Rolling Papers: It’s high time there was a weed documentary
Rolling Papers, a documentary about The Denver Post’s coverage of marijuana in the wake of its legalization in Colorado, opens in theaters and on-demand on February 19. The Denver Post was the first major media outlet to appoint a Marijuana Editor and the Rolling Papers’ camera crew was on the ground with Ricardo Baca from day one, following him over the course of that year as he built the Post’s website, The Cannabist, from scratch along with a team of journalists. Producer Katie Shapiro called us from her Denver home to talk about the movie.
Were you a pothead as a teenager?
I definitely smoked pot in high school, but I wouldn’t classify myself as a pothead. I was an athlete and played tennis and it’s something I did more socially. I didn’t start smoking pot until I moved to New York and, of course, after I moved out here to Colorado.
Talk about how you got involved in the film?
The film was an idea that was conceived in 2008 when the medical movement was taking off in Colorado. Other producers who were working on it in 2008 — Britta Erickson, Daniel Junge and Alison Greenberg-Millice — but then it got shelved. When recreational legalization happened, they revived the idea. That’s when I got involved. I had been working for the Denver Film Society since I got to Colorado. Because of my involvement with them and with Britta, who runs the festival, I was interested. I had worked with her for years. I had heard that they were reviving this idea and I wanted to get involved. They brought me on and we went full steam ahead as soon as we heard the news that Ricardo Baca was being appointed The Denver Post marijuana editor. Britta at that point shifted the focus and thought it would be the better story. Britta had done a similar documentary in 2008 called Convention. It followed the Rocky Mountain News staff as they reported on the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Having that experience with the newsroom and hearing that The Denver Post had made this decision was the tipping point.
Ricardo seems like a real level-headed guy. Talk about him.
He’s been with the Post for 13 years. He was the music editor prior to becoming the marijuana editor. He launched Reverb, which was their music site. He translated the work into The Cannabist, which is really impressive especially with it being such a high profile news story. It’s not accepted everywhere as it is in Colorado but he’s able to turn it into what it is today. I’m coincidentally also a writer for The Cannabist. That happened at the same time but not intentionally. Having the opportunity to work with him as my editor and follow him as a filmmaker is a unique experience. I’ve learned so much from him. It’s been a whirlwind of a two-year project.
I like the way the film includes these gorgeous shots of the various types of weed.
The challenge for us was that marijuana in terms of the legalization and the political side, it’s a very serious subject. We’ve seen the rush of media coverage in that first month and the film includes a montage of the news surrounding Ricardo’s appointment. It was on CNN and CNBC. We thought all of that would be done when we were shooting. We wanted to take a step back and not cover all of those issues in one story. On the other side, it’s a fun subject as well. We wanted to find that balance of sharing the story of what’s happening in Colorado but having some fun with it as well.
It reminds me of the microbrewery industry. Do you see a comparison?
Yeah, definitely. We had this concrete deadline. We started shooting on January 1 of 2014 and wrapped up one year later on January 1 of 2015. Now it’s two years later and the film is coming out. Even in that second year the business and industry part exploded and new things are happening every day.
Critics would say the legalization of weed has increased criminal activity. What do you think?
It’s definitely uncharted territory. Those are the issues we were following as legalization got its footing in Colorado. The biggest thing to come out of that first year was the regulation surrounding edibles, especially where kids are concerned, and the packaging and likeness to candy. Ricardo talks about it in the film. He says that was one of his biggest stories of the year. He also dove in and uncovered what was happening in terms of manufacturers who were making products that weren’t as potent as they said they were. Having an article that tips the scale one way or another is what he’s been able to do.
The website is still active?
Yes, that’s something we want to make clear now that the film is finally coming out. The site is doing great and since we wrapped a lot has happened as well. They launched a weekly cannabis show. Ricardo is the host they have different guests on every week. Those run through Denver Post TV. There have been some changes with some of the writers, but everyone is still involved in some way or another. It’s still an active and thriving site.
The documentary is also about the struggles of print media. Talk about that a bit.
As much as we set out to tell the story of legalization in Colorado, a big part of that is making it a journalism story as well. It’s a changing and struggling industry. Our goal was to shine a light on The Denver Post and what they’re doing to try to stay relevant.
What’s your next project?
I still contribute to The Cannabist and try to write a couple of stories a month. It’s more lifestyle and culturally focused. I’m really passionate about it. I love working with Ricardo on that front. With Britta, I’ve also produced a narrative feature in Denver, which was shot last July, and had world premiere at World Festival Rotterdam. We’ll have our North American in April. I can’t share where yet.