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by Kitty Robson

To celebrate the release of his new show, we catch up with writer, director and actor extraordinaire Danny Strong.

Danny Strong is a permeable artist. From acting to writing to directing to pretty much everything in between, the hybrid creator has found his way to tell the vital story that is Dopesick. Absorbing all he’s learnt along the way, Danny has created a masterpiece of television from the first episode to the last. The eight-part limited series shines a light on the American opioid epidemic, targeting the very source of the problem: the corporate greed of Big Pharma.

Developing a highly watchable, multilayered narrative based on realities countless Americans have experienced, Danny Strong aims to expose the villains of the story: the Sackler family and their private company, Purdue Pharma, who in 1996 released their extended-release formulation of oxycodone, OxyContin. A tale of capitalist cruelty, governmental neglect and small-town desperation, Danny’s careful and considered show captures the misunderstood trauma of addiction and evil way in which the pharmaceutical companies responsible prey on working-class communities.

Having been a part of three of the most lauded lexical pieces of our time – Mad Men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls, among many more – it is perhaps no surprise that Danny Strong’s influence has made Dopesick one of the sharpest shows of the past decade. Starring the likes of Michael Keaton, Rosario Dawson, Kaitlyn Dever, Will Poulter and Michael Stuhlbarg to name a few, it’s an unmissable portrayal of such an important topic, one that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled. Internationally premiering at London Film Festival and now streaming on Hulu as well as Disney+, we caught up with the acclaimed cinematic polymath to find out how he found his way to Dopesick, and where it will lead him to next…

Why did you feel like now is the right time to make Dopesick?

It was actually early 2018 when I dove into it and it seemed as if the Sacklers were going to completely get away with it. There hadn’t been the social reckoning that’s actually been occurring pretty intensely over the last two years and that they were now kind of spreading their dishonest marketing techniques across the world. They had been exposed in the US so they just said ‘okay so now we’re going to shift our dishonesty to other countries’ so I felt that I wanted to create a record of accountability of what happened but also have this potential movie or show be a warning to other countries that Purdue Pharma is coming to addict you, that they’re coming to lie to you about their drug that’s very addictive that they’re saying is not. That was a big part of it.

There must have been an insane amount of research to dive into. How did you approach that? What were your methods of going through it all?

First, I was very fortunate that, by the end of 2018 or probably more in 2019, there have been four books written about it. At that point, I think it partnered up with Beth Macy with her book Dopesick. You have these incredible journalists who had written a lot about it, starting with Beth Macy and then Barry Meier of the New York Times that wrote a book called Pain Killer and Gerald Posner, he’s a wonderful journalist who wrote the book Pharma. So there are a lot of great accounts that really told a great deal of the story that is covered in the show. Then a great book unfortunately came out right before we wrapped production called Empire of Pain. That’s a terrific read but unfortunately, it was too late for me to really utilise that one. But then I did first-person interviews: I spoke to probably about 40 people. And of course, Beth Macy was a big part of the team, she was in the writers’ room and she kept interviewing people so we did a lot of these interviews together. There was a great deal of ongoing and investigative reporting throughout the entire process even through production.

What made you decide to use the title of Beth Macy’s book?

I thought it was a terrific title. I loved it. I didn’t really know what to call the show. I don’t even remember if I had a title yet. Then when this other division of my company bought the rights to the book Dopesick not knowing about my show, they asked us to team up. Before I even read the book, the first thing I said was ‘it’s a great title’ and then when I read the book, I loved it and agreed to team up. I just think it’s a terrific title.

What were your main aims when creating the show?

To hold Purdue Pharma accountable and to hopefully give a more compassionate, empathetic understanding of addiction and what that does to people, particularly opioid use disorder because people have such bias and judgments. People view those with this disorder as ‘junkies’ or ‘losers’: they don’t understand that this person’s brain chemistry has been changed and they can’t live without it, they think they’re going to die because the pain is so severe when they don’t have it. It’s a very diabolical drug and I’m not even just referring to oxycontin. I’m referring to all opioid use disorders that can be caused by other opioids besides oxycontin. Then also with that empathetic understanding coming up, in the last two episodes, we have solutions and path forwards, ways to treat opioid use disorders that are stigmatised in the United States and not enough people have access to these treatments. I hoped, and Beth Macy hoped, that we could shine a light on them as a real way forward from addiction.

It’s powerful the way you portray addiction and there’s real empathy there. How did that affect you making this show?

Thanks for the question, it was very emotional, to be honest with you. It really was. I’ve done one other project that affected me in the same way. I wrote this movie called The Butler that was the history of the civil rights movement and that had the same effect on me as far as how powerful the subject matter is, how painful the subject matter is for the participants in it. As I write I really try to get in the headspace of the people I’m writing about. Not in that kind of crazy way, I’m not a method writer… But just as I’m writing I’m just trying to play the part as I’m writing it. It goes to some very dark places which had more of an effect on me than I thought it would as I was writing it. But it wasn’t some traumatic experience doing it, it was just more emotional than it normally is for me.

What do you feel like it will lead you to next?

I’m not sure, I’ve got different things I’m thinking about. I would like to do something that feels very different in a way. I think that this had a real muckraking quality to it. In some ways, it’s a piece of investigative journalism and it’s an incredible story. I think the bar is really high for us if I were to do something like this again to be able to do it. So, part of me wants to do something completely different but I’m open.

