A Bug and a Bag of Weed, a good-hearted, raucous drugs-and-dudes movie, played to a sold-out audience at the 2006 Atlantic Film Festival. It represented a dream-pursuit move cross-country, five years of form-filling, fundraising and industry navigation, a 15-day shoot and almost $500,000. It was the rarest of rarities—not just a Canadian feature film, but a Halifax feature film, made and set here. A broadcast license had been granted. Anticipation was peaking. Surely a theatrical release would be close on the heels of this triumphant festival screening.
"There wasn't even a road," says Drew Hagen, who co-produced and acts in the film, when pressed to describe the series of roadblocks from Bug's conception in Vancouver to its cinematic debut this Friday, 14 months after its AFF debut.
Hagen and his good friend Chris Cuthbertson, who wrote the movie and also co-produced and co-stars, have the kind of relationship where each is always talking over the other, filling in gaps, adding commentary. They interrupt each other all the time, picking up the thread and running with it. Neither ever apologizes, but then, neither is ever angry.
The pair met out west on the set of The Dave Chalk Computer Show, a privately funded, massively syndicated program about technology. The show had begun buying the DV cameras that were not yet industry standard—Canon XL1s. "They were still using the $45,000 Beta cam," says Hagen. "That's the baby camera," he adds, gesturing to an invisible XL with a dismissive flip. So the pair utilized their resources and created 22 films in a month. "We would rent hotel rooms, drag all our computer equipment in and just edit," says Hagen, laughing. "One guy thought we were creating a computer virus."
They put those films together as a reel, a way to pitch the sketch comedy show they had in mind. This show, they thought, would be produced in Halifax—a comedy mecca. "If you watched the Comedy Network or CBC, all the comedy was coming from Halifax," Cuthbertson says. "The Itch with Jessica Holmes, This Hour Has 22 Minutes and CODCO."
So the pair pulled up stakes and headed east, but not before shooting, on film, a trailer for A Bug and a Bag of Weed. When they arrived in town—where Cuthbertson, a native, had last been in 1990 but assured Hagen of "$200 apartments"—they began the arduous task of putting together a feature film. (The sketch show didn't happen.)
They attended open meetings hosted by Film Nova Scotia, which they couldn't believe were open in the first place. They met people like Josh MacDonald and Michael Melski—other guys trying to break in. And they filled out paperwork for development money from FNS and Telefilm, which they got, all for a buddy comedy they wrote for themselves to act in, Good Will Hunting-style—just trying to make a damn movie. Directed by David Gonella, they shot it in and around Halifax, primarily in Spryfield, over two weeks in May and June of 2005, "four years to the day" from when they made the trailer in Vancouver, adds Cuthbertson.
The hold-up in theatrical release comes down to what everything in the movie business comes down to—money. "We had to go through a completely new round of fundraising to make the prints," says Hagen of the $70,000 needed to blow up the digitally shot movie to 35mm film.
Those prints drop on December 7 in Bayers Lake and Dartmouth, as well as Crystal Palace in Moncton. Those opening weekend numbers will dictate what happens to Bug throughout the rest of the country.
It's got a great match in Montreal-based distributor Domino Films, headed by Jeanne Ritter, who, Cuthbertson and Hagen gleefully point out, handled Canadian publicity campaigns for Cheech and Chong: Up in Smoke and Porky's back in the day. It's the biggest in a series of triumphs for the friends, who continuously drop the names, gratefully, of people who helped them get here, to the best place a film can get.
"We're the low guy in a roomful of low guys," says Hagen.
"And the next step now," says Cuthbertson, "is to convince everyone to go see it."