Matthew Cooke’s new drug war documentary How To Make Money Selling Drugs plays like video game. The 90-minute film walks its audience through the many lucrative stages of the drug-dealing world, pawn to kingpin. While mastering the worldwide narcotics trade isn’t the true modus operandi here, reaching a wider audience is. It’s tone, which aims to paint a wide and valid picture of the flailing war on drugs, took three years to perfect. How To Make Money Selling Drugs marks the second collaboration for Cooke and Adrian Grenier, Vincent Chase of Entourage fame, who served as producer on the documentary. Their last film, Teenage Paparazzo, was helmed by Grenier. At the start of his passion project, now sitting in the director’s chair, Cooke made a wish list for the doc’s necessary talking heads, then Grenier got to work, first hitting up the ones who had guest roles on Entourage. The resulting group of celebrities who made it onto the final cut include 50 Cent, Russell Simmons, Woody Harrelson, Eminem, and Susan Sarandon, to name a few. Read on for more on the 15 year path leading up to the film and Cooke’s dream of not making another “spanking” documentary.
What was the film’s inception point?
The idea came from growing up having my family come on hard times more than once and needing to do something to put some money together for myself and I ended up doing fake IDs. And fortunately didn’t get into the drug game, but it was a “There but for the grace of god go I” scenario and later on in life and studying the economics of the war on drugs, I saw this incredibly public policy failure, perhaps the worst one in history or in the last 50 years in the war on drugs. I wanted to make a film on it and came up with the idea of How To Make Money Selling Drugs because that was what the actual black market was teaching kids.
Did you have the idea for a video game narrative structure from the get-go?
I thought it would be a CliffNotes guide. I knew it would be ten easy steps, but I think the video game idea came a couple years ago and then I just thought, Oh my god, we call it a game. Why don’t we have a video game walk throughout? That would be fun.
Were you worried the tone would be misconstrued?
The last years when we were editing, I was constantly worried. I had my producers who all had their opinions and their girlfriends had opinions. I mean everyone had an opinion. My intention was look we want to reach an audience that doesn’t normally see documentaries. There’s going to be the audience that does see them like myself and like Adrian. And We used to have this joke, we called it the spanking documentary—90 minutes where you’re just beaten to a pulp and you leave and you just want to cry and you just go to a dark corner of your room and never come out again because you feel like there’s nothing that can be done.
I think why Adrian gravitated to this project as did Bert Marcus, the financing producer was because this seemed like a different sort of film something that would reach an apathetic audience, maybe a younger audience. There certainly have been films about the war on drugs that have been great, that I love, but they don’t reach everybody, and not that I’m criticizing them. They reached me, but let’s extend the conversation outward. If we don’t have people at the grassroots level knowing the facts, we’re going to continue to see our kids vote for politicians who aren’t clear on the distinct problems that we’re facing, one of which is drug abuse, the second of which is poverty and the third of which is all the problems created by the war on drugs, which if we ended we wouldn’t have those and we’d have the money to pay for the first two problems.
Do you think the drug war is a knot that can be untied?
I do. I think that the strands are frayed. I think it’s an old knot. It was tied 100 years ago. It’s archaic and I think we’re seeing the first breakdown of the myths and culture of it, with the marijuana laws. We’ve had a couple of states that have legalized. We’ve had challenges of how Obama and the US federal government is going to respond to states rights and that’s going to be very interesting and for the first time in a long time, we have a huge majority of people in the US that think marijuana should be a jail-able offense and we have a majority that think it should be legalized and it’s going to go that way with drugs too.
And I think that we just have to have a very smart, adult, loving, responsible conversation about not if we’re going to end the drug war, but how we’re going to do it. I’m certainly not a proponent of harder drugs made available for children so how do we do it? Do we sell it at cost? Do we make heroin available at cost at pharmacies? And then take $20 billion and put it into real rehab that drug addicts can help. I think that’s the type of thing that’s really smart. We’re not talking about or advocating putting cocaine in the hands of Coca Cola or Nestle corporations.
A large novelty of the film is the big names to talk to you, had you intended on such a large amount of great talking heads?
That was a discussion the whole way through. Some people feel like the more celebrities you have in a movie, the more people are going to watch it and I think that there’s some truth to that, at the same time, you want everyone in the film to be completely relevant to the topic they’re speaking on.
What were some of the challenges you encountered when making the film. I can imagine there must have been a few?
I think the major challenge was trying to find the right tone and trying to keep the ride fun and exciting and thrilling like it would be seeing any film, sort of as an escape. But at the same time, this is real. These are real people’s lives and stories and there’s a balance to be found in viewing it. The reality is most people aren’t going to grow up and say, “I want to be drug dealer when I grow up,” but at the same time, most people don’t want to grow up in an 8% unemployment rate in a neighborhood with no jobs except for those in the drug dealing game.
And so if you watch somebody’s story and you see them succeed at putting food on the table, succeed at pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, there’s something bizarrely–it’s an achievement of the American dream that we’re watching unfold. And it actually supplies some of that wish fulfillment that we get when we watch a movie when we see a hero. The hero is just someone who carries our dreams for us until we’re strong enough to carry them for ourselves.
This is the second time you’ve worked with Adrian. Tell me about your working relationship.
We argue. We joke around. We make fun. Ultimately we have the same social goals with very different tactics. I think we’re people who care a lot about public policy and care a lot about the state of the planet and our communities and telling the truth. We really push each other, through good argument, to really prove our points and we give each other a lot of leeway. I supported Adrian a hundred percent with Teenage Paparazzo, and he did the same for me with How to Make Money Selling Drugs. We never let a creative difference get in the way of a friendship, and we also really trust each other as artists to evoke the best performance out of each other. He’s a great partner.
Do you see yourself sticking to documentaries?
Well I’m developing a science fiction film for now.
I’ll always do documentaries. I don’t think of myself with any particular label. I don’t think of myself as a documentary filmmaker per se. I am, but I’m also a dude. I’m 40. Tall. I’m a lot of things. So we don’t have to put labels on ourselves. Life is too short to live in a box.
How To Make Money Selling Drugs premieres June 26 in New York, on VOD, and iTunes.