Plant interferes with program funding, though just for 8 years

The PBS documentary The Botany of Desire, which aired Oct. 28 [2009], started “with a terrific book,” says producer/director Michael Schwarz.

A long time ago.

His friend Michael Pollan, author of the bestseller of the same name, sent him a manuscript in October 2000, and they began discussing adaptation for PBS. Published in 2001, the book sold well, and PBS came up with the first seed money, about $25,000, Schwarz says.

He listed the project in Current’s Pipeline, expecting to see it broadcast in two years.

That fall, he shot sample footage of Pollan telling the Johnny Appleseed story in a canoe (a scene that didn’t make it to air).

In 2002, CPB and PBS agreed on a joint Challenge Fund grant of $400,000, but the National Science Foundation turned Schwarz down that fall, as did other grantmakers. With a revised proposal, the project got an NSF grant of almost $750,000 in August 2003.

But the CPB/PBS money went away in December. A year had passed since the grant’s approval and the offer expired. CPB wanted to move funds to a project moving more quickly to air, Schwarz says.

Then production of The Botany of Desire was stalled for three years.

If there were advantages to the long wait, one that occurs to Schwarz is that his author has become well known in the interim. Pollan has put out a string of increasingly activist books on nature and the unnatural processes used to turn it into our food.

By the time Schwarz had lined up most of the budget, Pollan was busy writing those more recent books and teaching at UC Berkeley’s j-school — and wasn’t keen on posing on location like the classic BBC host, as if he were researching things he had found years earlier.

“I don’t have a safari jacket,” Pollan explains.

So Schwarz decided the stars of the film would be the four plant species — apple, tulip, potato and marijuana — whose eventful give-and-take with humanity fills out Pollan’s book. This fits with his not-entirely-literal refrain that plants are manipulating people for own botanical reasons.

Schwarz gave each of the stars their beauty shots — macros of tulips on turntables, crane shots of apples in orchards and aerials of endless potato fields.

Most startling to behold in closeup, under the grow lights of an illegal nursery, are new varieties of marijuana — bushy, fecund beyond belief, glistening with psychoactive resin, evolved with a lot of human help.

Some of the other plants also served their time in the moral doghouse. Pollan reveals that apples were reviled by 19th-century prohibitionists because they produced hard cider — then a huge factor in drunken dissolution.

Marijuana, however, is still very much an outlaw. A haze of assumptions hung over the film. “Nobody would go near the show,” Schwarz says.

“This was the height of the drug war,” Pollan recalls. “Some of the funders would have been thrilled if we had substituted wine or something legal.” One suggested as much, but Pollan and Schwarz said no. “You can’t do that,” the author says. “You can’t butcher your book.”

Besides, he had a great story about cannabis. Like the segments on other plants, it’s about how people are “in the web of nature, not standing outside of it,” as he says—how plants that please people get planted more widely.

Cannabis in particular became an even bigger evolutionary success and a major domestic cash crop when the U.S. government’s Drug War restricted imports. Highly motivated humans bred plants that grew faster and stronger but stubby enough to flourish indoors.

Schwarz had spent years trying to explain to funders how marijuana fit into Pollan’s story. “We’d say it’s really about brain chemistry . . . not about legalization or encouraging or discouraging drug use, and that we’d take a value-neutral approach to the subject. We did this to the point of exhaustion.”

The NSF grant alone wasn’t enough to carry the project; a big fraction of it was earmarked for outreach activities. Schwarz says his worst nightmare would be spending grant money on a failing project before he could guarantee delivery.

Schwarz went to Valentine Kass, an NSF program officer, and confessed, “We’re hitting the wall.”

Kass says she encouraged Schwarz’s company to make a demo showing how they’d handle the very subject that spooked other grantmakers. She pointed out that NSF rules would let him spend from the first year’s chunk of the two-year grant, up to about $214,000, hoping to jump-start the project.

The producers had considered shooting the apple segment instead, or a variety sampler of plants, but marijuana was top-of-mind for everybody — opponents of pot as well as fans, Schwarz says. He’d still have to face the marijuana issue. “It was the elephant in the room.”

“We said, ‘Life is too short — we’ve gotta take the plunge.’ ”

The producers were soon shooting closeups of that massive specimen of illegal agriculture and producing a segment without a whiff of Cheech or Chong about it.

In 2006, PBS came back with the $400,000 on its own; the presenting station, KQED, brought in a smaller grant, and, in 2008, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a frequent funder of Schwarz’s past science films, contributed about $100,000 to finish the project.

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