In solving his own son's murder, "The Pharmacist" also took on the opioid epidemic

The co-directors of Netflix's docuseries appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss addiction to drugs, power & profit

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published February 8, 2020 11:59AM (EST)

Dan Schneider in "The Pharmacist" (Netflix)
Dan Schneider in "The Pharmacist" (Netflix)

An earlier version of this article included statements by Mr. Furst that may have implied or insinuated that he had reached out to Dr. Sackler before the release of "The Pharmacist" for comment and that Dr. Sackler had sent profits from Oxycontin to an offshore bank account. Because members of the Sackler family have disputed the veracity of these statements by Mr. Furst, we have updated the article to remove them.

Julia Willoughby Nason and Jenner Furst, co-directors of the acclaimed docuseries "Time: The Kalief Browder Story," and "Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story," are back with a new Netflix series, "The Pharmacist," a four-part series that tells the true tale of how one man transformed his grief into justice.

Danny Schneider was a classic American kid­­ from Louisiana–– he loved art, his family and friends, and had dreams of making them all proud. Like so many other good kids, Danny fell victim to addiction and got caught up in the drug trade. Back in 1999, Danny ventured away from home on a quest to retrieve crack cocaine and was murdered in a drug deal gone wrong. Danny's family was so crushed after receiving the news of his death, that they contemplated a group suicide. Luckily, they pulled through and shifted the focus to finding Danny's killer.

Danny's father, Dan, a pharmacist by trade, became frustrated with the way that the police were handling the case. He took matters into his own hands –– eventually solving the murder and bringing Danny's killer to justice. Dan's efforts not only shed light on how police officers don't put enough effort into investigating drug-related murders, but gave him the confidence to attack a much bigger evil: the ever-growing opioid epidemic.

Armed with nothing but a tape recorder, video camera, and an undying persistence, "The Pharmacist," shows how Dan waged a war with Big Pharma in an effort to save his community from addiction. Willoughby Nason and Furst stopped by "Salon Talks" to discuss filming the series, addiction, Schneider's inspirational journey and what we all can learn from his commitment. Watch my "Salon Talks" episode on "The Pharmacist" here, or read a Q&A transcript of our conversation below.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length

I'm a huge fan of the your Kalief Browder series and Trayvon Martin series. The topics you have covered in the past are heavy topics. Where does "The Pharmacist" tie in?

Jenner Furst: Those previous projects you mentioned involved deep relationships with families and with collaborators that brought a lot of this work to the world stage. This was no different. Many of these stories are timeless. In this case, you have addiction, which is sort of an ancient story. If you look at the wreckage for each one of our individual characters [in "The Pharmacist"] as it relates to addiction and the powerlessness that they all faced, you could find a storyline in every one of our characters.

Empathy for those who are addicted is huge, but there's a broader addiction to power and to money and to profit. That's what you see with Purdue Pharma. You see them overlooking the entire idea of the public good, you see them disobeying the Hippocratic oath to do no harm in medicine, and you see them preying upon human frailty to make billions of dollars of profit. Not only were they doing it, but the FDA had a hand in it, and so many other local officials had a hand in it.

As filmmakers and storytellers, we don't believe in individual evildoers. We believe in systematic power and corruption that leads to this level of carnage. That's a through line. If you look at Trayvon Martin with Stand Your Ground, that was our through line. If you look at Kalief Browder with the mass incarceration, that was our through line. With "Fyre Fraud" for Hulu, the idea of social media and the idea of the corruption of the brain through this addiction to image, that's our through line. You see that in a lot of our work.

"The Pharmacist" for Netflix is some of your best work. How did the project come about?

Furst: One of our long-term collaborators, Jed Lipinski, was writing for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and had been working for years on the story. In late 2017 he published the story in the Times-Picayune, and we were able to get a front row seat prior to the publication to really build the story out and collaborate as a company and as a team.

Tell us about the story that he published.

Furst: It's actually very similar to the arc of the series. What we strive to do in the series was to create a bigger vehicle for the story. Jed's initial story was called "Justice for Danny." It was about how Dan had crusaded to find the killer of his son and had stumbled on the birth of the opioid epidemic in his small country pharmacy after coming back to work, and the hunt for Dr. Cleggett and the revelation that this was so much bigger. We worked with Jed to kind of formulate a story that could really hammer at what happened with Purdue Pharma and the larger national implication.

During the process of filming, did anything shock you as filmmakers?

