Tribeca Interviews: Filmmaker Christopher Bell Discusses ‘Prescription Thugs’ and Addiction
We’re all addicted to something. It could be food, intimacy, exercise or even a TV show. Depending on what our addiction is, we may try to hide it because we are fearful of being judged by society. It seems, however, that it is society itself that can help lead us down that path. In fact, from the time we enter school, followed shortly by our first internship and job, we are taught to work through pain and to never truly talk about our issues in fear of showing weakness in a competitive environment. Additionally, we must pay our bills and take care of our families, so losing workdays is not an option for many of us (and paid sick days as well as vacation days are limited in numbers nationwide, and often dependent on experience and longevity at a company). With medications that combat everything from pain to restlessness, it’s natural to seek out remedies to help soothe any ailments you may have, whether they are physical or emotional. However, many of these medications, specifically prescription pain pills, are highly addictive. Since they are so readily available, it’s easy to see how one can spiral into addiction, especially in a society that is often deemed to be “overworked and overstressed.” And once you’re dependent on something, it can be nearly impossible, if not fatal, to pull yourself out of it.
Following his 2008 documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, which discussed the implications of using performance enhancing drugs, filmmaker Christopher Bell has continued the story with Prescription Thugs, chronicling America’s obsession with prescription pills. Through a brutally honest look at this medicinal world, Bell discusses losing his older brother, Michael, to addiction, as well as his own struggles with prescription drug abuse. The Hollywood Reporter said of the documentary that it “excels at placing demonized street drugs and medically dispensed pharmaceuticals on a continuum.”
GALO recently had the opportunity to chat with Bell, shortly after the start of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The Canadian-born writer/director spoke about his inspiration for the doc, the myths surrounding addiction, and two of his upcoming projects.
GALO: Well, first of all, I want to say that Prescription Thugs was incredible. I want to applaud you for your courage in talking about your own struggles with addiction, especially after losing your brother, Michael Bell.
Christopher Bell: Thank you. I think it needed to be done. You know, my brother, Michael “Mad Dog” Bell, never had a proper send-off. And this is something that all his friends and my family can watch forever. It’s sort of a lasting tribute to him, [one] where they can see him alive again. It’s been so long since anyone has seen any new footage of him, so I went back through Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (2008) for footage and pulled some stuff out to feature him in this film.
GALO: Yes, it truly was an incredible way to remember him. Obviously, a large part of his struggle was that he felt that he did not do enough in his life. The film makes it clear that he did, even though he couldn’t see it.
CB: Yes, my brother’s struggle was, I think, something that everyone can identify with. At times, we all feel like we aren’t good enough.
GALO: Of course, it’s the anti-average Joe syndrome.
CB: [Chuckles] Yes, that’s what my dad calls it in the movie.
GALO: In the film, the anti-drug Ronald Reagan era is discussed and how it created a sense of shame for those who did get addicted. Do you agree with that statement? Does the stigma surrounding drug use make it even more difficult to combat?
CB: Yeah. I think that one of the hardest things for me was admitting that I was an addict to anybody. That’s number one. There is a lot of shame that goes along with it. There is also a lot of guilt that goes with it. And I think that in the Reagan era, they just kept saying, “say no to drugs.” And yet, they were very hypocritical because at the same time, Nancy Reagan was popping amphetamines, which is what her daughter says in her book. She actually popped them right before her speech at the “Just Say No” campaign.
GALO: Oh my goodness, really?
CB: Yeah. So it’s a big hypocrisy going on. We take drugs and we label them as prescription drugs and in doing so, we basically allow drugs to run rampant in this country under the guise of something else — because there is a lot of money influencing the government to make these things.
GALO: It’s also very apparent that prescription drug addiction is a first world issue due to superior medical access. How does privilege tie into prescription drug use versus illegal drug use and should they be treated the same?
