On Sunday I spoke on the phone with Amy Tasillo and Matt Doherty, the co-creators of East Coast Grow, a forthcoming comedy show about Washington’s burgeoning marijuana industry. The pilot episode debuts on Saturday at 8 at the Edgewood Arts Center on 8th St. NE. You can buy tickets to the launch event here and watch the trailer and learn more about the production here.
East Coast Grow’s main character, Mike O’Neill (played by Theo Copeland), has extensive experience in the cannabis industry, but because of a prior marijuana charge, he’s forbidden from working in Washington’s cultivation centers. So he’s forced to toe the line and serve as a consultant, helping guide other budding entrepreneurs through the minefield of partially legalized pot. This mirrors the fate of Matt Doherty, a northern Minnesota native who says he was busted for growing weed when he was 21, after which he skipped town for Las Vegas to abscond from the law. “I was on the lam for almost a decade,” said Doherty, who ultimately negotiated a resolution through his attorney of a $5,000 fine and one year of unsupervised probation.
After moving to DC in 2007, Doherty put his growing expertise to professional use, opening Urban Sustainable in Adams Morgan, the city’s first hydroponics store. “It was a wonderful concept,” he said. “But I was pretty young and had to take on investors. Ultimately we couldn’t see eye to eye and I sold my interest back; the store went under six months later.” After Urban Sustainable, Doherty worked with Garden Resources of Washington. Since then, he’s done consulting on home growth and also helped design a cultivation center as a consultant. “I’ve been involved in the industry at almost every level,” he says.
Amy Tasillo’s background is in fictional filmmaking. In Washington’s evolving world of legalized weed, she saw a rich setting for narrative storytelling. “Matt’s experiences with marijuana and the people trying to help the industry develop here in DC seemed like a really good opportunity for a show,” she said.
At this point I asked them how they knew each other and learned they are a couple, which I think is so cool. Developing a major creative endeavor with a significant other has always been a dream of mine, so I’m pretty jealous of Matt and Amy, who remind me of the Talking Heads song Found a Job, a ditty about a couple named Bob and Judy who always fought before deciding to make their own TV show, which saves their relationship. “That’s exactly what happened with us,” joked Matt, before adding that their good fortune is certainly not lost on them.
Amy developed the idea and script for East Coast Grow only a year ago. “I pitched it as a ten minute web series, but then we started making a full half hour pilot and ended up plotting out a whole first season. We filmed in November and edited all winter. The goal was always to release the show by 4/20.”
On Saturday, they’ll premiere the 31 minute pilot, which Doherty says is “focused mostly on character development.” The event will be MC’ed by comedian Carlos Delgado and will feature the screening, a Q&A panel with the cast and creators, and a performance by local band Lucky So and Sos, who did the show’s theme song.
It’s evident from the trailer that a lot of production value went into the project, which Tasillo and Doherty are clearly proud of. “We’re trying to raise the bar,” said Doherty. “DC has a rich history of arts, but a lot of that is music or performance. There’s not as much rich local narrative film culture. There are plenty of documentaries, but not this kind of show. Hopefully it will inspire others in this town to make really good fictional shows.”
Their focus has been mainly on the pilot to this point, which was shot on spec. “So what happens after the premiere?” I asked. “What’s the process, what does the dream ultimately look like?”
“The dream,” Doherty said, “is that Mister and Misses HBO or Netflix will give us a call and invite us over for dinner.” But he said in all likelihood, their best bet will be getting an agent and shopping the show around.
“We’ve been focused solely on the pilot and the release party,” said Doherty. “We want to see what folks like you and others will say after they’ve seen the pilot. We could in fact get fucking ripped to shreds by critics, and if that’s the case, we probably put it down and move on with our lives. But if people respond positively, like we hope, we’ll get an agent and try to get the best deal we can.”
