There goes Barbara Mullins, pushing OxyContin and poor-mouthing drug addicts.
Mullins, a member of the “editorial board of The Journal of Pain” as a moderator described her to townfolk assembled at a VFW hall, agreed that opioid abuse was growing, but that “it’s important to distinguish between abusers and legitimate pain patients who need these medicines.”
Except that Barbara Mullins isn’t a real person. She’s a character who makes a brief appearance in a scene from “Dopesick,” the limited-run Hulu TV series that debuts this week. And the actor who played her — for all of 90 seconds of screen time and a couple of lines — is none other than Beth Macy, the Roanoke author who wrote the bestselling book that inspired the series.
“I was on the set once, and I got to be in one scene,” Macy said, “which apparently took 14 takes till they got something where I wasn’t ridiculous.”
There is nothing ridiculous about “Dopesick,” though. The series is a big deal. The show, starring Michael Keaton as a Southwest Virginia doctor and created by writer-producer Danny Strong, dramatizes Macy’s 2018 bestselling book about the opioid crisis. The first three of the show’s eight episodes premiere Wednesday on Hulu, with the remainder following once a week through fall on the streaming service.
“Dopesick” is partly based on the first one-third of the book. The show depicts craven corporations, corrupt doctors and pushy sales reps instigating a drug epidemic that crushed small towns and rural communities in the 21st century, especially in Southwest and Central Virginia, where job losses, lack of proper medical care and an abundance of addictive painkillers conspired to create a catastrophe.
Macy is a former prize-winning reporter and columnist for The Roanoke Times with three New York Times bestsellers on her bookshelf. She wrote “Dopesick” as a way to spotlight the powerful forces that created the crisis, and to sympathetically portray the hurting, sick people of Appalachia as victims, not criminal abusers, as the drug industry narrative had it.
That story connected with people who were dealing with addiction. After “Dopesick” came out, Macy recalled, “a person came up to me, who was in recovery, and said, ‘Thank you for writing this book. Before I read it, I didn’t understand that I was part of a bigger story. I thought I was just a f---up.’”
Macy believes that the TV version of “Dopesick” can expand the reach of the story to a larger segment of the public.
“There is something about TV and the entertainment factor,” Macy said. “Just think how many more eyeballs will see this. … Sure, it’s a shortcut to the real story, but I think it’s going to be a palatable way for people to understand, who aren’t quite there yet. It’s taken me 10 years to understand how this went down.”
The series is also a huge deal because some of entertainment’s biggest names are associated with it.
Series creator Strong is a writer, producer and actor who also created the hit TV show “Empire” and wrote screenplays for “The Butler” (which starred Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker), “Recount,” “Game Change” and the last two films of “The Hunger Games” franchise. Strong was already working on a series about opioids for 20th Century Studios when the company’s sibling studio, 21st Century Fox, bought the film rights to “Dopesick.”
The two projects were wedded and the series went into production quickly. Macy describes “Dopesick” as “Danny’s show … he had it all in his head.”
Oscar nominee Keaton, Peter Sarsgaard and Rosario Dawson are the stars. Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”) directed a couple of episodes. Macy is listed as an executive producer and co-writer, not to mention her brief cameo as the pain-pill-pushing journal editor.
Some of the characters are real people — such as members of the Sackler family, who made billions from OxyContin sales through their company, Purdue Pharma — but most of the characters are composites of people from Macy’s book.
Keaton plays Samuel Finnix, a doctor in the fictional small town of Finch Creek, a coal-mining community that becomes a cauldron of opioid addiction. Macy said she constantly warned other writers and producers against stereotyping the region and its people, long typecast in media and films as pretty scenery inhabited by backward hillbillies. She believes the series succeeds in portraying a realistic, sympathetic view of small-town, mountain-bred folks.
She enlisted people such as Dr. Art Van Zee (a primary source in her book), Appalachian author and artist Robert Gipe and others for medical, cultural and historic advice.
“Appalachia has been screwed,” Macy said. “I wanted us to get it right.”
