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Of High Society

Pacific Heights scion-turned-filmmaker Todd Traina points his lens toward weed.

SLIDESHOW

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Scenes (and behind the scenes) from mockumentary Dope State.

Photo: Courtesy of Todd Traina

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Photo: Courtesy of Todd Traina

Photo: Courtesy of Todd Traina

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Executive Producer Todd Traina.

Photo: Drew Altizer courtesy of Todd Traina

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In his Pacific Heights mansion, Todd Traina is talking cannabis. More precisely, the growing and selling of it in California and the state’s surreal mashup of subcultures—the old-school stoners, the social media influencers, the startup entrepreneurs jostling to get in on the gold. “There’s such a wide cadre of players in that world,” muses the 49-year-old filmmaker, clad in a crisp button-down and settling on a sofa laden with perfectly plumped pillows. “We just had to explore it.”

It’s an odd feeling to sit across from the son of the legendary socialite and philanthropist Diane “Dede” Wilsey and chat casually about weed. The atmosphere of hushed opulence in Traina’s home—there are floor-to-ceiling velvet curtains on the windows, for heaven’s sake—is far removed from the grow rooms and dispensaries of Dope State, Traina’s six-episode mockumentary that premieres this month, streaming on PRØHBTD’s online platform. The series was headed up by the executive producer’s company, Route One Entertainment, and created by Petaluma-raised actor Gabriel Sunday, who plays a reporter who infiltrates the various cannabis subcultures in California and the neocapitalists seeking to cash in. But the show, which features Adrian Grenier and Dan Harmon among others, isn’t necessarily about pot. It’s about California, Traina says. “The second season could be about the wine industry. It could be about borders. We’ll bring back Gabe’s character and have him do a bit with Gavin Newsom or Willie Brown. I want [the series] to be something that’s a lasting commentary on our state. There’s a political message there.”

Traina clearly isn’t your average society scion. He’s a roll-up-your-sleeves, get-things-done kind of guy: a producer who thrives being on set, a board member who’ll do more than write a big check. He pours his heart into SFFilm, the 61-year-old organization devoted to independent Bay Area moviemaking. And after almost 20 films that have been primarily focused on the dark and edgy side of things, the producer is about to debut his first project as creator and co-writer, a sweetly screwball comedy called I Hate Kids. (The movie opens in theaters nationwide, and on video-on-demand and digital platforms Jan. 18.)

There’s a disarming quality about Traina, a sincerity that signals a lack of pretension and an eagerness to learn. He recalls his return to San Francisco in 2010 after almost two decades working the Hollywood circuit, as well as his desire to immerse himself as a newbie in the tech scene. “I went to the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summits, which I thought were genius,” he says. “I met as many people as I could. After a while I understood what an open rate meant, what a vertical was. It was a whole new language.”

He made a film called Tallulah with SF director Chris Columbus that was released in 2016 as one of Netflix’s first original movies. It starred Ellen Page and Allison Janney, and featured “a female director, female writer and female DP. I’m very proud of it,” he says. He joined the board of SFFilm in 2007 and speaks convincingly about his passion for preserving the communal moviegoing experience. “I saw the Star Wars premiere [as a kid] at the Coronet because George Lucas wanted to have one,” he says. “Francis [Ford] Coppola always played his films here on the big screen. We have amazing state-of-the-art movie theaters. And I want the film-going community in this city to be able to connect with energy and joy.”

Traina is clear-eyed about the challenges that the arts are up against these days. He is adamant that his goal is not to bring film production to San Francisco, in large part because it would be cost-prohibitive on an independent film budget. “You could rent a six-bedroom house for a week in Salt Lake City for $7,000. Here, it would be $20,000 a day,” he says. “The crews and a lot of the artists can’t afford to live in the city anymore. We’re losing that workforce because the divide is so big.”

Instead, he says, what he’s trying to do—particularly through SFFilm, in partnership with its executive director, Noah Cowan, and other board members—is to help local filmmakers flourish and bring in other creatives to take advantage of the organization’s offerings. There are artist-in-residency programs, educational outreach initiatives, fiscal sponsorships and a year-round schedule of events. Fundraising can be a tough sell. “It’s harder to get charity dollars to SFFilm. Sometimes, people will say to me, ‘OK, I get it, film—but why is it important?’” Which is a logical question. Hospitals, sure. But the movies?

“We’re putting cameras in the hands of kids in schools who would never get to own a camera, and giving them the ability to think and breathe and create,” says Traina. “I’m finding more interest from investors in my films that are social justice- or cause-related. Fifteen years ago, it was easier to raise money for a comedy with a big actor; but, now, I think tastes have changed.”

And therein lies an endearing paradox. After the release of I Hate Kids, which Traina describes as a loose homage to the comedic idols of his youth—icons like Blake Edwards, Peter Sellers, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks—comes his next project, a character-driven drama called Palmer that starts shooting in Savannah, Ga., this March. The film follows a washed-up athlete who moves in with his grandmother in a small Southern community and develops an unlikely friendship with a cross-dressing young boy. “It’s a story about two outcasts and how they challenge the town’s intolerance,” explains Traina.

He doesn’t backpedal from the obvious discrepancy of his background: a family made up of four generations of moneyed Republicans and his brother Trevor, who is the Trump-appointed U.S. ambassador to Austria. “I don’t vote how I’m registered. I vote for who I like as a person,” he says. “I like Gavin and Kamala Harris, but I also voted for the first George Bush.” At an SFFilm Awards dinner at the Palace of Fine Arts in December, he applauded heartily when honoree Boots Riley—an Oakland filmmaker and musician whose genre-bending satire, Sorry to Bother You, examines issues of race and class—made an impassioned speech about giving voice to the common man. “I’m in a position where I can say something and do something, so I have to use it,” Traina says. “I don’t always draw a hard line in the sand, but what’s great about being a producer is that I can enable those voices and help present information. We can all agree or disagree, but that’s what’s cool about it. It’s about giving wings to artists and ideas.”

That’s not to say he can’t appreciate escapist pleasures like Three’s Company and Falcon Crest. He’s proud that his 12-year-old daughter, Daisy (with wife Katie), names Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat as her favorite shows. (“If she was just watching The Big Bang Theory, I’d be concerned,” he says.) “I’m a born-and-bred film buff,” he says. “Nine times out of 10, I can say my movies have meaning. There’s some social commentary and a lot of pathos and humanity. Film is an unbelievably powerful medium, and we have to use it not only to teach, but also to provoke and soothe and learn and survive.” He pauses and takes stock. His cellphone has, remarkably enough, remained untouched during the entire interview. “And, then, every once in a while, I’ll watch something like America’s Got Talent.”

 

 

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco 

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