Netflix's "Painkiller" puts a face on the "greedy evil" at the root of America's opioid crisis

Director Pete Berg on the addiction and devastation that drug companies cause: "The death and the pain are real"

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published August 19, 2023 2:00PM (EDT)

(L to R) John Rothman as Mortimer Sackler, Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler, Sam Anderson as Raymond Sackler in Netflix's "Painkiller" (Keri Anderson/Netflix)
(L to R) John Rothman as Mortimer Sackler, Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler, Sam Anderson as Raymond Sackler in Netflix's "Painkiller" (Keri Anderson/Netflix)

Too often, people assume that those who suffer from addiction are toothless monsters with no regard for life. That way of thinking is very dangerous and couldn't be further from the truth. Users love, care, dream and work hard. They have families and they are sick. Pete Berg ("Friday Night Lights"), the director and executive producer behind Netflix's scripted limited series "Painkiller," describes how easy it is for anyone to get hooked on dangerous opioids and why we should give them grace.

For Berg, he came to the project from a personal entry point. "I've seen firsthand the devastation that these drugs can cause on people's lives and their families' lives," he said on "Salon Talks." "It's something that I feel passionate about."

"Painkiller," starring Matthew Broderick, Taylor Kitsch and Uzo Aduba, follows characters that carefully explain every level of addiction — from the money-hungry pharmaceutical company with more interest in wealth than the well-being of the people who consume their drugs, to the sales reps who would do anything to get a fat commission check, to the doctors looking to cash in, and the people, many of whom were in real pain, but tricked into addiction.

Watch Pete Berg's "Salon Talks" episode here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to learn more about the real families affected by addiction that he engaged with and why as a filmmaker he chose not to use generic disclaimers about fictionalized events to tell this important story.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You're dealing with some heavy content around a conversation that I feel like still isn't really being had enough. When did you get involved with "Painkiller"?

The beginning was when I had friends who died of addiction, of opioids, of alcohol, of cocaine. I've seen firsthand the devastation that these drugs can cause on people's lives and their families' lives. It's something that I feel passionate about. Some of my musical heroes like Prince, Tom Petty, Chris Cornell have all died because of opioids. 

When the show was presented to me, I knew I would be fired up. I felt like I had a passion and a connection to the material. When you're getting ready to direct something, you're looking for that. That was there for me.

"Painkiller" is a dramatized look at the early days in the creation of OxyContin and the evil it has delivered to this world. As a director, what did you want to come across the most about that particular time period? 

"When the show was presented to me, I knew I would be fired up."

It's not hard to understand that when someone gets addicted to a drug, it's horrible. Yes to that. I understood that. I don't think people understand just how greedy people can be, and how manipulative companies can be. People that we're supposed to trust, like doctors and pharmacists, how much greedy evil can lurk in the souls of people like this. 

It was shocking to me the more I learned about how this company, Purdue Pharma, was able to basically take heroin, put it in a little pill and get approval from the FDA to send it out to hundreds of thousands of people. How much money they made and how little they cared about the wake of destruction that they were leaving. I understand money and capitalism. It's fine if you go out and make a lot of money. Power to you. What this company was doing, it was like Pablo Escobar, Tony Montana stuff on a whole turbo level. These guys were getting away with it, and that was shocking to me.

Certain parts of the show, it's like a horror film. If people are not changed, or they don't question our government and these big institutions that they market themselves as people who protect us, I don't really know what can. You have a beautiful cast of characters who all do amazing jobs. Could you just shine a light on a couple of the different cast members?

Matthew Broderick plays Richard Sackler who is the architect of OxyContin. He was the genius behind it. He figured out how to make it, how to market it, how to sell it, how to get it approved. He was very, very good at making money. In that regard, OK, I tip my hat to you. You got an A+. If the goal is to make as much money as you can, that man got an A+. If you put even a little bit of human value upon it, he was the devil. 

"It is beatable. We met folks who went through hell and climbed out the other side."

Matthew Broderick, who was Ferris Bueller . . . I thought Matthew did a great job of getting into a guy like this, and showing how a guy like this literally wakes up in his body every day and looks at himself in the mirror. To me, Broderick was a home run on that. Taylor Kitsch, who's someone I've worked with before and who has a real connection, he's had family members battle OxyContin addiction. Uzo [Aduba] who you know from "Orange Is the New Black," playing our leader, kind of guiding us through, figuring out like, "Wait a minute. How did we get here? How did this happen?" As you say, "How did the government approve this? How did the government approve heroin in a pill being given to 17-year-old kids for knee injuries?" Like, "What?" Uzo did a great job. 

