Exclusive Interview: “Lady Buds” Director Chris J. Russo

By Joan Amenn

Last year at the Hot Docs International Film Festival, I was blown away by a debut film called “Lady Buds” (2021) (My review can be found here: https://intheirownleague.com/?s=Lady+Buds.) I am so honored that I got to speak to director Chris J. Russo just before the big premiere of “Lady Buds” on STARZ streaming service this week. We talked about the film, the incredible women whose stories it tells, and what future projects Chris is planning for now.

Joan: Congratulations! I am so thrilled for you!

Chris:Thank you. I feel very fortunate to be one of the few documentarians that got picked up last year and it’s having a very successful run. It’s great! I’m very blessed. And STARZ is a perfect network for it. They have some great blockbuster titles and they like to sometimes push the envelope with their content and it’s nice to be in a place that supports women’s empowerment.

Joan: I saw your film at the Hot Docs International Film Festival and I just loved it. I thought it was just perfect, the editing, the soundtrack-I was like, this is terrific!

Chris: Thank you for the great press. Thank you for this opportunity. I just made the movie and now the rewards are wonderful. I mean, it was three years of slogging around a camera, going up and down the state of California. Now, just to see the response and that audiences are connecting with the women, the story-it’s just so rewarding! It’s incredible.

Joan: My first impression was “Sue Taylor, oh my goodness!” I want to be her when I grow up.

Chris: What a powerhouse!

Joan: To be honest with you, when she was walking through the bare studs building and there was really nothing there, I had my doubts. My heart was in my mouth for this poor woman, thinking “Oh, is she going to make it?” Did you have your doubts? Did you think this woman was going to make this happen?

Chris: It was a rollercoaster of emotions and she gave everything to that project. She emptied out her retirement accounts to support her family and getting this business going. This was kind of a new chapter in her life. She was comfortably retired in Atlanta and her son called her and said, “Hey Mom, you could have that wellness center you always wanted for senior citizens and a cannabis dispensary. And she kind of fell of her chair, got on a plane the next day thinking she had to save her son from drugs. This was a woman who used to be a Catholic school principal and now has this new career in cannabis and is inspiring many. She is an advocate for cannabis as a wellness product for elders. No, I didn’t know where the story was going! We were following her; we were rooting for her. We wanted some kind of happy ending. (Laughing) We needed something, so we were like, “I hope she opens the dispensary!” We were kind of waiting and thankfully, it happened. It was a wild ride. From the start to the finish, it took fifteen years to have the family dream come true. And she’s not giving up. She’s incredible.

Joan: Do you think her background as an educator helped her, because now she’s just educating in another way, isn’t she?

Chris: Yeah, I think she’s really great in a crowd of people. She’s really approachable. She’s really inspirational. She know what she is talking about because she has seen what cannabis can do for healing. She’s very healthy, very fit…She’s an inspiration to many and I’m excited for what the future will bring for her.

Joan: She is on one side of the spectrum and then you have Chia Rodriques and her family, and they seem to have struggled a little bit. This came as a blow to them and I got that torn up inside kind of sense of, “Ok, we have to scurry and recreate ourselves and how are we going to do this?” Have you stayed in touch with those kinds of families?

Chris: Absolutely! It’s still pretty challenging in the cannabis industry in California for those who came out of the legacy community and have been doing this in the shadows for decades. They just wanted to not worry anymore about, well now it would just be very large fines and they would cut your plants down. They’re pivoting quite a bit because the taxes, the permits, the cost of doing business in an industry that’s really catering to corporations that have millions of dollars is very, very difficult for the small family farmer of Northern California that frankly, laid the groundwork for the industry we have today. That and the LBGTQ community that came out of the AIDS crisis which is part of my film as well. These people have been able to sustain their communities by putting their profits back into the community. The counties of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity right now are struggling because even though the business and the economy was an underground, sort of shadow economy, it was keeping those counties alive. So, she is doing well, not to paint a bleak picture. She’s hanging in there; her family is hanging in there. I think she is in about seventy different dispensaries in California but the market is unstable, so whether or not she is turning a profit is very difficult still.

Joan: I loved how you let them tell their stories of growing plants under blackberries and other plants and gave a sense of what that was like as a kid, living in that condition.

Chris: Well, that’s why I was kind of drawn to the story, because I identify them as outliers. Some would call them outlaws, but I am like an outlier, as a queer filmmaker, as someone who walks differently and sees the world differently. That is why I am an artist. So, I was really attracted to this David and Goliath story of these people that have been operating underground for so long and coming into the light and wanting to succeed and make their dreams come true. But they had everything stacked against them and these women are like superheroes in my opinion, because they are such badasses and strong and going for it. And they won’t take no for an answer so I was very attracted to that.

Joan: There was that heartbreaking scene where the growers weren’t allowed back onto their farms after a wildfire and the vintners, they got to go back. And other growers of various produce got to go back, but they didn’t. It’s obvious they were seen as criminals and that just isn’t the case anymore. Is that still going on?

Chris: Yes, definitely there is a prejudice in general. Things are still happening across the state. For example, the situation that happened with Karen Wagner in the film when the state police pulled over the distribution vehicle for having the wrong mudflaps. There is this muddy area of the law because to be honest, cannabis isn’t really legal, it’s just regulated. It’s federally illegal so it’s a complicated business.

Joan: So, STARZ on March 1st, whoo hoo! What is next for this film?

Chris: What is next for the film is the STARZ release starting March 1st, which is really exciting and it’ll run for a few months. The film is still currently on Amazon, on iTunes and other platforms. We had a great little theatrical run which is rare. We’re 100% on Rotten Tomatoes which is rare (laughs.) I’m developing some spin-off series and we’re doing an event in Sacramento for the legislators and the policy makers in late April to bring them in to see the film for free and have a good discussion with the farmers. We hope the film will be a tool to create conversation about what is happening, it’s not all rosy. I am in the process of adapting a script to feature with Pippa Lambert’s company Hellcat. I’ve always wanted to make a superhero film so here we go (laughs.) I’m also developing a spinoff series called “Mama Sue” on you know who with executive producer Wally Eltawashy of Yoruba Media Labs. I’ve done a lot of short films, I kind of came from a scripted world and this story really called to me because I just thought these women were phenomenal. I’m excited for these projects to be developed with these amazing companies.

Here is the link for more details on Russo’s upcoming projects: https://deadline.com/2022/02/lady-buds-cannabis-doc-spinoffs-1234958078/

“Lady Buds” is streaming now on STARZ-don’t miss it!

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