Julia Willoughby Nason: What shocks me is that Dan had been focusing on this in the late '90s, and if anything, it's worse today than it was back then, so a 20-year period of imploding sense of pain management that turned into an epidemic of addiction and has morphed into really hardcore fentanyl use and serious supply and demand. It's a shock just where we're at today with it.

"The Pharmacist" revolves around the world of Dan Schneider. He's this colorful guy who was ahead of the opioid epidemic. Tell us about Dan.

Willoughby Nason: Dan is the all-American, likable guy. He's like a Clark Griswold. He's so disarming. He's goofy, he's funny, he's adventurous. He has so much stamina and is a go, go, go, go guy, but is also all about family. It's really surprising that someone like him and his family would get involved so deeply into solving his son's murder. As a nuclear, middle-class white family in a New Orleans suburb, you wouldn't think that he would have experience any oppression himself. When he felt the corruption in the New Orleans Police Department, he was astonished and felt for the first time like an outsider. 

His grief manifested his impetus and his drive to push further into [the case] and get deep into the roots of, what's really going on here in this system? If my son's murder can't be solved by the cops that are supposed to be working for my tax dollars, what else is happening? That really was a great balance in this goofy, funny, lovable guy to, wait a second, he's unstoppable with finding out the truth.

He's also fascinating in a different way because he doesn't document information like a regular person. Regular people don't have thousands of tapes laying around at homes. They don't even want to return an email, but this guy has the energy to not only return those emails but to record them, print them out, file them away, tape every phone call, videotape everything. He was almost building out this story before it developed into what it actually is.

Willoughby Nason: Yeah, I think the compulsion to record himself and to have all that accumulation of videotapes that you're talking about that no one wants is because he was basically cut at the knees of grief and really didn't have legs to stand on and his whole reality fell through. By recording himself, by videotaping things, it really gave him a sense that he was still in reality. When someone goes through such deep grief, everything in their life disappears it seems, emotionally. That physical catharsis, there's so many ways to manage that. I think that one of the ways he did that was to record himself so he could really hear himself in the presence because how could he understand what had happened? How could anyone understand, when they lose somebody, what has happened?

Addiction and grief, they go hand in hand.

Furst: They do.

In the series, you do a great job at showing the many different types of addiction that can exist in one ecosystem. Do you think that Dan handled grief in a way that can be a model for others, or is it even possible?

Furst: I think that's a great question. The one thing that I would say is universal about walking through grief or walking through addiction is the idea of action and awareness and kind of calling out your situation for what it is, reaching out to people, not isolating, not just putting the shutters up in your home and turning the lights off and wanting to die, because for them, for [Dan Schneider and his] family, it got to that point a couple days after the murder where they wanted to commit suicide as a family. That's what grief can really do to people. I think what Dan's story does is inspire folks to look at these topics and say to themselves, what could I be doing not only to pull myself out of this, but by pulling myself out of this, let others bear witness to that triumph as it can help society, and as we can bring awareness to things. Like what Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton did with their child's murder. Today is Trayvon Martin's birthday, 25 on 2/5. The idea is, how do you turn grief into motion, into something else? 

When it comes to addiction, I think that it's a very powerful disease. I don't think it's rarely understood as a disease, yet if you look at our society, everybody in one way, shape or form is suffering from addiction. We just don't talk about it. It could be addiction to social media, it could be addiction to money, to food. There's so many different things that people fall victim to in addiction. I think what this does is show the powerlessness that we all are functioning with as a society.

We're just in a place where that type of mentality is just celebrated.

Furst:  That's right.

As Dan Schneider solved his son's murder and as he was healing as a person, he stumbled across an even bigger problem — the opioid epidemic in its beginning phase. Talk about the history of pain management and how the world became intertwined with Dan's world, who was also a pharmacist himself.

Willoughby Nason: In the late '90s, there was this push for commercial medicine, the pharmaceutical industry and its products. A lot of it is about the greater good, but in many ways, product development. Opioids are great pain relievers, but they had a stigma of being related to heroin and morphine and very addictive. Purdue Pharma wanted to flip that script. They spent millions of dollars developing, marketing, controlling medical journals, getting people to review and look at this medicine as non-addictive. Doctors like Dr. Cleggett, who were the top of their class, who had worked since they were about 8 years old to become a doctor, looked at this burgeoning field of medicine and said, "This is a great way to provide for my family."

When people watch this film, I think they'll be able to have empathy for people like Dr. Cleggett, a person who was in control of one of these whacked-out clinics that will give anybody a prescription as long as you can get for 250 to $350.

