When Brian and Danielle Dwyer were brainstorming ideas for their son, they had agreed on “Waldo” a year before the bun in the oven had even started baking, adding “James” soon after for a middle name. But they weren’t done just yet.
“I was like, I really want him to be WJDM, so he sounds like a doctor,” laughs Danielle now, looking over at her son running around with wide-eyed curiosity, shortly before the premiere of “Waldo on Weed” at the Tribeca Film Festival. “So we were like “M…M…Mysterious.” And that’s where we went.”
“Yeah, we’re goofballs at heart, from our wedding until now, so when creating a human, it’s like let’s put our fingerprints on it,” adds Brian. “But now Waldo is just off doing his thing now.”
Still, there was something prophetic about the name, for better and worse, as Waldo would see more than his fair share of doctors after being diagnosed shortly after birth with retinoblastoma, a cancer that first manifested itself as an initially inexplicable grey reflection in his eye. Brian, the boisterous co-owner of a Philadelphia pizza shop, had been doting on his son’s every move with a video camera with plans to preserve every happy moment of his childhood. But in wake of the devastating news, he couldn’t bring himself to turn the camera off, beginning to use it as a confessional as Waldo’s condition worsened and he and Danielle were looking into every possible remedy.
What Brian wound up capturing was nothing less than small miracle as a tip from his friends about cannabis oil, which they had read helped severely reduce the symptoms of a three-year-old suffering from leukemia, led to a breakthrough for Waldo, and his footage serves as the basis for “Waldo on Weed,” which spends four years with the family as they immerse themselves in learning all about the medical applications for marijuana and work around the laws in their native Pennsylvania that make possession a crime. Given Brian and Danielle’s aforementioned “goofball” proclivities and the involvement of director Tommy Avallone, who last made the lighthearted “The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man,” “Waldo on Weed” remains convivial even when things get heavy for the Dwyers, and using their personal story as a base, the film evolves into a comprehensive overview of the growing recognition of the drug’s potential health benefits, bringing in a number of people from the medical and marijuana communities to consider its efficacy and the movement towards legalization.
During the Tribeca Film Festival where a panel convened following the world premiere of “Waldo on Weed,” led by the film’s executive producer Whoopi Goldberg, the Dwyers and Avallone spoke about putting such intimate moments from what was a traumatic experience for themselves on screen, being able to recognize now the ways in which they changed over the years and coming out stronger on the other side.
How did this come about?
Brian Dwyer: I was just shooting home videos, and then some things happened and then as you see in the film, kept filming, mostly because at the time, it was therapy. It was somebody to talk to.
Tommy Avallone: And I was a fan of what Brian was doing at this pizza shop. He had this big pizza museum and I thought that was a fun, silly idea, so I reached out to him to say, “Let’s make something about pizza.” And he told me about Waldo and “Dadcam” and one thing led to another. There were [other] directors at first.
Brian Dwyer: Yeah, Pipus [Larsen] and Kenny [Guglielmino], who are co-executive producers on the movie.
Tommy Avallone: They were taking a lot of dad cam footage and filming some of the interviews and I was a producer on the project, but it was one of those situations where they saw it as a short film and it was important to us to make it a bigger story and talk to senators and talk to doctors.
Brian Dwyer: I just felt it was important to film [our experience] and a lot of my friends were like, “This should be turned into something.” But it wasn’t until there was a man named Matthew Larsen, who had a huge hand in kickstarting it and the home videos were taken by him, and Tommy came on as producer and then eventually as the director when Matthew passed away, so it’s had a lot of hands touch it.
Tommy Avallone: And when I came on, it was taking some of the stuff that they had and then filming more things. The great thing about it is just kept unfolding and kept changing. At the end of our movie, Waldo’s five and if we would’ve finished it when Waldo’s three, it would’ve been a different story.
Danielle, with all of this happening, what are you thinking? Were you okay with filming?
Danielle Dwyer: No… [laughs] I think Tommy took most of the footage out where I’m like, “Why are you filming?!?!?” The moments that are shown in the film we were experiencing for the first time – hearing [Waldo’s] diagnosis, seeing him experience chemo for the first time, all of these things where I’m trying to focus and be present as a mother and also having fears and anxiety coming up and then the camera being on me. I was pissed. We actually had to work through some of it in counseling.
Brian Dwyer: Yeah, years later, marriage counseling helped us [realize] there’s a lot of pain and trauma of how we were processing those things.
Could the interview process be a part of that as far as being therapeutic?
Brian Dwyer: In a way, this whole thing is a big loop closing for us. It is our trauma and our triumph onscreen and it’s a very vulnerable thing to be sharing that. It’s not something we’re detached from. It actually happened to us, but enough time has passed where we can see it in hindsight and be like, “Yeah, we can talk about this now. This is a hopeful thing.”
