge of making sure any fake drug is also safe for the actor, and Hollywood hasn't always gotten that right.

For example, the fake cocaine that was used on the set of "Scarface" caused minor but permanent damage to Al Pacino's nasal passage. This injury was likely the result of the quantity and quality of the film's fake cocaine, which in this case was powdered baby laxatives.

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In order to avoid any sort of accidents or injuries like this, Joel works directly with actors to prepare them for using fake drugs.

Joel: You have to think of them at all times. Have you talked to them about any allergies? It's almost like being a prop doctor.

Ben: Joel said that one of the most common allergies that he has to look out for is lactose intolerance, because powdered lactose is often used as fake cocaine.

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Joel: And so if they are lactose intolerant, obviously you're not going to use a lactose. That gives you the next option, which is inositol.

Ben: Inositol is a vitamin B complex that is safe to ingest. It looks so much like cocaine that drug dealers have been known to use it to cut the actual stuff. Joel said that this prop cocaine is so harmless that it shouldn't even irritate an actor's nostrils when they snort it.

Joel let me snort inositol so that I could check it out for myself.

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Sweet. This is wild.

[snorts]

Oh, yeah!

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Joel: Right?

Ben: Doesn't really feel like anything.

[sniffs]

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No stinging or anything like that. Wow. Yeah, that was easy.

Joel: Good.

Ben: I'm actually, I'm just shocked at how -- it's not that it was pleasant. It was an extremely neutral experience.

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Joel: Right.

Ben: Which is I guess what you would want.

Joel: That's what you want. You want them to be able to act.

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[Joel chuckles]

Ben: Right!

Joel: And not, you know, tearing up and crying.

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Ben: Yeah, totally.

Joel: When any actor's snorting, ingesting fake cocaine, it's good to have a nasal spray nearby too, to offer them up, you know, just afterwards or in between takes if you need to just clear it all out.

Ben: While prop drugs have gotten safer since the days of "Scarface," things can still go wrong.

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While filming 2013's "The Wolf of Wall Street," actor Jonah Hill became ill after snorting too much vitamin D powder during production.

Jonah Hill: I did so much fake cocaine in "Wolf of Wall Street" I got bronchitis for three weeks and had to be hospitalized.

Bill Simmons: Seriously?

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Jonah: Yeah.

Ben: While vitamin D powder is theoretically completely safe to ingest, inhaling the powder almost every day for several weeks straight caused an infection in his lungs.

Just as actors stopped using real cigarettes on screen after the health risks of smoking became widely publicized, actors have recently become more conscious of the fake drugs that they might have to ingest. Some prop masters have created rigs with a suction device that will suck up the fake drugs for the actor.

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To hide this rig, the tip of the hose is wrapped in a dollar bill. The hose can then be pushed up an actor's shirt and out their sleeve, and then the right camera angle and lighting are used so that only the dollar-bill tip is exposed.

You can see this ingestion-free technique in a scene with Armie Hammer in 2018's "Sorry to Bother You." They chose to use the rig because there was so much fake cocaine that needed to be snorted.

For Joel's suction rig, he uses a manual pump so it functions more like a human lung.

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Joel: You could use a compressor as well with this, but I thought it was gonna be, a compressor would be way too much power.

Ben: All right, that looks good.

OK, so on three, two, one. Go. OK.

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Joel: Three, two, one.

Ben: Yeah.

[laughs]

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As you can see, the final shot looks pretty good, especially for having such minimal setup time. Joel said that these rigs aren't used very often, but I'd 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 nice option to have if there was a scene where I knew I'd be doing a lot of takes.

Figuring out fake drugs for movies isn't as simple as finding one solution. Like in the case of cocaine, it's about figuring out better and better alternatives that look great on screen and keep actors as safe as possible, each iteration becoming a small part of Hollywood history and constantly reaching for a new high.

We didn't do the whole thing.

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Joel: OK, hold on. Lift up.

[laughing]

Ben: I mentioned this before, but this whole table looks like a DARE ad that I would see whenever I was in elementary school, with, like, the dirty spoon and everything.

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