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Homegrown, Half Baked, and the Rise of Pot in Film

As the smoke from recent drug tragedies lingers, why are movies now going to pot?

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For a guy who just shot a movie set on a marijuana plantation, Stephen Gyllenhaal doesn’t sound too mellow. “It’s murder,” the director says. “Trying to get this picture out is absolutely murder.” He’s talking about Homegrown, a black comedy screenwriter Nicholas Kazan describes as “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with dope growers.”

The two have had the script since 1980, but “nobody wanted to do it,” Gyllenhaal says. Until 1996: Lakeshore Entertainment ponied up nearly $10 million; Billy Bob Thornton, Kelly Lynch, and Hank Azaria joined the cast; and last year, TriStar picked Homegrown for its spring harvest. Still, the studio is treating the flick with some caution. In late March, before any national release, Homegrown will roll out only in Seattle. “The climate of the country was completely different back during Cheech and Chong,” says a Homegrown source. “We’ve got to see what the reaction is and what we’re up against.” Meanwhile, the MPAA has burned the movie’s original ad campaign. “We can’t put any reference to pot in the poster,” explains Kazan. “It was going to be a marijuana leaf — without even the title, like Batman.”

Oddly, the struggle over Homegrown comes at a time when pot seems to be hot. If Trainspotting capped off a boomlet of heroin chic in ’96, recent months have marked a return to the lazy, hazy days of joints and munchies. Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda spend much of Jackie Brown bonding over a bong. The normally drug-averse Woody Allen — recall his famous coke sneeze in Annie Hall — inhales indirectly in Deconstructing Harry. And the Jan. 16 weekend saw Half Baked, an homage to drug comedies of yore, open at $7.7 million. Even puff daddy Tommy Chong — who cameos in Half Baked — is pushing his own homegrown crop, shooting an indie romp called Best Buds. “It’s our turn again,” says Chong, who pioneered the stoner-slapstick genre with former partner Cheech Marin in such films as Up in Smoke and Nice Dreams. “Plus, a lot of the studio people who make decisions — they’re potheads.”

Even so, it’s tough to tell whether Hollywood’s bowl is half full or half empty. Producer Robert Simonds ran into no obstacles cultivating Half Baked at Universal (“The marching orders were ‘Make the funniest movie possible”‘), but marketing was another story: “Our hands have been tied by the MPAA and the networks,” he says. “We can’t tell people what this movie’s about.” The filmmakers toyed with various tag lines for the poster and trailer — “Two guys on grass,” “Waiting to inhale” — but the ratings board nixed them all, save “The feel-good movie of the year” and a handful of hints.

Why the fuss? Although she concedes that pot movies are “funny,” Leigh Leventhal, a spokesperson for Partnership for a Drug-Free America, worries that some send “a message about the joy of drugging. Whether it’s about pot or heroin or alcohol or cigarettes, it’s presented as ‘This is cool, this is fun, this is not a big deal.’ When it is a big deal.” (Especially in the wake of drug scandals involving Christian Slater, Robert Downey Jr., and the late Chris Farley.) Homegrown, Kazan counters, has no such agenda: The story’s about the joys and battles — and criminal consequences — of getting involved in the illegal-drug trade. “If I felt the film advocated drug use,” he says, “I wouldn’t have done it.” In other words, maybe pot movies just make people…paranoid.