The Emerald Triangle—three counties in Northern California— represents the largest region to produce cannabis in the United States. Even so, it hasn’t been a free-for-all for growers and sellers. As pot farming has become legalized in select parts of the west coast, the push for governmentally regulated weed distribution has become an expensive business to invest in, with required permits and enforced rules pushing out more experienced old-timers who made a habit of keeping things affordable and independent. As their businesses are crippled by state legalization, these farmers are forced to take desperate measures or risk losing their livelihood.
Mario Furloni and Kate McLean’s narrative feature debut, Freeland, places us in one such county (Humboldt) with one such farmer, Devi (Krisha Fairchild), exploring the ways in which a small cannabis-producing operation has suddenly found itself on the outside looking in. As she’s advised by her legal representative to close up shop (applying for a permit is expensive, with no guarantee of even receiving one), Devi informs her young, bohemian employees that rather than get paid weekly, she will have to pay them in one lump sum at the end of the season—or at least, she hopes she can.
Originally documentary filmmakers who explored this subject matter with a short film, Pot Country, ten years ago, Furloni and McLean are well-equipped to take this study further, this time with professional actors, an added dramatic arc and a foreboding sense of tense paranoia. With Freeland now streaming on select VOD platforms, I spoke with the filmmakers about their shift to narrative filmmaking, keeping the experience authentic and the need for seasonal re-shoots.
Filmmaker: You both have a prominent documentary background, including a short nonfiction work you made in 2011, Pot Country, that covers similar terrain as Freeland. Was it the specific subject matter that made you want to explore narrative filmmaking? Or were you always hoping to make films outside of the documentary space?
McLean: 10 years ago, as Mario and I were finishing Pot Country, we both felt the things we loved about the area were nonetheless really hard to capture and put onscreen. That was, in part, due to the fact that marijuanana legalization hadn’t been passed yet and it was hard for us to communicate the level of secrecy and paranoia that everyone had been swimming in. That’s quite different from how things are today, especially with how people have opened up about the industry (and their work in it).
Filming Pot Country, it was hard to capture some of the elements that would be considered “most authentic.” Bringing a camera into a specific place makes every scenario fraught and difficult to capture any kind of life unawares. It was tricky. Mario and I then reminisced about the interesting tall tales or little moments we witnessed when our camera wasn’t rolling, the aspects of character within the people that we met and loved. Those moments would eventually become the seeds of inspiration for Freeland, in the sense that we would see each other periodically, have a beer and reminisce.
As we were doing that, we were also watching the rising tide of legalization taking place. We were keeping in touch with people we’d met in the area and asking, “Oh gosh, the price has dropped to what per pound? People aren’t selling their crop from two years ago? Why not?” We were getting these warning signs that the more open their industry had become, the harder it was for sellers to continue doing the things they had been doing the way that they’d been doing them. The new way of doing things was really hard for people of a certain generation (primarily in their 60s and 70s) to adapt to, i.e. bookkeeping and the added legal process, etc. Long story short, each of those things coalesced into what would become Freeland.
Filmmaker: So you always kept an ear to what was taking place in the industry in that part of California? Were the subsequent conflicts that arose as a result of legalization ultimately what brought you back?
Furloni: I always wondered to myself if there was a way to go back and film more stories there. On Pot Country, we wanted to be in that location and find a way to tell a story that felt relevant for that time. The process of developing Freeland was a long learning experience. As we kept writing and reworking the script, we would find that “Oh, now this new development is happening, so maybe we should center the script around that.” That mindset continued up until about a week before we began shooting. Seriously! After we had started rehearsals and secured our final locations, we heard about this abatement letter that sellers were receiving, so that letter became a part of the script on the very same day, very late in the game. We were trying to keep our eyes and ears to the ground to accurately depict what was happening on site. Our goal was to build a very simple story within as much of the given reality as possible. That’s what we were trying to do, not to overthink too much about what fiction is. It’s a very small story that we were trying to tell within this bath of reality. As documentarians, that approach allowed us comfortability.
