While America was grappling with much-needed change in the early 70s and the Equal Rights Amendment making waves through the women’s movement in America, our neighbors up north in Canada were also going through a test of their own through government policy and drug use. The pressure was on the Addiction Research Foundation to further research the recreational use of marijuana as it wasn’t too far out of reach that it could be just that, legally recreational. Twenty women volunteered their time for this testing in exchange for payment after the deemed necessary testing period. With so much historical context to chew on, Craig Pryce is able to weave a journey of character growth in an uncertain world that 1972 brought to the forefront for many women during that turbulent time.
The Marijuana Conspiracy is written and directed by Craig Pryce ("Good Witch," The Dark) and stars Julia Sarah Stone (Honey Bee, Allure), Morgan Kohan ("Star Trek: Discovery"), Brittany Bristow ("Good Witch"), Tymika Tafari ("Murdoch Mysteries"), and Kyla Young ("Alias Grace").
In 1972, five young women looking for a fresh start in life become part of a radical experiment studying the effects of weed on women. Despite the agendas of the government, they use their unique strengths, and friendship to overcome adversity.
The impetus for the film came from Doreen Brown, one of the real life women whom the film is based upon. Years after the experiment ended, Brown shared her little known story with the world. This led to the Toronto Star opening an investigation to find the results of this strange experiment (which are still unknown.)
Craig and I discuss his filmmaking journey as a director, his storytelling instincts to focus on serving story first, what it was like re-creating a specific era and tackling a true story.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Let's talk about your filmmaking journey from starting out directing 90s horror to holiday movies to this project.
Craig Pryce: [laughs] Well, it's certainly been a journey. I started out doing a horror film called Revenge of the Radioactive Reporter, and it was quite a learning curve, but fortunately Universal Studios picked it up and then I did a second one called the Dark which went to HBO and Miramax so it was off to a good start, but the films were taking so long, like three years to make. I sort of needed a more stable thing, so I segued into episodic TV and started with shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps which made sense for a genre guy. And then did the one hours and then a lot of tween shows. I just kept going in different directions, which I like to mix up genres anyway. And then I started to miss the directors role in long form - movie like storytelling, so I ventured into TV movies. And it was sort of a nice step between having more of a stable career but also having more of a say as the director and the things that you make. One of them turned into seven movies it's called The Good Witch. Those became sort of a franchise of movies which then morphed into an episodic series. We just finished our seventh season on that. But the one thing happening during this journey was I really missed making independent films and just the energy and the approach and the freedom and the creative process, you know. So, I was determined to get this one made because it really fascinated me and with a new direction and even for content because it was true story, and it was dealing with period which is always challenging on any budget, so I really wanted to challenge myself and do something outside of the box of anything going all the way back to my first film.
Sadie: That’s quite the journey. Jumping into the challenges as a director recreating a specific era, especially with this historical context, what were you up against?
Craig: Well, first there was two big challenges. One was just servicing the story and the characters and the time well. That became sort of part of my research and interview process of the times and with the ladies in that experiment, so that was the first step. And then the next step was, how do I create something on a budget? And so, when I wrote the script I was thinking about, you know, because I have a producer background as well as director, what's the best way to structure this so that it would work with locations? And it was quite a big task for small film. And so, I sort of took the aspects of the story and the essence of it was the reality of production. And then I went in the creative direction of making sure that I was servicing the most important thing - the story and the characters. Then I went to the practical side of it, of trying to find all the elements of 1972 in Toronto, which location wise there’s very little left. I basically put together a system where I had certain locations that work before you actually get to the main one where the experiment takes place, and I took those locations and spent a long time negotiating and I wrote to that as well. So, there's a lot of pre-prep on that.
And then the Toronto Star building, which is where the experiment took place, which is supposed to be the hospital wing, I used that for exteriors, for the couple of offices overlooking the lake, and then used it for the foyer. It was all about concrete panel and cinder block that seemed to be the recurring thing at that time, Brutalist architecture. So, we seamlessly put together one shot where the nurse walks through the whole building looking for someone and we started at three different locations and seven different sets between the three locations. The crew were like, “We have to dress her seven times in the same wardrobe!” and I’m like, “I know but it's gonna sell it.”
The key was to just have a lot of time because it was a period and you have a budget, and I did write to it, but I was writing to the things I knew as far as the story, the characters and the locations. So, it was really sort of unique experience to do this for the most part, but I sort of took everything I ever knew from my filmmaking and everything ever used by producing, and I sort of just put it all together, and it was a great experience.
