Prescription-thugs-posterIn this follow-up to the acclaimed Bigger Stronger Faster and after witnessing friends and relatives face tragedy as they become addicted to prescription drugs, director Chris Bell sets out to explore the role of pharmaceutical companies and doctors in this ever-growing market. Bell’s journey leads to experts on the nature of addiction in our culture as well as to pharmaceutical whistleblowers who reveal the realities of this the dollar-driven industry. Chris talks with WWE legends such as Matthew “Horshu” Wiese and Chris Leben, former California State Senator (now Congressman for California’s 33rd District) Ted Lieu, pharmaceutical whistleblower Gwen Olsen, Cliffside Malibu Rehabilitation Center founder Richard Taite, Professor of Psychiatry David Healy, author of Generation RX Greg Critser, and members of his own family. In a shocking twist, Bell ends up revealing his own addiction to prescription drugs, something he was still dealing with during the making of the documentary. I sat down with Chris Bell in Los Angeles to discuss this riveting film.

Danny Miller: This documentary hit close to home for me. I imagine many of the people you talk to have been touched by this crisis in some way?

chrisbellChris Bell: Oh yeah, it seems like everyone has some connection to it, whether it’s family or friends, or someone they know at school or at work — everybody has a guy! I learned so much making this film and I really hope the film helps others and begins conversations.

Did you see this film as a natural progression from Bigger Stronger Faster?

Absolutely. A lot of these issues came up when we were making that film — in fact we had a whole section where we were going to get into painkillers and other drugs. We touched on it a little bit but ended up holding back because we realized it was such a big issue it could be its own movie. There are so many different aspects of Big Pharma worth exploring.

It’s a difficult topic because at the same time there’s all this abuse happening, there are obviously many drugs created by the pharmaceutical industry that are important and life-saving. But it’s still shocking to see how quickly some doctors are to prescribe certain drugs.

Yeah, this movie isn’t about blame, it’s about what happened to my brother, it’s about what happened to me, it’s about how we should start to look at how some of these these drugs are given out like candy. Back in the day, I thought popping pills was cool but it’s the furthest thing from cool. Sure, there can be some fun times at first but once you get addicted there’s really no fun involved, it’s a total nightmare.

You explore the tragedy of your brother’s death in the film and that’s so moving but it obviously didn’t stop you from having your own issues with prescription drugs.

When I made Bigger Stronger Faster, it was at Sundance and it was very successful. But then, right after the film’s release I had to have hip surgery and started taking all of these painkillers. I had a ton of meetings with very high profile people during that year after my movie came out but today I can’t even tell you who I met with. I’d see people a week later who’d say, “Hey, Chris, it was great to meet up with you the other day,” and I’d be like, “What?” I was so addicted to drugs during that period that I don’t remember a whole year of my life and it was a really good year! I was trying to follow up my movie with all these other projects but I ruined it because I just wasn’t really there.

Wow. You probably could have gotten away with never revealing your own addiction in this film. What made you come clean?

I realized when we were doing those interviews with my parents about my brother that it was a kind of smokescreen for me to avoid thinking about what I was doing to myself. Looking back, I think making this movie was like a subconscious cry for help. Have you ever heard of someone making a documentary about a subject they were supposedly some kind of authority on when actually that person was a victim of the very thing they were talking about?

So how did you finally decide to be honest about your own addiction to prescription drugs?

With the help of my girlfriend, I entered a rehab program and then set up a meeting at my producer Peter Billingsley’s office. I told him exactly what was happening. That was a huge deal for me to step up and be a man and say, “Listen, the whole time I’ve been doing this I’ve been lying to you.” It was very hard but do you know what he said? “I’m just happy that you’re okay now.” I went to rehab and we kept going.

To be honest, I think that makes the film even more powerful because we see how having the intellectual understanding of this stuff does not mean that it still can’t control you.

That’s right. I was on Joe Rogan’s podcast talking about my problem and he said, “But you were one of the most educated people out there!” And I said, “Exactly. That’s how hard it is.” I knew it was wrong, I knew it was bad, I knew what it does to you and your loved ones, but I was still doing it.


Have you had any pushback on this film from pharmaceutical industry?

So far, no. We showed the film at Tribeca and there was one weird incident where someone in the theater was taking photos of the screen every time a graphic popped up. I thought that was strange.

What do you hope people take away from the film?

People are dying every day. I think we need to start with kids and teach them from an early age about good health. Doctors should be focusing on exercise and nutrition and not just what drugs they can prescribe. I loved the movie Inside/Out because it showed how it’s okay to be sad sometimes. We don’t need to medicate kids the minute they have any problems in their lives. The truth is, we now live in a world where being sober is a real achievement.

That was a very powerful scene in the congressman’s office when you showed him how easy it was to order prescription drugs online. That actually led to him sponsoring new legislation to help change that. You were still using at that time so there must have been a part of you that wanted to prevent such easy access.

Exactly. If you got rid of the option to get them so easily on Craigslist, maybe I would stop doing it! But, of course, we all know that addicts will always find another way.

Yeah, my six-year-old could probably go out and get some prescription drugs if he really wanted to.

Well, six-year-olds are good for getting the Adderall! (Laughs.)

This is your third documentary. Would you also like to make narrative films?

Yes, I’m dying to make my first narrative film! I have a script that I wrote called Runt. It’s about an MMA fighter whose brother died. It’s basically my story since I’m the runt of my family!

Prescription Thugs is now playing in select cities and is available on demand.