TIFF Q&A: Adrian Grenier and Matthew Cooke on America’s costly, futile war on drugs

TIFF Q&A: Adrian Grenier and Matthew Cooke on America’s costly, futile war on drugs

Matthew Cooke and Adrian Grenier (Image: Jeff Vespa/WireImage)

Last weekend, Adrian Grenier was in town for his now annual documentary premiere, this time as a producer of How to Make Money Selling Drugs. The film is full of outlandish and sardonic characters (the exception is a surprisingly sombre and touching 50 Cent), from a curly-haired clown of a man who, in describing the surge of gun violence in 1980s L.A., explains that “New York had always been more of a stabbing society” to Susan Sarandon, whose words of wisdom include “Anyone who tells you drugs aren’t fun is lying.”  The doc explores the so-called war on drugs in America, judging it to be (spoiler alert) a complete failure. We talked to Grenier and director Matthew Cooke (who produced the Grenier-directed Teenage Paparazzo) about drugs, health care and playing Pablo Escobar.

How did this film come about?

Adrian Grenier: About 10 years ago, I was at Matthew’s house and I saw a little note on his idea board that said “How to make money selling drugs.” It’s really all Matthew’s wisdom and research.

Matthew Cooke: Sixteen years ago, I took a summer course in economics, and the professor was explaining failed markets and pointed to the drug market. The pursuit of money in the war-on-drugs cause was changing public policy away from approaching drug abuse from a health-care perspective instead of treating it with a SWAT team.

Some people are calling 2012 the year of the documentary at TIFF. What do you think is going on with docs now?

MC: There are some incredible documentaries here this year. I definitely want to shout out Amy Berg’s documentary, West of Memphis. I think we’re in a time when television journalism is at an all-time low and filled with gossip, which is something we touched on in Teenage Paparazzo. People are hungry for real information.

Are you guys trying to insert yourself into the election conversation?

MC: We didn’t try to plan it that way, but we’re certainly happy about it. With drugs, we should be considering the role of health-care policy as opposed to policing each other. Unfortunately, the status quo has been that politicians don’t touch the topic for a variety of reasons. We had Brian O’Dea and Neill Franklin [two of the doc’s subjects] up on stage last night, and Brian was saying stuff about the private prison industry. Neil talked about the banks that benefit from money laundering. It’s endless how deep you can get into it.

AG: And also with the economy being such an important topic, everybody’s looking for money, and there’s an untapped motivated workforce. We don’t want people to turn to drugs to make money, or to quell the suffering they’re going through. We want to tap into all the resources used to fight drugs and put it toward education and job creation.

Adrian, your character in Entourage makes a pretty big deal about playing Pablo Escobar. So you’re mythologizing this kingpin and then making this documentary.

AG: He’s more popular than ever! He’s a cruel, cruel character, and people just eat him up. I think it is interesting. People are too quick to indulge that sensation and then shy away from taking a stand or communicating the real issues.

MC: Escobar was a populist folk hero to a lot of people, because he would provide social services! He would donate a lot of money to charity; he would fill a void that no one else was filling. He was even elected at some point.

What do you guys do when you come to the city?

AG: Stay out late, apparently.

And with that, the members of Grenier’s entourage uttered a collective chuckle, followed by a very low groan.