By Bert Marcus | Indiewire July 3, 2013 at 12:23PM
In my early twenties, I experienced a disheartening, drug-related loss when a close family member was not lucky enough to beat a battle with addiction. As a result, I reached out to friends and family for support, leaning on those closest to me. I realized that I was in the majority, that most people I spoke with had a link. Almost every person in some way or another has personally, or through a relationship, experienced a drug-related episode that has drawn him or her into the industry to play some role in what has been called “the war on drugs.”
The more conversations and stories that were sparked by friends and family, the more I began to think that with numbers can come change. I studied, researched and began to try to understand how this was possible. In doing so, I learned about our drug laws and policies and the economic and racial impact that comes with them. The statistics are staggering. If this affects almost all Americans, there must be something that we can do to help.
After producing "Teenage Paparazzo," I realized that we were once again presented with the chance to take a topic that has been explored hundreds of times and engage the viewer in ways that previous films on the topic never have. Our focus was to find a unique voice and critical angle towards improving the discussion around drugs. And How to Make Money Selling Drugs was conceived in theory. Like the film, I am going to give you an easy guide to how this movie was made, although this one is only 5 steps.
1. The Mood, the Pace, the Feel
As a filmmaker, I knew that I had a unique opportunity to be heard and to impact people’s lives in a meaningful way. I was in my mid-to-late 20’s when we started the project and, as mentioned, I could not stand the idea of making just another film on the war on drugs. I watched film after film on the subject – what is the connecting factor besides the topic? The mood, the pace, the feel…in sum, the demographic.
Being the youngest filmmaker involved in the production, it was especially important to me to engage a younger generation who had not had the over-exposure with films on the drug war. Why, I thought, was there no film that speaks to the demographic where many of these problems begin in the first place, where many first time criminals enter prison and where many people make their most important life decisions? This wasn’t going to be a movie just for those that have already experienced their most challenging moments in life, it was going to be a film targeting those just beginning to experience them. The goal was now to engage a new viewer and, in doing so, bridge the gap between generations.
2. Channeling the Audience . . . The Target
Rather than lecture, to capture a younger demographic we felt that through entertainment and a tongue-in-cheek, if not risqué, approach, we would absolve the judgment and tension around the war on drugs. This, in turn, would deliver a broader message across that what the U.S. government and drug policy and enforcement agencies are doing from a policy and social standpoint clearly has not, and is not, working. A fast-pace and high-energy tone, especially through the use of music, where I began in entertainment as a teen, were the first steps in opening a young audience’s mind and making it easier to listen.
Next, as we immersed ourselves in research, interviews and discussion, the natural backbone and structure of the film presented itself: a video game. The drug war, like a video game, consists of various levels. As a street dealer you start at the bottom with very little and attempt to build an empire level by level. How different is that than my days of Super Mario Bros.?
The video game structure was also meant to educate, as many Americans don't appreciate the reality that the drug trade is truly a global powerhouse business, not just casual trading on a corner or at a party. Through an interactive game, the audience can appreciate the magnitude and intricacy of perpetuating this massive, intertwined industry while still being engaged. In this way, the form could mirror the function whereby the video game action, violence and entertainment value reflects the same inherent nature of the pervasive drug industry.
3. Draw People In . . . The Hook
The necessity to draw in the masses extends past basic elements of entertainment in the film. Why not enlist an army of popular advocates? I think that often times the speaker is more important than the subject matter. Think about school – was your favorite class based on the topic or the teacher?
I was overwhelmed by the support that we received when approaching high profile individuals, even those that are notoriously hard to persuade to participate in interviews. If someone were to tell me that there was a film with Eminem, 50 Cent, Susan Sarandon, Russell Simmons and Woody Harrelson, I certainly would not think it was a documentary, I would think that a studio paid millions to get this kind of talent.
People always ask how we were able to get so many celebrities in the film and the answer will likely surprise you. Some were reluctant at first, but after explaining our film’s unique approach and style, we began to gain traction with celebrities that are truly passionate about ending the drug war. From here, we organically received captivating content and willing participation, as well as names to lure people in to hear the messages we wanted to convey.