West Duchovny and Dee Dee Shihabi play these, they call them OxyContin Kittens. They used to hire pretty girls just out of college to travel around the country talking doctors into [prescribing the drug]. They did a great job. I wish they could all be here talking for themselves, but that's not the time we're in right now, but I'm so proud of that whole cast.

One of the things that your series really drives home is how easy it is to get addicted. It has the ability to change the conversation around addiction because like you said, you can just go to the hospital for a knee injury as a 17-year-old kid and easily be swept up.

Absolutely. If you're looking for the crime, the legal and the moral crime, it's like if I take 10 people and give them all a little bit of heroin, one or two of them are going to come back for more and more and more. This company was doing that. They were taking heroin and throwing it out. Who wants some heroin? I got it. Here it is. Doctor approved. FDA approved. Try it. It feels good. It did feel good to a lot of people, but for a lot of people it stopped feeling good and it started destroying lives.

The show's a history lesson. One of the most brilliant things I think you guys did for just society in general is the parallel between the crack epidemic and what's happening with the opioid crisis. I'm from East Baltimore and I grew up in the '90s at the height of the crack era, so I know what it was like. Seeing the role that capitalism played and how the same thing that these Black and urban communities went through at this particular time is the same thing that's happening right now. I wanted to ask you, what do you think our country should have learned from the crack epidemic and apply it to this opioid crisis?

A good question. I think one we got to think about if we didn't learn from crack that it's a issue of human addiction first and foremost. Addiction is a mental health issue and a medical issue. We need to be on the lookout for it. Meaning we've got to keep an eye on each other, on our children, on our friends. Addiction is something that we can't look to the government to save us from addiction. Part of that responsibility should be on ourselves. 

"If the goal is to make as much money as you can, that man got an A+. If you put even a little bit of human value upon it, he was the devil."

I think how we choose to pay attention to the issues of addiction is important. I believe that we should have learned more of that from what crack did to so many lives and how many problems it caused and how many people are in prison because they got caught up in the crack business. This was every bit as insipid and destructive as crack, but they were able to pocket 15, 20 billion, buy off a s**tload of politicians, coerce the FDA. We need to wake up and think about who's making money off of the pills and the supplements and all of the other toxins that we pump into our bodies. That's on us because there's always going to be bad actors out there.

We got to pay attention to what we're putting into our bodies, what we're letting our kids put into their bodies. We got to be on the lookout for addiction. You got to check in with your people every day if you're a parent.

Every episode begins with people who were directly affected by the drug. I think that piece makes it relatable to a whole lot of people who don't really understand. Even if part of the series is fictionalized, I think those real encounters are going to help a whole lot of people understand the problem that we're facing. Could you talk about the decision to include those people?

I didn't like the idea of just the generic disclaimer, which you see like, "What you're about to see is based on fact. However, some of the characters have been changed." You've seen that a million times, right?


"It's true that some of the characters have been changed, but 98% of this is real."

It's true that some of the characters have been changed, but 98% of this is real. The death and the pain are real. I thought to have parents, if we could get them, who would read the disclaimer and say, "Some of it is fictitious." Then put that down and say, "I'll tell you what's real. Here's my son. He was 19. He got addicted to OxyContin. He's dead. Here's my daughter, she's 22." I thought that that could set the tone. 

What I wasn't prepared for was we put the word out in just the LA area that we were just looking to see if there were any parents who would be willing to do this, within 16 hours we had 80 families, 80, saying yes. This would just been really central and western LA, just a little pocket of LA. It was overwhelming to see it's right there. I'm sure you know somebody. If you don't know somebody, you know somebody who knows somebody who's been hit hard by this.

My dad is battling this right now, so it hit home for me in a different way.

I wish him the best of luck. It is beatable. It is beatable. We met folks who went through hell and climbed out the other side. Taylor Kitsch, who plays a character in this show is very open with the fact that one of his family members was brutally addicted to OxyContin and took it to the gates of hell and was able to pull herself out. She was with us on set every day. All the best of recovery for your father.

Thank you. When you tell hard truths like this, do you ever worry about the backlash from some of these big companies trying to come after you and sue and things like that?

I'm right here. That's just lawyers. I got a lawyer. I'll get a lawyer. You got a lawyer, I'll get a lawyer. You know what I mean?

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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Netflix Opioids Oxycontin Painkiller Pete Berg Purdue Pharma Salon Talks Tv