Josh Gilbert’s popular festival documentary “a/k/a Tommy Chong” looks at the entertainer who made his name as part of the comedic duo, Cheech & Chong. Charged three years ago for selling bongs over the Internet, Chong — a vocal opponent the U.S. administration’s war on terror — was sentanced to prison and Gilbert explores the comedian’s story.
Gilbert recently responded to indieWIRE’s email questionnaire, his answers to our questions are published below.
Please tell us about yourself, including background…
I was born in the heart of Hollywood, on Sunset Boulevard, on a crisp Autumn morning 43 years ago. I grew up in Beverly Glen Canyon, which at the time was an artist and bohemian infested ghetto of Bel Air. The place was verdant, and secluded, and had an almost provincial feeling within the civic center of the amorphous, spawling, metropolis of Los Angeles. This was before a group of investors built a tract housing development at the top of the canyon road and inundated our bucolic seclusion with gridlock and congestion and basically eviscerated the backwoods feel of the place.
I moved to Holland to live as an exchange student my senior year of high school, where I learned to speak Dutch fluently. After recieving my BA in Political Economy from UC Santa Cruz, I returned to Amsterdam to edit a Dutch to English dictionary, and was personally responsible for translating all the Dutch words beginning with J, K and L into English for the 37th edition of Elsevier’s Dutch-English Dictionary. To date, it’s the best job I’ve ever had.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker? What other creative outlets do you explore (music/painting/writing etc.)?
I’ve always been a film addict, and growing up near Westwood, went to the movies every chance I got. Westwood had more movie theaters per capita than anywhere else in the world, at the time, and I was a master of sneaking into theaters growing up and achieved legendary status amongst my friends for my skills. Charlie Bronson was my first first cinematic hero. I was 11. Charlie — or “motherfucking Charlie Bronson” as we used to call him — represented the authentic badass we all were trying to be. Charlie made me realize the real power inherent in walking softly and carrying a big stick. A lesson which, unfortunately, I’ve never been able to internalize.
I was also a big fan of good raunchy films, and because I was sneaking into theaters, film ratings were never an impedement to my film-viewing experience. Before my 15th birthday, I’d seen and thoroughly enjoyed first-run viewings of “Emmanuel,” “Last Tango In Paris” and “Fritz The Cat.”
I was also a huge fan of arthouse films. “Harold and Maude” and “King of Hearts” were my favorites. “Harold and Maude” is still my all time favorite film (next to “The 400 Blows” — which I’ve only seen on video) and was the first film I saw that made me want to make films. It made me feel something so deeply. And like so many great works of art, it made me feel like it understood some hidden essence of me.
Did you go to film school? Or how did you learn about filmmaking?
While I was translating the dictionary in Amsterdam, my favorite grandmother fell ill back in the States and I returned home to see her before she died. During her protracted illness, I wound up applying to graduate school at USC Film School and much to my amazement, got in. I earned an MFA in 1989 at the Peter Stark Motion Picture Program. It’s a very decent program, and when you graduate, you wind know knowing a tremendous amount about how Hollywood works on the machine room level; how deals are structured; how to protect yourself within the moshpit mayhem of an industry with no moral compass and a lot of dangerous man-eating sharks swimming around. The idea of the program is to “groom” educated executives and prepare them to run studios. I was on that track for about ten seconds, but quickly realized the executive life was not for me. That’s when I chose to become a filmmaker, and leave the executive decisions to the executives.
What are your biggest creative influences (this could include other filmmakers or films)?
After deciding I didn’t want to scrap my way up the career ladder at a studio, I became producing partners with my best friend from elementary school, Dean Devlin. Dean’s father was a Hollywood mogul, who came out to Hollywood from New York with his best friend Jack Nicholson, with a film they’d written together as young actors about a gigantic baby who wreaks havoc on New York City.
Dean was a true insider, with major connections and I was a shmuck he knew since the 3rd grade who understood the difference between box office gross and film rentals. Initially, we had big plans to take over Hollywood, but I soon realized this wasn’t my destiny either. So I left the partnership to write a screenplay with Tommy Chong at the low point of his career. And Dean went on to write and produce a string of Hollywood smash hits, including “Independence Day” and “The Patriot.”
I’d met Tommy during my first job after film school, at Cinetel Films, where Tommy was making his straigh-to-video comedy, “Far Out Man.” Tommy was desperate to catch the same breaks his old partner Cheech had been catching after starring in several hit films, including “Born in East LA.” He heard from a number of people I knew how to write and understood the business well enough to be value added, and he hired me for my first screenwriting job. We wrote a film called “Dying’s Easy, Comedy’s Hard.” It didn’t sell, but we got some pretty phenomenal meetings.
I wouldn’t count Tommy as one of my biggest creative influences, even though I was certainly intrigued by his Horatio Alger, Hippie bad ass rise to fame and fortune against all odds. Although he’s certainly influenced me and the shape of my professional career, especially now, on the eve of the upcoming theatrical release of my first documentary film: “a/k/a Tommy Chong,” which (opened) at the Film Forum on June 14th.
The documentary was initially financed by me and my girlfriend, and then by an outside investor, a woman who’s made a fortune running junk yards in the San Fernando Valley and selling tract homes in the desert.
What is your definition of “independent film”?
My definition of “independent film” is making a film independent of traditional studio/?Hollywood involvement in any and all aspects of the process, from conception through distribution. And waiting to sign a distribution deal until you fully understand your intentions within the process as you understand it and define it; and to never relinquish control of your project unless you understands with absolute certainty what your choices represent to your end game. It’s very very very difficult to be truly independent. And very lonely…
I see a filmmaker’s approach to film distribution as integrally linked to his or her over-all process of making an independent film, and earning the title “independent.” Especially now, in today’s virtual wonderland of non-theatrical and internet driven opportunities, which increasingly allow filmmakesr to target their audience and independently market their products without selling out.
What are some of your all-time favorite films, and why? What are some of your recent favorite films?
Some of my all-time favorite films…Hmm…Well, I guess my top five would start with “Harold and Maude”; “The 400 Blows”; “The Graduate“; “Young Frankenstien“; “Annie Hall” and since I just made a documentary, I’ll include “Theramin” (which is stunningly good.)
Also, because I’ve just been on the festival circuit, I also have to include James Longley‘s “Iraq in Fragments,” which on a technical level is one of the most impressive documentaries you’ll ever see. It’s also a phenomenal, emotionally driven socio-political achievement. It reallyis truly phenomenal.
I also loved the “Devil and Daniel Johnston,” which I saw on the circuit. It was phenomenal on every level, technical, emotional, visual. Wowser. Brilliant.
How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
Success for me will be when I see “a/k/a Tommy Chong” getting out to its core audience and then crossing over to more mainstream audiences, and in the process, change the way people understand the War on Drugs and the War on the Culture Tommy Chong represents.
As for my goals, I’d like to make more films about things that matter, or at the very least bug me. Like a big beautiful pearl, it all starts with a little irritation…