These individuals are role models and inspirational icons to our society and to hear about the topic through their words and passion can hopefully motivate each viewer to do their part in joining the conversation about changing the approach to drugs in America. For example, Russell Simmons, Susan Sarandon and Woody Harrelson have been adamant advocates against the war on drugs, particularly as it relates to the repeal of the infamous New York Rockefeller Drug Laws. Russell has notably written a letter to President Obama and championed a cyber march in April to end the war, amongst other outreach.
Having a slate of zealous celebrity advocates was only one portion of how we wanted to round out the cast. Through filming, we realized more and more that the war on drugs reaches from inside our homes, inside our wallets, inside our prisons and out on to our streets, so we wanted to make a film that captured every element of the war on drugs and from all perspectives. We wanted to show that this is not a black and white issue, there are multiple viewpoints and they all deserve recognition.
Although that answers the “why,” like the celebrities, some also ask how did we get drug dealers? What is involved in drug raids?
Drug dealers come in various forms. You may interact with one every day and you don’t even know it. Case in point was during editing, there was a man painting the outside of the editing hallway. He poked in to see what we were working on and we explained what the film was about. In a matter of seconds he was delving into his life story – how he had once been a drug dealer working for one of Mexico’s largest cartels and how he had made hundreds of thousands of dollars climbing the ranks. Happy as could be, he explained that after going to prison for five years, he had plenty of money left over and he is now a humble painter. He would do it all over again, he said, without hesitation. Why not? What may seem like an extraordinary journey to some was a matter-of-fact tale of daily life for Pepe. We knew that we had to get this on tape.
Similarly, on the other side, my company was granted unprecedented access to high-ranking government officials and drug raids. Sitting next to an agent while they are about to pull thousands upon thousands of dollars of drugs off of someone was unlike anything I have experienced. And like our celebrity advocates, after understanding our point of view in breaking down and humanizing such a daunting topic, they were thrilled to be a part of the film and share their voices with the world.
These are just a few examples among many, but this is the reason why we wanted celebrities, drug dealers, recovering addicts, attorneys and high-ranking government officials to each tell their stories. There are so many willing participants from every angle that will make you think twice about how you once thought of the drug war. By seeing every side of the drug war, seeing the scope of the parties affected and realizing that there are no winners and losers, no villains or heroes, the true complexity of the web created by drugs in this nation can be better brought to the light. We set out to humanize those that we deem as both “bad” and place on a pedestal. These are just people, human beings born of their own experiences and subsequently affected like you and me.
5. Getting Down to Business … The Hard Truth
We were compiling a film with entertainment, celebrity and voices from every facet of the drug war, but the last crucial puzzle piece was the stunning information we wanted to relay in the film. To start, I mentioned the information that I learned while beginning my studies on this topic; the money expended, the lives lost, the failed laws and the blatant racial inequity.
The drug war is a $400-$500 billion global industry, including drug production, smuggling and distribution worldwide. Think about that. Our country alone has spent over $1 trillion on the drug war since 1971. And for what?
States leads the world in illegal drug use, particularly marijuana and
cocaine. Further, it has been reported that Americans are four times as
likely to use cocaine in their lifetime than the #2 country on the
And look at our jails. The incentives around criminalization of drugs that began in the Nixon era have compounded rather than alleviated the problems percolating from the drug trade. Today, because of the drug laws, one in every fifteen African-American men is in prison. Even further, 90% of those convicted on drug charges under the Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York are African American and Latino. The United States is also the world’s leading jailer housing more inmates than the top 35 European countries combined. The money that we spend on this expense is astounding. In fact, we spend six times more money on prisons than education and almost half of our incarcerated population is in federal prison for non-violent crimes. Beyond that, prisons have become profitable business investments. Hedge funds, banking firms and financial companies now have a stake in prisons, striking deals to ensure that occupancy quotas are fulfilled from within.
This information has to be conveyed, and most importantly, digested.
There is a huge problem that has been coined as, and is, the biggest public policy failure to date in the United States. The public deserves to hear the information in a way that is digestible, refreshing, real and told from all angles and that is what we set out to do with this film. My hope is that you join the conversation and that the plea for reform will grow so strong that the members at the top of our government will no longer be able to drown out the noise. From discussions come solutions, solutions that focus on decriminalization to ensure that the billions of dollars spent on the drug war are now spent on productive causes. The money wasted can be spun into our prolific gain. We must take our citizenship seriously in exchange for the liberties afforded to us as Americans. I hope that you enjoy the film.