Furst: It's addiction. It's the same story over and over again, whether it's the addiction to the money she was getting, or the addiction to high-powered opiates that she was suffering from. I think one of the most tragic turning points in the narrative is when me and Julia were interviewing Dr. Cleggett.

You brought up something that I think is really powerful, which is the idea of empathy in storytelling. I think for Julia and I, we may have had ideas, but we always have sought to get a 360-degree view of every situation. We've sought to empathize every character.

That's why we believe in the storytelling. 

It's hard for me to imagine that so many people in that town, especially the ones responsible for regulation, allowed an epidemic to persist.

Willoughby Nason: This was a working class town with shrimpers and people who did manual labor. A lot of people were in pain from their work and from their jobs and they needed this prescription that was a wonder drug. That trickled down to their kids who then started taking it in when they were in middle school, from their parents' pill cupboard. It became this huge demand for it. That's how the community let it happen. The community was in pain.

It's a fine line too because people do need relief from pain. The time release of the drug was supposed to help manage the addiction quality of that, but it really was the power of the drug overrode the time release. That's how the community let it happen. In terms of the doctors letting it happen and doing it themselves, there's a lot of denial in that. When a doctor sees that so many people are in pain, they have sympathy and then they get ahead of themselves too. Imagine having 300 people a day like coming in your door knocking and you saying like, "Okay, either I can make a s**t ton of money off that or I can say no and turn them away." Only hospice patients and people with cancer really needed that drug.

A lot of the sales reps knew about the certain doctors that weren't dealing with the hospice patients and were dealing with people that were getting addicted to it and the demand of it, and they were going hard into those doctors, and they only needed a couple to really make that drug and the addiction of the whole community rise.

Watching the series got me thinking about the guy sitting out there on the couch who has all of these ideas about people who are suffering from addiction. He thinks, "Well, I don't suffer from addiction because I'm Mr. Squeaky Clean Guy." He buys into the stereotypes about people who are battling this disease. The series you guys have created expands the perspectives of that person. Do you feel that as well?

Willoughby Nason: I feel that as well, and I hope so. I think that Dan alluded to being that guy on the couch in the beginning of the story when he said, "I have to admit, before my son was killed I thought that those kids shouldn't be in that neighborhood and they deserved it." You know what I mean? He nods to the fact that he was closed down and in a bubble. Through the tragedy, unfortunately, that opened his eyes to really the nuance and the education behind a deeper sense of compassion towards addiction.

Furst: I think also in terms of the title of the film and the idea that this is a pharmacist. This is a guy whose job is to distribute drugs and that he's trained in school to look at these pills this way and this that way, and if someone comes in your pharmacy and they look like they're addicted, chase them out. There's this whole idea of that. Then he has his whole world turned up upside down. He realized, "I'm a pharmacist. I'm a druggist. My job is to hand out drugs. Oh my God, the drugs I'm handing out are equally as addictive as the drugs that killed my son. This is insane. I can't do this anymore."

Another takeaway from the series is how law enforcement can be slow and get in the way. You show how the police officers aren't the best at handling issues people are dealing with, let alone solving the problems.

Willoughby Nason: Yeah, it's a two-part thing. First is, locally, the police department that Dan was dealing with to solve his son's murder, was getting really annoyed with Dan's persistence and kind of brushing it under the rug because it was a drug deal and really didn't want to look further into who killed his son. Then with closing down the pill mills, we get into the FBI and DEA, you see how big that system is and how that process is slowed down because of the bureaucratic tape. 

That was a huge dichotomy where, yes, Dan could probably get to the root and the blood vessel of the criminal action much sooner as an individual, but having the DEA is an infrastructure that helps change an entire system. It's a huge paradox, but also works together. 

Furst: Even with the DEA, you can look at how hard they were working. There's a lot of different journalism around this. We want to give a nod to all the folks who've exposed things that weren't going well for the DEA and things that weren't going well in other law enforcement agencies, but it always points upward. What was the DOJ doing? What was the Department of Justice doing to then adjudicate the whole thing and get the thing in a courtroom? There was always some kind of bureaucratic delay. Folks like Iris Myers can be like, "We presented the case," or Billy Renton, the DEA agent, could be like, "We presented the case." It was really the DOJ that said, "You don't have enough yet." Then it's a little bit ironic that in 2007, Rudy Giuliani went into a backroom deal with the DOJ and got a lot of the charges kind of like nullified into a couple hundred million-dollar fines and business as usual. There's always something bigger to look at. 

As filmmakers, we've always aimed at pointing to the bigger folks and not the small fish who are working every day.

"The Pharmacist" is currently streaming on Netflix.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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