Film Independent Mon 3.23.2015

The Haze of Documentary Filmmaking: Britta Erickson on Producing the SXSW Pot Doc, Rolling Papers

When I first heard that SXSW was premiering a documentary about marijuana legalization in Denver, Colorado, I knew I was in for a treat. What I hadn’t expected was a film that not only explores the pratfalls of regulation, but also takes viewers deep inside the operations of The Denver Post’s first cannabis editorial team as they navigate the pot culture of Colorado.

I sat down with Film Independent Member Britta Erickson, the current Director of the Denver Film Festival and Denver Film Society, producer of Rolling Papers and all-around great gal, to discuss her experiences making the film:

How did you first get involved with this project?
When medical marijuana first got legalized, it just got voted in and there were no rules, no regulations, and nobody knew how to deal with it. Then, all of a sudden the city council was like, ‘Oh my god! Let’s stuff Pandora back into the box!’ As a journalism junkie, I thought that this was a fascinating story. I wanted to watch how they were going to try to regulate when they’ve already said, “Doors are open! Oh, we’re gonna try and close the doors a bit.”

There was a group of artists, including Daniel Junge, an Academy Award winning documentary director who lives in Denver, who is a good friend of mine and who worked with me on my first production, Convention; a very energetic young gal, Alison Greenberg-Millice, who was a producer on that project; and Davis Coombe, who I think is the greatest editor working in documentary film right now. We were trying to pull together a project about the medical marijuana legalization and regulation. That story just didn’t go anywhere and that project eventually got put on the shelf.

Alison was the critical person behind Rolling Papers because she kept saying, “we’ve got 100 hours of footage and it’s just sitting there, and now things are changing and recreational marijuana has been legalized.” One night, right after recreational had been legalized, I was watching the news and saw Ricardo Baca next to the words, “Denver Post appoints first ever Marijuana Editor of a major daily paper.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s my friend Ricardo and he’s an interesting person. I should call him. This may be a way for us to get back to the story that Alison really felt like we should still tell.” So I called Ricardo and that’s how it started.

My major role in producing Rolling Papers was this “aha!” moment that I had. I just knew at that moment how we could tell the story. The people that we were originally following were a bit dubious and we couldn’t see a clear end to that story. So, because I’m fascinated with journalism, when The Denver Post did this big press announcement that they were going to have a Marijuana Editor, I said, ‘That’s Ricardo! He’s been covering music forever and he’s a fascinating character and I think we have a through-line and a lens with which to tell the story.’ I think that was the problem with the first iteration of this story–there was no lens. And if looking at journalism can tell a larger story, then let’s use that lens.

What did you learn while making this film about legalization and regulation that you were not aware of before?
I don’t smoke pot. I have no issue with people who do smoke pot and I’m very proud of Colorado for passing the law. There were a lot of reasons initially to not want to become the first state to legalize it. Would it hurt tourism? We built a gigantic new convention center and are trying to attract conventions; What conventions are we going to lose in a town that suddenly has legal drugs? I think they ran a good anti-legalization campaign and I did actually vote against it. And then I went on to produce this film. I learned a lot about regulation that I didn’t know before in the process. But you know what I didn’t learn? I still don’t know the difference between indica and sativa. Mitch Dickman, our director, keeps telling me that down here at SXSW, “we’re gonna break it out and SHOW you the difference!’”

How did your team know when you reached a stopping point?
What we did well on this project was knowing the stopping point when we started. It was going to be one year–a one year look. There’s a lot that’s happened in the last three months since that year has ended. And people have said, ‘oh, are you going to put an epilogue in the film? Are you going to add this or that?’ And my response is, “Nope.” The lens was The Denver Post. We weren’t going to tell any stories that they weren’t going to cover. And we also weren’t going to do any stories that existed outside of these 12 months. If you go into a story at the beginning and say, these are the parameters, that’s how I better operate.

Did your team seek out funding or grants that related to marijuana legalization or did you seek out individuals with a specific connection with the subject matter?
When I went to The Denver Post and sat down with their publisher, editor and execs and said, ‘This film is going to be 100% about your organization,’ they asked me to not go after people [for funding] who were trying to change policies. So, if we were in Texas, for example, we couldn’t take money from the Texas Cannabis Industry Association. Basically anybody who was trying to lobby about cannabis was off-limits. I told them I wasn’t trying to make an advocacy film since it’s legal here in Colorado. I just want to make a film that shows what’s going on here. But interestingly enough, a lot of money did come from the cannabis industry and from people personally giving money.

We did a successful Kickstarter campaign. There is an organization called The Arc View Group that does quarterly summits–they’re hedge fund guys and gals and investors who are interested in investing in the cannabis industry. They’d pick some projects to pitch via webinars and they said, “Oh, this project is interesting. We’ll let you pitch your movie.” So Alison just did an amazing job and we got picked to present. We didn’t take money from any cannabis business, but some individuals were identified from that webinar who may have strategies where they’re going to start a big business endeavor because the opportunity is there, but they gave us their personal dollars.

How has your expertise as a festival director influenced your festival strategy for this film? I’m sure you have a better idea of how things work than someone just jumping into this.
It’s been interesting being a festival director who is also producing some films and talking to my team about strategies while looking at offers for where we are going to premiere. We told all of our investors that we would try for Sundance, and we did. When I sent this film to Sundance with a late deadline, I will honestly tell you that it was too early. I’ve been in this business so long and I understand festivals. I want filmmakers to try for their biggest dream possible, and everyone has that big dream. I wanted Mitch to follow his dream of trying for Sundance but I knew we needed more time.

Festival programmers can look at things that are rough and see through it. But then, as a festival director, you have to also think, “Wow, there is definitely something there. Are [the filmmakers] going to get there in two months? Or do they need another six months to get there?” Festivals ultimately want to celebrate filmmakers and I don’t want to speak for other directors but as the Festival Director of the Denver Film Society and the Denver Film Festival, I would say, “Keep going with this! I don’t want you to race this through in August to show in November, because this is not the end-all, be-all.

Every other festival director is going to scream that I said this but there is no end-all, be-all festival strategy. I mean, you should have one, and it’s always great to aspire to premiere at your dream festival, but if that doesn’t happen for you as a filmmaker, you shouldn’t be curled up in a gutter crying about it. There are other ways to bring films to markets and audiences and regional film festivals are a great way to do that. There are other opportunities.

Rolling Papers was picked up for distribution last week at SXSW by Alchemy, so keep an eye out for it later this year.

 Lee Jameson / Film Education Manager