Good and Bad Seeds: How Reenacting Crimes for the Vancouver PD Helped Me Grow My Indie Pot Thriller

As a struggling actor in my early twenties my agent hooked me up with a gig acting for the local police department. They would hire actors to role-play in training scenarios with new recruits playing anything from drug dealer to bank robber to hostage taker, all in an effort to teach young cops how to handle situations, and master protocol.

Not only did the camera-less, theater-less acting job pay for head shots, hamburgers, and hi-8 tapes, but the training work helped me understand how to play cops (as I ended up doing in Insomnia), and eventually gave me confidence to write them for Dark Harvest— a film based on my life growing up in the weed capital of North America.

I’d act out scenarios and the training cop would act as the director, telling me how to interact with the recruits. Often, that advice was to take any means necessary to prevent the students from arresting me. Putting these new cops in high-pressure situations was great practicewhere else do you get paid to fuck with cops and get away with it? We were always improvising. While I was pretending to lose my mind, they would be figuring out how to deal with, and detain, me.

A scene from Dark Harvest. Photo by James McLeod.

The Fine Line Between Legal and Illegal

Witnessing veteran cops teach their students how to arrest someone while following protocol informed how I would adapt to each situation, if necessary. When performing a domestic dispute scene in which there was a gun, knife, and a bit of heroin on the counter, the police didn’t have a warrant to enter the premises for that contraband. The training cops would tell the recruits to slide the weapons and drugs into their pocket without drawing attentionbasically telling the recruits to steal. Seeing new officers learn to navigate the line between what is legal and illegal in making an arrest, what the right course of action is and what would be frowned upon, inspired many moments in Dark Harvest, including when I wrote in the main narcotics officer pocketing a cell phone and keys in a scene. Another scene has four officers questioning each other about stealing cash from a grow-op.

The cops I wrote, without premeditation, are flawed and/or crooked. Dark Harvest is the antithesis of the training exercises I facilitated. Those scenarios emphasized by-the-book procedure and emphasized how they should properly handle themselves in uncomfortable and dangerous situations. In my movie, you’d be hard pressed to find a cop that’s following the rules. They’ve all thrown away the book.

James Hutson and Cheech Marin on the set of Dark Harvest. Photo by James McLeod.

Knowing a Good Story—and HashWhen You See It

Training cops proved to be the ultimate idea pool.

I asked veteran cops if they had any odd stories they could share. They were pretty open with meflattered I was asking about their careersbut careful not to tell me anything super dirty (which I would have loved to hear).

My first script, Hash, was inspired by one story in particular. One of the veteran training cops reveled in an incident where his buddy’s drug bust went sideways. It was a cold and snowy Christmas Eve in Vancouver’s densely populated West End. A woman called 911 to report a guy across the street was cutting up a table full of hash and wrapping it in small foil pieces in his living room. The cop who was sent to investigate entered her apartment checked things out with a pair of binoculars and agreed. He immediately called his sergeant, getting him out of bed on Christmas Eve. The sarge said, “John, you’re sure this is hash?” John confirmed, “I know hash when I see it.” He secured a warrant. The emergency response team assembled in the icy alley behind the apartment. They woke up the building manager to let them in and up to the hash dealer’s door. The team broke the door down and jumped the “dealer.” John cruised over to the table only to realize that the ‘hash dealer’ was a sound engineer cutting up a slab of sound insulation. The cop earned the nickname “John-I-Know-Hash-When-I-See-It.” Sufficed to say, his partners never let the moniker die.

The takeaway from John’s story for Dark Harvest‘s script was the notion that one botched bust could follow an officer and tarnish his reputation, and the efforts one might go through to shake his nickname (I’ve had a few nicknames I’d rather lose). I decided a cool ending would be the cop appearing to screw up another bust but with higher stakes, thus branding himself with the nickname.

James Hutson directing the cast of Dark Harvest. Photo by James McLeod.

Scripting When Tragedy Strikes

I shelved my original Hash script. Five years later my dad had a tragic accident and died one windy afternoon. I hit the darkest recess of my soul and luckily decided that making my dream movie would eventually earn my life back. I started to write what I thought was a new movie about weed (stick to what you know) but six months into writing Dark Harvest, I started to pull from Hash. The new script was a father-son relationship diary and weed movie rolled into one. Although I dropped the overt father-figure aspect of the final draft of Dark Harvest, when I watch the movie now I see Ricardo as the father Carter never had, and echoes of my dad and our friendship.

I primed AC Peterson (my original method acting teacher) to play the narcotics officer until he had a hip replacement surgery a year before filming. To keep on course with AC playing the character of Bernie, I introduced the bear trap incident into the story as a way to justify AC’s healing hip and limp. That beartrap became the “inciting incident” and thrust of the entire movie.

Stick to What You Know: Marijuana Business

Sometimes I smoked weed to write, and sometimes I smoked weed after I wrote. The latter was more productive. Didn’t Oliver Stone have a cocaine addiction while he wrote Scarface?

I had an advantage writing a weed movie due to previous involvement in the business. My parents were hippies, in Vancouver, in the 1970s. We had pot plants around the house the day I came home from the hospital, and I passed many joints between adults listening to Sticky Fingers.

As a young man in a city famous for high-grade weed, everyone had some connection to the illegal industry. (I won’t elaborate too much.)

New writers: stick to a subject you know. Chris Nolan’s first film, Following, tracks two guys that break into apartments in London. Chris’s apartment had been broken into, so he knew something about the experience and was curious about the perpetrators enough to commit to writing the story about a burglar. The protagonist was a writer. Both topics were familiar to Nolan. For me, weed and cops were familiar… murder, not so much. MM

Dark Harvest is currently on the festival circuit, appearing in Portland, Williamsburg, Columbia Gorge, New York, and Edmonton. 

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