A conversation with Adam Scorgie
The film industry has had a torrid time over the last few years: Illegal downloads, the advent of home cinema, YouTube; they've all contributed to the waning affluence of the silver screen. Add to this mix the fact that documentaries are known financial quagmires, and you have depressive mix for any aspiring film maker.
In 2007, two young Canadian film makers, Brett Harvey and Adam Scorgie, literally lit the movie industry up in a blaze of political engagement. Brett and Adam's first film, The Union - The Business Behind Getting High, was originally proposed as an exposé of the British Columbian cannabis industry, but the film took on an unexpected guise and firmly placed the film makers in the international spotlight. Producer and star of The Union, Adam Scorgie, took time out from his extensive schedule to speak to me about the unexpected rise to prominence.
"The Union has done way more than we'd ever thought. I still get messages from people all over the world that have looked at the issue of cannabis differently. I get messages from teachers who also thank us for putting the other side across, I get emails from really sick & disabled people who thank us for giving over a differing view from mainstream. It's humbling, we've recently had a million ratings on Netflix, can you believe that?"
"Joe Rogan said to me recently that if he's in the UK doing a comedy show, he'll get shouted at, "The Union". Most people know Joe from NBC's Fear Factor or the UFC, but he likes cannabis, and he's outspoken about that. This was a brave move and people love him for that; a successful man like Joe, well, it's a risk to say such things, but he is an honest person who knows his facts. Joe stood up and said what he felt needed saying.
"We were so lucky to get Joe to do the film. My now good friend, Todd McCormick, vouched for us as filmmakers, and Joe took a punt in saying yes to the interview. I'm still indebted to Todd and Joe for all they've done and continue to do. I was recently on the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast; to have the support of such people means more to me than I can convey."
With The Union being such a global smash hit, and having won copious amounts of awards, it would be expected that the film gave the makers a hefty cash reward. Despite tremendous critical acclaim, The Union has proved costly - the production team still owes on the film.
"There are risks with documentaries; there's no money in them, they are a labour of love. There's only a select few that make any real financial return. I love seeing the impact that documentaries can have on real lives, and that's why I do them. At the first screening in Vancouver Film Festival, we were sold out - there were more people down the block too. It's just amazing when you see the audience's reaction, and that's our payoff."
With such fiscal peril in documentary filmmaking, the question is, why does Adam Scorgie want to revisit the subject of cannabis policy in the upcoming film, The Culture High.
"We've already put in two years of work for The Culture High, it's not like The Union where we'll be waiting for two years in limbo. The Culture High will be going to theatres, dvd & bluray, broadcast; it's such an exciting prospect."
From its inception, The Culture High has been innovative with the audience deciding that it wanted to see the film come to fruition. How so? For the last month, a Kickstarter campaign has been launched into action with patrons paying for their copy of the film in advance. This prospect is undeniably brilliant in its simplicity. Could this be road ahead for entertainment?
"Yes, this could well be the future of film making, the fans have the power to fund what they want to see for the first time in movie history; this is a truly a life changer, and this is a big move in how we how we do things in the modern world. Like the internet's infamous entrepreneurs can attest to, the power has shifted from 'the establishment' to the people.
"So we wanted to revisit the subject of cannabis in The Culture High; with everything that's gone on lately in the media and what's been happening in cannabis reforms, we've found the way to be unique again - there would be no way we'd want to make a sequel if we couldn't make it original. For The Culture High, we're already anticipating the level of interview that we could to conduct, and that excites me to a tremendous degree. We know there are a great bunch of professionals - on both sides of the debate - so let's see where that takes us."
With the looming presence of The Culture High, it's of no surprise that the multi-award winning first film, The Union, is finding a new and curious audience.
"Our biggest award was to be invited to our Canadian place of Governance to educate and interact with the very people that are in charge of cannabis laws - we screened at Parliament Hill!"
"Irwin Cotler, former Attorney General under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, was drafting a bill for the Canadian Liberal Party. The Union's name kept cropping up as a referral, so, they emailed me. When I read that they wanted us to screen at Parliament Hill, I was sure it was a joke.
"When we got there, we were expecting a little building far away from Parliament Hill, with no MPs in attendance, but no, it was screened in the heart of the building with screens everywhere so everyone could see. Joyce Murray MP was just so nice too, we wouldn't have screened it if not for her. We were also pleased to see Senator Art Eggleton, and MP, Bruce Hyer.
"With politics, it can be like football supporting where camps are divided based on party lines, I guess we can all be guilty of that, but it's not often helpful to democracy and sensible legislation. We want to explore this ethos in our next film, Culture High. Group mentality can often hinder and be damaging without us really knowing - you know, it's all blue team vs. red team with no rhyme or reason to the question of why.
"I've been told, The Union is still causing a buzz on the back of the Parliament Hill screening. The feedback that we received was that The Union was not only enlightening, but it was entertaining - and to me, keeping docs entertaining is just so important."
The Union's audience is as notably diverse as the aforementioned cast. For Adam, the filming of the documentary was a more than a little eye opening:
"I can honestly say that my life can never be the same after conducting those interviews. My mind was spinning and I couldn't sleep for two days. Everything I had previously thought had been wrong; you have to remember, I wasn't and am not a pot advocate, and I reject the term activist. I come at this from a legitimate point of neutrality. We purposely wanted to sanitize the existing premise of the cannabis issue and take a fresher angle.
"What did it for me, what really made my eyes open wider was that of LEAP - Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. I'd love to get everyone of their speakers on film, they are what we call 'the golden nuggets of film making'. We had: Jack Cole, Norm Stamper, and also Senator Larry Campbell - they were all amazing.
"When you get this reform rhetoric from those that have been on the frontline of the drug war, senior police personnel, I mean, how can you argue with them? That's the inherent problem of the cannabis debate, a lot of the prohibition focused commentary tends to speak from a purely emotional position with no facts or substance, and there's no facts or figures that will convince them to the contrary. By all means, let's get all sides, but let's base this on facts, science and evidence."
The imposing yet unassuming figure of Dr Lester Grinspoon, Professor emeritus of Harvard Medical School, provided some of the most startling sound-bites to The Union. Dr Grinspoon wrote the definitive work on cannabis in 1971 and it was a great honour for Adam that he got to interview the legendary figure of medicine.
"When Lester Grinspoon speaks, I just want to listen. He tells these great stories and knows everything there is to know about cannabis. He's this prolific Ivy League doctor, but he has these great stories too, stuff that no-one knows! He was telling me about John Lennon: Dr Grinspoon was called as a scientific witness when Lennon was busted for cannabis. You can do an hour documentary on that story alone. Dr Grinspoon also knows how to recite just about every cannabis study under the sun, he can reel off some amazing facts."
The success of The Union is unquestionable in its impact, and the impending Culture High can surely be prophesied as being a trail blazing experiment for the whole of the film industry -- the buying audience has demanded the Culture High hits the screens, but it's the steadfast union of the Culture High that could well break new ground for a myriad of reasons.