The Mammoth Lakes Film Festival opened its third year going Up in Smoke.
Festival director Shira Dubrovner and programming director Paul Sbrizzi opened the festival with a screening of the first Cheech and Chong movie – seminal in its presentation of Chicano culture and cannabis culture – along with a lively q&a with Tommy Chong.
The film itself is madcap, silly, perfectly timed fun. Chong’s interview laid it all on the line.
“I was going to write a film called Jack and the Weedstalk,” Chong laughs. “But when we started writing we wanted to show marijuana culture. We also realized we had a great immigration story. ”
Chong, who spent 9 months in jail in 2003 for selling bongs, aptly describes the demonization of cannabis by politics, the racist nature of depicting cannabis users as crazed killers, and introducing what was then a “Mexican slang word” – marijuana – to the cultural lexicon. With Up in Smoke, the comedy duo presented cannabis culture with inspired improv Robert Altman-style, and worked to change the negative perspective.
“We shot all over Pacific Coast Highway, all over LA. It was just fun making a movie and getting high – the catering was great, if something broke it’s ok, there’s no violence – we let the actors figure out much of their own dialog.”
The duo’s laconic style clashed with the film’s original director Floyd Mutrix, who was replaced by Lou Adler. Chong himself is uncredited as a co-director, re-shooting the film’s hilarious ending scenes after a disastrous rough cut screening for Paramount execs – in which the film ended with the action portrayed as “just a dream.”
Chong viewed the film as “like one of our stage shows – but we would also shoot the rehearsal.”
He notes “Sometimes the first thing you’d say would be the best…actors say dying on screen is easy and comedy is hard because you can’t rehearse spontaneity which is often where the comedy comes up.”
Working with Adler, Chong would add elements to the script, stories the other actors would tell.
“Cheech would tell me stuff he did as a kid like peeing in hamper by mistake and I would say let’s put it in – actress Zane Buzby who plays Jade East, she told us about this routine her roommate would do, and we put in the fake sex scene in the van based on her story.”
As a director, Chong followed the advice of auteur Terrence Malik: “Its your vision – you direct it.”
Chong says Smoke is still his favorite Cheech and Chong movie
“because it really started the whole Chicano humor movement. Cheech was one of a kind and still is.”
The duo will soon be releasing a documentary created by Chong’s daughter, and continue to perform live on stage.
“We’ve been trying to do another movie since ’03 but some things – those are one of a kind – it only happens once when you’re young. I’d rather live on screen like this – you never get old. You’re always 20.”
He offers this advice for the young:
“Love what you’re doing – if you don’t love what you’re doing, quit doing it whether it’s film making or sweeping sidewalks. It’s all about love.”
Love is certainly part of the reason for the continued success of MLFF – with intimate discussions like these and a wide range of films ahead this week.
- Genie Davis; photos: Jack Burke