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Writer-director Craig Pryce and 'The Marijuana Conspiracy'

December 29, 2021
5 min read time

In Toronto, Canada circa 1972 when marijuana was still considered highly controversial, young women looking for a fresh start in life endure isolated captivity in a true 98-day human experiment studying the effects of marijuana on females — a manufactured and cruel experiment promoted by political circles hoping to prove use of the drug would cause society's framework to frey.

Though Craig Pryce's drama The Marijuana Conspiracy is fictionalized, it’s inspired by a true story about an experiment performed on a group of young women who signed up for “voluntary captivity” in a hospital ward to smoke weed every day for 14 weeks under close observation. Most were looking for money; a few thousand dollars (during an era when minimum wage was $1.65/hr). As the levels of THC became stronger and stronger, and they were given more cannabis than they could actually handle, they were prevented from making phone calls to friends or family, and given daily mind-numbing work which led to many participants going stir-crazy.

The horrific circumstances and underlying human factors made for good drama to The Marijuana Conspiracy's Craig Pryce.

"I think the most important thing when you’re writing is to find a subject that you’re very passionate about...and not just for commercial reasons. I started doing indie movies and had some earlier horror films that did well, and I decided I wanted to something outside the box and challenge myself. The first thing that you do should be what interests you. Ask yourself, where is [your] heart in the matter?"
"I learned about this true story while reading the paper one morning," says Pryce of how he stumbled on the story fictionalized in The Marijuana Conspiracy. 
"I hadn't done anything like this before — the fact real people had experienced this experiment and it was based in historical fact, it intrigued me. Writing it involved a lot of research, which every writer should do, no matter what you're writing about, whether it's fictionalized or a true story. Here was this human experiment put on these young women, some of whom I met... This story was so deep—there was enough going on just in the real-life accounts of what happened to not even have to take liberties. I could be true and honest to characters and their journey."
But Pryce did still have to separate fact from fiction.
"I didn’t use real names. Instead, I did a composite of their characters, mostly to protect them, but the composites were developed honestly as the characters were open and vivid about sharing their memories. That got me to the essence of the film... I was able to create a backdrop and focus on the morés and laws of 1972: Here's this terrible experiment that went on, but these women's lives and their actual characters, it was all fascinating to put together structurally, and then integrate the historical facts to weave it all together. "
When it comes to what Pryce is precious about as a writer and director, it's all about the finished product that comes through finessing what was on the page through performance and editing.
"That's the beauty of indie film. I have done a lot of TV, too, but in independent film, there aren’t a lot of people telling you what to do, like in television, and with that, comes creative freedom. I care about what I've written, but in the end, it's all about the finished product."
"I focus on three places," he says. "Writing it, casting it, then having an actress do the piece justice. I had so many great actresses come out for this role, but once it got to filming, if it didn’t sound quite right, we would change it on the fly. I'm a big believer in collaboration and when it’s not working, it's just not working. The script was in a good shape to start, but we didn’t have a lot of time or takes, so you let the script evolve on set — everyone becomes more and more comfortable with it. You might have certain ideas of where you want to go with the scene in mind, but you need to adapt."
Since the film was a passion project with very specific requirements, it took a while to come together.
" The Marijuana Conspiracy is a true passion project and it took me a while to get the resources and crew. It's period, so all the stuff that goes with a period piece — hair and makeup, costumes, props — with a period piece, everything is so much harder, because there's a reflection of 2021 in every window. But, that was part of the journey. The Marijuana Conspiracy took a while to develop, because I wanted to be really ready when we went to camera. The location was found before I wrote the script, the characters were there before I wrote the script, and then I had to keep the budget in mind. Just logistically, it was complicated."
Something that inspired the film from the start was the very consistent tone set by the subjects that informed the script.
"I think the tone was predetermined — I didn’t get to decide the tone, instead the research and what I knew of the characters who needed to be honored set the tone. There are tone shifts in the film, but the consistency comes from characters themselves as you go through their processes and their experiences. As a director, I did a lot of work with subtle close-ups, making rooms messier, as we become more psychologically invested... if you look at the first third of the film vs the last third of the film, it’s more claustrophobic. The tone comes from so many things — not just actors, but ambience and look and lighting, set dressing... It felt like we talked about colors, since each character has their palette to make them distinct. That’s what made it so interesting to me; these women were so different, but developed a sisterhood in their collective experience. So I had to honor that in the film's tone."
For Pryce, "When you’re writing TV there’s a lot of people — the network, studio; lots of people involved. It’s harder to have a vision of what you want without interference. And everyone has their own purposes and agendas. For film, the subject matter can be out of the box. Where TV is safe, a script is cinematic and in every way, there is a lot more freedom (unless it’s a studio film), and it’s why I chose to do a smaller indie. A filmmaker has to believe in their vision and know they can pull it off. I knew I could while continuing to honor these true stories."
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