CANNABIS CULTURE – In part two of a three-article series on activist and entertainer Wavy Gravy, CC presents an interview with Michelle Esrick, director of Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie by writer Dale Rangzen.
Read Part 1 – “Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie” and Part 3 – “From Merlin to Flesh Gordon: An Interview with Wavy Gravy” on Cannabis Culture.
Dale Rangzen: First, thanks so much for making this film. It is such an important record of Wavy Gravy’s life. When did you first decide to make a movie about him?
Michelle Esrick: l couldn’t believe there wasn’t a film about him after I had I got to know him. I remember going to the video store to rent one and there wasn’t anything in the store. I couldn’t believe that everybody didn’t know who he was.
DR: How did you first hear about him?
ME: I met him in 1992. A friend of mine was writing a book about the history and culture of drugs in America and so I went along for that ride. We drove cross-country and Wavy was one of the people he interviewed. When we met him, his ice cream flavor had just come out. He was reading from his book Something Good for a Change. There were six tubs of the ice cream there, and I remember having bowls and bowls of it. Then, after the reading, we took him to lunch and he really impressed me.
DR: He is such an open being. You just don’t meet many people like him.
ME: He made such an impact on me and we stayed in touch after our first lunch together. Then, in 1996, my partner and I launched a line of Grateful Dead neckwear. You remember those Jerry Garcia ties?
DR: Yes, I do. I remember thinking they were pretty weird at the time.
ME: We did several big launches and press events and Wavy was the spokesperson for that line. We had asked him and he set up a scholarship fund for Camp Winnarainbow so that a percentage of all the sales went to sending kids to camp. So, this really gave Wavy the incentive to do it and the line turned out to be very, very successful. So, we ended up working on the project together for a couple of years and during this time a couple of things were going on. First, I kept hearing him tell story after story about his life and the people that he knew and it was just always so interesting. They were never ending. We spent a lot of time together and this guy’s life became like a ten-part miniseries and then on another level, personally and spiritually, he was always encouraging my perception to a better place. He was humbling me because I’d always liked to think of myself as an evolved person and he would say something that would show me I had a long way to go if I wanted to think or act in certain ways. It was always like putting on a new pair of glasses every time I was with him.
DR: He always seems to endlessly positive. I wonder how he keeps it up. Does Wavy ever get blue?
ME: Wavy Gravy is human. Even though the title of the film is Saint Misbehavin’, I’m not calling him a saint in the usual sense. We all have a saint in us. We call people who are loving and want to help build the world saints. Every person we’ve ever called a saint is a human being underneath. Wavy is very human and he’s certainly about flaunting his flaws. He does a routine at the kid’s camp called “brush ’em if you’ve got ’em” that involves telling them about when he was a poet he used to brush his teeth with Cream soda and Snickers bars. He tells the story in the dark. He makes it scary and at the end of the story he pulls out his false teeth and tells the kids if they don’t brush their teeth they’ll look like him! He shines the flashlight in his mouth and the kids all scream. They usually brush their teeth about four times a day after that. He’s had parents calling him and asking him how he got them to brush their teeth. That’s just a little example of how he uses his flaws to teach people.
DR: Wavy was telling me that you worked on this film for ten years. How did you keep your focus for that long? How did you know when it was finished?
ME: I knew it was finished when D.A. Pennebaker (legendary documentary filmmaker who made Don’t Look Back featuring Bob Dylan in 1967) put his hands on my shoulders and said, “Stop editing! You’re done!” When I showed him the final cut, he got teary and I got teary because my hero got teary. I did tweak a few more things, but that was it. I had never made a film before and the film came out of being completely inspired after being with Wavy. I really could see it. I could see how people would feel if I could capture his essence and put it on screen. For the first six years, I was also working as an actress, so I was doing different things creatively and then I came to a point where I realized if I didn’t focus on it 100%, I would never get it done. I had the desire to let everything else go and complete it. Making a documentary film as an independent filmmaker, it’s very difficult to raise the money and do the creative part. It’s like you need to have two different heads. There was a lot of pressure to be worried about money and yet still have the energy to be creative at the same time. Whenever I wanted to give up because everything was too hard, I’d go back to the good feelings I’d get from Wavy and know that I had to finish it. I could never let go of it. Something would happen that would be a sign to me that it was meant to be. It could be a phone call or a donation, but some sign from the universe would come and there would just be no doubt about what I was meant to be doing. Then when I was able to put scenes together and have people see them, that gave me energy that kept building and building and building.
DR: Do you have a favourite scene in the movie? A perfect moment?
ME: I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked that.
DR: My kids like the first scene with the Wavy Gravy mustering prayer. They love the Winnarainbow scenes, too.
