A scene from Alison Klayman's "Take Your Pills"

Interview: Alison Klayman on Chasing Highs — and Lows — in “Take Your Pills”

There’s a great moment in “Take Your Pills,” the latest film from Alison Klayman, when Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of neurology from Penn, can be seen discussing how Adderall has created a dependency amongst users that has changed how people view their use of the drug over time, coming to the realization that “We took drugs to check out and now we do it to check in,” to which Klayman, in a rare off-screen cameo, can be heard despairing, “That’s so depressing.”

“I think that gives you a little bit of a window into where I’m coming from,” says Klayman, on why she decided to leave herself in the film. “[There’s this] idea that we’re trying to maximize ourselves, but in that way seems limited — is the limitless promise [of a using a stimulant like Adderall] actually so we can do spreadsheets or more homework or [to] get a better SAT score? These are real concerns, but having a drug or not having a drug isn’t the answer because the question is much bigger.”

One may assume from the title of “Take Your Pills” that it is strictly about chemical dependency, but Klayman can be counted on to find something far more revelatory in capturing the culture around it, using the stories she hears from subjects across America to illustrate the increasing societal pressure to turn people into human capital, always working from the time they’re in school throughout demanding professional careers, as well as the financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies to popularize amphetamines. Klayman, who crafted such indelible portraits of artists Ai Weiwei and Carmen Herrera in “Never Sorry” and “The 100 Years Show”, respectively, does something extraordinary with what could easily be your standard-issue social issue doc, rewiring the urgency and relentless drive associated with such films to get a point across to give one the feeling of being on Adderall to raise consciousness of how seductive it is are draw attention to their myriad side effects, both biologically and culturally. It’s how Klayman is able to pack into a potent 86 minutes both a spirited history of the amphetamine, dating back to its origins as benzedrine that you’d snort like cocaine and its popularity amongst artists such as Charlie Parker through Andy Warhol, and offer such a variety of perspectives on its present-day application, interviewing everyone from software engineers and financial analysts to college students and former football players.

Mere hours before “Take Your Pills” was set to take SXSW by storm en route to a Netflix premiere shortly after, where it is now streaming, Klayman spoke about how to do justice to an experience with Adderall that so many people share yet have entirely different attitudes towards, as well as getting to experiment stylistically to establish a definitive “aesthetic of Adderall” and making the transition from more intimate portraiture to a cross-continental survey that may have required plenty of frequent flyer miles but brings the issue of drug dependency impossibly close to home.

A scene from Alison Klayman's "Take Your Pills"How did this come about?

Netflix reached out to me. They had been talking with Maria Shriver and Christina Schwarzenegger, her daughter, [who had been] really interested in seeing a documentary about Adderall, so that was an open mandate, like “What would you think about what kind of movie would you want to make?” And when I thought about it, I started to get really excited [because] this is a drug that’s pretty iconic in America right now and there isn’t something out there right now, which is why they were interested in seeing the film [as well as] Christina’s own personal experience on the medication and coming off of it. But the question I wanted to pursue was [for] a drug that promises us to be more productive — to be the best, to be stronger, to work harder — what does that say about America right now at all levels of society? I knew it impacted individuals so personally and it was like a real identity issue, even when I just started talking to friends who had their own personal experiences of either being prescribed [Adderall] in middle or high school or what I knew from even my time in college. When I talked to people, it felt like I was tapping into something really personal and provocative, so I was like, “Oh, there’s got to be a good movie here.” I asked Julie [Goldman] at Motto Pictures if they’d come on as the production company and we built our team to make it happen.

Was it interesting working on a larger scale? Your films so far have often concentrated on a single person, whether it’s been Ai Weiwei (“Never Sorry”) or Carmen Herrera (“The 100-Year Show”), to tell a larger story and this would seem to be the inverse process of that.

A hundred percent. I don’t look at this film as a complete departure because it still is very much the movie that I would make and there are a lot of ways to do any movie, whether it’s a portrait or multiple characters, but I hadn’t really had that challenge of having quite so many characters in a feature-length film and I knew, from the beginning, that’s how the movie had to be done. ”Never Sorry” and “The Hundred-Year Show” are one person’s story and people who are very different from them [can] feel very connected to what it says — but with this, I thought there’s not one story that can do that for the mandate here, which is to examine Adderall and stimulants.

Even three [individual] stories would be a convention [that] I thought would be too essentiallizing, so my reference point when I first pitched how I would do [“Take Your Pills”] was actually “Waking Life.” I thought I’d go from person to person a little bit, because I also thought it’s not one person’s whole journey on a medication. We’re going to meet everyone at a moment in time and they’re going to have their backstory. We have a couple characters you meet multiple times and you get more involved in some that are a little less, but you can feel in the way that it came out that that [“Waking Life”] was a little bit of a reference point. I also imagined that we might end up using a lot of animation because I thought we would need to protect anonymity for a lot of people. It’s actually [a testament to] the strength of my team, especially producer Kate Osborn and co-producer Dan Ming, who were really doing the reporting and casting with me, that we were able to really find stories and people who wanted to share. It’s not easy. I really respect everyone in the film and I’m so grateful that they did it, I think, because they wanted a more nuanced conversation about the issue.