Filmmaker: Did having Pot Country under your belt help as a proof-of-concept for when you were attempting to raise funds for Freeland? Even though this was to be your first narrative work, I imagine your familiarity with the subject matter, the location and the workers provided you with a leg up.
Furloni: I think so, yes. I remember meeting our producer, Laura Heberton, at an IFP event years ago and in our follow-up conversation remember thinking that, for her, it wasn’t the script (which was very different back then) that interested her, but rather our specific approach and knowledge of the site. For someone on the east coast who didn’t have much experience with that environment, I think she felt like we were talking about a foreign country, which fascinated her.
Filmmaker: When you knew you wanted to make a narrative feature that drew from the research of your nonfiction short, were you able to revisit those locations and people?
McLean: We did. One of the things we were able to do over the course of visiting the area over many years is meet with people who we liked and could rope into our process. All of the locations in Freeland are real, lived-in places. We brought on local crew members who were able to help with scouting and connect us with the resources and friendly locals who lent more credibility to us within the community. Having a point of connection to that place opened doors and allowed people to be more receptive. The relationships we built over several years then, in turn, informed the story we were writing, and I mean that in a very literal way. We called it the “materials of available filmmaking”—like, “so-and-so has this place on their property where the light comes through the trees in a certain way for one hour each da, so we need to write that into the script because we’ve come to love it and think other people will too,” or, “so-and-so has a real ‘trim room’ and are actually trimming right now and said we can come in and observe. What if we put our actors in the room with them, have them take a trimming lesson, and then integrate that into the film? These workers are graciously allowing us to be a part of their routine as they finish up their day’s work.” There was a lot of that [throughout filming].
Furloni: We learned a lot as we formed those relationships and filmed on their land. For instance, the person who owned the trim room told us how she was attempting to go through the cannabis legalization process and the struggles she faced. I remember her saying that [growers] were living their lives not knowing if they were going to get busted the following year. That cloud of not knowing forced them to live in the present. But you do need to think long-term financially, right? You need a five-year business plan and a marketing campaign, you need to think of your social media accounts, etc. The woman we spoke with was much younger than our character in the film, however, and I think she’s more prepared to make those decisions and make that transition.
Many other people shared their stories with us and that was especially important to Krisha as an actress. Krisha would visit the local farmer’s market and meet somebody who had recently received one of those abatement letters [that you see in the film] like a week before, and that provided further immersion into a community that is actually dealing with this.
Filmmaker: Was this your first time working with professional actors?
Furloni: I had made a few shorts, one of which turned out to be preparation for Freeland. There was one particular summer where we almost went into production on Freeland, then things just fell through and it didn’t happen. We were left with all of this pent-up energy, so Kate and I decided to make a narrative short, Marty, just as practice.
Filmmaker: What was that experience like? As nonfiction filmmakers, you’re familiar with working to get your subjects comfortable in front of a camera, but is there a mental shift when working with professional actors? Was there a different vocabulary you had to learn, things you could lean on from past experience as documentarians?
McLean: As a doc person, you have to establish lines of communication, always read the room and gauge everyone’s comfort level. Those skills are helpful when getting into narrative filmmaking too. That being said, there was a hilarious moment where Mario and I realized that we couldn’t just plan to catch anything unawares.
Furloni: We had this idea that if we didn’t call “action,” our cast would be more natural in front of the camera. Then at some point, I can’t remember who it was, said, “Can you please just say ‘action’? It’s irritating not knowing when you’re rolling.” [laughs]. We kept learning as we were going! Some actors love to know what the framing is going to be for their shot so that they can adjust their performance to it, and some actors don’t want to know about framing at all. Part of the directing experience comes from seeing how people like to work and how to create the best situation for your cast to perform in. That’s also true in nonfiction filmmaking, especially verite. If you’re making an observational documentary, you’re still capturing a performance, even if we fool ourselves into believing we aren’t.
Filmmaker: Did it help your transition into narrative filmmaking by bringing on a crew that had worked with you on documentaries?
