The Making of AKA Tommy Chong

tommy-chongVery shortly after departing my cushy gig as editor in chief of High Times for the second time, I found myself living in Woodstock, New York, and working primarily in video. Aaron Strebs and I were working on a Fishbone concert film for Mike Esterson, something that actually got released and distributed as “Fishbone in Amsterdam.”

One day I get a call from California from some guy who references Jack Herer and says he is making a film with Tommy Chong and wants to know if he can fly me asap to LA at his expense and help him. I decline, although I was pleased with this generous offer and helpful as possible. I told him if he sent me a rough cut, I would check it out.

Two days later Josh Gilbert, shows up at my house in Woodstock, and has a rough cut, marked “tom-will-edit” and I load it into my computer and we watch it.

He has a lot of fantastic home movie footage of Tommy Chong and his family at home after Tommy got set up and busted for selling bongs across state lines, an operation designed to exploit Tommy’s fame to get headlines for an anti-marijuana push in the media. Tommy was used by the Justice Department as a patsy, and those facts were obvious. Josh had also collected tons of background footage and historical Cheech & Chong highlights.

Everything was stitched together by what I call “precious moments.” When an editor discovers two pieces that fit perfectly, he wants to keep them together but sometimes you have to smash precious moments so you can build a dramatic throughway. He had at least two false endings, no antagonist in the story and, aside from three sentences, no narration.

Chong3I told Josh to come back the next day. I planned to spend 8 or 9 hours rearranging his footage in a strictly chronological fashion and writing a narration script, which I did. The next day I asked Josh to replace my voice with his own, something that proved to be a painstakingly slow process as Josh was constantly balking at reading my words, some of which he may have considered too politically inflamatory. See, in my version, Mary Beth Buchanan became the antagonist and I exploited her connections to 9/11. I also went after the privatized prison industry, especially Wackenhut, who ran the prison where Tommy was placed.

But eventually, we got through the session and I printed out a copy of the documentary, which still needed more editing, for example, the parts on Mary Beth needed some background visuals, but I knew I’d just participated in a major way to something that could be historic and was super artistic anyway. Josh asked me what credit and payment I wanted, and I said I wanted “written by.” He wrote me a check for $1,000 and he promised me he would double that after the film came out.

Many months later, I got to see the film in Amsterdam during the Cannabis Cup, at a Dutch film festival. Much to my surprise, Josh had kept all his precious moments and structurally, the film was the same meandering mess with two false endings that he’d originally showed me. He listed himself and me as the writers, which was fine with me since he used relatively none of my structural ideas. He used most of the narration I’d written but discarded the heaviest-hitting lines.

But then right before Josh was about to make his international distribution deal, he hired a well-connected freelancer to help launch his film and that dude was unhappy with the structure so Josh calls me and says he’d like to hire me to “fluff up” the film one more time before it got released.

By this time I’m momentarily back at High Times, once again in the saddle as editor in chief. I sense an opportunity to re-visit my original edit, and when Josh and his publicity maven appear in my office, I convince them to take a look at that old edit. Right out of the gate, the maven starts shouting “this is it!…this is perfect!” Meanwhile, Josh is moving his mouth and neck in a really weird way and goes into a major meltdown and forces me to turn off the film after less than 10 minutes.

Needless to say, I didn’t see Josh again, there was no “fluff up,” the maven was fired the next day and the film got released with all the precious moments and false endings intact.

But months later, I happened to be at Tommy’s house in LA and the subject of AKA came up.

“There was a better version,” I tell Tommy under my breath, not realizing Tommy is going to call Josh the second I leave. By the time I get back to New York, Josh has already rained shit down through calls to every person he knows I know, especially my wife, and is busy wreaking havoc, including removing my credit from imdb and wikipedia, although it still exists on the video itself, unless he’s found a way to delete that as well.

One thing I do know, in all my interactions with Josh Gilbert I always felt like I was in a Larry David reality TV show and there was never a dull moment. The behind the scenes story of AKA Tommy Chong would make one incredible comedy.


Author: Steven Hager

I'm a writer, journalist, filmmaker and event producer.

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