Michael Keaton has worked in his fair share of good guys versus bad guys projects over the years. None has hit him like the Hulu eight-episode series “Dopesick” launching on the streaming service on Oct. 13.
The production looks at how one company triggered the worst drug epidemic in American history through opioid addiction. It is a tale that started in the boardrooms of Big Pharma and spread to every corner of the country. The impact of the epidemic is seen through a distressed Virginia mining community where one doctor is part of a battle to expose the truth about the drugs.
Keaton calls the fight a “David and Goliath story.”
“It shines a light on white-collar America and its guilt,” Keaton adds. “It’s so clear now. You really look at the exponential damage often done by white collar crime compared to some kid out in the country selling a bag of weed to maybe help pay his rent or maybe just put a few bucks in his pocket because he wants to go see something.
“How do you even compare the two?”
What made Keaton want to both star in and executive produce the project was how Purdue Pharma lied to get doctors to prescribe the opioids. Although there was data to show the opioids were addictive, they were push by pharmaceutical representatives to say the drugs were non-addictive.
Executive producer and writer, Danny Strong, tells the story – inspired by the New York Times bestselling book by Beth Macy -by going back and forth through time. He intertwined storylines of the U.S. attorney’s case, the DEA investigation, Purdue Pharma and the small mining town that all took place during the time frame covering more than two decades starting with the introduction of OxyContin in 1996. He found that was the only way to tell the full story.
Strong says,” I really wanted to do something that felt like it was telling the totality of the story because I felt as if one story wasn’t the full story. One story of a doctor or just one story of Purdue Pharma, it didn’t feel like it was as comprehensive or as profound as what happened, which was this unbelievable event.
“It felt like this could be really interesting or a total disaster. I just was really nervous writing the first pilot doing all the different timeline jumps, but I just thought, well, if it works it could be like this giant puzzle in which what we put together is the totality of the story of what happened.
The main goal was to expose what happened particularly the crimes that were committed by Big Pharma. The stories of the victims were dramatizations to humanize the story.
Strong’s approach to telling the story was a key reason Keaton decided to be part of the project. He didn’t know if he was interested in the project when it was first presented because he had already done a film dealing with addiction with the 1988 release “Clean and Sober.”
He eventually decided that this project was very different because there is more information available today and the stigma of being a drug addict has changed.
The biggest shock to Keaton was how easily the opioid epidemic spread.
“It seemed almost too simple that this happened this way. And so when you read it, to be honest, I’m reading it and thinking, well, is this too on the head? Then, after you read Beth Macy’s book and you start to do any kind of research, then you realize this is not exaggerated in the slightest.
“That’s the thing for me – the ease with which all this happened was sickening.”
Strong had the same reaction as Keaton when he started his research. It came across to him as being impossible to believe that the drug manufacturer was able to keep selling the opioids for years despite the truth about the highly addictive nature being disclosed.
“Then when you find out the actual things they did, the very specifics – the lying, the manipulation, the influence peddling – it’s such a shocking story that I just couldn’t get it out of my head,” Strong says. “I felt like we have to do this. We have to expose this in some kind of big, mainstream way. So I was so grateful when Hulu actually said yes.
“The whole thing was sort of a dream come true as far as how to present it. Sadly, where the dream became true was being able to present this horrible nightmare. But at least we’re able to do it and get this story out there in such a big way.”
Along with Keaton, the cast of “Dopesick” includes Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Will Poulter, John Hoogenakker, Kaitlyn Dever and Rosario Dawson.