How a Speech & Forensics Coach Wrote the Script for ‘How High’
Featuring Jewish mobsters, Russell Simmons, a softcore porn director and Sticky Fingers stealing weed
On December 21, 2001, in the midst of a movie season dominated by Oscar hopefuls like A Beautiful Mind and the first installment of the Lord of the Rings series, the film How High opened on 1,266 screens. Starring Method Man and Redman, and named after their song of the same name, it was a bizarre stoner film about two dudes who smoke weed fertilized with a dead A-student’s ashes before taking a standardized test. The weed makes them super smart (with the help of a ghost) and they then end up at Harvard. It was a modest success at the box office, but like other weird and wonderful movies about weed, it’s gained a cult following in the following years.
Directed by Jesse Dylan (son of Bob), How High was written by Dustin Lee Abraham, who didn’t come to L.A. to become a screenwriter. In fact, he didn’t come to the city with any entertainment industry dreams. Now best known for his nine seasons writing on C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation, here Abraham tells the circuitous story of how he ended up with the How High gig and reveals the possibility of a follow-up to the film.
Anthony Zuiker, he’s the creator of C.S.I. He went to my same high school, which is Chaparral High School in Las Vegas. The Killers went there. When I was coming into high school, he was leaving. He was working odd jobs in Las Vegas, but he actually went to college and was doing this stuff called Speech and Forensics.
He got me into Speech and Forensics. In Speech and Forensics there are acting events, then there are public speaking events and then there’s the debate part. He got me in the acting stuff. He would give me a play and cut it down to 10 minutes and then I would perform the play in 10 minutes in front of judges. James Dean did it in high school. Oprah did it. A lot of people did that. It’s called Dramatic Interpretation.
I was really good at it and I won the state championship. I got a scholarship to do it in college at Arizona State. Zuiker was working for my dad at the time, making no money. Mind you, this guy has now created all three C.S.I.s, he almost has a billion dollars now. When I went to college, Zuiker would write me, like, “Forget about going to look for plays. I’m going to write you stuff that no one’s seen before.”
I was like, “Yeah, that’s great,” because sometimes you’d be doing the same thing as other people in those tournaments. He started writing me these crazy things and I ended up winning the national championship in Dramatic Interpretation. I get a scholarship to go to Cal State, L.A. It’s in East L.A. It’s in the hood. It’s not UCLA, it’s not USC, it’s Cal State, L.A. They gave me a scholarship to go to grad school for two years, write a thesis, and while I do that, I’m coaching their Speech and Forensics team.
This girl that I knew who went to Arizona State, she introduced me to Angie Harmon from Law & Order. She’s like, “You got to see Dustin do these monologues.” I did a couple monologues for her and she was like, “You’re crazy. I want to find you an agent or a manager.” I was like, “That’s not really my thing. I just do this stuff and want to coach other kids to do it and that’s it.”
Me and [Harmon] started hanging out, just as friends, and one night we’re out and Russell Simmons is at this place we’re at, I think it was Sunset Marquis. This is ’96, ’97-ish. Russell Simmons was talking to her. She was a hot, young girl and he’s trying to talk to her. I’m a hip hop fan. I tell Angie, “If you want to introduce me to someone, you should introduce me to Russell Simmons.” She’s like, “Oh, no problem.”
She pulls me over to Russell Simmons and she’s like, “Hey, you’ve got to see this guy do these monologues.” He’s looking at me like, “You’re just some Jewish guy. What do I want to talk to this fucking guy for?” She’s like, “No, you got to see him do these monologues that he does.” He’s like, “The only way that I’m going to see his monologues is if you come to my house with him.” Angie was like, “No problem.”
I went to Russell Simmons’ house the next day. It’s Malibu, models in his backyard and stuff, just typical Russell Simmons. He goes, “I don’t know what you do, but this is my buddy Stan Lathan. He’s in charge of my acting and movie stuff.”
I do one of my monologues for them in the front room. When I do the monologues, I can tell if I’m moving somebody because I’m looking straight at them. I could tell Russell and this guy Stan were into it. I got done and I was like, “Do you want to see another one?” They’re like, “Yeah, let me see another one.”
This guy Stan’s like, “Hey, man, I want to sign you for acting.” And I’m like, “Okay.” Shit, it’s Russell Simmons, I was down with that. I remember this lady took me around to get head shots the next day. It was just really weird.
This lady from William Morris, an agent, calls me and is like, “I want to see you do your monologues.” Her name was Jenny Delaney. I’m like, “How do you even know about me?” She’s like, “Oh, I hear things. Come to my office.” I did my monologues for her and she flipped out. She’s like, “Oh my god, I’ve got to show you to everybody else.” She literally got the whole TV department over there to come watch me do my monologues. She started calling all these people to see my monologues. She starts calling casting directors. I remember she’s on the phone, she’s like, “Don’t miss out! Don’t miss out!”