CB: Well, street drugs are cheap. But nowadays, the wealthy are able to afford the stronger drugs — Oxycontin and things like that. But in my world, where I live, I’ve seen a lot of people go from Oxycontin to heroin as well as from Adderall right to crystal meth because it’s cheaper. And once you’re in that dirty world of dealing prescription drugs, most people aren’t getting them from a doctor. Somebody will get them from a doctor and then they’ll sell them. That’s the world that I live in and I see that a lot. I’ve seen it right in my own circle of friends. I have a friend, who is pretty wealthy and affluent, and he would be prescribed a ton of prescription drugs, and he would turn around and sell them for extra money. It was just something that he liked to do, just turn around and flip them to other people of privilege. And it’s a lot of money: $900 for a bottle of Vicodin; $1,000 for a bottle of Xanax.
GALO: Oh wow, I had no idea it was that much money.
CB: Oh, yeah, he’d pay his rent with it.
CB: It depends on the pill, but the pills range from$4 for a Vicodin, up to $60 or $80 bucks for an 80-milligram Oxycontin.
GALO: And this is just for a couple of pills?
CB: That’s just for one pill of Oxycontin. But, you know, Oxycontin will keep you high all day, so that’s why people like that. These are drugs that are made for cancer patients and people that are in extreme pain. When I was doing it, I would just get whatever I could. And at a certain point, I could only get these Fentanyl patches. That comes with a lot of guilt, too, because those things are made for people who have gotten their arms blown off in war. They are for people who are extremely debilitated and sick — and somehow those drugs ended up in my hands. Now, I don’t think I was taking away from those people because the real problem — which we didn’t really get to examine in the movie because there isn’t a lot of proof — has to do with the DEA, as they are the ones that regulate how many drugs are allowed to be made in this country each year. And for some odd reason, they make about 10 times the amount that they need.
GALO: Wow, 10 times? They aren’t even monitoring anything then, if that’s the case.
CB: I could [understand] if you made twice as many drugs as you need in case they get broken, lost or stolen. But there is a really big issue with it because these drugs are ending up on the streets.
GALO: I had no clue about this. You’ve obviously done substantial research.
CB: Absolutely, and I lived it, too. I was in this realm with pro-wrestlers and pro-football players, all of these people.
GALO: Well, you’re constantly in pain with that sort of assault on your body all the time.
CB: Yeah, what happens is that it starts out as pain and ends up as an addiction. After a while, it stops doing anything for the pain because you just keep taking more and more — and you have to take it at such a high level to get high. So you’re not really taking it for the pain anymore, it switches gears. And a lot of people, myself included, would drink while taking the pills, and you can die from that. I just didn’t even think about it.
GALO: That’s because the addiction takes over. After a while, it becomes something that you can’t control on your own, until you get help.
CB: Yeah, a lot of people would ask me, “Why don’t you just stop?” And I would say, “I don’t have control of this.”
GALO: That’s because it’s a disease.
CB: It’s interesting because Richard Taite, the founder of Cliffside Malibu, said the addict doesn’t have a choice. What he explained to me is that you hear in clinical terms all of the time that this is a disease. But I’m going to clear it up for you; it’s actually a behavior problem. In my mind, it’s a behavioral problem because you have a neurological pathway in your brain that keeps telling you to repeat this action. And if you can unwind that, you can cure this. So it’s a curable disease.
GALO: That makes sense. That’s a really good way of putting it.
CB: When you talk about diseases, there are a lot of them that you can’t cure.
GALO: Well, to move forward, I know that we discussed privilege and having the means to go out to purchase prescription pills. I also think that with privilege we’ve been taught to be a bit robotic, never expressing when we are sad or upset. Where do you think that comes from?
CB: I think that comes from a culture of us watching shiny, happy people on television. They’re perfect. We always have this perception that everyone is perfect in this world. We get it from movies, we get it from television, and we’re told by our neighbors who say, “My little girl is perfect.” No one wants to say, “My little girl is always sad.” No one wants to admit that their lives aren’t great. You go on Facebook every day and you see people who you know in real life, and you know that they are miserable, but they’re writing “Loving life, bro” on Facebook. You know it’s not true. I think if we were more forward with our emotions and more forward with the way that we actually feel, I think we would solve a lot more problems with people that have certain behavioral issues.