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‘Painkiller’ Director Peter Berg on Turning the Opening Legal Disclaimers Into Something Profoundly Emotional

Painkiller’s Peter Berg is unfazed by the Dopesick comparison. 

Concurrent development of similar projects is a tale as old as time in Hollywood, and while it might be a negative for disaster flicks such as 1998’s Armageddon and Deep Impact, Berg views the PainkillerDopesick situation as a positive. It means that more and more people are able to learn about the still-ongoing opioid crisis and the massive role that Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family played in its origin. This story has also been told in other films and documentaries, so Berg’s Netflix series with EP Eric Newman, which debuted atop the streamer’s U.S. TV chart with 7.2 million views, and Danny Strong’s Hulu series are by no means alone. And similar to Berg, each present-and-past storyteller likely welcomes additional stories into the fold until this crisis is finally solved.

One of the most devastating aspects of the series, which Berg executive produced and directed, occurs in the opening minutes of each of the six episodes. A parent or couple appears on screen to read a standard legal disclaimer that some of the events of this true story have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes. However, each scene turns on a dime by way of the phrase “what wasn’t fictionalized,” leading to a heartfelt and profoundly emotional story involving the loss of a child to opioid addiction.

“Legal informed us late in the game as we were getting ready to lock the show that we needed to put a standard disclaimer in front of each episode,” Berg tells The Hollywood Reporter. “In this case, it didn’t sit as well with me. I thought we were letting the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma off the hook a bit with a disclaimer like that. So I thought about it, and then I suggested the idea to Legal that we try and find families whose children have died from OxyContin, and see if we could get them to read the disclaimer.”

When Berg and his team eventually got the OK from Netflix’s legal department and solicited participants, the early response bowled him over. “We put a request out in just the Los Angeles community for any parents who would be willing to do this and tell their stories. And within the first 10 hours, I think we heard from 80 L.A.-area families who had lost children to OxyContin,” Berg recalls.

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Berg explains why the late great Chris Cornell (Soundgarden vocalist-musician) was on his mind throughout the process of directing Painkiller, and also offers his thoughts on the current double strike before looking back at his film and television career.

When you started developing Painkiller, you likely knew that you were up against competing stories, both scripted and unscripted. Were you able to assess the direction the others were taking in order to differentiate your story?

No. I’m sure you’re referring to Dopesick. It’s bizarre the fact that both shows were in development, more or less at the same time. When we were putting the scripts together for Painkiller, we vaguely knew that Hulu was doing something in the same space. But, as is often the case in our business, everyone is siloed. So we just sort of ignored it. But Dopesick was real, obviously, and it went first. They beat us out, and they did a great job. It’s an outstanding show from top to bottom. Michael Keaton was outstanding on Dopesick. But when I was making Painkiller, I really was not thinking about anything other than making my show. I made it the way I wanted to make it, and I think the two shows are very different. 

OxyContin, you can almost think of it as a war. It’s an epic war that’s been going on for way too long with a very high body count. There are many films about the wars in the Middle East, for example, and there are many different stories about those wars. In this case, Dopesick is one, and Painkiller is one. Barry Meier [a consultant on the series] wrote an outstanding book [Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic]. Nan Goldin just had a film come out about it [Laura Poitras’ All the Beauty and the Bloodshed]. There was another miniseries a couple years ago called The Pharmacist that was outstanding. So it’s a big complex subject, and there’s room for many different stories. And I say that with full respect to the outstanding show that Dopesick is.

Peter Berg Painkiller

Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler on set with director/EP Peter Berg in episode three of Painkiller. Keri Anderson/Netflix

To me, what separated your show is that it often played like a psychological horror movie, especially episode five. Were you knowingly playing with that tone?

The more I came to understand about Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family and how they operated, it started to feel like a very dark, absurdist nightmare. At times, it was darkly comical when you look at how blatantly greedy and unconcerned the Sacklers were with public welfare. It’s almost hard to believe. And so my thought was to treat it, at times, as something very darkly absurd, but never to the point where it lets anyone off the hook or takes away the reality of the suffering. But as I started reading up on the Sacklers, it just read like a very dark, absurdist tale in many ways, and that was responsible for much of our tone.

Each episode begins with a framing device involving real-life parent(s) who lost a child to the opioid crisis. What’s the backstory behind these powerful openings? 

Legal informed us late in the game as we were getting ready to lock the show that we needed to put a standard disclaimer in front of each episode: “What you’re about to see is based on facts. Some of the facts have been changed …” So it was that type of thing, and I’ve done it before. In this case, it didn’t sit as well with me. I thought we were letting the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma off the hook a bit with a disclaimer like that. So I thought about it, and then I suggested the idea to Legal that we try and find families whose children have died from OxyContin, and see if we could get them to read the disclaimer. And then at the end of the disclaimer, they would say, “Well, what isn’t made up and what is real is that my 20-year-old son or 28-year-old daughter died of OxyContin.” And Legal thought about it for a minute. Legal was involved in a lot of this show, and then they said, “Well, OK, if you can do it.” 

