|Screenwriter Josh Gilbert became filmmaker Josh Gilbert when he learned his old pal, Tommy Chong, had been arrested for selling signature bongs via the Internet.|
“I saw it announced on the CNN crawl that Tommy Chong, my old friend and childhood hero, a guy with whom I’d collaborated on several projects, had had his house and business raided by a fully-armed SWAT team that was part of the government’s $12 million drug paraphernalia sting operation,” says Gilbert.
“It happened shortly after 9/11, which I—like many people in New York—had experienced and took very personally. I’d been watching how the Justice Department was taking advantage of that tragedy to expand its authority in ways that were intellectually and viscerally very upsetting to me. Then I saw them employing that same egregious misuse of power towards Tommy Chong, the comedian, whom they arrested because he represents counterculture. It made me fucking furious. I had to do something about it.”
MERIN: Did you make the film to help Tommy or as a political statement?
GILBERT: Both. I was convinced that the case—the situation, really—had to be documented. I felt this even more strongly when I found out Tommy had to withdraw from a “60 Minutes” interview because the authorities threatened to go after his wife and son. I was outraged that the government was robbing a comedian of his first amendment right to free speech. You know, at Tommy’s sentencing hearing, which was held on the second anniversary of 9/11, they even brought in Cheech and Chong’s film, Up In Smoke, to indicate that Tommy represents a threat to the children of America: a film he made 30 years ago [used] as condemning evidence.
With threats against his wife and son in the air, was Tommy OK with the idea of the documentary?
Yeah, he was very willing. Everyone thought it was a good thing to do. They were all completely freaked out by what was happening, and the film project became a focal point that helped them get through the calamity. I think Tommy’s not appearing on “60 Minutes” had to do with his plea—which would have him in jail for nine months. But if he didn’t accept that deal, they indicated they would go after Shelby (his wife) and Paris, his son who was responsible for running the bong factory, and push to get maximum time for all of them. The film, on the other hand, wouldn’t be out until after Tommy had done the nine months and a year of formal probation.
How’d you manage to film Tommy in jail?
Actually, I’d been trying to bring cameras into the jail for three months before they gave me permission. It came unexpectedly, and the way it came about is a funny story. The prison’s in the small town of Taft [California], which sits on the largest oil reserves in the contiguous United States. Taft was an oil town before it was a prison town, and they have a truly amazing oil museum that they’re rightfully very proud of. Somehow, because I was fascinated by the museum, I met the town’s former mayor, Pete Gianopulos. Pete just happens to have breakfast every day with the prison warden, and one day they decided I should be allowed to film Tommy in jail.
The film’s funny and seriously informative. Did you have a formula for balancing elements?
Editing was a huge challenge. We’d shot 300 hours of original footage and had all that great archival footage: great clips from the Cheech and Chong movies; TV appearances and their comedy recordings; plus news footage and featured appearances by Cheech, Jay Leno, Bill Maher, among other notable commentators. My career’s been in writing and doctoring scripts—and editing is like doing that, but you’re often using images instead of, or as well as, words.
I understand the film still doesn’t have a distributor. What’s the story with that?
Well, I was offered a $1.5 million deal but turned it down because, when I did the math, I realized what we’d get wouldn’t pay back our investors. I know many independent filmmakers who’ve taken distribution deals and later regretted having done so. I have a masters degree in film producing—that’s roughly equivalent to an MBA—so I knew how to figure out what a deal means in the long term. It was a hard decision, but we would have been selling off all potential future earnings from foreign rights and DVD. I just couldn’t do it.
[Instead] we’re working with activist organizations advocating for marijuana policy reform that will protect patients using marijuana for medical purposes from federal arrest. More specifically, Marijuana Policy Project, Drug Policy Alliance and Norml will screen A/K/A Tommy Chong at advocacy house parties nationwide starting July 8. There’ll be about 300 house party screenings by the end of summer. Then we’ll take the film to college campuses. We’re utilizing a grass roots—pun intended, of course—marketing approach to get the film’s message out.
Do you smoke pot?
Is it important to you?
Yes, it is.
Because I hate Prozac, and I can’t function on mushrooms.