Doherty initially contacted me about East Coast Grow after he read my less than favorable review of Districtland, which I thought was pretty bold of him. “I actually read your Districtland review to my mother,” said Doherty. “Like your typical Minnesota mom, she kept saying ‘oh no’ and ‘oh geez’ and ‘I hope this Walter fellow isn’t coming to the premiere.’ ‘Well I fucking invited the guy mom, we want him to come!’ I said. If we can impress critics who look at this objectively, then that’s good for us.”
Next I asked if making a show about a guy who, like Doherty, is barred from working in the industry because of a long-ago charge, was a form of protest against that law.
“Fuck yes,” said Doherty adamantly. “To be able to work in Washington’s cultivation centers or dispensaries as an employee, you can’t even have a misdemeanor drug charge on your record. So if you got busted with a roach on a traffic stop, you are precluded from obtaining your license.”
The conversation turned to social justice and using comedy to make serious statements about the law. “Minority populations have been by far the most adversely affected by the demonization of a plant,” said Doherty. “Before it was legal, there was a way higher propensity for a person of color to end up with a pot charge. It’s gross, it’s sickening, and it’s going to be a part of the show.”
“I think people are very responsive to comedy,” added Tasillo. “It’s such a unique opportunity right now as we try to implement new drug policies in a federal city where there’s a big gray area. People don’t know what’s okay yet and they’re feeling it out while trying to build businesses and do something positive for the city.”
This was a big theme of what Tasillo told me, how the people involved in the cannabis industry are ultimately doing a good thing for the city and its communities, a view many do not share. Marijuana, while somewhat legal now, still carries a stigma. For example, the DC Office of Motion Picture & Television Development snubbed East Coast Grow, declining to provide their logo for use in the show’s credits because of the supposedly “sensitive” and “controversial” subject matter.
“The people we had to pay to get permits, they were what I would call less than easy to work with,” said Doherty. “There were like, ‘yeah we’ll take your money and give you permits,’ but they don’t want to be associated with us at all. This is tied into how we’d like to help the arts and film community here in DC. Our show would help get the word about about DC film, but they didn’t want to touch it. I hope once people have seen it and have the chance to realize we’re serious about this project, that attitudes will change.”
Tasillo and Doherty are also trying to do their part to change how marijuana smokers are portrayed in film and television. This has been one of my pet peeves for years, how characters who smoke pot are made into giggling imbeciles. They say you won’t find any of that cartoon bullshit in East Coast Grow.
“This is not a production of caricature stoners,” said Doherty. “I smoke pot almost every single day and I don’t walk around saying ‘whoa mannnnn’ all the time. That is not based in reality. We wanted to make a project that was truly steeped in the reality of marijuana use and the marijuana industry.”
As smokers and District residents (the couple live in Brookland), I wanted their take on the current state of DC’s marijuana culture. “Right now, as we exist in April 2016, it is exploding,” said Doherty. “I remember when I first moved here it was very much a shadowy game. You weren’t supposed to be public about smoking at all. And now, just a few years later, you’ve got all these growers and entrepreneurs and smokers coming together for events, growing and sharing products, being open about it. It’s a lot cooler than it was.”
I also wanted to know how satisfied they were with the state of DC’s legalization. “We’ve got a long ways to go,” said Doherty. “We’re not truly at a place of legalization until we can tax and regulate and that’s what I’d really like to see, generating tax revenue and putting it back into our community.” Again, the couple expressed that the legal marijuana industry is a boon, not a burden, to the city.
The last question I asked was where all the marijuana plants in the show come from. They told me that they couldn’t bring in real plants and have it be legal, so they found a guy on Etsy named Mister Cannabis who constructs plant facsimiles out of craft foam and other materials. This certainly fooled me; the plants in the trailer appear completely real. And for that matter, so does the cast, which looks like a true reflection of the District’s demographics. After too many cheesy stoner comedies and whitewashed DC portrayals, East Coast Grow sounds like it has the potential to deliver a more realistic portrait of this city, its marijuana industry, and its many pot smokers.
I’ll be in attendance on Saturday night (they gave me a press pass! Stuck in DC has made it baby!) and plan to write about the pilot next week. With hope, I won’t upset Matt’s mom in Minnesota.