Film: Watching grass grow

Making ‘The Moneytree’ was a long, strange trip  

By Richard von Busack

Fairfax’s Christopher Dienstag calls his film The Moneytree “30 years in the making.” It played at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October of 1991, after some six years of work. Back for a one-day screening on April 23 at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, the film depicts the art of cultivating marijuana on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais.

Now that his film has awakened from its long sleep, Dienstag, actor and producer, is launching a crowdfunding campaign to remaster and re-record the soundtrack into Dolby and add new tunes. He’s going to add narration to contextualize what he describes as “the Wild West days” of pot growing. The plan is to share profits with the Cannabis Prisoners Project.

The audience will see the 35mm print Dienstag owns; he didn’t even have a VHS of the film that he made with his father, now 86.

“My father and I agreed that a film like this had not been done before. If you make a film about a bank robber, you usually don’t actually rob a bank. We broke the law before your very eyes.”

In the 25 years since the first screening of The Moneytree, we have seen a national change in opinion on marijuana. In 1991, distributors such as Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema worried about the legal ramifications of a film in which we watch the “grass” grow. The Moneytree was apparently jinxed in its cradle; Dienstag “four walled” (i.e., rented) a theater in Los Angeles to show the movie and lined up interviews with Peter Travers and Howard Stern. But the movie was pre-empted and the theater shuttered during the Rodney King riots.

Dienstag, who hasn’t smoked weed for 23 years, now works as a drug and alcohol counselor. “I was moving through these two worlds, the world of cannabis and the world of recovery,” he says.

Watching the film now, audiences will enjoy the rebellious nature of it, Dienstag says. “We learned to make the film as we went along, and it has a very endearing quality. I feel like the audience for this film was born after it was made, and now they’ve grown up. Now it’s time.”

‘The Moneytree’ plays on April 23 at 12:30pm at the Christopher B. Smith Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael; 415/454-1222.

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