Snoop's Jamaican Reincarnation
How a hazy, smoky vacation led the rapper to a spiritual awakening -- and a buzzworthy documentary from Vice Films.
By making Reincarnated with Vice Films, Snoopadelic Films is hitching its wagon to indie cinema's unlikeliest rising star. "I'm a bit of an accidental filmmaker," says Vice co-founder Suroosh Alvi, who co-founded Vice magazine in 1994 with cash from his welfare check. The company's stock value soared to $40 million during the dotcom bubble. "Then the bubble burst, and we were bankrupt," says Alvi.
In 2000, Vice fled to an unheated Brooklyn warehouse with crack whores in the hallways; within a year, it grew to also become a record label and book publisher. ("We stumbled upward," says Alvi.) Jeff Yapp, then an MTV executive and now CEO of digital music service WutzNxt, got Vice into video production in 2005. "Spike Jonze taught us how to tell a story through video," says Alvi, who co-directed Heavy Metal in Baghdad, a 2007 documentary about a rock band that defied snipers during the Iraqi insurgency. "As an experiment, we submitted it to the Toronto International Film Festival." Heavy Metal was accepted and has since earned an 83 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Vice now has 800 employees, operations in 34 countries and a new globe-trotting HBO newsmagazine, The Vice Show -- which is a lot like MTV's 2010-11 series The Vice Guide to Everything, only with bigger budgets and Bill Maher as an executive producer. "We're the largest youth media brand in the world," says Alvi, "if you don't mention MTV."
In October, Snoop -- a fan of the Heavy Metal film -- invited Vice to Jamaica to document him making his new album, Reincarnated. Alvi urged Snoop to visit Kingston's worst slum, Tivoli Gardens, where 76 people died in riots after the area's drug-lord ruler, Christopher "Dudus" Coke, was arrested in 2010. Snoop rolled with five SUVs full of crew and security guards, but that didn't keep a volatile crowd from surrounding him. When the rapper climbed on a rooftop, struck a pose right out of his 1993 debut video Who Am I? (What's My Name?) and charmed the crowd, Alvi e-mailed Vice's New York office, "I think we're going to make a feature here."
Trying to keep up with Snoop's weed intake also proved risky. "My entire crew was baked," says Reincarnated director and Vice global editor Andy Capper, who also directed The Vice Guide to Liberia. "I took four puffs and didn't know what country I was in. 'Am I in France? Germany? Oh f--, what if I'm in Africa again?!' "
The Reincarnated production was fast and cheap -- a good thing since Snoop paid for the production out of his own pocket in exchange for control. "We shot for 20 days, 10 days on location," says Capper. "Movies that take ages are shit." Skywalker Sound owner George Lucas, who owed Snoop a favor, gave the film a rather ridiculous deal on sound design. "We probably got it 75 percent cheaper than Hollywood studios would," says Alvi.
Reincarnated got a standing ovation at Toronto in September, and with a few distribution offers on the table, the filmmakers are mulling their next steps. At the very least, there will be an Oscar-qualifying run by year's end. "We have 130 hours of footage, so we'll probably release 60 pieces online in addition to the film," says Alvi. "That will roll out through fall and all next year as the album and the coffee-table book come out. … We're educating ourselves: How does PPV work? Or a theatrical one-off event versus a traditional theatrical thing? Snoop wants to make sure everything he does is in the best interest of the project."
Capper offers a sobering thought: "If Katy Perry can have 1,500 cinemas, I don't see why this can't."