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Setting a Thematic Anchor with ‘Dopesick’ Creator Danny Strong

'Dopesick' creator, writer and showrunner Danny Strong speaks with Script about his original story conception to the adaptation of the source material, utilizing the theme of pain as an anchor for character storylines, his writing routine to working with legend Barry Levinson. Plus, Danny shares invaluable advice for adapting true stories.

Dopesick examines how one company triggered the worst drug epidemic in American history. The series takes viewers to the epicenter of America’s struggle with opioid addiction, from the boardrooms of Big Pharma, to a distressed Virginia mining community, to the hallways of the DEA. Defying all the odds, heroes will emerge in an intense and thrilling ride to take down the craven corporate forces behind this national crisis and their allies. The limited series is inspired by the New York Times bestselling book by Beth Macy.

A confluence of storylines treading a delicate balancing act of fiction and non-fiction with an epidemic at the center is Dopesick in a nutshell. The show's creator, writer, and showrunner Danny Strong, and the collective creative team leave no stone unturned in this mini-series. 

I had the eminent pleasure of speaking with the tour-de-force that is Danny Strong about his original story conception to the adaptation of the source material, utilizing the theme of pain as an anchor for character storylines, his writing routine to working with legend Barry Levinson. Plus, Danny shares invaluable advice for adapting true stories.

[L-R] Will Poulter as Billy and Michael Keaton as Dr. Samuel Finnix in Dopesick. Photo by Antony Platt/Hulu.

[L-R] Will Poulter as Billy and Michael Keaton as Dr. Samuel Finnix in Dopesick. Photo by Antony Platt/Hulu.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: When the book came across your desk, what was your initial reaction to it in terms of how you would adapt this epidemic into this contained mini-series?

Danny Strong: Well, it actually didn't start with the book, a producer had approached me to write and direct a movie about the opioid crisis. And so, I started researching it. This was I think about a year, a year and a half before the book came out. And there had already been quite a bit written about it and I was really stunned and shocked by everything that I had read - the lies, the corruption, the FDA collusion - it just was really shocking to me. And so, I put together a pitch, and then I sold the pitch to 20thand then Fox 21, not knowing I had done that, went and bought the book Dopesick in a bidding war - and this was months before the book came out. And so now these two brother-sister studios had two opioid projects, but mine was ready to go. And it can take a year to find a writer when you just have a book or sometimes longer, or sometimes a little faster. So, I read the book and I really loved it. I thought it was a wonderful book and really powerful. I met with Beth Macy who wanted to be in the writer’s room and I took her through the show I put together and she lo and behold thought it sounded terrific and wanted to come on board and join it. So, we joined forces and that's how Dopesick came to be.

Sadie: What a great roundabout way of that coming together and having Beth part of that process too. What were you looking for in terms of other writers to bring to this story?

Danny Strong

Danny Strong

Danny: I was looking for people that had experience in writing in these rural regions. I was looking for writers that had a voice for the place if they had addiction issues or a loved one that had addiction issues, and that had a background in the subject matter themselves. Those were kind of the main things I was I was looking for, but the room was very small. I wanted to keep it really small.

Sadie: I feel your room was doing writing Olympics, because you are exploring so much in this mini-series through nonlinear storytelling, character development, and story plots. What was the room’s North Star in terms of theme?

Danny: The theme of pain. That was the weight of it that sort of held everything together at the end of the day, this was an exploration of pain. Either you numb it, or you deal with it. And by taking opioids, you numb it. And what are the consequences of that? So, with all the different characters, I wanted to explore what is their pain; even the characters that didn't have addiction issues. That was a real thematic anchor to the piece. And then, from a plot perspective, it was really the investigations, because I felt like that's a way the Justice Department investigation and the DEA investigation were very much the spine narratively, because I thought that would be a way to make the show somewhat exciting. And given some entertainment value, which is hard to do with this type of really dark subject matter.

Sadie: You take great care and handling in how you construct that push and pull between the quote-unquote good and evil of these characters. Such as with Richard Sackler, we see that he has his own struggles finding his space and acceptance within the bubble of his family – obviously, we’re not siding with him, but we do get a glimpse into why he’s making these undoubtedly dangerous decisions.

Danny: Yeah, well it was with Richard Sackler once again, what's his pain? He's a character in this show. He's very much a villain and a villain to history. But I really wanted to explore why was he doing this? What made him tick? Is it just greed? I didn't think it was just greed. I think they're certainly greedy as all hell. But what else is there? There's got to be more because he was already very wealthy before even OxyContin existed. So, that was a journey of its own, and what anchored that was well what's his pain? What is and how is he trying to cure his pain? And it seemed to me that he was trying to cure it by making this drug more successful than anything anyone had ever achieved in his family.

Michael Stuhlbarg as Richard Sackler in Dopesick. Photo by Gene Page/Hulu.

Michael Stuhlbarg as Richard Sackler in Dopesick. Photo by Gene Page/Hulu.

Sadie: For the Cinephiles and the cinephile in me, what was the creative collaboration process like with the legend that is Barry Levinson for you? Especially with you taking the helm on a few of these episodes? Did he help in setting up the visual tone and rhythm of the show?

Danny: Yeah, Barry is amazing. And he's one of my heroes. I'm such a fan of so many of his movies. He came on board after I'd written the script, but I very much got notes from him. And we talked about every detail of the script and the tone and the elements of production. And it was amazing to get to collaborate with a true master like him.

[Blending Tone and Texture from Page to Screen: An Interview with ‘The Great’ Creator Tony McNamara]

Sadie: I hope you two get to creatively align again sometime in the near future. Do you have a writing routine set in place for yourself?