A scene from Alison Klayman's "Take Your Pills"Were there any interviews you did that took you in a direction with this film you weren’t expecting?

It’s less like we were taking different turns, but our net was getting bigger and bigger. We started with an idea of certain buckets. We didn’t have a single character when we started. The [central] character is the drug, so we had buckets of the kinds of people representing different sectors of society, like a finance person or a college student, then also someone who [was] diagnosed and takes the medication first as an adult versus someone who had it since they were a kid. Then what happens is certain characters start to emerge and what happens is nobody fits in just one bucket. [laughs]

What really emerged with this was less sending me on a different trajectory and more getting clues that we’re on the right track, like people starting to say the same things. [We met] people who might be very different in their personal stories or geographically or [in their] age, and for me, it’s really important to start with a hypothesis, but not to let that make you just find what you think you’re going to find. It’s a process of discovery, so when you start to hear some of the same things and you’re like, “Okay, there is a story here.” We were hearing a lot of the same things about trying to get ahead, trying to succeed, needing an edge — and then worrying about that. When you have uppers, there’s also downers and everybody had something – they smoked weed or they took Ambien or they took Xanax — and there’s this bigger picture where everybody’s unique and different, but these patterns start to emerge.

Aesthetically, the style of the film seems to have really been opened up by having the subject be a drug. How did it shape the feeling of the film?

That was something in the beginning where I said this is an opportunity to define the Adderall aesthetic. It’s not to be gimmicky [or have] crazy quick cuts, [although] when I watch the movie, I’m like, “It’s a lot of cuts. It’s a lot of graphics. It’s fast-paced,” but let’s be real. If I had made a slow meandering, wistful film about amphetamines, does that sound appropriate? No. So we had a lot of fun and I wanted the storytelling and the reporting to take the lead, but from day one, we spoke with different graphics companies and pulling visual references from the beginning. In the end, everything did get made [the way it] traditionally does in a documentary, which is once you’re starting to get into post and into the edit a little bit more [because] we don’t know where this [story] is going to take us, but we worked with two different animator/3D artists and also a graphics team in the UK called Blue Spill [because] the graphics were also an opportunity to help set the tone as well.

A scene from Alison Klayman's "Take Your Pills"The history of stimulants becomes breathtaking, bringing in the work of the artists that helped popularize it. How did you go about creating that sequence?

That’s its own chunk for sure, and [it’s] thanks to our whole team that did clearances and archival research because there’s literally some cuts where we put a sequence of images up for a couple of frames each, just to give a feeling, and there was even more that we could’ve had in that didn’t fit. There’s a couple other history moments, but that section is really fun because if you start, [you think, dryly] “Okay, this has a history,” and then by the end, you’re like, “Ohhhh…” We’re just trying to give you this overwhelming feeling. Sometimes I say it about the whole movie, [this is] “America’s love affair with speed,” because as someone says in the film, it ain’t new. This has been a drug that has looked for its dance partner since it was synthesized in the late ‘20s.

Another sequence that’s particularly striking is when you talk with a financial analyst nicknamed “Peter,” whose story takes the form of a drug trip. How did that develop?

We worked with Will Rahilly, a 3D artist [who] also does video art and graphics/animation, and what we wanted to get at as part of the Adderall aesthetic, is [how the drug is] connected to the digital age and the possibilities of the internet, like collaging and the mixture of things. When we first started working on the movie for the first several months, my team will tell you, I was obsessed with regularly checking in [on social media], mostly on Twitter, for #adderall and #studydrugs, just to see what the cultural production is like already — the shorthand, the jokes about this. There’d always be these really funny memes, like mashups, and what I felt Will brought to life so beautifully in that sequence, and our DP [Julia Liu] who shot that, was having that mixture of a 3D world and a real person that nods to all of our anxieties about the digital world that takes over our lives. It’s all these little things to be baked in [to the style of the film], but part of that was also born out of necessity, which is that we couldn’t show this character. It’s a real person’s voice, but an actor plays him onscreen [to protect his anonymity] and we couldn’t go film in Goldman Sachs, right? So we needed to come up with a solution.

A scene from Alison Klayman's "Take Your Pills"What’s it like premiering the film, both here at SXSW and almost simultaneously on Netflix?

This has been a different experience for me because I’ve never debuted a film out of a festival that’s going to be available the next week. It feels like an awesome power and it’s really nice to have a moment to get to give insight into our intentions with audiences at a festival because we don’t have as many months to frame the film. In the end, the movies always speak for themselves, but for me, this is like the big moment where I get to watch it from start to finish with hundreds of people in one room and get to feel that, and [with our] trailer that’s out and our little bit of interviews, let people know what to expect. Based on the reaction to the trailer already, I think people are going to be interested.

“Take Your Pills” is now streaming here on Netflix.

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