Writer-Director Craig Pryce on Indie Filmmaking

Writer-Director Craig Pryce: ‘Funding an independent film can take years. Keep believing. ‘

In the following interview director and writer Craig Pryce discusses his filmmaking journey, from getting an all-round hands-on experience at film school, to working in the industry for more than three decades, touching on some of the mistakes he’s made along with the success.

For The Marijuana Conspiracy (2020), based on a true story, Craig tells us why he opted for narrative storytelling rather than a documentary approach, how financing an independent movie can take many years, and gives plenty of great advice for aspiring filmmakers.

THE MARIJUANA CONSPIRACY is available On Demand and Digital now!

FF: Hi and welcome to Film Forums. With me I have screenwriter and director Craig Pryce behind a film about a true life experiment conducted upon a group of young women in the 70’s.

Could you tell us a little bit about your filmmaking journey and what led to your current project The Marijuana Conspiracy (2020)?

CP: I started in the horror genre and made two features. I was fortunate that my first one sold to Universal and the second to HBO and Miramax. After that, I went on to direct several episodes of various television series. I then started doing television movies, including The Good Witch (2015 – 2020), which we did six sequels to and then morphed it into a series which just finished its seventh season. I really missed working on features, so I set out to develop and make The Marijuana Conspiracy (2020). I was attracted to this project because of the challenges of making a film based on a true story and also a period piece. The other thing that appealed to me about this project was the controversial human experiment on these young women, the fascinating era and political times of 1972.

FF: Did you attend film school and if so, what was your experience?

CP: Yes. I attended York University in Toronto. It was an overall positive experience because I got to learn every aspect of hands-on filmmaking. Although I became a director – knowing every position allowed me to be more understanding of the entire process and a better filmmaker. The key is, we made a lot of films and with today’s affordable costs, almost anyone can do it themselves and the more you make, the better your craft will become.

When getting into certain jams when making the film, be flexible and smart in how you adapt to the situation. Sometimes the best things in a film happen from this.

FF: How long have you been a working professional in the industry?

CP: Thirty three years, but I started young, ha.

Actors Brittany Bristow, Julia Sarah Stone and Tymika Tafari
Brittany Bristow as Jane, Julia Sarah Stone as Mary and Tymika Tafari as Mourinda in the drama, The Marijuana Conspiracy (2020). Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

FF: Can you tell us some more detail about The Marijuana Conspiracy (2020) (Plot, characters, cast and crew, release/VOD platforms it will be available on)?

CP: In 1972, five young women looking for a fresh start in life endure isolated captivity in this true and outlandish 98-day experiment studying the effects of weed on women. Despite the agendas and manipulation of the government and scientists, these brave young women use their unique strengths and friendship to overcome adversity and conquer their own personal challenges. It stars an ensemble of five up-and-coming talented young actresses: Julia Sarah Stone (Honey Bee 2018), Morgan Kohan (Ransom 2018), Brittany Bristow (Good Witch 2015-2020), Tymika Tafari (Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J Walker 2020), and Kyla Young (Alias Grace 2017) with an amazing support cast surrounding them. Many of the crew I’ve been working with for years so I had a short hand with them and the benefit of their expert craftsmanship. The film is being distributed in the States by Oscar nominated distributor, Samuel Goldwyn Films. It is currently in virtual theatres and is available starting Tuesday April 20th, 4/20 (get it) on every digital and on demand platform in North America.

FF: What was it about this story that made you want to tell it in a cinematic format rather than documentary, for example?

CP: After the lengthy research process and having the fortune of meeting some of the real women from the experiment, I knew I had a provocative story to tell. I prefer scripted story telling because of my background and the women may have been much more inhibited being interviewed as themselves. I didn’t use their real names and created composite characters of them, in return, they were remarkably truthful and honest with me about their journey. As a result, the film has some incredible insight and detail into these women’s lives as well as the re-creation of that era as they lived it. When I combined this with the controversial experiment itself, and the mores, laws, and social fabric of the time, it seemed to be a better choice to make it as a feature film.

Actor Gregory Ambrose Calderone
Actor Gregory Ambrose Calderone in Craig Pryce’s The Marijuana Conspiracy (2020). Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

FF: How, as a director, did you approach creating the atmosphere in your film? What technical methods/strategies/techniques did you use and why?

CP: In order to recreate 1972 as a smaller independent film was a huge challenge. I spent over a year finding authentic locations and sourcing period wardrobe, set dressing, props, etc. I ended up using three main locations for the experiment, the Toronto Star building, a school, and a studio. The look was brutalist architecture which was common at the time and we used a lot of panelling, cinder block, and concrete slabs to have a continuity of the three places. An example is when the nurse walks through the whole complex looking for one of the girls and we shot it on seven sets across the three locations, all looking like it was one shot. Also as the experiment went on, we made the film more claustrophobic and the women and place was more unkempt . For example, we had eight gradual stages of this evolving look and things like the close ups would get tighter and tighter as the film went on.

FF: What did it take in order to get this film made independently?