One of the many alarming experiences I had as I learned about Purdue and OxyContin was when we put a request out in just the Los Angeles community for any parents who would be willing to do this and tell their stories. And within the first 10 hours, I think we heard from 80 L.A.-area families who had lost children to OxyContin and wanted to be a part of these opening scenes and tell their story. So it was quite disturbing.

Painkiller reunited you and Taylor Kitsch for at least the fourth time since Friday Night Lights. Is he always in the back of your mind whenever you’re putting something together? 

He often is. I like working with people that I know well and that I feel comfortable with. And Taylor is a good friend and someone I know quite well, obviously. Taylor has been quite public with the fact that he has a sibling who battled OxyContin right to the edge of her life, and I’ve known of this for a long time. So when the story and the scripts were coming together, I thought, “Yes, on paper, Taylor is right for this role.” I knew he could do a great job, but I also knew that he would be extremely passionate about this role given his intense family connection to the horror of OxyContin addiction. And he was.

Peter Berg Painkiller

Berg with Taylor Kitsch as Glen Kryger, who is prescribed OxyContin after a work injury. Keri Anderson/Netflix

As far as scripted material, you tend to go back and forth between film and TV. Is there a rhyme or reason to it all?

Not really. I don’t have a master plan for what I’m going to do. I try to figure out what I’m going to make, and then larger forces seem to intervene. Something happens, not always, but quite often. I will say that I find directing limited series to be really satisfying, whether it’s six episodes of Painkiller or a new show I just did called American Primeval. As a director, you get to make a seven-hour movie, basically, and you get to go deep. It’s a lot of days. You get to explore aspects of character and subplots that you might not have time for in a two or two-and-a-half-hour film. So it’s a really satisfying medium to be working in right now, and I enjoy it quite a bit. 

You also shepherd docuseries like Boys in Blue and Shaq. So you seem to be following whatever is piquing your interest at any given time.

Yes, I am. I’ve always loved doing documentaries, and I personally find that documentaries make me a better fiction and scripted filmmaker. I’ve enjoyed bouncing back and forth between a doc series like Boys in Blue, and something like Painkiller or American Primeval, which isn’t based on anything quite as urgent or current as the opioid crisis. 

So the industry is currently in the midst of a double strike, and it’s the greatest divide that has ever existed between the guilds and the AMPTP. What do you make of the current situation? 

I hope it gets worked out ASAP. It’s such a long and complex conversation. It is accurate to say that times have changed, and the business and the landscape of the business is radically different than it was back when prior contracts were negotiated. So it’s very reasonable that the Screen Actors Guild and WGA are demanding a new playbook, and I think a new playbook is deserved. So I think it will be written, and I believe it will be worked out. But anyone that’s been in this business as long as I have has seen the transformation from the old system where you had three networks and six movie studios. That was kind of it. And transparency was real. You knew what was being seen and how things were being evaluated and consumed, so you could be compensated accordingly. That’s just not the reality today, so I stand with my brothers and sisters in both guilds. 

Residuals are one of the many sticking points. Were the residuals from your acting work in the ‘90s a godsend for you at times?

Of course, they were, and that was the old playbook. If you were on a show that went for one-hundred-plus episodes, not just in the U.S. but internationally, the studio was completely transparent about the fact that a group of people had come together and created a product that was making money. So people were compensated. The facts were shared. The numbers and the viewership were shared, and people were paid accordingly. And that made up for the dry spells and the incredibly long periods of time that all actors, writers and directors go through, where you either can’t get work or, for whatever reason, the work doesn’t hit at the same level as that 100-plus episode show.

You directed the pilots of two top-tier shows in my book, Friday Night Lights and The Leftovers. Starting with Lights, you likely had a hand in casting Jesse Plemons. Are you pretty shocked by the career he’s having?

Jesse Plemons was basically cast not as an extra, but almost as an extra. I think he had one-and-a-half lines in the entire pilot. You obviously cast the bigger roles first, the medium roles second, the smaller roles third and then, at the last minute, you just kind of rush through a lot of very small roles. And I still remember Jesse coming in. I thought he was really interesting, and he kind of reminded me of Matt Damon’s cousin, perhaps. So he caught my eye, and I gave him this little part. And from the moment he showed up in Austin, there was something clearly special about him. So it was like, “Hey, take another line. Maybe you should be in this scene. Let’s write a new scene for you.” And by the third or fourth episode, it was pretty clear that Jesse was going to be a major part of the series, and he even started hooking up with “the hot girl from school,” Adrianne Palicki’s Tyra. So that’s a great example of why people say that there are no small roles. They’re all relevant. And Jesse, from my perspective, took this tiny little scrap of a character in Friday Night Lights, and he was like, “I’m gonna make the most out of every micro moment.” And he did. I’m sure he would’ve gotten there on his own if it hadn’t been for Friday Night Lights, but I’m so very proud of him. 

