TV pilot ‘The High Country’ skewers growing culture
July 23, 2015
Heather Donahue is arguably best known for her star turn in "The Blair Witch Project," a low-budget indie film that pioneered the (now overused to the point of ubiquity) found-footage horror genre when it hit movie theaters in 1999.
To answer the question of "Whatever happened to …" Donahue reappeared in the public eye in 2012, with "Grow Girl," a memoir about her re-invention as a pot farmer in Nuggettown (Nevada County).
Now, Donahue is poised to bring the flavor of local grower culture to an even wider national audience with a TV show whose pilot episode she is currently shopping with co-producer Matt Herman, "The High Country."
Herman and Donahue both drew on their experiences — and the extreme cultural dislocation they felt as transplants to Nevada County — as the genesis for "THC."
According to Donahue, she was still growing medical marijuana when she started thinking about writing a TV show.
"I already was looking to get out of it," she explained. "I was stunned at the level of culture shock I felt. I felt like an anthropologist."
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Herman, who moved to Nevada County to work for friends, said he found the growing scene here "hilarious," and eventually paired up with Donahue to produce a TV show, which they envisioned as a sitcom with a feel similar to "Arrested Development."
Both Herman and Donahue were quick to stress that "THC" is not a drama in a "Weeds" vein — and it's not just about marijuana.
"'Weeds' is way too dramatic, it's very unrealistic from my experience‚" Donahue said. "We wanted to do joke after joke — something warmer, the experience of family and friends and people looking for freedom and happiness, stumbling their way through life. Marijuana is in the background."
The criminality of growing marijuana certainly is a thematic element.
But, said Herman, "The High County is not about cops and crime.
"It's about bumbling friends who completely get themselves into shit and out of it," he said.
"Our characters make bad decisions," Donahue explained, as Herman chimed in, "But they don't involve themselves in scary stuff."
"They stay in the wading pool of criminality," Donahue summed up.
The show will not take a heavy-handed stance on politics, she said, but instead will be another comedic device.
"The idea of legalization puts the characters into a pressure cooker," Donahue said — trying out new careers becomes a running gag.
Life in an industry town
According to Donahue, several other marijuana-centric TV shows are currently being produced — but she is confident that "The High Country" will stand out.
"Pot isn't the focus — (the focus) is the lifestyle that that world provides," she said. "It's life in an industry town, in this adorable town. It's about cash, freedom, time on your hands — there is no greater story engine."
In "THC," like Nevada County, the economy is pot-driven. The point is driven home at the end of the pilot episode, as the principals in an all-night trimming marathon head home and hand over cash to a wide variety of partners and babysitters.
What makes it funny in real life — and in the TV show — is the "veiled cover-up," what Donahue calls a combination of secretiveness to outsiders with an openness within the community.
"It's the solipsism, that there are no other segments of the population," she said. "The insularity is something we play with."
Initially, Herman and Donahue planned to call the sitcom "Grass Valley," but negative reactions from locals prompted the name change.
"We never wanted to do a show about Nevada County specifically," Herman said. "We want to make it clear that it is not intended to be location-specific."
But it's undeniable that Nevada County is the perfect locale for a humorous look at marijuana — and the opening credits of "The High County," which features a joyful parade of colorful characters dancing down Broad Street, highlights this.
"We wanted to capture this beautiful, small-town exuberance (with a) stylish, fun, feel," Donahue said.
The parade, said Donahue, was also intended as a sly riff on a McDonald's commercial from the 1970s that featured Nevada City (even though there was no McDonald's in the county at the time).
"This was our deconstructed po-mo version," Donahue laughed, noting that one of locals working on the show, Jessica Henry, was in that commercial.
The pilot episode has plenty of local color, starting with the very first scene in Nevada City's Cafe Mekka, featuring Donahue in a cameo.
Some of the story lines for the planned season will resonate with Nevada County residents, including one ordinance-driven episode in which two of the leads run against each other for mayor.
In another (loosely based on a true story), a mine shaft being used for trimming features a door in the corner that turns out to be a wormhole into a gold-mining town 100 years ago.
"It works out nicely," Herman said of the episode, which features gold miners switching places with trimmers. "There's a lot of similarities between mining and pot growing. It's a time-meld."
And the season-ender?
"It has a Grapes of Wrath-type ending," says Donahue.
"Grapes of Wrath meets Chinatown," adds Herman. "We're using the drought, with a scandal about water rights."
Birthing a TV show
From the start of scriptwriting to the final throes of post-production, "The High Country" has been 15 months in the making, using an entirely local crew of more than 70, and only importing four actors — Beth Stelling as Carly, Ryan Singer as Leon, Brent Weinbach as Mark and Andrew Bancroft as Pete.
"In a perfect world, we would sell it to someone who would let us produce it here," Donahue said. "We want to do it forever."
In late May, Herman and Donahue wrapped up six weeks of editing.
"Since the rough cut, we've been going through it scene by scene, making sure the narrative tone comes through," Donahue said, adding that every choice down to picking the absolute right shades under different lights took hours and hours. "Hopefully we made all the right decisions, and when we sell the show, we'll be able to dive right in."
The duo is not pitching a TV show that needs to be written and developed — "The High Country" is ready to go, with scripts, crew and cast all in place.
"We have a creature you can adopt — or not," Donahue said.
"This reduces the chances that people will try to move us off what we're doing," Herman added. "We have the vision and the voice clearly worked out. We just want someone to support that creative vision."
Musing on what it feels like to have brought the project to completion, Donahue continued the birth theme: "It never gets better than this moment. It's entirely yours — you made this and everything is perfect, it hasn't come out of the womb yet. It's tiny and perfect and unspoiled."
Donahue said the process has been difficult, financially and emotionally, but definitely was worth it.
"We really put all our eggs in one basket," she said. "It's been a crash course in film production. I really feel like I got an incredible film education."
"We scrambled incredibly hard," Herman agreed. It's been a blur — nonstop work, amazing, delicious work."
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4229.