CP: Financially, It took years to save and raise funds as well as having some tax credit refunds. On top of this, there was a tremendous amount of negotiating and goodwill from the suppliers including equipment, post sound, lab, locations, studio, etc. Many of these deals were with longstanding partners who were very supportive of my passion project

FF: Do you have any advice for filmmakers looking to pitch their film for funding?

CP: There are many models including government funding, but this can be very political, and we didn’t have success there. The other avenues are using some of your own funds as well as finding financial partners who have an interest in making independent films. At a higher level, you can try to convince distributors, streamers, television acquisition executives, but you have to be pitching the content they are looking for, often need a track record, and will have to deal with certain creative restrictions that come along with this. Ultimately because this is such a long process, you have to be very passionate about the story you want to tell and know it could take years so you need tenacity and perseverance.

Actors Alex Harrouch and Tymika Tafari
Actors Alex Harrouch and Tymika Tafari in Craig Pryce’s The Marijuana Conspiracy (2020). Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

FF: What funding methods did you use or how did you connect with the right producers to get The Marijuana Conspiracy (2021) made?

CP: The film was privately financed and in this case, I was the executive producer. That meant I used some of my own money, accessed tax credit financing for a portion of the budget, got some additional funding through the private sector. Also as mentioned, I got some terrific “in kind” deals that really added to the production value. I then got some reduced rates from my crew and cast because of their interest and commitment to the project. Having said that, there were still plenty of hard costs and being a period film with a large cast, made it more expensive than other indie films. All of this combined with my experience as well as the crew and other producers, allowed for tremendous production value.

FF: Are there any equipment you would recommend for low budget filmmakers and why?

CP: The good news is, digital technology has made certain aspects very affordable. You can buy 4K cameras and editing software at a very reasonable rate. There are things that will always be expensive like lights and sound mixes. You have to design a film that can avoid certain big ticket costs while having innovative ways to shoot it. Also the most important thing is that you are writing for the resources and equipment that you have, which will make you much closer to the film becoming a reality. When I wrote the script, I already had locations, studio, resources and other logistics in mind so it could be made at a certain budget point.

FF: How did you secure your key cast and what drew you to them?

CP: Everybody for this movie auditioned. I was fortunate to have a remarkable turnout and high interest because of the type of story and characters that were being portrayed. Some of the actors I knew already and had worked with before, some I asked to audition because I knew of their work, and some were brand new to me. Despite all of the competition, when I heard the actors who ended up being cast for the film, I knew I had found them instinctively. They all had distinct looks and gave believable nuanced auditions and brought great credibility to the characters.

Actress Morgan Kohan
Actress Morgan Kohan in Craig Pryce’s The Marijuana Conspiracy (2020). Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

FF: When finding unknown/lesser known actors, what qualities/abilities do you look for and how important is the ‘look’ for your characters?

CP: The look is very important to a point. There are some people who are amazing actors, who don’t necessarily have the appearance or body movement for the role. Having said that, you always have to keep an open mind because you never want your characters to be stereotypes. I look for the choices they make in the audition and also how they adapt if given a directorial note. Ultimately, you just get a feeling when you find the right person and it’s very exciting to experience that. In our cast, we had some unknown and some with very little experience and I still cast them because I would rather have someone who’s perfect for the role, then just having someone because they are a name. In this film, we had a really interesting ensemble of newbies, people acting since they were kids, and a mature veteran support cast. The chemistry of the five leads was crucial. Similar to the real women, they came into this not knowing each other, but meshed together and supported each other beautifully which made their sisterhood feel very authentic.

FF: Do you have any advice for actors looking to star in one of your films?

CP: There is no one way for this. It’s about getting the audition and being right for the role. As I said in my earlier answer, I was open to people I worked with, people I knew of, and brand new people that auditioned. It’s important that the casting agents are aware of you as an up-and-coming actor and to be on their radar. They often audition people I wasn’t aware of and I’m often surprised and delighted to see new talent in the audition room.

Actress Kyla Young
Actress Kyla Young in Craig Pryce’s The Marijuana Conspiracy (2020). Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

FF: What are your top three tips for managing a feature film budget and what should new filmmakers avoid doing with their financing?

CP: Sure, I’d say…

1. Make sure that you write your script to accurately to fit within your budget

2. If you find out in prep that not everything you thought you could do is affordable within your budget, make clever and creative compromises.

3. When getting into certain jams when making the film, be flexible and smart in how you adapt to the situation. Sometimes the best things in a film happen from this.

As far as what new filmmakers should avoid when doing their financing is not doing the three things I just suggested, as well as including someone to produce it with you that has experience. Also, be open to making changes so that you don’t get into trouble and not be able to get your days or complete your film.

FF: What was your single biggest error in your filmmaking journey and how would you suggest others can avoid making the same misjudgement?

CP: I think when I made my first film, I was too indecisive but reluctant to rely on others because I would look like I wasn’t in charge as the director. As my craft matured, at times I was over decisive and should have been more opened to feedback. It is always about the balance of having a vision and confidence, but also knowing when to listen and collaborate with everyone involved in the process.

Credits

Presenter: Aiysha Jebali
Editor: Richard Williams & Aiysha Jebali
Introductory Words & Artwork: Richard Williams
Images courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films / Katrina Wan PR