When Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong made their feature film debut in 1978 with Up in Smoke it was a game changer.
Made for $2 million, it took $44 million at the box office – adjusted for inflation that figures rockets to $151.28 million. Critics hated it but it’s now considered a comedy classic and is widely credited as being responsible for establishing the stoner comedy genre.
I caught up with Cheech and Chong and the film’s director Lou Adler to discuss Up in Smoke, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and find out which multi-billion franchise Cheech regrets turning down.
Simon Thompson: Did you guys know Up in Smokewas going to be a hit and become a comedy classic?
Cheech Marin: You never know when you first start working on something. It’s a really delicate balancing act. We really didn’t know for sure, we knew it was in there but when we saw the final version of it, then we knew it. They couldn’t make copies of the print fast enough.
Tommy Chong: It’s not just enough to be funny; you have to have a story. We had a story to tell and it was our lives, basically. It was him waking up in the morning, his routine, me with my rich family and then ending up with me living with Cheech. There was a story there that people knew and they liked it.
ST: Even though Cheech and Chong already had a massive following, was it a difficult to convince the studio to get behind Up in Smoke?
Lou Adler: We tried for seven years to make the film, not consistently but looking at different scripts and ideas. If you can imagine walking into Paramount and saying, ‘I’d like to make a movie about marijuana with a Mexican and a Chinese-Irish-Canadian,’ then you understand that it was a difficult sell. Not a lot of people were jumping out of their seats to make it.
ST: Did anyone suggest you dropped the idea or say it was too much of a risk?
LA: As far as risk goes, the way that it was set up was as a negative pick up which meant I paid for it in the beginning and they paid me back when it came for distribution. The success of the comedy albums certainly showed that the numbers were there as far as an audience and Cheech and Chong having a following.
TC: People were like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’ but the thing about making movies is that it’s a very positive experience because everyone wants a job. We were such a visual act that we worked perfectly on the big screen. We had the sex appeal of Cheech. He no longer has it but at the time he had to beat them off with a bat.
ST: I remember watching Up in Smoke as a child and wondered about what ended up on the cutting room floor.
TC: Lou wanted it to be Cheech and Chong’s greatest hits and we wanted it to be more like The Avengers of Pedro and Man. We kind of won out but we also included material from our comedy records. There was a piece for the movie that we did with Harry Dean Stanton but it didn’t make the cut. He was just one of the actors we worked with on the movie that got edited out.
CM: I remember that. We were in a jail cell.
TC: Aside from the stuff we have from Up in Smoke, we’ve also got all the footage from our own cameras that we recorded on the road over the last 30 years.
ST: Could we maybe see a road movie from your point of view that covers your career? Also, over the years you’ve spoken about maybe doing Up in Smoke 2. Is that something you’d still like to do?
TC: All of it is possible but I’ve had some health issues that changed the trajectory of my career so I’m not really looking forward to the prospect of sitting in a trailer for a year or whatever.
CM: We’ve been there and we’ve done that.
ST: Lou, Up in Smoke was the first of only two movies you directed but you have produced a number of other cult classics such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Why did you draw the directorial line at two films?
LA: I think cult classic is more of a media title that is given to them because if you go by the number of people that saw those movies and their grosses, it’s really beyond what the original meaning of cult film was – not very big grosses and not a lot of people saw it. Both Up in Smoke and Rocky Horror went beyond and found very broad audiences. As far as being a director goes, I wasn’t interested in making it a career. I was interested in doing things that I felt comfortable with that were outside of the mainstream. I don’t think any of my decisions about what movies or records I made were ever about what they could do financially.
ST: Over the years you have been inundated with project offers. Are there any that stand out that you regret passing on?
TC: I turned down The Lion King. I kind of regret that one.
CM: I didn’t turn it down.
TC: We turned down a sitcom called Chico and the Manand did Up in Smoke instead.
CM: I turned down a few video games when they were first starting out. They wanted me to be this character and it turned out the character they were asking me to be was Mario of the Mario Bros.
TC: What? Are you kidding?
CM: No. It was because he had this mustache, ya know?
TC: Holy ****! You could have been Mario?
CM: Yeah, for real. They were going to give me a cut of the royalties and everything.
TC: Oh my God! I didn’t know that.
ST: For years there have been rumors of talk of a crossover movie between Cheech and Chong and the Friday The 13th franchise. Is there any truth to that?
CM: That’s the first I’ve heard of it but I’d love to do one of those. I’d have loved to do a horror movie.
TC: I’ve always thought that the one thing we missed in our repertoire is a horror movie. It would have been nice.
ST: You don’t seem too keen on doing a sequel to Up in Smoke but, with the trend for films finding a new life as TV shows, especially on streaming platforms, would you be open to a small screen Cheech and Chong project?
TC: If the right person presented it to us, someone like Chuck Lorre, then we would definitely look at that. But I’m getting to that retirement age where I just want to sit at home and make bongs.
CM: So, producers, if that storyline interests you at all, give us a call.