Tommy Avallone: And what’s interesting about the dad cam footage is if we knew [as filmmakers] about this and were filming as it was happening, there’d be some sense of performance. You can’t help it when a camera is put onto you by someone you may not know. But with Brian or Danielle filming themselves, the performance level is not as much because [while] you can never be truly yourself in front of a camera, this is as close as I think you can get.
At one point, Brian says he was changing as a person and didn’t even realize it. Was it interesting to look back on the footage of this experience and see ways in which you changed?
Danielle Dwyer: Yeah, it’s been a big change for all of us [from] who we were before diagnosis – he was this pizza [guy] persona and I was really getting my [footing] as to what it was to be a mom and then [we’re] thrown into the hospital and into chemotherapy. I was already going through this big change of being a mother, but then I was given a chance and a choice to use my voice and advocate for Waldo, so I learned a lot more about my own sense of security and well-being and having to take care of myself while taking care of Waldo. And as far as cannabis goes, I was not a regular partaker in any form – here or there maybe, and having anxiety from it, but realizing that the anxiety I was feeling from being in the hospital, I found a good strain that was actually helping me work through my anxiety, so I think it opened another space in my mind where I thought about things in a different way. So I’m not the same person at all. You can see by the way I’m talking in all the different interviews, before like how I hold my mouth a little more reserved and nervous. I feel like I’ve been able to come out on the other side.
Tommy Avallone: Yeah, just as an observer, I’ve known you guys about three years now and going back and finding footage of Brian and Danielle before I met them, they talked differently, they held themselves differently because they didn’t go through this crazy thing. Even in the different interviews before I was involved, I could see Brian in different stages speak about it differently.
Danielle Dwyer: The one thing that blows my mind that I see with Brian is that his voice was different. I don’t know if you notice [early on in the film, he says] “Hi, I’m in a pizza shop!” Very high-pitched and then it feels like he got dropped down [into a lower vocal register] like “I’m here in this moment right now.”
Brian Dwyer: No, there’s a lot of things that occurred inside the filming between things that changed us and we let the change carry out. That’s what’s so powerful about this film. It takes something that was really dark and tragic at the time and has completely transformed it into something that’s really hopeful and full of light.
For Tommy to get involved and help us finish this story – we were so honored by Tommy for actually finishing this film because there was a time there where I was unsure if this story would ever be told – and let us share this with other people, it’s empowering. Tommy really had a vision and was like, “We’re going to push this forward,” especially when he’s like I’m going to get somebody involved who’s going to help us finish this. I had no idea who that would be, but then he called me one day while I was working and he’s like, “Whoopi’s in.” [laughs] And I was like, “What do you mean?” And he’s like “We got Whoopi Goldberg onboard [as an executive producer].”
How did that call happen?
Tommy Avallone: Whoopi was somebody we knew could see what the medical cannabis could do, but also has done documentaries – she’s made her own. She’s on “The View.” She knows what she’s talking about. We wanted that sort of person to give that prestige, but also she speaks to a lot of America where we’re not trying to make [a film] that is for just the cannabis user. We want this to be something anyone could relate to. I never smoked cannibus, so it wasn’t ever that to me. It wasn’t like, hey, look at cannabis – it was always what would a family do to save their son. But what I got to see talking to different doctors and talking to different senators is it’s really interesting where we are with the cannabis conversation and what’s going to be the next couple years. We even interview people who are against it. It was important to show all the sides of that and Whoopi really helped along with Tom Leonardis to shepherd that.
Brian Dwyer: And at first, it was an unlikely pairing [between us and Tommy as someone who doesn’t use cannabis], but I’m really glad about it because this film is very palatable for people who have no idea what cannabis is. Like for my mom who might be very turned off by it, this is presented in a way that’s very accessible. It’s about family and friends and the message is universal.
Tommy Avallone: It stops being about Cheech and Chong when doctors at Harvard are going, “I think something’s here.”
What’s it like to get to Tribeca?
Tommy Avallone: This is one of my first serious [movies]. I don’t do screwball comedies, but this is a story of one family that’s going through something pretty intense, so I’m really curious [what the reaction will be] because normally I can gauge, “Oh, they laughed at the right moment.” And it’s like when these guys find out that Waldo has cancer, there’s not going to be laughing.
Danielle Dwyer: Yeah, I’m thankful to be here, being on the side of the story where Waldo is in excellent health and we are living the life that we want to be living. We’re thriving and it feels like a good way to seal that chapter.
Tommy Avallone: And it’s really crazy to think it’s really a movie of home videos that’s playing one of the biggest festivals around.
Brian Dwyer: Yeah, I’m pretty wide-eyed about the whole thing and in a state of wonder. ready. It’s time to close that chapter and open up whatever’s coming. I’m ready to face whatever’s here.
Danielle Dwyer: Ready as you’ll ever be?
Brian Dwyer: Yeah, ready to embrace what’s next.
“Waldo on Weed” has yet to get U.S. distribution.