She sets me up with all these meetings to go do my monologues. She’s like, “Just do what you did in my office for these people.” It’s big casting directors like Francine Maisler and the head of Paramount. I remember I did them for Christopher Nolan when he was doing Memento. I did them for Billy Crystal. I did them for Robert Altman before he died.
While I’m doing all of this, I’m supposed to be teaching class over at the Cal State, L.A. It’s like, “Okay, go teach class, or meet with Billy Crystal?” So I’m dogging my classes. I’m ready to get fired. I tell this lady after three weeks go by, “I’m going to get fired from Cal State, L.A. If I lose my job, I’m going to have to go back to Las Vegas.”
She’s like, “I’m going to get you money, don’t worry.” A couple days later, she said, “Come to my office,” and she gave me a check for $30,000. I never had that much money in my life and I was like, “What the fuck?” She’s like, “Paramount has held you for pilot season, which means you can’t audition for anything but Paramount things.” I was like, “All right, fuck it, man.”
I start going on these auditions, but the writing was so bad. I felt like when I went in auditions I would suck. I didn’t get anything, but I’m like, “I got paid $30,000 to audition. Most people don’t get paid to audition, and I still didn’t get a role.”
Then I end up getting another [check] from CBS, which is crazy. And I still didn’t get cast in anything. After that, the agent was like, “Can you write? Because your monologue writing is so good. It’s as good as your acting.” I was like, “I don’t know how to write a script.”
Then I called Zuiker, and at this time, Zuiker was working the tram that takes you from Treasure Island to the Mirage, making $9 an hour. I swear to god. I’m like, “Zuiker, do you think we can write a script? This lady says if we can take the characters in the monologues and put them in script form that people might like it.” He’s like, “All right. Let me read about it.” He reads Syd Field’s Screenplay, the most generic screenplay book he can get. He reads it and he calls me like, “I can do this. Easy. What’s our movie going to be about?”
When I was in high school I would run numbers in the casinos for the Jewish mob. They’d give me cash money and chips and I’d go and sit in the casinos and they’d page me what to bet. “Buffalo Bills, minus two for $5,000.” I would bet and then I’d give the guy money at the end of the night
Zuiker loved that I did that. We were like, “Let’s make it about a runner in Las Vegas.” Nobody had seen anything about people from Las Vegas, just stuff about Vegas. He writes the script, it’s called The Runner, I get a story credit on it. He writes it fast, two weeks, three weeks. I got other scripts to read, I was comparing it to Pulp Fiction and Sling Blade. I’m like, “This thing is hanging with these.”
We give it to the lady at William Morris and she didn’t do anything with it. A month passes by. Zuiker thought that if some agent asks you to write a script that the movie’s made automatically. They gave us coverage on the script and he’s like, “That’s it? That’s all I get?” He knew a director who did Showtime soft porn. He gave it to this guy. This guy wants to make a movie. He’s rich already. He buys it off us for the lowest amount possible, $25,000, I think. I got a couple thousand, Zuiker got some money. He brings Zuiker to L.A. and Zuiker starts rewriting the script, and then the guy’s going to direct it, so when the script’s done he puts it out to the agencies—CAA, everywhere—and then that’s when everything went crazy.
People at CAA read the script and flipped out and gave it to Matt Damon. They gave it to Tom Cruise and they were like, “We want to sell this script.” We’re like, “This guy already paid us for it.” They’re like, “We’ll just pay him off. We’re going to go and sell it.” They go out for sale with the script and we get a million dollar offer from Sony. We’re freaking out. But this guy won’t back down. He’s like, “I already paid for it. It’s mine. I’m going to make the movie.”
The movie got made. It went straight to video. It had John Goodman in it, Courtney Cox, Ron Eldard, but this guy who directed it had no vision and it was just a bad movie, really. It was a waste because the script was sick.
From that, Zuiker signed with an agent and met with Jerry Bruckheimer, created C.S.I. Me, I get a call from my agent who says that Method Man and Redman want to do an Animal House-type movie where they go to an Ivy League college. They tell writers that they want that, so writers have to come up with how they would do it. I come up with how I would do it, which is they the smoke the ashes of Ivory. There were other writers waiting, they pitched first and I think I went last. Redman was sitting on the ground and Method Man was eating a steak. I pitched it to them and when I pitch, I do their voices, so they’re looking at me like I’m crazy. But I think what sold them was the ashes, the magical weed.
I wrote it quick and I remember Method Man wasn’t happy with the first draft of the script. I’d go to his room and he’d be getting his hair cut, giving me notes. He’d be like, “This sucks, Dustin. I hate this.” I’m like, “Fuck.” It’s killing me, too, Method Man saying that. Finally I got it to a place where he liked it and then they put some comedy writers on there just to punch up dialogue.