ME: Wow! You’re kidding. I could cry. I don’t know. What I’ve seen is that everyone who is around Wavy goes through a perception shift. So, I realized that not everybody gets to hang out with Wavy Gravy, so I felt that I had to share him.
DR: I’ve had interesting experiences showing the film to people. I’ve shown it to some pretty hardcore left-wing intellectuals who approach it with bemusement and then part way through – they’re always won over. It’s quite amazing.
ME: I completely identify with that. I remember showing a rough cut in Los Angeles – a place where there can be a real wall up.
DR: With the cynical kind of vibes?
ME: There was this one very high-powered music mogul and he came in with such a wall up that you could barely say “hello” to him without being afraid. When the movie was over, a line formed to talk to me. He was in the line and I noticed the line was very long and I figured he was too cool to stay in the line. He did stay and he hugged me because he was so moved after seeing the film.
DR: His greatest skill is in breaking down people’s barriers and allowing us to laugh at ourselves.
ME: He really is the way that you see him in the movie. He doesn’t come home and become a different guy. The way he is is the way he is. I’ve been criticized for not showing the ‘real Wavy’ and it hurts because that really is the real Wavy. Should I have shown him having a moment of disappointment? I showed that he parks a car and puts the wheel up on the curb! (laughs) I guess I just assumed that everybody knows that we’re all human. But, does he yell at his wife? No. Does he lose his temper with people? No. He feels pain, but I have to say that he transforms pretty quickly. I never heard him complain about all of his incredible back pain. In the DVD extras, there’s a scene where Michael Franti gives him the Power to the Peaceful award and he was in really bad pain the day he had to come out an accept it. But, he doesn’t complain. He just said, “I need to sit down” or “I can’t stay too long.” That blows my mind. He never complains. When a friend passes, of course he feels pain and loss. But, he’ll write a haiku about them and have a moment where he’ll cry. He transforms the pain. As far as answering your question, I don’t know if I have a favourite scene. The journey to the East footage was amazing.
DR: It was. I’d read about that trip and to see the footage was fabulous.
ME: And we’re some of the first people to see it. It was in a storage space since 1972.
DR: That’s what Wavy told me.
ME: Yeah, the Hog Farmers had been paying rent on it for so long and they’d forgotten what was in there. So, I asked them for permission for all of them to let me look around in there. That was an advantage of working on the film so long – by the time I heard about the storage space, everybody pretty much knew and trusted me. There was eight hours of footage from Asia that we put down to 19 minutes. It was so hard to limit the DVD extras to 55 minutes. It could have filled three DVDs.
DR: Let’s talk about the clown persona a bit and why it works. It’s an interesting stance to take in today’s world.
ME: Well, I have thought about this. I love Shakespeare and he has lots of fool characters in his plays. I think Wavy takes on that role.
DR: In Shakespeare, the fool has certain rights and privileges. In some ways, he is very lowly, but he has a certain kind of license to say what he thinks and not be punished for it.
ME: Yes, to me, he is that character. He is the modern day fool. Everyone in the community usually judges them. The classic fool is willing to sacrifice himself to transmit wisdom. No one likes being told what to do, but the way Wavy says things allows people to accept what he says. If I said the same thing, people would fall asleep. The king knew about the fool’s power and would call for him at certain times of turmoil. Deep down the king knew about the wisdom of the fool.
DR: The reception to Saint Misbehavin’ has been almost universally positive and as I said, we’re a cynical culture. How do you account for this?
ME: Well, this is what I have witnessed happening with him when we were promoting the Grateful Dead wear. We could go anywhere – a Beverly Hills hotel – and people would get up and there would be at least four people who knew him as we walked through. These were big moguls. Or, we went to a benefit at Johnny Depp’s Viper Room for Leonard Peltier and we didn’t have tickets, but he said “don’t worry, it will be great.” We went there and there were three giant bouncers and I was thinking they’re from a world where Wavy Gravy doesn’t matter. They won’t have any idea who he is. They were four hundred pounds each and seven feet tall and they cried out “Wavy!” as they opened up the velvet ropes and we walked in. Everywhere we went, people’s moods shifted and I saw time and time again the effect he would have on people. So, if we can get people to watch the movie – they may not want to watch it beforehand – but once they see it, they change. I think it’s because he’s transmitting what we already know in our hearts. The final answer came out when I was talking to Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead about Wavy. I asked him what Wavy had taught him. Bob said, “Wavy hasn’t taught me anything!” and I thought “uh oh,” but then he said, “he affirms what I already know.
DR: Perfect. That’s it!
ME: Weir said every time he’s around Wavy, it’s like he says something that aligns him and brings everything together. I think that’s the answer to the question. Wavy affirms what we already know.