And what was your takeaway from your Leftovers experience? 

My respect for Damon Lindelof. I knew of him, and I was a fan of Lost. I just think he’s a very special talent in our business. He comes at things from angles that most people don’t, and I learned a lot from Damon about just being true to your vision and not being afraid of ambiguity and uncertainty. In the case of The Leftovers, it was really about loss and how we process loss, whether it’s a parent or a child or a horrific mass shooting or the current situation in Maui. How do humans react to unimaginable loss? So, to me, that was what Damon and Tom Perrotta were really locked in on. There were aspects of The Leftovers that didn’t necessarily make perfect sense. (Laughs.) I didn’t always know exactly what was happening, but there was always the theme of loss and grief and how we as humans attempt to process that. So that is what made the show work so well, and I learned that from Damon.

You produced the Taylor Sheridan-scripted Hell or High Water, as well as his directorial debut, Wind River. Were you enamored with Sicario like the rest of us and just had to get in the Taylor Sheridan business?  

I’ve known Taylor for a long, long time, well before Sicario. This was back when he was acting, and he was also an acting coach to Taylor Kitsch and Minka Kelly. Some people don’t know that little-known fact. Taylor is another one like Damon who I’m so impressed with because he could have quit. He was having a lot of trouble making it as an actor and trying to learn how to direct and trying to figure out a way to take control over his career. And that’s a lonely road to walk when you’re the only one who believes in yourself. So he was walking that walk, and I remember thinking, “I like him. I think he’s smart, but I don’t know.” We see thousands of people that come out here and try to do that, and it just doesn’t always work out. But Taylor was so determined, and I think the accumulated energy of all those years, trying to make it as an actor and not, helped him. And when he finally got his shot and he organized himself, he was just ready. It started with Sicario, although there were many other projects before it that didn’t go that well. So, like Jesse, it’s been really inspiring for me to just watch him take over, and I have a lot of respect for Taylor. 

You were tied to a Chris Cornell documentary in 2019, alongside Brad Pitt and Vicky Cornell. Is that still in the works? 

Not today. That’s a long, complicated story that’s probably best for another time. But I will say that when Eric Newman, our executive producer on Painkiller, came to me and said, “You want to do a show about OxyContin?” I started thinking about the people I knew personally who died from it. I got to 10 very quickly, both hands; and then I started thinking about some of my musical heroes: Prince, Tom Petty and Chris Cornell. They all died, really, from opioids, and Chris was in my spirit every day when I was on the set directing Painkiller. So maybe the doc will happen, but Chris Cornell was an incredible talent and another victim of opioids. And I miss him. [Note: While Cornell’s death was ruled a suicide by hanging, his family settled a lawsuit against his doctor after they alleged that he over-prescribed Cornell the anti-anxiety drug Lorazepam, despite a history of substance abuse including opioid addiction.]

People rarely admit when they’re wrong, and that’s why I was always impressed by your honesty with regard to Vince Gilligan. You didn’t even have to say anything, but I respected the fact that you admitted to mishandling the situation on Hancock.

Yeah, we were getting ready to make Hancock. This was pre-Breaking Bad, so Vince had a rep, but I didn’t really know him. I came on late in the game to direct it, and Vince’s script was incredible. It was actually called Tonight, He Comes at the time, and that’s for anyone who wants to Google the extraordinary original script to Hancock, which was wild and dark. And for anyone that reads it now, they’ll be like, “Of course, that’s the guy who wrote Breaking Bad.” 

But Vince had done four or five rewrites on the script, and I think he was kind of at the end of his creative rope. And he basically said to me and others, “Look, I’ve done my job.” And I was like, “But we need more Vince.” And he said, “Yeah, but I’m going to write a show.” And I was like, “Vince, what are you talking about? Write a show?” And I was maybe or maybe not at a Lakers game and I had maybe had a couple of cocktails before we were on the phone. I was like, “Why are you talking about writing a show? You’re doing Hancock. This is Will Smith. This is a big, big movie. You’re making a mistake. You can’t.” And he was like, “Well, Pete, I gotta go write my show.” And I was like, “Well, you’re making a big mistake. You’re gonna be sorry you did this.” And he said, “Pete, I wish you the best of luck,” and I hung up. 

And for the next week, I was trying to get people on my side that Vince Gilligan was wrong, and that Vince Gilligan was making a big mistake, and that Vince Gilligan was bad. And all I heard was, “Vince Gilligan is the most decent, talented human being I’ve ever met.” And it turns out that Vince is an incredibly decent and talented human being, and the script that he went and wrote was Breaking Bad. So he was right, and I was wrong.

When all was said and done, Vince said that he wrote 26 drafts of Hancock over the course of four years. 

He did his job. He is 100 percent in the right on that one. But Vince and I are good. 

Painkiller is now streaming on Netflix. This interview was edited for length and clarity.



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