There are some stories that seem too big even for Hollywood.
One is the opioid epidemic that overwhelmed the judicial and medical systems. Now Hulu, the streaming network, debuts “Dopesick” on Wednesday (Oct. 13).
The real-life story was “a shocker to me,” said Michael Keaton (shown here), who stars. “The ease with which it became epidemic kind of knocked me out.”
In a typical year, studies said, almost two million Americans misuse opioids, with almost 50,000 of them dying from overdoses. “Seventy percent of all overdoses that happened last year were opioids,” said Rosario Dawson, who co-stars.
And unlike other epidemics, this points directly to one company: Purdue Pharma had assured doctors that OxyContin isn’t addictive; actually, that National Institutes of Drug Abuse says, it has an addiction rate of 8 to 12 percent. Eventually, Purdue agreed to pay $4.5 billion and to be dissolved.
“I couldn’t believe what this company did and how they were able to keep doing it over and over and over for years,” said scriptwriter Danny Strong.
Strong is a master of turning real-life drama into TV-movie scripts. He drew an Emmy nomination for “Recount” (about the Bush-Gore finale) and an Emmy win for “Game Change.”
But those required sharp cuts; for “Game Change,” he reduced the entire 2008 presidential race to the Sarah Palin story. This time, instead of a two-hour movie, he went with an eight-hour format.
“A mini-series … untethers a guy like Danny and allows him to go deep,” said actor John Hoogenakker.
That’s become a thriving format, Strong said. “So many of the things that I watch are ‘Queen’s Gambit’ and ‘Underground Railoroad’ and ‘Mare of Easttown’ – just wonderful progamming.”
With that length, he could jump between stories about:
– The Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma. Michael Stuhlberg – fresh from being a mobster boss in the “Your Honor” mini-series – plays Richard Sackler, determined to make OxyContin a winner.
– The drug reps, told they were peddling a miracle painkiller.
– A typical victim, played by Kaitlyn Deaver, fresh from her skilled work in the “Dear Evan Hansen” movie. She plays “a hard-working and determined coal miner who gets a back injury and is prescribed OxyContin and is completely unprepared for what is to come,” Dever said.
– The federal officials probing this. Hoogenakker and Peter Sarsgaard play real-life figures; Dawson, like most actors, plays a composite character.
– And Keaton, as another composite – a doctor who had moved to rural Virginia. “He followed the woman he was in love with and then fell in love with the place and the people,” he said.
That may be a natural fit for Keaton, whose roots are similar to the people there. He grew up in rural Pennsylvania (southwest of Pittsburgh), sometimes working for his dad, a civil engineer and surveyor. These “Dopesick” characters, he said, are sort of people he knows. “It’s not too far from where I grew up …. Hopefully, I’m somewhat like (the doctor), because he has a high degree of decency.”
Keaton – who once worked for a symbol of decency, Fred Rogers – has had some big-box-office movies (“Beetlejuice,” “Mr. Mom” and two Batman films), but lately he’s worked on true stories.
He’s been an investigative journalist (“Spotlight”), the McDonald’s boss (“The Founder”), a lawyer working on 9/11 settlements (“Worth”), an attorney general (“Trial of the Chicago 7”) … and now a well-meaning country doctor, prescribing what he was told was a non-addictive drug.