Painkiller is the latest Netflix drama, but to millions of people, it is a tragic true story that hits close to home. Based on Barry Meier’s 2003 book Painkiller and Patrick Radden Keefe’s 2017 New Yorker article “Empire of Pain,” which also became a 2021 book, Painkiller presents multiple perspectives on the opioid epidemic.
Richard Sackler (Matthew Broderick) leverages his family’s stake in Purdue Pharmaceuticals to invent the next miracle drug after oxycodone. Glen Kruger (Taylor Kitsch) is an auto mechanic who becomes addicted to Purdue’s OxyContin painkiller after his doctor prescribes it for an on-the-job injury. Meanwhile, Purdue salesperson Britt Hufford (Dina Shihabi) trains Shannon Schaeffer (West Duchovny) to push OxyContin to doctors’ practices, and investigator Edie Flowers (Uzo Aduba) grows suspicious about the rise in OxyContin prescriptions and investigates Purdue.
Each episode opens with a real parent whose child died of an OxyContin overdose. Though the show condenses some events and composites some characters, Painkiller presents a fictionalized history of the very real opioid epidemic created by the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma. The series is a tribute to the families who have suffered losses and those who still grieve.
Director and executive producer Pete Berg (Friday Night Lights), who directed all six episodes, talked to Rotten Tomatoes about the show, series star Kitsch, and the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes in Hollywood.
Fred Topel for Rotten Tomatoes: This is your reunion with Taylor Kitsch we’ve been waiting for, and he’s also in your upcoming show American Primeval. Have you watched him grow up from his role in Friday Night Lights to Painkiller?
Pete Berg: I have. I really admire Taylor, his work ethic and his determination to really move out of Friday Night Lights and avoid a career that could’ve just been that great looking Tim Riggins from Friday Night Lights and turn himself into a real actor with a craft and discipline. I just have a tremendous amount of respect for him and how hard he’s worked. It’s fun for me to see that and to be able to participate in it.
In the case of Painkiller, Taylor Kitsch has some very close personal connection to people who’ve been addicted to OxyContin and have really struggled. It was something I thought he would connect to quite intensely. I love working with him, and I’ll continue to work with him, but as soon as we had an idea of where these shows were going, he was my first call.
Is Glen based on a real case?
Berg: There’ve been tens of thousands of Glens; just hardworking family people who got hurt, often by accident, who were in pain and were prescribed OxyContin, particularly back in the days when nobody knew what OxyContin was. He just got caught in the web of addiction. There are tens of thousands of Glens so when people say, “Is Glen a composite character?” I say, “Kind of yes and no.” I’ve known Glens. I’m sure you’ve known Glens or if you don’t know them personally, you know someone that does.
Berg: I did, with the exception being that with Deepwater Horizon or Lone Survivor or Patriots Day, I was able to research by talking to the principle people that were involved. The Navy SEALs, law enforcement, and some of the families in Boston, Mike Williams and others that were on the oil rig that exploded in New Orleans.
In this case, the Sacklers won’t talk. They’re very good at not talking. It’s very hard to get information on them, so I leaned on folks like Barry Meier who wrote the book Painkiller and who is extremely knowledgeable and has spent decades unpacking the Sacklers and knows more about them, I think, than anyone else. Certainly as much. I wasn’t able to get the face time with the Sacklers, but I was able to get face time with some very talented writers.
Did you take a more surreal approach to the Sacklers? They’re downright giddy when Richard makes his plan to the investors, and he keeps talking to his late uncle, Arthur Sr. (Clark Gregg).
Berg: I just felt that the more I looked into the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma and how this group of individuals behaved, it almost felt like a very dark and twisted comedy of the absurd that was addicting and killing thousands and thousands of people. And they appeared to just simply not care. They really liked the money. They really liked seeing their name on museums and law schools and medical schools. And they appear to have very little concern for anyone or anything that was getting churned up in their wake. So to me there was something darkly absurd about the way this company operated.
Were the Pharma girls they hired to romance doctors also comedy of the absurd?
Berg: You tell me. Did it feel absurd to you?
In a different way than the Sacklers; it was more like Goodfellas/The Wolf of Wall Street — this roller coaster success story, but they were committing crimes.
Berg: It was. These were young men and women just out of college who were making a lot of money, who were going to these kind of bizarre retreats in Miami, partying really hard and getting bonuses based on how many milligrams of OxyContin they got their doctors to prescribe. Some spicy business.
How did you choose the six mothers to open the six episodes of Painkiller with their real story?
Berg: It was really hard. It was an idea that was born from us being told that we had to put a disclaimer in front of each episode because not everything was 100 percent accurate. There were composite characters. And I kind of felt like, Yeah, OK, but people died. That kind of gave birth to the idea maybe we would reach out and see if there were parents who wanted to actually read the disclaimer and then say well, but what isn’t fiction is the fact that my son or daughter died of an OxyContin overdose. So we thought about that and got the approval from our legal to do that.
And then we just sent out a request in just the Los Angeles area to see if we might get a few parents who were willing to talk. I think within a day and a half, we had over 80 families just in L.A. who wanted to come and talk. We realized we didn’t have the capacity for this many families. It was terrifying and heartbreaking to realize that there were so many people just right there in the L.A. community that we got to very quickly. I think we just took the first 10 families that we made contact with, went to them and from that we picked. We only had six episodes. It wasn’t as though any family was any more or less compelling or their stories were any more or less heartbreaking. We just didn’t have space.
As you said, there are tens of thousands of stories to tell about this issue. Were you aware that Dopesick was also in development while you developed Painkiller?
Berg: Yes, for sure. Dopesick was an extraordinary show. I watched all of them. I think Michael Keaton deserved all the awards he got. I also think that an issue as big as OxyContin and the opioid epidemic deserves as many tellings. There have been movies, documentaries, books, and a couple of series made about this very epic tragedy. I’m just proud to be a part of that group.
You’ve been an actor, a writer, a director and a producer. So seeing all sides of this issue, what are your thoughts on the strikes?
Berg: My thoughts are I want it resolved. I am in all three guilds, so I stand in complete solidarity with my brothers and sisters in DGA, SAG, and WGA. I do think we’re living in a new time, and the playbook has to be rewritten, and people have to get paid. So I hope that happens, and I hope it happens very quickly.
How far along was American Primeval and how much remains to finish after the strikes resolve?
Berg: We were close to being done, and we were, again, shut down, and it was a just shutdown. We have some work to do.