More than a year ago, Riley Morton and Nils Cowan met for banh mi sandwiches on The Ave in the University District to hash out a risky idea.
Morton, a freelance video producer, showed Cowan, also a independent producer, a Seattle Weekly story on former U.S. Attorney John McKay’s unusual evolution from George W. Bush-appointed federal lawman to a marijuana legalization advocate. A well-funded campaign to legalize recreational marijuana — Initiative 502 — was already under way, and polls suggested that voters might be persuaded.
“This state, this time, these people,” Morton remembers telling Cowan. “This could be the moment.”
With that, Morton and Cowan began shooting — on spec, with no initial outside funding — a feature-length documentary. Over 14-months, they estimate they’ve shot well more than 100 hours of video over about 40 days, with extensive interviews on both sides of the measure, and following the I-502 campaign around the state recently. (I sat for an interview with them last month).
They eventually raised about $15,000 from a Kickstarter campaign, but are giving up paying work to chase the I-502 campaign. ”We’ve taken an enormous risk here,” said Morton, 37, gregarious and bearded. “We both have mortgages.”
If I-502 passes, marijuana is legalized and Washington becomes the nexus on the new war against federal drug policy, their film, tentatively called “Evergreen: The Road to Legalization in Washington State,” could suddenly spike in value. Morton said they would try to quickly edit, sell it and try to get it on, say, HBO or another cable channel, by the end of the year.
Cowan, 34 and the quiet Canadian in the duo, said they approached their work as journalists, requiring both the I-502 campaign and opponents — many of them within the medical marijuana community — to sign waivers and give up any thought of editorial control. “You’re bringing a camera into someone’s life, and it’s not the easiest issue to talk about, even in Washington.”
Any film needs big characters, and they got them via a rabble-rousing, grass roots opposition campaign organized by medical marijuana entrepreneur Steve Sarich. When Rick Steves, the travel guru and I-502 supporter, kicked off a statewide campaign tour in the state Capitol rotunda, opponents shouted Steves down before being state troopers escorted a handful out. “It was a really chaotic,” said Cowan. “We didn’t expect it.”
Cowan can’t vote, but said if he could, he’d probably vote yes. “I think there has to be some forward momentum, although this isn’t perfect.” Morton, who can vote, declined to say how he did, but said he’s been impressed by the I-502 campaign’s effort to make marijuana legalization mainstream. “The sponsors and outreach the campaign has done is really politically savvy. You can’t deny that.”
They’re going to be busy on election night filming the I-502 party at downtown Seattle’s Hotel Andra, as well as a gathering of the medical marijuana industry, including Sarich’s campaign, at Club Sur in Sodo. Then, perhaps, they’re going to be frantically editing and polishing a documentary on the historic campaign.