As anyone who saw his first feature, the steroid exposé “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” can recall, Christopher Bell doesn’t suffer fools.
“My advice to people that want to make films is that when they think the day is lost, it’s just begun,” said Bell. “For example, we interviewed [former U.S. Representative] Henry Waxman in [“Bigger, Stronger, Faster”], he didn’t know the drinking age, and I thought I completely blew that interview. But he blew the interview. Afterwards, his office was calling my producer saying, “Hey, we want to talk to you about this. We want to redo it. He wasn’t really informed.” And it’s like, “No shit. But he should be.”
Bell is not someone to be trifled with. Though he decided to become a filmmaker, his physique suggests he could’ve easily gone into professional wrestling like his brothers Mark (“Smelly”) and Mike (“Mad Dog”), whose use of anabolic steroids to get a competitive edge inspired “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” and he’s become just as intimidating as an interviewer. And when not long after that film was released in 2008, Mad Dog died of a heart attack at the age of 37, Bell was inspired to make another film that would deal with America’s increasing reliance on drugs, only this time, he wouldn’t be poking into the shadows of competitive sports, but rather the province of white coats with an investigation into what’s behind the marketing and abuse of painkillers such as vicodin, percocet and oxycontin.
“Prescription Thugs,” which had a celebrated debut last year at the Tribeca Film Festival and arrives in theaters this week, offers a compelling overview of the insidious nature of this addiction, starting with the candy-colored ads on TV urging audiences to ask their doctor about the latest medication and the specious approval process of the Food and Drug Administration before going into the culture of desiring quick fixes and all-too-easy access to painkillers that has led the U.S. to become the biggest user of such drugs in the world. But like “Bigger, Stronger, Faster,” Bell doesn’t tell this story from a remove, not only recounting the sad, slow slide of Mad Dog from friends and family, but turning the camera on himself as his research leads him to reevaluate what his own dependence on pills has done to him over the years and if you think he’s tough on others, “Prescription Thugs” shows that it’s nothing compared to what he has to wrestle out of himself, ultimately leading to a stay at the Cliffside Malibu Rehab Clinic.
Looking as fit and feisty as ever in Los Angeles recently, Bell took some time to discuss how “Prescription Thugs” was born, the cycle of addiction and really understanding what sobriety is.
This seems like a natural extension of “Bigger, Stronger, Faster,” but was it a more complicated decision to make it, especially considering your brother had died?
It’s more a follow-up. After ‘Bigger, Stronger, Faster’, it was weird. It seemed like the one thing everybody walked away and cared about, was the one thing that I wasn’t expecting, which was Mad Dog. I thought people were going to think he was maybe a little bit delusional, like he didn’t have all his shit together, but what I realized is that everybody has these dreams — you want to grow up and be a wrestler or a movie star — and we don’t want to give up on them. That’s why people identified with Mad Dog. A lot of people out there were watching this movie going, “I get that because either I was there, and I didn’t make it, or I was there and I did make it. But I remember being there.” I remember that point where I’m like, ‘Why won’t the world just recognize me?'” I think we all have and we get that angry “I’ll show the whole world.” That’s just human nature.
When Mad Dog passed away after “Bigger, Stronger, Faster,” I thought, “Now what?” And there wasn’t any ‘now what’ for years. My family fell apart. They ended up moving to Sacramento to be closer to [my younger brother Mark, nicknamed] Smelly, who lives up there. There’s probably a period of three years where I just didn’t really connect to my family. And it was for no reason. It’s a death, it’s a tragedy, and nobody knows why it happened or wants to talk about it. I used to talk to my mom everyday on the phone and then my brother dies. All of a sudden, I don’t hear from anyone anymore. And I’m not calling either. And I thought I don’t want people to go through that. Nobody understands, unless they’ve had it happen. And if you had it happen and you have a conscience and you make movies, you’d better make a movie about it.
While it’s not a movie that was ever intended to be selfish, I guess it is. The genesis of the movie was to help others and in helping others, but I got the biggest reward of anyone — I got sober. The funny thing is, when we started the project, I didn’t think I had any problem. I stopped taking pills because after a while my hip got better, but that’s because I got cut off by the doctors. Nothing ever really healed to the point where I wasn’t in pain and I was taking pills like an animal. Looking back on it, [I realized] what doctor in their right mind is going to give me pills? I’m taking them like a maniac. So this was a movie that ended up being a blessing.
Even though you had become an expert on the drug industry through your last film, was there anything that surprised you when digging into this one?