Many of the show’s exterior scenes were filmed in Clifton Forge, with much of the interiors shot in a converted warehouse in Richmond. Other scenes were filmed in Petersburg and Bowling Green. Macy’s husband, Tom Landon, helped scout some of the exterior scenes in Clifton Forge and Alleghany County.
Macy, whose other bestsellers are “Factory Man” (2014) and “Truevine” (2016), said that writing a TV script was a wholly different experience from writing books.
“It’s all dialogue,” she said. “The gifts of background and description are replaced. It all has to be told rather than shown. Danny was always saying, ‘Have more swagger on the page.’ It had to sound like him, because he is the voice of the show. By episode seven I got it, because we had been in the room longer.”
Much of the “writer’s room” collaboration happened via online teleconferencing platforms, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. In an interview for Vanity Fair, Strong said that Macy’s journalism background enriched the show’s writing, especially as more material kept coming out during the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy trial.
“[B]ecause she was a real expert on the issue and she’s a fantastic journalist,” Strong told Vanity Fair, “it would go to this other place where we kept uncovering stuff throughout the process and new information would come to Beth, and then sometimes Beth and I would go do interviews together with sources … I called us Woodward and Bernstein, except she’s Woodward and I’m Bernstein’s incompetent cousin, Sid, who’s just running around trying to help.”
The controversial bankruptcy settlement between states and Purdue Pharma means that the drug company will pay more than $5 billion to fund drug treatment programs, but members of the Sackler family received immunity from any liability. Macy is one of many people unhappy with the settlement.
“Somebody smarter than me figured it out and said [the Sacklers] will never have to give up one boat or one house or one piece of jewelry,” Macy said. “It looks like the government got this big win, but when you really look at it, [the Sacklers] are not admitting they did anything wrong, nobody is going to jail and they’ll be richer than they are now. … The Sacklers themselves are not bankrupt.”
Macy said she sometimes gets emails from attorneys from specific Sackler family members that question her reporting and things she says about opioids during interviews. She said that the lawyers’ emails are “trying to intimidate me. They’ve done it to other writers, too.”
Strong told Vanity Fair that he and Macy have been subjects of “intimidation tactics,” especially on Twitter, where a fake poster depicted Strong, Macy and Levinson (and later Keaton) with devil horns. He called the poster “[f]ake grassroots campaigns.”
Macy, 57, is continuing to write about the opioid crisis. She recently completed a draft of her next book, “Raising Lazarus: Hope, Justice, and the Future of America’s Drug Crisis,” which is expected to be published next year. She said “Raising Lazarus” is “supposed to be my hopeful book. … But it was no picnic.”
“‘Dopesick’ is about the problem, ‘Raising Lazarus’ is about the solution,” she said.
Even though “Dopesick” was the last of her three books to be optioned as a film or TV series, it was the first one to actually be produced. Scripts have been written for “Factory Man” and “Truevine,” but neither project has moved forward recently.
As for her cameo as an actor, Macy said that her time on set gave her a moment to reflect on her life and career. Between takes, as she sat inside the VFW where the scene was filmed, she remembered her father spending his time and money drinking in the VFW in her hometown in Ohio. When she was a kid, she went with her mother to the VFW to get money for groceries before he had spent it all at the VFW bar. Even as a child, she had a barstool view of addiction.
“He was deep into his alcoholism then,” Macy said. “But sometimes, he let me sit at the bar with him and get a Coke and cashews. It’s like some of my very few good memories I have of him. And then, being in this VFW [on the set], and thinking about how far I had come from this impoverished childhood or whatever, and there was a bar in back … That was a moment. I thought, ‘Wow.’ And I had time to think, because like I said, there were 14 takes.”
“There is something about TV and the entertainment factor. Just think how many more eyeballs will see this. … Sure, it’s a shortcut to the real story, but I think it’s going to be a palatable way for people to understand, who aren’t quite there yet. It’s taken me 10 years to understand how this went down.”
-- Author Beth Macy on the TV version of “Dopesick” reaching a larger segment of the public