Actress and former daytime talk show host Ricki Lake visited Chicago this week to screen her critically-acclaimed new documentary “Weed the People,” which focuses on families using cannabis to treat children diagnosed with cancer.
Lake, the film’s executive producer, helmed the project alongside frequent collaborator Abby Epstein, a documentary director and graduate of Northwestern University. The pair last worked together on the 2008 documentary “The Business of Being Born,” an exploration of alternative child birth methods that sharply criticized America’s health care system.
The duo’s latest collaboration premiered last March at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. The project tracks the progress of five children as they undergo pot-based cancer treatments for roughly six years. Among the subjects is A.J. Peterson, a young Chicago boy whose family relocates to California to gain access to medical marijuana.
“Weed the People” has been a critical darling, garnering a perfect rating on the movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Lake and Epstein are now touring the country to promote the film through a series of screenings sponsored primarily by pot companies, including Oak Park-based Pharmacann and Highland Park-based Grassroots Cannabis.
Earlier this week, the duo attended a pair of screenings at the Music Box Theater in Lake View and another private showing at the Regal Webster Place 11 in Lincoln Park. Prior to their stop in Chicago, the Sun-Times discussed the project with the filmmakers. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Sun-Times: How did you two meet?
Ricki Lake: Abby and I met working together on “The Vagina Monologues,” which was a theatrical piece that was done by Eve Ensler. Abby directed me in that production back in, I think, 1999 or 2000. We struck up a friendship and we bonded and years later I had this idea of wanting to do a project about birth. I was really fascinated about the birth world and my birth experiences, and so Abby bravely came on board and we’ve been partners ever since. We started with vaginas, now we’re on cannabis.
ST: Abby, how did you get started as a film director?
Abby Epstein: I was a theater director and actually my roots are in Chicago because I went to Northwestern and then I founded a theater company in Chicago, as many Northwestern graduates do. It was called Roadworks Productions and we were like four years behind the Lookingglass Theatre Company. We were kind of a hot little company in the 90s and then we took one of our productions to LA and like every single actor in my company got cast in a movie or a TV pilot and no one ever came back to Chicago. The company petered out after that, but I worked at the Steppenwolf Theatre and I did a lot of Chicago theater and then ended up in New York doing off-Broadway and Broadway. When I directed “The Vagina Monologues,” I ended up doing these touring productions and I proposed to the playwright that we make a documentary about the V-Day movement, which had launched through the play and became this really powerful, social movement to end violence against women. I ended up directing the documentary, so that was like my trial by fire film. But it went really well and it ended up premiering at the Sundance Film Festival [in Park City, Utah].
ST: Why did you want to highlight children with cancer in your documentary about cannabis?
RL: It started from something that happened out of my life. My husband, Christian Evans, passed away last year. He was very interested in cannabis for his own healing and for his grandfather. At the same time that he was on the computer getting more and more information for himself, I came across this 6-year-old girl with cancer who was a fan of mine from “Dancing With the Stars.” I became friends with her and her mom via Twitter and the next thing you know, I moved them into my house to go onto this path to finding integrative care for her. She was very sick and chemotherapy was really doing more harm than good from my perspective, so we went on this journey. I called Abby on the phone one day and told her that you’re not going to believe what’s going on. I told her about these strangers who were living with me and were going on a private jet to Mendecino [County in California] to meet a cannabis doctor. Abby said, “I think we should be documenting this, this could literally be our next film.” Her family, for whatever reason, decided not to take part in the film, but that was really the springboard for this project.
AE: The film started with this child and this idea of giving this little 6-year-old girl this cannabis oil and seeing if it could help her. That was the impetus of the film. [Ricki and Christian] really kind of adopted this little girl and were really trying to find alternative paths for her. When we started, we were documenting scientists and cannabis conferences and we were really blown away by our own ignorance. I think we were so blown away by what we didn’t know and our own inexperience around cannabis and the stigma that I think we had bought into it like most people. So I think we were just kind of uncovering all of this. When that initial child’s mother decided they weren’t actually comfortable being part of the film, we were kind of at a standstill. Then, it was like divine intervention out of nowhere, there was a mother who had a little baby with a brain tumor and she had been a huge fan of “The Business of Being Born.” She had seen the movie when she was pregnant and she had a lot of respect for us. Somebody told her that we were doing a movie about cannabis and she reached out to someone through Facebook. The film just kind of then restarted itself with a little 9-month-old baby.
ST: Did you have a message you wanted to get across from the start, or was that developed as you learned more?
AE: Our point was more looking at the human rights angle of it, which is really about how there may be something to this and there may not be something to this. Any parent in the film can say, “oh, my child was saved by cannabis,” but they can’t really say it definitively. Our point was more, if there’s even a chance that this could save lives then why in the world is this being criminalized? Not even inaccessible, but literally illegal. I think there’s such an outrage that you feel. It’s a similar thing in many ways, again, as the child birth thing. It’s sort of like, how could you take that away from somebody? That’s our right as human beings to be able to use whatever God put on this earth if it’s going to heal us. It’s our right to bring our children into the world in a way that fits our values. We didn’t know where this was going and we didn’t know if any of these children would survive, but we were just kind of following the story. I think it was quite experimental. We didn’t have a dog in the game. We didn’t really have anything to prove. We weren’t cannabis advocates, we were really advocates for these parents.
RL: For me, it’s about informed choice. I just love that we get to do these projects that really do educate people and they’re able to have the information to make a really informed choice when it comes to their health and their children.
ST: Pharmacann and Grassroots Cannabis are sponsoring some of these screenings in Chicago. A host of other cannabis-related companies are also listed as sponsors. How did this all come about?
AE: A lot of those sponsors basically came on once the film was completely finished and once they saw the film and they saw how important it was. We created an outreach campaign where these sponsors could help bring the movie to different locations because it’s really difficult to book a little documentary like this. Even with Ricki Lake attached, it doesn’t matter. Ultimately, it’s just becoming so challenging to book these kinds of films in theaters. They want the movies that are going to sell tickets. We had no advertising budget, we have no marketing budget. Those sponsors have just really helped us be able to make sure that the film opens in Chicago and the film opens in Phoenix and Baltimore and Philly and Oklahoma City. It’s really been great. So a lot of the sponsors are just trying to help us by staking some seats in the theater and helping to buy out a theater, or helping to underwrite some of our outreach efforts because as you can see in the film there’s so much education that needs to be done in medical schools and nursing schools. We need resources to be able to do that. I think some of the companies that have come on, it’s because they are visionary and they get it. The first time we had a big call with Teddy Scott, the head of Pharmacann, he got the film and he said, “this is why I’m in this industry.”
ST: What’s next for the film?
RL: We’re riding the train. We’re coming to Chicago, we’re going to Vancouver, we’re going to Denver. It’s rolling out in probably 50 cities by now. We’re attending a lot of those, but we want to obviously get the word of mouth going and get people riled up about this. And we are doing the [Academy Awards] qualifying round, as well. I’m hosting the IDA International Documentary Awards next weekend to try to create some buzz and momentum in that world with the film. We think it’s a really important subject matter for people to know about, so we’re gonna try to get it out there as much as we can.
Starting Friday, “Weed the People” will be shown for a week at The Wilmette Theater, 1122 Central Ave. in Wilmette. The Music Box, 3733 N. Southport Ave., will also host a final screening of the film on Dec. 5.