Furloni: It was helpful in two ways, one being that we already had developed a shorthand that we could use on this feature. The second way it was helpful was via people who are used to working in three, two, or one-person crews suddenly finding themselves [on Freeland] as part of a six-person crew and thinking, “Oh, this is nice, having less responsibility than I usually have.” To crewmembers who are used to working on narrative features, a six-person crew is tiny but for us, it wasn’t. Production was still a challenge, as everyone was, on a technical level, working in ways they hadn’t previously, but the crew size felt right.
Filmmaker: When did you know you were ready to go into production? And how much of your cast was assembled by then? Krisha Fairchild and Lily Gladstone have developed prolific careers over the past half-decade, so I imagine you might have gone into production with other actors had you started earlier?
McLean: If we had shot in 2013, it would have been a whole different story with a whole different cast. Once we realized that we wanted to cast Krisha (and knowing that she could carry the film), we re-wrote the script and centered it around her. To this day, I’m happy we did that, as the character is in every scene and I cannot imagine the film any other way (even though it went through many different permutations throughout the years).
Filmmaker: You pared elements of the story down, is that correct? Wasn’t there a daughter character at some point?
Furloni: Yeah, the story was more of a two-hander between Devi and her daughter, and that’s the version of the script Krisha originally signed on for. We almost shot that version in 2017, I believe, and when that fell through, we went back to the drawing board. We kept thinking of different elements that would make the story simpler and realized that removing the daughter character would remove the outsider point of view for the audience. It was really freeing once we said, “If we remove that character and put the viewer in the POV of Devi, then the film offers an insider POV only.” We honed it down to focusing on one character’s experience and that allowed us to tackle the story differently.
McLean: It helped that we were given the time to get to know Krisha and realize that she was game in that way, to wade into the river at 6am or trim weed with us and just do everything she could to deliver this barn-burning performance.
Furloni: And to dream with us a bit too. It took so long to get this film made that by the time we began filming, we had accumulated numerous years of back-and-forth emails with Krisha where we discussed Devi’s past and how she views certain things. Once we finally got to set, even though we hadn’t met in person before, Krisha became the seventh member of the crew and we were off to the races.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting watching the film now with that cast. I mean, Lily Gladstone just wrapped a film for Martin Scorsese [Killers of the Flower Moon]!
McLean: I’m so excited to see where her career is going to go. She’s spectacular.
Filmmaker: You mentioned the weed-trimming scenes earlier, and I’d read that that scene came about due to a miscommunication in production, is that correct? Was getting access to that space merely a result of a happy coincidence?
McLean: Mario, if I remember correctly, that was one of the first things we shot.
Furloni: It was the first scene where everybody was there [on location] together, including Krisha and Lily and Frank Mosley and John Craven. It was the biggest scene we had shot up to that point.
McLean: Everyone was meeting each other for the first time, with Mario and I coming to the realization that we were going to have to direct a lot of actors simultaneously. When we arrived at the location, I had been under the impression that we were essentially going to be filming in an empty room. There would be a pile of weed left for us to film with, and that was that. But instead, once we arrived, [the farmers] had just cut some things down that needed to be processed right then and there. As a result, there was a room full of people who were working and smoking and listening to music, and we could adapt or leave.
The workers were really nice about it. I could see if I were in that situation being like, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what so and so told you but you really should get out of here,” but instead, they welcomed us in. In retrospect, that was such a boon for the scene, as you can’t fake a close-up of someone’s hands working through the process if they haven’t already become skilled at doing it for 10 or 15 years. You can’t fake the fluidity and muscle-memory gestures that their hands have. Any close-ups in our film of hands at work were most likely not the hands of our actors.
Furloni: We immediately got a feel for the room and our actors did too. They just walked in and were like, “I see what this film’s like immediately, because we just walked in on it actually happening. Instead of creating the reality and using our memory or research to portray how we think the room should operate, we can now integrate ourselves into the real thing.” Their postures quickly changed and they immersed themselves into the workers’ process.
Filmmaker: Was that also true of the sequence where Devi attends a cannabis convention? It feels like you’re capturing raw footage of Krisha interacting with real sellers who may or may not be aware that a camera is live on the convention floor.
