Brent Hodge didn’t need an elevator pitch with a TV executive in order to secure financing and distribution for his latest documentary, Pharma Bro. This is the type of film that sells itself.
“A young hedge-fund kid turns pharmacy CEO and buys a [multi-million dollar] Wu-Tang Clan album and goes to jail for threatening Hilary Clinton? That’s funny, but also so scary at the same time,” Hodge said.
Hodge, who was raised in Victoria but splits his time between New York and Vancouver, made the film over a five-year period, during which time Shkreli’s life unravelled on camera. The smarmy CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, which manufactured the anti-parasitic drug Daraprim, was eventually convicted of securities fraud in 2017 and sentenced to seven years in federal prison.
“There was so much more to explore,” Hodge said. “Yes, Shkreli is fascinating, and pure evil, but there’s more layers.”
What put the enfant terrible behind bars is only part of what Hodge wanted to explore over the course of Pharma Bro. Hodge was looking to uncover the human being behind the ego and avarice, to understand what makes someone go from a promising Wall Street intern at 17 to a cultural pariah for raising — by 5,500 per cent — the price of a drug used to treat people with HIV/AIDS.
“I don’t know if everybody understands what he was actually doing — they just know that he had the ability to do it, because there were loopholes in the system,” Hodge said of Shkreli’s unethical decision to increase to $750 US from $13.50 US the per-pill price of Daraprim.
“By explaining that, it does humanize him, because he wasn’t actually doing anything illegal. He was just a jerk about it. But no matter what happens, Daraprim is still $750 US a pill. So what have we learned?”
Even when the walls were closing in on him, Shkreli couldn’t quell his desire to be the bad guy. In 2017, while he was awaiting sentencing for a fraud conviction, Shkreli had his $5 million bail revoked for offering $5,000 in cash to anyone who could grab hair from Hilary Clinton’s head. The threats, which were made on Facebook, were deemed by a judge for soliciting assault in exchange for money.
He has been incarcerated ever since, despite several attempts at an early release. He will remain prison until September 2023.
As part of his sentence, Shkreli was ordered to pay $7.4 million US in fines, the repayment of which was not complete until this summer, when the U.S. government auctioned off one of his prized possessions: Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, a limited edition recording by rap group Wu-Tang Clan. Shkreli purchased the recording — numbered 1 of 1 — at auction in 2015 for roughly $2 million.
Ghostface Killah, a member of the legendary New York group, voiced his concern when Shkreli purchased the recording; a public spat ensued, with Shkreli threatening to erase the rapper’s contributions from Once Upon a Time in Shaolin and release the record for free. Killah called him a “s—head” and “fake supervillain” for willingly playing the heel.
A fiend for the spotlight, Shkreli made no bones about wanting to be famous for being bad, and that megalomania gifted Hodge with immediate access. Around the time Hodge was looking at Shkreli’s story as possible fodder for a documentary, the disgraced CEO was hosting livestreams from his apartment in Brooklyn.
That came as a surprise to the filmmaker behind I Am Chris Farley, A Brony Tale and Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary. “With one Google search — two clicks — I was in his livestream, watching him play guitar and do finance lessons and talk smack to people. All these articles were being written about him, but anyone could have contacted him. He was giving out his phone number and telling people where he lived. He was an open book. But nobody was going deep.”
Hodge said he recorded 500 hours of Shkreli’s online content, and was creating the documentary “by going to the place where he wanted to talk.”
Wu-Tang Clan were not as easily accessible, but through a stroke of luck, Hodge managed to secure an interview with Ghostface Killah. He ran into the group in an airport, and pitched the members to sit down for an on-camera interview. Hesitant at first, Killah eventually gave Hodge his number. His presence in the documentary is invaluable, Hodge said.
“[Killah] had some poignant things to say about pharmaceuticals and raising prices and hurting people who can’t be helped, so there’s more that he wanted to get out.”
Hodge and his Hodgee Films imprint produced Pharma Bro with Blumhouse Television, a subsidiary of Oscar-nominated production company Blumhouse Productions (Whiplash, BlacKkKlansman, Get Out). The film was released on streaming service Apple TV this week as Hodge’s highest-profile documentary to date.
“I find this story oddly funny. There’s something weird about the car crash element of it, where you can’t look away. You wouldn’t write this. That’s what got me so excited. Do I like Mark Shkreli? Absolutely not. He’s in jail because he’s an a—hole. And I think he’d admit that.”