Danny: My routine is such where I wake up, I usually meditate for 5- 10 minutes, then get breakfast, sit down, and then I write. And I usually write from 10-3 or 11-4; I spend usually about an hour returning emails before I actually begin writing - it just kind of warms me up and gets me going. And I do it almost every day. I've been trying to take weekends off for the last year or so because I've been pretty obsessive for all these years. But, always, five, six days a week, I do that.

Sadie: As a storyteller, are there certain stories or themes that you gravitate towards?

Danny: I do think about what excites me. And certainly, working on stories that expose injustice, stories that have a historic element, that that have greater themes that are important to explore. I find those kinds of projects really rewarding to work on because I feel like I'm doing something positive. But also, I find those kinds of stories for me personally, more dramatic and more exciting. Obviously, not any true story is a great story, but when you find that sweet spot of a really exciting true story, something that deals with really important themes, something that explores a subject matter that needs to be explored or redefined or discussed, then we start to get into the sweet spot of what really excites me as a writer and as an audience member. It's the kind of stuff I like to watch. So, I think quite often I'm writing the things that I'd personally like to watch. But it varies too - I do like to mix it up. When I do a couple of these projects, I like to then do something that's different that's not of the space. And so that's why the resume is kind of eclectic because of that.


Sadie: Right, you don't want it to be all dark and harrowing and gloomy.

Danny: Yeah, I like to mix up different tones. And Dopesick was a particularly dark tone, but I did try to infuse some humor into it. And, like I said, tried to give it a propulsive energy, so that at times felt like a detective mystery thriller. And I think that helped make it watchable and why people were taken by the show. I think if it was just an addiction drama, I think it would have been hard to pull off for eight episodes - that might have been too unrelenting.

Sadie: Yeah, Requiem for a Dream comes to mind. You can only watch that movie maybe once every few years, because otherwise, it's just it's too heavy.

Danny: And yeah, it's a masterpiece. But I think an hour forty-five or however long it is, I think we're good. I think an eight-hour version, that might be tough. [laughs]

Sadie: [laughs] Was there a specific character or even a storyline that was most exciting for you to emotionally explore as a writer?

Danny: Well, I really loved Betsy Mallum in her storyline, because I view her as sort of the ultimate victim of the opioid crisis - the hard-working coal miner who just got injured, and became unwittingly addicted to the drug, and it upended her life. And that happened to millions of people and so for her to take us on that journey, that's why I made her a composite character so she could represent the journey of what so many different people go through. I was very moved by Betsy and her journey as I'm moved by these true stories that I read about. And then we had Kaitlyn Dever playing her and she's just one of the most incredible actresses I've ever worked with. She's just so lovely and sweet. So when we shot her final scene, which was also the final scene we shot of hers was her final scene in the show, and so if you haven't seen the show, I'm not going to spoil it. But when we were shooting that scene, I was so grateful I was wearing a mask and a shield, because I was just trying not to cry staging the scene because I didn't know who I loved more, Betsy Mallum or Kaitlyn Dever; and then I looked around at the crew and they were all trying not to cry, because they loved Kaitlyn and Betsy just as much as I did. It was really powerful working on that storyline.

Kaitlyn Dever as Betsy Mallum in Dopesick. Photo by Gene Page/Hulu.

Kaitlyn Dever as Betsy Mallum in Dopesick. Photo by Gene Page/Hulu.

Sadie: Once that casting was in place, did you reapproach and re-examine character voices and development with Michael Keaton, Michael Suhlbarg or even Kailtyn Dever?

Danny: Just a little bit later, just really for Michael, actually. Because Michael and I had a lot of conversations about the character and where he was from and Michael, he has great story instincts. He's as much a storyteller as an actor. And even when he's acting, you can tell he's thinking about the story. He's not thinking about himself. So, we tweaked his backstory a little bit and made some real small changes that we thought worked better for Michael that Michael liked. And I thought they were smart changes.

[The Importance of Tonal Consistency and Character Arcs: An Interview with ‘The Morning Show’ Showrunner and Executive Producer Kerry Ehrin]

Sadie: Any advice for writers adapting a true-life story or adapting a book dealing with real events, such as Dopesick?

Danny: Well, I think with a true-life story, one of the most important things is that it feels true and real, and grounded. And so, whatever you can do to make it feel real, is important. And I think with adaptations in general, the goal isn't the adaptation. The goal isn't how much you use from the source material, or how you handled the source material. The goal is to write a great script, write a great movie, or a great TV show - that's the goal. And the source material is there to help you write as good a movie or as good a TV show as you can. It's not there for you to have a relationship with it or trying to execute it. And sometimes the source material is just a few scenes or a few chapters or a paragraph. Sometimes the source material is the whole thing. And in fact, it's a better movie, the closer you are sticking to the source material, because the source material is just terrific. 

Each project has its own sort of path. And there's a set rule with an adaptation. People often asked me, ‘What did you keep?’ or ‘How do you stay true to the book?’ My goal isn't to stay true to the book, my goal is to write a great movie, a great TV show, or a great play, because that's what the audience is there to see. The book will still exist, and they can go read the book, and the author wrote that book. That's not going to go away because someone made a television show or a movie of it. If the movie turns out horrible and the author hates it, they still have their book. And people can just appreciate and enjoy that. I think that's the most important thing; it's not to think of an adaptation as a commitment to the source material, but to think of the source material as a tool to help you write as good a piece as you can.

Dopesick is available to stream only on Hulu.

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