This year's April 20th (aka National Weed Day) is being celebrated by the film community in two ways. Magnolia pictures is set to release the groundbreaking documentary Marley, based on the thoroughly intriguing life of Rastafarian sensation Bob Marley. In addition, the edgy California 90420 will also hit theaters. The film provides a radical exploration of the marijuana trade in the state of California. What's most striking is its focus on Oaksterdam's University's program to aid those who aim to work in the marijuana industry. The school is currently facing legal action and many believe the harsh laws against marijuana use in America are dated.
The International Business Times had the chance to ask the film's director Dean Shull about the difficulty of making a controversial documentary, the legalization of pot, and what his favorite reefer friendly flicks are.
What's your opinion on the fact that alcohol (which kills 75,000 a year in America) is not only legal and readily accessible but that it's also used to sponsor events and is endorsed by celebrities? I am fascinated at how certain mood altering substances have made their way into becoming legal and others have not. There was a time when weed was legal in this country, and a time when you could not buy a beer. In a broader sense, I admire countries like Portugal that quit imprisoning people for drug use and put the money towards helping those particular people with serious addictions. This happened over 10 years ago and has proven to be a huge success, instead of having 100,000 people being punished in jail, the money goes to about 40,000 people who need help turning things around.
In countries, like Amsterdam, where pot is legal, few people actually smoke it. Do you think that part of marijuana's appeal is that it's prohibited? I think in Amsterdam it is not technically legal, just tolerated. It's kinda pseudo-legal here in California as well, considered legal in instances by the state, but not by the Feds. I think in some places in Cali its a $60 ticket for smoking weed if you don't have medical permission. More to your point, while I think the taboo appeal might be there for some of the youthful rebels, it becomes a little less taboo when even our presidents admit to smoking it. I'd have to say it works both ways as I just got off the phone with one of our four main subjects that quit smoking weed at the end of our film, and asked why the decision has remained intact to not smoke it anymore. I was surprised to hear that a big part of the reason to not start again was due to the fact that pot smoking is considered taboo and that people may view you in a certain light due to their stereotypes.
Surely your choice to make a film about California's Oaksterdam University's marijuana program was controversial. What were some major complications that came your way during production and how did you overcome them? The field trip to the weed fields of Mendo was an interesting experience, behind the scenes we were sized up by a guy named Human, who introduced us to a guy named Monkey, who brought us to a woman named Pebbles, who brought us to a field owner who didn't want to say his name. Any fear of a gangsta element quickly subsided as they all turned out to be amazingly kind and compassionate people. Guess they'd have to get tougher nicknames if they're gonna be gangsta.
What would you say to documentary filmmakers who want to approach a hot button issue but are nervous about putting themselves on the line? In our particular case we avoided any voice over. All of the statements are from people in our our doc, both for and against. We also didn't want to get too caught up in the politics. While California, 90420 touches on the issues, our aim was to NOT have a strong TV style political, historical or scientific slant on the subject. We feel those have been covered by the news and other docs and wanted to show the human story, by shedding a light on the journeys of people in the world of weed in California and utilize a narrative structure closer to that a novel than an informational documentary.
What are some of your favorite films that deal with marijuana use? I think some of my favorite stoner films are the ones with a positive simplistic philosophy of good times and intentions. This is a popular theme and although the Bill and Ted film is not officially a stoner film, it is usually classified as one (they must have been smoking weed in the deleted scenes), their motto of Be excellent to each other and party on dudes, is often a way of life for people here in California. In fact the 21 year old wild child of our film lives by the extremely similar Cali mantra of Be Golden, live Radically.
Will you be checking out the other reefer friendly film that comes out on 4/20, Marley? Guess I'll have to do a triple feature, I thought the other reefer friendly film was Disney's Chimpanzees.