By Ed Kemmick/Last Best News
Marshall Granger was working at the Roxy Theater in Missoula when a friend and co-worker, Andrew Rizzo, asked an odd, simple question.
“You wanna go shoot a documentary on a hallucinogenic toad down in Arizona and Mexico?”
The question was addressed to Marshall and another co-worker, Eddie Roqueta, and both of them, as it turned out, were interested in the idea.
That was a little more than two years ago. Next week, “Toad to Nowhere,” the hour-long documentary that grew out of that simple question, will have its Billings premiere at the Art House Cinema & Pub, 109 N. 30th St. The film will be screened twice on Tuesday, May 16, at 6:30 and 9 p.m.
Granger, a 25-year-old Billings native with a degree in English and film from the University of Montana, said the documentary evolved quite a bit from the original concept, but it was never intended to be a celebration of psychedelic drugs, or the chronicle of the pursuit of a good high.
It was meant to be an exploration of using hallucinogenic drugs “in a good, controlled, intentional way” in hopes of learning something important, in hopes of becoming a more complete human being.
But it also turned into an exploration of a friendship, of trust, of the opportunity to experience something potentially profound in the company of someone worthy of sharing something like that.
He had only known Rizzo for a few months at the time, but they identified strongly with each other and had a lot of long, intense conversations, some of them about psychedelic drugs. Rizzo, who is 20 years older than Marshall, had been using them occasionally since he was a teenager, and he often talked about how important they’d been in his development.
Marshall, meanwhile, had virtually no experience, having done hallucinogenic mushrooms just once. He was afraid of LSD and other hallucinogens, but the more they talked the more Granger felt compelled to join Rizzo on his quest.
The toad in question is the Sonoran Desert toad, or Bufo alvarius, the skin and venom of which contain 5-MeO-DMT, supposedly the world’s most powerful hallucinogen. Rizzo had been reading about it and decided he had to experience it.
Granger, given his inexperience, felt he needed to work his way up to the toad.
As Rizzo says in the documentary, “We decided to climb this psychedelic ladder, if you will, together.”
On film, they start with mushrooms, do some LSD together and then experiment with Salvia Divinorum, a synthetic form of the drug produced by the desert toad. In the most riveting scene in the movie, this part filmed near St. Ignatius, Rizzo, under the influence of the Salvia, writhes on the ground, sometimes shouting and acting, well, quite crazy.
Having stood and watched Rizzo, it took Granger a couple of weeks to try the Salvia himself, but he has a similarly intense and similarly revelatory experience. Part of their agreement was to take the Salvia and the 5-MeO-DMT one a time, so the other person was sober and prepared to help, if needed.
After scenes in Missoula, up the Blackfoot River and in St. Ignatius, the pair, accompanied by Roqueta behind the camera, make their way down to the Sonoran Desert, where they manage to find a toad. Rizzo had learned online how to extract the venom by squeezing glands near the toad’s eyes. The trick is to let it dry for a couple of hours and then smoke it.
What follows is somewhat anticlimactic, after the experience with the Salvia, but also oddly touching. In recap interviews filmed later, Granger and Rizzo talk about their experiences on each step of the psychedelic ladder, something Granger was a little worried about.
He said he knows from experience that people talking about their hallucinogenic trips are even more boring than people talking about their dreams. But because both he and Rizzo had deep experiences “very much rooted in our fear of death,” and weren’t just yammering about pretty colors and such, Granger said, “I wasn’t as concerned about coming off as ridiculous.”
He and Rizzo will attend both showings at the Art House Cinema and will be available for Q&A afterward, Granger said. At two public showings in Missoula, he said, there some “great conversations” after the screenings, and he’s hoping for the same in Billings.
Granger said he was particularly gratified to hear people asking how his relationship with Rizzo changed as a result of their shared journey, because that is “the heart of the story.”
It also helps that the film concludes with a quote from Alan Watts, the beginning of which is, “If you get the message, hang up the phone.” The point is that hallucinogens should be used respectfully, for a purpose, not for simple entertainment.
“It’s certainly a fun thing to experience,” Granger said, “but I think ultimately the greatest benefit is to help direct somebody to a solution or an answer they’re having a hard time getting to in their normal mindset.”
Granger said some people with post-traumatic stress disorder have used hallucinogens to move back toward a normal life.
“Maybe it’s not something you buy at the gas station, but it’s clearly something that helps a lot of people,” Granger said. “It really does matter who uses it and why they’re using it.”
Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.