Sadie: That's incredible. It's using the tools at your disposal at its finest. Movie magic. Especially with you describing that one scene of the nurse searching. Who would have known that it was not one continuous shot in the same location? Well done.
Craig: Yeah, thank you.
Sadie: What was like the having Doreen Brown as a direct resource while writing the script?
Craig: Well, I met Doreen and some others, and the first thing I did was when I did meet them, I explained to them I wasn't going to use their name. I also explained to them the characters weren't easily identifiable as each person like, “Oh that's me,” because they may not have wanted that. And with came an incredible amount of honesty, and they were very open and generous. And they were very vivid in their memories and their experiences, so it was a really fascinating thing. And Doreen in particular was so open and helpful, it was really amazing. So, it was really servicing a lot of people for a two-hour movie, but it became effortless because I knew so much about them and it really helped me when I was directing the actresses as well.
And they have seen the film by the way, which made me super nervous. But I got some lovely emails, and then a beautiful one from Doreen about it. So, I was really, you know, feeling that I served the characters well and as well as the time and story so it was really nice to hear that because there is responsibility when you're doing something that did happen. It was probably the most rewarding thing that they were happy with it.
Sadie: It's really nice to hear that they gave you some well wishes there too. I really liked how you also brought to the forefront the different issues women were facing during that time period, women had very little rights and you kind of interweave it in very subtly.
Craig: I appreciate that, it's really one of the things that, again, fascinated me and hearing them talk about it and doing further research. And again, we don't want to do any spoiler alerts, but this is all really happening beyond the experiment where there was absolutely no regulations but the other thing that the film touches on, you know, the amount of sexism and racism and and other things. You look at all these issues and themes, and they still resonate, and partly because there's so much of it still going on. That's what's caused a lot of conversation about the film, it is provoking people, it’s provocative. So, it's interesting parallels for sure.
Sadie: What is the process as a writer in adapting a true story?
Craig: Well, it's interesting because you have to start with the structure and the character. I look at it as a jigsaw puzzle. I'm a big fan of films like Short Cuts and Magnolia where there's multiple characters, and they all have different walks of life, and they end up together. The difference is, these were real characters who really did meet up together, and also just meeting the people who went in on the experiment, just not the five we follow, but also the nurse and the psychiatrist, you know, Barry the Social Scientist, Adam the student. So, I approached it as structure first, and then I looked at filling in the character and filling in the details. When I write, I normally do structure first because it's easier for me because I know what the beginning, middle and end is. This wasn't just do whatever you want with these characters. That sort of was in the back of my mind, even writing the structure, just like when I was thinking about locations I have and how I'm going to blend them it all became sort of a, again taking everything I knew about scheduling and production and how much I can shoot in the day and these characters.
Doing research on some of the social scientists and the Addiction Research Foundation, the head guy, it was like, you know, they had agendas and the girls were going there to make money and have fun originally. So, that's where it gets really interesting and again not to give too much away, but it was really great to know that you could tell the story. So it was really one of my, I think, my favorite period of experience doing a film from concept and research to the script, to shooting it, post and now promoting it.
Sadie: I really appreciate that you're so respectful to serving story and these characters to the best of your ability. I always find that with the period pieces, dialogue seems to always be tricky. How did you approach your dialogue and making it seem realistic to the time and also serve that story front as well?
Craig: That's a really good question. What I did was I really researched 70s speak and I made sure that I didn't overdo it, because I didn't want it to jump out too much. But I also wanted people to know a lot of terms and things like “Don't you know” things like that and you know “Rad” and all of that, like it could, it was that fine line because you didn't want to be, you know like a parody of it. But the actors were so good, and sometimes I would pull back. I did want to have a bit of dialogue because it took place ‘72 and it was a different speak but not to the point where it took you away from the story and the characters and things like that.
Sadie: Any advice for writers or filmmakers who are diving into adapting a true story?
Craig Pryce: Well, the first thing you have to do is talk to somebody who knows about this because there are complications that you wouldn't expect. So, if you're doing life right, it's very different than if you're just basing it on public domain. So, you really need to do research. You don't want to spend time writing something that the insurance companies will say, “Well you can't say that, you can't do that.” I did something called annotated scripts, where you took everything that was real and what was from public domain and what was from research and what was from the ladies. You just have to make sure that you are doing something that you can actually write, because there's very complicated things on the legal side of making a true story and a true life story, so I would definitely do your homework first before delving too far into it so people don't say, “Well, you can’t say that or you can’t do that” because you'll get sued for this or because that's completely not within the realm of true story.
The Marijuana Conspiracy is now available On Demand and Digital.