Behind The Scenes – The Man With The Pipe

My name is Saul and I was drafted to play a pipe smoking villain as part of Tammy Burnstock’s first Smell-O-Vision! revival production at the Widescreen Weekend Film Festival at the Science and Media Museum, Bradford, UK in 2015.

The aim of Tammy’s ambitious team was to revive a scented screening of star-studded Hollywood film Scent of Mystery (the Holiday in Spain version), which was designed to be a cinematic production enhanced by scent. Unfortunately, the film failed to impress in disastrous fashion when it was originally delivered to the 1960s public.

This is my experience of the day that saw the Scent of Mystery return.

We arrived at the red carpeted Museum on the morning of the big relaunch with luggage containing an array of costumes and scent dispersing fan contraptions. 

Key players of our entourage included scent producer, Saskia Wilson-Brown of the Institute for Art and Olfaction and Neal Harris of ScentEvents from Los Angeles and perfumier ‘the nose’ Antonio Gardoni of Bogue-profumo from Milan. Together they had created 18 scents, carried in many vials containing different coloured liquids to accompany specific scenes in the film. Filmmaker Dave Strohmaier was amongst us, bringing with him the film that he had restored and remastered.

Once we were in the beautiful velvety red cinema complex the festival organisers showed us through hallways thronging with helpful volunteers, to the screen we would be occupying later that day. 

Fan contraptions were assembled at carefully planned intervals in the theatre. These were to be operated by the volunteers who were given marked up scripts of the film to administer general atmospheric scents, to hang in the air when the corresponding scene came up on screen. For example, without spoilers, in the scene in which the characters’ experience ‘The Running of the Bulls’, this animal scent would be wafted out into the audience. Or when the film takes the audience to the coast, a ‘sea breeze’ scent would blow and -all going to plan- die down before the next scent.

In addition, small numbered spray bottles, each containing a different scent, such as garlic, train smoke or oil paint, were sprayed by audience members. During the performance a member of our team would hold up numbers on placards and those audience members who had that number on their bottle would spray it into the air to share that scent with those around them.

While the infrastructure of this screening was being fine-tuned in the theatre, I, alongside fellow actor Kelly, were in a rehearsal room upstairs being prepped by costume designer John Foley. We were the live actors set to appear at certain points in the screening to bring the experience of the film, married with the scents, out of the screen and into the theatre.

John dressed us in vintage costumes to match the characters in the film. Kelly wore a blue dress with headscarf to assume the role of Elisabeth Taylor’s character, the ‘Mystery Lady’.

I was dressed in a vintage suit, hat and (my grandfather’s) pipe to play the ‘Pipe Smoking Villain’, who would skulk through the cinema isles when the character appeared in the film, distributing a tobacco scent in my wake. Then I was to change into the costume of the film’s hero to unite with the Mystery Lady in the theatre at the appropriate moment in the film. 

Zero hour came quickly for the Smell-O-Vision! screening. A bustling audience shuffled into the theatre anticipating an eccentric out-of-the-ordinary movie viewing experience and found their seats. They excitedly chattered while examining their curious bottles, unfurled their fans and gave themselves a flutter. 

Tammy, Saskia and Dave gave short talks that contextualised the history of scented cinema, the work of Swiss osmologist and inventor Hans Laube, the infamous disaster of the film’s initial release, trepidation in using scent to enhance film experiences since and the ambitious nature of this first revival attempt. Instruction was given as to the interactive application of the scents and use of the bottles and fans.

Then the lights dimmed and the curtain opened …

I watched through the crack in a black curtain at the side of the theatre stage as the first numbered placard went up to gasps as the audience checked around them to see who had the right bottle. Little squirting noises with spray illuminated by the light from the screen was thrown up in the air at different areas in the audience. As it disappeared and settled in the air people sniffed while watching the film. 

This routine continued becoming more seamless and less distracting to the onscreen images as the audience got accustomed to the system of numbers going up and spraying. Scents were blowing across the audience quietly but effectively from the fans at the side when the time came. It seemed like the audience in the dark found it fun and playful. 

Kelly came out of the screen as the Mystery Lady and the audience willingly unfurled their fans and waved. I made my entrances and exits and heads turned as I went by and returned to the screen to look again at what the tobacco smelling baddie was getting up to this time in the plot. 

The film drew to its final scenes and Kelly and I walked off together under an umbrella, through the audience and out of the theatre. We heard applause through the doors as the credits rolled. 

After we had changed out of our costumes I returned with Kelly and found the audience kindly filling out questionnaires asking about their smello experience and what they thought worked or didn’t. 

I got to look at a few on the trip home. The consensus was that the experience was first and foremost fun, intriguing and different. There were some smells that were more dominant than others on that day, like garlic, and at times there were an amalgamation of smells in the theatre at one time.

However, on the whole the audience felt the scents engaged their senses and that the interactions with the story made it feel more than just catching a movie.

So Smell-O-Vision! returned that day at Bradford and was well received with scope for development and an appetite for more. 

– Saul, Pipe Smoking Villain.