Furloni: The convention footage was the very first thing we shot. Krisha got into town and, two days later, we were in there filming. We had bought tickets for our entire group and let the convention organizers know ahead of time that we wanted to film inside. They granted us that permission, then we got to work. The closest thing I can compare it to is like we were filming a Borat movie. Krisha was in character the whole time, walking around and interacting with people as we were filming.
Filmmaker: So they didn’t know they were being filmed?
Furloni: Not while we were filming, but as soon as we stopped recording, we went up to them and told them that this was actually for a film, explained the situation to them, then asked for their approval [to use the footage].
Filmmaker: Were you using a smaller, more inconspicuous camera for those scenes? They have a different sort of look to them.
Furloni: We used a smaller camera atop a gimbal for that sequence, but I think that different look is mostly due to the fluorescent lighting from within the space. It’s such a drastic contrast from everything else in the film up to that point.
Filmmaker: When did you officially wrap the shoot?
Furloni: Well, we wound up shooting in two different periods.
Filmmaker: Due to re-shoots?
Furloni: Yes, we had one week-long re-shoot months later, in March of 2019.
McLean: The challenge in [scheduling reshoots] was in part due to the seasonal timeline of the weed. Once we wrapped our main shoot over the course of one season, we then had to wait a full other season for things to be ready again for us to come back and film.The whole process took some patience.
Furloni: But by waiting for that to arrive, we had time in the edit room to work on a few things. We assembled an early version of the film and realized, “oh, these particular threads are coming together in a really beautiful way, perhaps we can build up to them a bit more and build some scenes around that,” or, “maybe the scenes centered around so-and-so thread can fall back a bit as we’re not really following it further throughout the rest of the story’s duration.” That experience in the edit felt closer to a thought-board for Kate and I. Once you have footage to look at and can begin putting it together, you think, “What scenes do I need to go back and shoot in order to fill in some of the ‘story gaps’ we’ve now identified?”
Filmmaker: While you were in production (or even post-production), were you thinking about the kinds of audiences you hoped would want to discover this story? Of course, given the subject matter, there are different groups that may take an interest in seeing themselves on screen but how early or late in the process did you start thinking about communities to reach out to in a grassroots, targeted sort of way? Since you’ve worked with pot farming communities for over a decade, have you found that that immersion has provided you with a solid understanding of who the audience for Freeland potentially is? Have there been any surprises to you in the people who are discovering the film?
McLean: It’s hard to say and, to be honest, it’s all been very much shaped by the pandemic. We’ve never seen the film with an audience before. We’ve never been in a theater and watched it with other people. I’ve never heard if people laugh at the things that we think are funny or if they cringe at the moments where we cringe.
Filmmaker: Are you going to be able to view the film with in-person audiences moving forward?
McLean: I think Mario and I are heading to L.A. to view the film on opening night in Santa Monica. We’ll see who wants to come out and be together in a theater right now. I hope it’s tons of people and I’m looking forward to it, especially since some of our team is based in L.A. and will join us for that screening.
Furloni: The film has traveled [virtually] to numerous regional festivals throughout the United States and what’s heartening to me is that it sounds like it’s resonated with audiences in places like North Carolina and throughout the Midwest, places that aren’t traditionally related to weed markets. I think there is an interest in the film as being part of a larger American farming story, a story about getting old in America and what that experience feels like. That’s been heartening to me, to hear that those themes are resonating with other people.
Filmmaker: Are you both interested in continuing narrative feature filmmaking? Would you want your careers to continue to be intertwined between nonfiction and narrative pursuits?
McLean: In a perfect world, there’s always cross-pollination, right? Anything that Mario and I write is always going to be deeply grounded in research and specificity and lived-in worlds. We originally met in journalism school and that’s always been the part of storytelling we love the most, the texture and surprise that comes from real life. I feel like each of the documentarians I know dream about one day writing a fiction film, as it possesses a fantasy of control that you totally do not have as a documentary filmmaker. I think holding onto an aspect of both is everything for us.