Very high hopes.
That’s what Tommy Chong had 40 years ago for his stoner comedy Up in Smoke.
So much so that Chong, a big-time movie buff then and now, picked up the phone and called Terrence Malick to see if he’d be interested in directing.
“I was a huge fan of Badlands. I knew I wanted a good director, and I thought Terry was the best. So I called him, and asked him to do it,” said Chong. “And Terry said, ‘Man, this is your movie. You have the vision, and the passion for it. You should do it yourself.'”
And that’s what Chong did. With comedy partner Cheech Marin and their record producer Lou Adler, they wrote and directed the movie on their own.
Fans of the stoner holiday 4/20 can celebrate this year by viewing the 40th anniversary special edition DVD release of Up in Smoke, starring Cheech and Chong as two stoners driving a marijuana-mobile from Tijuana to L.A. You can also catch Cheech and Chong in person at SugarHouse Casino on Cinco de Mayo.
The DVD comes with plenty of extras — in behind-the-scenes commentary, Marin, Chong, and Adler talk about shooting the movie in less than a month, guerrilla style, in Mexico and California. Maybe a little too guerrilla style for some of the crews. The production went through three cinematographers in the span of three weeks.
But it was by no means amateur hour. Chong was also a big fan of Robert Altman’s, and knew him informally, and was able to recruit several members of Altman’s crew to work on Up in Smoke. Stacy Keach, an Altman regular (as was costar Tom Skerritt), has a role in Smoke and brought discipline to the production.
“That turned out to be a great thing for us. We didn’t know much about filmmaking. We were comedians, improv comedians. And Altman worked in that improvisational style, so his people were used to it. We had some really first-rate people helping us, working on the look of the movie,” Chong said.
The movie was originally envisioned as a half-baked concert movie, stringing together classic Cheech and Chong bits. It didn’t begin to take shape as a stoner picaresque until Chong (a veteran songwriter) penned the tune “Up in Smoke.”
“Cheech heard it and said, ‘That’s it, that’s the title.’ And the movie just sort of came from there,” said Chong. In fact, they shot a scene of Harry Dean Stanton performing a jailhouse version of the tune, but it didn’t make the final cut.
Up in Smoke was shot on a micro-budget, but it struck a chord with audiences. In an era before diversity became a corporate goal, their piece of outsider art about pot, featuring Chicano and Chinese-Canadian American leads, became an indie hit. It got a thumbs-up from era-defining New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, and grossed more than $40 million in 1978, nearly landing in the Top 10, and had an extended run in off-the-beaten path America for weeks after its opening.
“I think we preserved a lot of jobs. It played drive-ins for months. In fact, there was a theater in Paris that played it on a midnight screening every week for 10 years,” said Chong, who’d go on to make several more movies with Marin, directing five of them (including Nice Dreams and Still Smokin’) .
Like a lot of out-of-nowhere box office hits, some of the revenue went up in smoke. Cheech and Chong had a bit of a falling out with Adler, later repaired, and the two eventually got their cut.
Meanwhile, they worked to capitalize on their success by pitching more projects in Hollywood.
“We’re on the Paramount lot one day, and this car pulls up, and it’s Warren Beatty. And he says, ‘Man, you guys have no idea what you’ve done!’ ” said Chong.
The movie, he said, had opened Hollywood’s eyes to the kind of movies and subjects and characters that audiences would welcome and support. He hears frequently from filmmakers influenced by Up in Smoke – including Quentin Tarantino, whose rambling road-movie dialogues have echoes of the Up in Smoke interplay between Pedro de Pacas (Marin) and Anthony “Man” Stoner (Chong). Martin Scorsese, also a fan, cast them in After Hours.
Chong is proud of that, and of the role his advocacy has played — finally — in the use of medical marijuana and the decriminalizing of marijuana in states and cities across the country (Chong himself served jail time for the mail-order distribution of drug paraphernalia).
“The whole reason for making marijuana illegal was to prosecute black and brown people. It was always a racist law. Before that, [pot] was just medicine. So it’s come full circle,” Chong said.
So has Chong, who split for a time with Marin, and has now reunited with his buddy for the comedy tour. The two have been performing together since the 1960s, when they met doing improv in Vancouver, where Chong started as a musician touring with the Motown act Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers (he cowrote their Top 30 hit “Does your Mama Know about Me”). He played Philadelphia several times, including the Uptown Theater.
That band is long forgotten, but Up in Smoke is still making people laugh, and he likes to think it sparked a change in attitudes toward marijuana.
“People no longer demonize it,” he said. “Now, we’re coming out of a dark period, and the world will be a better place.”