Obviously you’ve acted in some incredible TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, Mad Men, just to name a few, which have arguably some of the best writing and directing in TV ever. How did being a part of these shows as an actor impact you as a writer and director?

I think as a writer it just sets a really high bar, in a good way. I think subconsciously when you’re constantly working on great scripts which – and I completely agree with you, those three shows are so beautifully written – just get a bar set in your brain of where writing at least should be. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to hit that bar and I don’t know if I have. But nonetheless, I have this sense of what excellence is because I got to work on it for all these different projects. It definitely has an effect. With Gilmore Girls, in particular, I’m very close with Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino. They’re like an adopted aunt and uncle to me so to have those two people in my life as sources of wisdom and to be able to talk to them is quite wonderful as well.

Do you feel your acting background gives you a different perspective on what it means to direct?

My background as an actor is everything as a director. Just for my ability to work with the actors too: I feel like I kind of know what’s going on in their heads quite often because I have done the same thing for 30 years, I still do it. I’ve been on the TV show Billions for the last five years so I’m still at it hitting balls. Baseball reference. I’m very empathetic with my actors. Particularly not just the famous ones but the people with one line or two lines. I’m their biggest fan on set and want just everyone to succeed and win. I think that’s a big part of it. The cinematography element was the newest element to me when I started directing six or seven years ago, but that was brand new to me. I didn’t really pick it up watching other people on set as an actor. You don’t really get a sense of that when you’re on the other side of the camera, at least I didn’t. That’s been the most fun for me to be honest with you because it’s just a warming experience over and over and over again. Because I’m so comfortable with the actors and I feel really great having a shorthand with them so I can really learn something new on the cinematography side. That’s been a great experience. Just learning and growing.

What are some of the films and TV shows that shaped you the most as a person and as a director/writer?

I’m very influenced as a writer by playwrights. Arthur Miller is a really big influence on me as far as what he does. Very moralistic social pieces that are also incredible pieces of drama. They’re not ‘do your homework’, you gotta learn about the Salem Witch Trials type pieces. They’re just absolutely riveting and incredible. I think that his works have been a really big influence on me. The films of Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet. The two Sydney’s have been big inspiration. Francis Ford Coppola is as a director a huge inspiration. One of my editors on Dopesick pointed to a shot that I directed and I’m like ‘I think I might linger on this shot too long’. He says ‘no, it looks like a Coppola movie’ and I just said ‘anytime you want me to linger on something, that’s all you have to say’.  It was a literally perfect thing to say but I do think the films of Francis Ford Coppola are a really big influence on me as well.

The pilot of Dopesick is one of the best pilots I’ve ever watched, it’s very immersive and everything feels purposeful. How did you achieve that?

We had an advantage with that pilot: we had one of the greatest film directors of all time directing it, Barry Levinson. That was incredible. How lucky were we to have this master? I kept calling him Yoda on set. He’s just like a Jedi master. He just breathes story and directing in a way that was really inspiring to watch.

I remember you saying at London Film Festival about how Barry Levinson directing early in the season meant you got a bit of teaching along the way.

For sure. Just to spend four months attached to that guy, I think it would be a dream for any director, at almost any level, to just be able to get that experience. It’s very unusual. I was fortunate enough to work with Sydney Pollack on the first movie that I got made as well. He was going to direct it so we spent two months together working through the scripts and even travelling to Florida on research trips. He ended up getting cancer and had to drop out but he stayed on as a producer. He’s an actor as well, he kept acting up until he passed away. He said to me one of the reasons why he likes to keep acting is that he just likes being on set watching other directors work because it’s so rare to get that experience. He loved telling me stories about watching Stanley Kubrick work, it’s amazing seeing someone who was at their level having this, I wouldn’t say all like experience, but this educational experience just observing these fellow masters.

I loved the score, tell me a bit about that.

Your fellow countryman Lorne Balfe is the composer! He’s an incredible composer. Barry Levinson found him and he just called me because we were trying to figure out who’s going to be a composer and he said ‘have you seen Marcella on Netflix and I said ‘no I haven’t seen it’ and he said ‘well, watch it because I think the composer would be great’. I thought ‘oh good it’ll be some upstart composer and we will be able to land him or her’ because sometimes you can’t get them. Then I looked up the composer and, ‘Oh my God, it’s Lorne Balfe. He’s a huge composer. I don’t know if we will be able to get Lorne Balfe’. Fortunately, he came on board and we worked with him.

What was your process like with Lorne Balfe?

The original score is always really challenging. He’s such a gifted composer and his process, which I loved and I’ve never had before, is he was writing the music as we were shooting and cutting so that we didn’t have a temp score. Often you use other composers’ music to score it and then when you have the process as a template for the composer and then when you have the process of switching it over from the temp score which is beautifully arranged music that’s been completed by the greatest composers of the last 100 years, because you can use whatever you want to your score, its torturous. Because you’re so used to the other music that it’s really hard to get lost in it and I hate that process. I find it one of the worst parts because it’s one of the last things you do. The entire time here you’ve just done all this work and now you’re finishing the show and for me I’m like banging my head against the wall. I’m just like ‘this show is getting destroyed now because the music isn’t as good’ because I’ve been using Hans Zimmer in this plot right. With Lorne, he hates that too so he avoids it by just giving you music all through the process. I loved it. I can’t wait to work with Lorne again.

Dopesick is out now on Disney+ with new episodes dropping every Wednesday.

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