Matthew Cooke's "How to Make Money Selling Drugs" is a cheeky take on America's decades-long war on illegal narcotics. Mixing caustic satire with dead-serious elements, Cooke uses his animation background to add visual elements that tie the disparate parts together.
Cooke managed to get a wide variety of participants to discuss the premise, from David Simon, creator of "The Wire" and "The Corner," near definitive takes on this virtual conflict, to rappers 50 Cent and Eminem, who provide their own unique experiences within the culture that help perpetuate certain myths about drug culture.
Moviefone spoke exclusively to Matthew on the phone while he was in Paris, France.
Moviefone: First of all, how do you make money selling drugs?
Matthew Cooke: Very easily! The United States has the highest demand for illegal narcotics in the world, the demand is already there. You don't need to convince people to buy the stuff, you just let them know you have it, and they're gonna want it.
How did the film come about?
I was the producer and the editor for the Oscar-nominated documentary "Deliver us from Evil" about the pedophile crisis in the Catholic Church. I had also produced and done a cut with Adrian Grenier for "Paparazzo." Before being a filmmaker, my "waiter job" (what I was doing to make ends meet) was motion graphics.
My interest in making this film extends back many years. The idea was to make a documentary about the crisis of the War on Drugs and how it does more damage than the drugs themselves do. I wanted to do it in a way that was fun and entertaining, and the way I know how to communicate that way is through motion graphics. I cut the whole thing at my house, I did the cinematography myself, I even painted the backdrops. It was a test, really.
British comedians usually make the point that Americans find sarcasm hard, so when you have something as sardonic as this title, it might be a hard sell to an American audience. How did you maintain the sarcastic tone without letting it get out of control?
Adrian Grenier was a little angel on my shoulder the whole time, encouraging me to never give up on the joke. There were plenty of people around me who were saying that this is going to be interpreted as bad taste. That was the challenge of the editing process. It was really important to me from the beginning to do something that was going to make sense to a broader audience and a younger audience and a cynical audience and a politically apathetic audience, all of the people that traditional documentaries never reach. I spent a lot of time dancing back and forth with the tone. How much can I make fun of this? When does it get serious? I think when people see the film, my experience is that the great majority of them get the joke, and appreciate the fact that at a certain point the joke does taper off and I do speak very seriously about the topic.
Was there anything that you cut that worked for you on a personal level, but you thought a more general audience wouldn't find it quite as absurd as you?
What an interesting question. I did cut something out of the film because I was concerned that the logic was going to get lost at the end, and I'm still on the fence about whether or not I should have cut it. One of my staff had advised that I should cut this part of Patrick Reynolds, the heir to the cigarette empire, R.J. Reynolds. He lost a brother to crack addiction, and talks about it in such a heartfelt, heartbreaking way. The place for that was really the end of the film, but some people felt that it was distracting from the logic of the conclusion because it was so emotional.
You brought in David Simon, an artist and journalist who is becoming a de facto spokesperson about the absurdity of the War on Drugs.
David Simon is one of my heroes. Here's a guy who created one of the best TV series of all time with "The Wire," a series that was not only engaging and entertaining for the public, but was opening people's minds to the horrors of the Drug War. This is what entertainment should really do, in my mind. I was honoured that he was part of the film, he also had very particular opinions on what the comedic tone should be. Simon is a very serious person, and I took his advice very seriously, to make sure that ultimately I didn't tell the audience that this is a good idea to get into the drug game. He really wanted to make sure that the joke was understood as a joke and that kids really get it, that there's one of two outcomes. It's either death or prison. The stories that we write, these become our myths and our archetypes that we choose to embrace or reject, so I can't say enough great stuff about David Simon.
You interview a number of other celebrities, some who have had their own challenges with many sides of the drug trade. Were they in on the joke of the film's title?
The way I intended it ... those that are interviewed are taken 100 percent seriously, and the context in which the Drug War exists is the absurd part, my narration, the graphics, the structure, the video game sound effects ... that's the comedic, satiric part. The interviewees themselves, I think they should be taken 100 percent seriously.
When I talked to Marshall ["Eminem"] Mathers, I wanted to talk to him about addiction. I find him to be one of the most sincere, open and honest individuals I've ever interviewed. I thought that it would be really important for people who watch the film and have struggled with addiction to see somebody who was feeling the same things that they've felt, and who has the capacity to express it with the intensity with which they have felt it.
When I talked to Woody Harrelson, I talked to him as a freedom enthusiast, somebody who cares very deeply about personal independence and freedom of choice. So each person had their role.
How did you own view of the War on Drugs change during the making of the film?
I think that what really surprised me was just how horrific and misguided the drug laws really are.
This is an insanely racist policy. I found out about America's first drug czar, he's so horrifically racist you can't help but laugh at it. Marijuana was made illegal primarily because of racism, with politicians saying marijuana gave Mexicans superhuman strength. Opium was made illegal for the Chinese for the most part. Cocaine was made illegal mostly to prosecute African-Americans.
And alcohol was made illegal, and then made not-illegal.
There were too many White Americans who wanted it, there was too broad a coalition to legalize it again.
Drug laws served an enormous purpose for white America, they enabled an extension of the Jim Crow laws. That was shocking to really see that, that the racial and class oppression and racial oppression, I don't want to diminish that, is very real, and it's shocking. This is the United States today -- at the same time that we have a black president, we have a horrific, racially biased drug law.
Were you left more or less cynical when it was finished?
We've got a great majority -- there's something like over 70 percent of Americans who think that marijuana should not be a jailable offence, which is incredible. This giant tidal wave change of public opinion and this huge coalition of people that want to end the War on Drugs. It's fantastic. We know that Obama feels the same way the rest of us do about it. If "How to Make Money Selling Drugs" can be another drop in that river of change, I'll be honoured to have been a part of it.
"How to Make Money Selling Drugs" can be seen in select theatres.
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