The fact that we represent five percent of the world’s population, but we consume 75% of the world’s prescription drugs. We’re one of the only countries in the world that will allow advertising on television. Along with that television advertising comes people walking into their doctor, asking them for a drug. Of those people, 75% of them will get the drug that they ask for, or an alternative to it. Somebody might go in and say, “Hey, I saw this commercial for restless leg syndrome…” The [doctor’s] like, “Oh yeah, that’s cool, but here, try this drug.” Because he’s actually getting the kickback from the other company that makes the other drug.
People need to understand that pharmaceutical is big pharma — it’s not just a business. It’s the biggest business in America and in the world. They are out to turn a profit. Every time you take a pill, they’re not really trying to get you better, they’re trying to sell you on something that might get you closer to feeling better. But the problem with most medicines is that it’s hard to tell what works and what doesn’t. And the ones that work really good, work almost too good sometimes.
The problem we’re seeing has become the fault of both sides. These kids growing up start to do these drug and they get hooked on them and they’ll do anything to get them, manipulating a doctor any way they can. And you’ve got the doctor over here who’s trying to make money. He’s going to err on the side of not really writing too many scripts, but those scripts he writes, who’s saying they don’t go to this kid who supposedly needs it and then that kid is turning around and selling it for $1200? That happens all the time too. We have a massive, large-scale problem with prescription drugs that I think we need to be talking about.
You’re able to blend that bigger picture and the personal seamlessly – are they intertwined for you?
I remember the first day I went into the rehab facility I was at, [the Food and Drug Administration] just passed a drug that was 10 times more powerful than Oxycontin, and it’s like, “Why?” [In front of me] this rehab right here is full. People can’t even get in the doors and now you’re going to make a drug that’s more powerful. People don’t see people in pain every day that are doing that stuff, and I see it a lot. And in talking to the people that run these facilities, almost 75-80% of the people that are in drug rehabilitation centers are there for prescription drugs and alcohol, which are both legal. They’re not there for coke or heroin, and I know that’s a huge epidemic, but the prescription drugs are even bigger.
It is so entrenched in our politics, too. The reason why people aren’t talking about it killing their kids is because they’re funding the campaigns. Donald Trump should talk about it because he’s not being funded by them. Somebody should get up and say, “Hey! Let’s get rid of this shit.” I’m telling you right now, you could outlaw Oxycontin and people will still be fine. There’ll be a lot of people that are still in pain, but if they would take it off the market, less people would die. I’m just trying to think that through — why it’s legal. There’s just so much money in it. They just keep making it more and more powerful.
Your time in rehab becomes a plot point for the film and I read you actually spent a year away from the film before coming back to it. Did you actually come back to it with fresh eyes?
It wasn’t really fresh eyes because it never really stopped. I have this uncanny ability to find awesome people to work with and luckily, that’s what saved “Prescription Thugs.” My friend Greg Young, is the co-producer and editor, and he did so much work to help me make that movie. We raised all this money, we were making this movie, and I was still drinking. I didn’t know anything about sobriety. I was doing a movie about [prescription drugs] and I just thought, “Don’t take these pills” — that’s what sobriety was. But I never really thought about it. What happened to me was when I got off the pills, my drinking went out of control. The drugs curbed the pain, so I could go about doing things in my life, but then when I didn’t have that, I was in too much pain to really do a whole lot, so I’d just sit around and drink and that’s the most detrimental thing you can do to your body. It sucks all the water out of your joints, it just destroys your liver. It just kills you.
The fact of the matter is it’s like we have to be our own doctors nowadays. We have to know not only what’s good for us with diet and nutrition and exercise, but we have to know what’s good for us medically now, too. We’ve got to be our own trainer and our own doctor unless we’re going to spend millions of dollars on existing. It used to be I would go to the doctor because I didn’t know what’s wrong with me. Now I go to the doctor because I’m going to tell him what’s wrong with me. It’s such a scam, the whole thing. That’s what makes me mad, the way that drugs are prescribed in the United States now, I could do it. I know what a lot of drugs do to help fix people. And that’s the problem. It’s not that hard to write a drug for somebody, give it to them and see what happens. That’s the system right now. All of a sudden you’re spending $300 a month on your drugs. And it’s everywhere.
With “Prescription Thugs,” the idea is to get people educated enough to make their own informed decisions. When the doctor gives you some Vicodin and says, “Here, just take this for your ankle, and you’ll get back to playing basketball,” all of a sudden, six months from now you’re still taking it. You can’t go to work anymore, you can’t get your stuff done and it’s all because of these pills. It’s crazy to think that medicine has become so detrimental in this country. Medicine has become our biggest enemy.