[Red and Meth] were more into Animal House than Cheech and Chong. I watched Animal House and a lot of the college movies to prepare for it. Real Genius, shit like that, I was trying to really go classic on it.
When I first wrote it, it was more like an Adam Sandler movie. Method Man called it “suckas for love.” When he read it, he was like, “I ain’t no sucka for love, Dustin.” He was mad at me. That’s why we’re such good friends now, because he hazed the shit out of me. He would protect me too at the same time.
When I first started hanging out with them, I was star struck in a way. I always thought you had to bring a shitload of weed because it’s Method Man and Redman. I always brought a fucking ounce of weed with me, and then Redman would just take it. He would just take my weed and then Method Man would have to go and get the weed back for me. “Quit giving him your weed, Dustin,” that’s what he’d tell me. I remember we were at a club in New York and Sticky Fingers, one of the guys from Onyx, stole my bag of weed and Method Man literally went through the club, found him and got me my weed back. It was amazing.
When I went on to work on C.S.I. for nine years, I created a character for Method Man, Drops, and put him in four episodes. I’ve always maintained a relationship with Method Man, he’s one of my really good friends.
I didn’t start smoking [weed] until late, when I was in college at Arizona State. It wasn’t a creative thing for me, but then I started writing. I got my writing habits from Meth and Red.
Universal sent me to Harvard to do research and I remember that they said some presidents were buried there. The guy who gave me the Harvard tour said presidents were buried there, but he meant Harvard presidents and I didn’t realize that. I don’t even know if I picked the right president, I just remember they said that and I was like, “Fuck it, I’m going to use that. They’re going to smoke a president.” [Editor’s Note: He picked John Quincy Adams, and no, he’s not buried at Harvard.]
When Zuiker went and did C.S.I., I wrote this script that was like a Vegas Boiler Room. Boiler Room was coming out and it screwed me, but that script got me my first job, which was for John Wells. He was the president of WGA, he created ER, he’s a badass writer. That was my first job, and then How High was my second job.
While I was doing How High I was writing a script for Paul Attanasio. He wrote Donnie Brasco and Quiz Show, but I didn’t get it off How High, it was off that other script. How High didn’t really get me jobs. Your movie doesn’t really get you new jobs unless it blows up in a crazy way. How High didn’t really blow up that crazy in the beginning. We made $10 or $11 million the first weekend, which is pretty good for back then, but it didn’t blow up crazy.
Not that many people knew about [How High]. All the hip hop heads and all the stoners and the teenagers and shit understood it. It started to gain momentum as years went on. I wrote 30 episodes of C.S.I. At the time of when I worked on it, we had 30 million viewers at one time watching episodes. It was nuts. But what’s really cool about writing a stoner movie that’s a classic like How High is that it never goes away. Stoner movies, they don’t even need to really even be good and they stick around. Kids have them in their college dorm rooms, they watch them in high school. Dudes from their fifties down to kids that are 11, 12 years old watch How High.
After How High I was writing a movie for [Justin] Timberlake. That’s when Zuiker asked me to work on C.S.I. I stayed at C.S.I. for nine years until 2013. Now, I’m just working on my own projects.
I always had an idea for the sequel [to How High] but as the years passed by I was like, “It’s getting too far away.” The thing why there was never a sequel is because at Universal, the guards changed, the bosses changed. These stoner movies, these rap movies, they don’t really care. They’re looking for the superhero movies and the sequels of big space movies and science fiction. We weren’t a priority and we weren’t really pushing it.
Meth and Red, they were doing their music back then. If Hollywood wanted them, then Hollywood would come to them, but Meth and Red weren’t going to go to Hollywood.
When I finished C.S.I. I was like, “I’m going to write [a script], but it’s not the sequel.” I created completely new characters, I wasn’t going to wait for Universal. So I have a new weed movie that I wrote, it’s called Too High. I wrote that, I finished it two years ago and I gave it to Meth.
I’ve been working on something else, I’m writing the Jodeci movie right now for VH1. I’m writing some for Simon Cowell’s company and I have a TV project with my buddy Brad Furman who directed Lincoln Lawyer and The Infiltrator,
We haven’t really pushed the Too High thing. I think [Method Man’s manager] Shauna Garr and them, they wanted to do a sequel so they’ve had two writers working on a sequel. So when Redman was talking about that, he wasn’t BS-ing.
To me, it’s just way too far. I don’t want to deal with those characters. The tone of How High, there’s adolescent stuff in there, there’s young stuff in there. I’m not in that world to do that kind of tone. I think Meth and Red are maturing now and I’m mature now. I just wasn’t in the right mind frame to go back to Tuan and I Need Money. It just seemed so far away, so I wrote a completely separate weed movie. To me, it would be sicker than any How High sequel could ever be.
If somebody is interested in Too High, I will hear them out. Meth’s down, so is Shauna. To me, it’s sick.