"Rolling Papers" premiered March 15 at SXSW in Austin, Texas. From left, director Mitch Dickman, producer Britta Erickson and The Denver Post's marijuana editor, Ricardo Baca, in The Denver Post newsroom. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post )

Colorado pot documentary ‘Rolling Papers’ gets its close-up at SXSW

On a snowy night in December 2013 Ricardo Baca was on his way to Denver International Airport when he got a text from Britta Erickson.

Well known in town as festival director of the Denver Film Society, Erickson was reaching out to Baca in a different capacity — that of film producer.

A veteran writer and editor at The Denver Post, the 36-year-old Baca had just been tapped by Editor Greg Moore and News Director Kevin Dale to become the paper’s marijuana editor.

Colorado’s voters had spoken. Beginning Jan. 1, 2014, recreational pot would be legal. Medical marijuana dispensaries had been in operation since 2010.

It was a first for a major American media outlet: a weed editor. The nation was abuzz. CNN came a-callin’. As did international news outlets. Bill O’ Reilly weighed in. So did Nancy Grace. Baca was a guest on “The View.”

"Rolling Papers" premiered March 15 at SXSW in Austin, Texas. From left, director Mitch Dickman, producer Britta Erickson and The Denver Post's marijuana editor, Ricardo Baca, in The Denver Post newsroom. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post )
“Rolling Papers” premiered March 15 at SXSW in Austin, Texas. From left, director Mitch Dickman, producer Britta Erickson and The Denver Post’s marijuana editor, Ricardo Baca, in The Denver Post newsroom. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post )

In fact, when Baca and Erickson talked, he was headed to DIA for a flight to New York City. He was scheduled to appear on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”

“All of us know where this leads,” the then anchor of truthiness declared. “A pot editor is just a gateway job to meth editor.” Weather intervened. He wound up taping the segment.

When Erickson had a chance to speak with Baca, she shared with him her “aha” moment. She wanted him to be the lead character in a documentary. And, yes, if you’re wondering (Baca was), the best nonfiction films have them.

Tonight, that documentary — which follows the first year of legalized pot in Colorado by following the first year of the Post’s pot editor — gets its close-up.

Directed by Mitch Dickman, “Rolling Papers” has its world premiere at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. The burgeoning film portion of the massive music and interactive festival is coming into its own right.

UPDATE (7:10 p.m. March 16, 2015): “Rolling Papers” landed a worldwide distributor after its SXSW debut.

See the film: Get details on the SXSW screenings

If all goes as Erickson and the film’s crew of producers hope, you’ll get to see it in an arthouse sooner than later.

When you do, don’t expect a puff piece. “Rolling Papers” is more than a snicker fest about cannabis. Although Dickman and cinematographer-editor Zack Armstrong have interspersed some clever moments worthy of appreciative giggles.

But the making of “Rolling Papers” attests to other storylines, too. There’s the one about Erickson’s growth as a producer in her hometown. The one about Colorado’s documentary community continuing to add sinew and muscle to its body of work. And, perhaps surprisingly, “Rolling Papers” offers a telling glimpse into the state of journalism.

Appointing a weed editor to not just coordinate news coverage but to also create a Web entity — The Cannabist — posed a question. Could a wilting industry graft itself onto a blossoming and once-illicit biz with integrity and nimbleness?

“We knew recreational marijuana was going to be much bigger than medical,” says Post Editor Moore in the film. “We knew we had to cover it in a way we hadn’t in the past. For us to take it seriously was just smart journalism.”

A wider focus

For his part, Baca says his chief concern when approached about the movie was a straightforward one.

“Even if I was the main character, they had to pay props to the amazing work being done around the newsroom and within the circle of freelancers we’d hired.”

Reporters Eric Gorski and John Ingold and the stories they chased — including one about a college student whose death was linked to edibles — are prominently featured. And Baca’s investigation into consumer concerns about false advertising of THC levels in edibles gets its due. “Rolling Papers” also follows him to Uruguay, where then-President José Mujica had legalized and nationalized the sale of cannabis.

He said what? That time Uruguay’s President Mujica questioned Colorado’s cannabis regulations: “It’s a complete fiction what they do in Colorado”

Right about now an acknowledgment is in order. There are moments when “Rolling Papers” feels a bit like a home movie.

With the exception of Cannabist pot reviewer Jake Browne and parenting columnist Brittany Driver, the newsroom players are colleagues. A couple with cameo moments are my podmates. As the paper’s former music editor, Baca was a fellow entertainment writer, then editor.

The kinship is there. Even so, “Rolling Papers” is mildly reminiscent of Andrew Rossi’s 2011 documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” which offered a compelling portrait of a newspaper navigating the sea change brought on by the Web and social media. Over the years many have given lip service to the idea of “paradigm shifts.” The media appears to finally be in one.

“That’s what excited me about doing this project,” says Erickson, sitting in the Denver Film Society’s Sie FilmCenter’s one recent afternoon. “I have this fascination with journalism, having gone to J-school. That lens made this more palpable to me to really get engaged with.”

This is Erickson’s second documentary as a producer. A.J. Schnack’s 2009 doc “Convention” was her first. It also took on a potent event unfurling in Colorado: the Democratic National Convention. Journalism — and the Post’s political reporters and editors — has a part of that story, too. A hometown gal, Erickson became something of an accidental but also avid filmmaking partner, says Schnack, who first met Erickson through the Denver Film Festival.

“One of the things I saw about Britta early on was that she had an inherent understanding, not just of what to program for the city but all different pieces of Denver, whether it was the physical means of getting something accomplished, or who was the person to call. That is something that translated really well to production,” he says. “There was a certain plugged-in-ness to Denver that was super-important. I don’t know if anyone has it quite like she does.”

Long lens on pot

Long before Colorado and its voters made history, Erickson and a posse of filmmakers had formed the Denver Documentary Collective, planning to make a feature about medical marijuana in Colorado.

Involved on that project — and this one — were director Daniel Junge, film editor Davis Coombe and producer Alison Greenberg.

“The pendulum on that story kept taking these huge swings, and there was no clear end to that story.”

The project got bogged down. Junge, Greenberg and Coombe went on to make the Oscar-winning short doc “Saving Face.”

Erickson kept busy with her day job. And, she admits with a laugh, “our characters were a bit … dubious.”

Still, Greenberg kept track — forwarding stories that might stir the embers of the dormant project. But none of them jumped at it. “Then Baca gets announced as cannabis dude,” Erickson says. She was certain they had their guide to the story.
“We have this person who I think is interesting, who I think viewers would think was interesting. He was immediately getting calls to go on these national shows.”

They gathered. Junge was originally signed on to direct but had become a very busy guy. Last spring, his and Kief Davidson’s documentary “Beyond the Brick: A LEGO Brickumentary” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. In January his kinetic bio-doc, “Being Evel” had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Last week, it won the Boulder International Film Fest’s best movie. It, too, is headed to SXSW.

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So Erickson reached out to Mitch Dickman. The Denver-based filmmaker’s 2013 documentary, “Hanna Ranch,” was the first Colorado-produced film Erickson gave a red-carpet berth to during a Starz Denver Film Festival.

With “Hanna Ranch,” Dickman achieved something subtle, weaving the personal story of Colorado rancher Kirk Hanna — who took his own life — into one about family legacies, sustainable farming, development. It’s a trust in the layers of a story that serve well the many demands of “Rolling Papers.”

And Erickson and her fellow producers hope the doc lights up the by Southwest film fest when it premieres. Those high hopes are not unfounded.

Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567, lkennedy@denverpost.com or twitter.com/bylisakennedy

This story was first published on DenverPost.com