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Want people to tune in to an opioid film? Make it funny, says director David Yates

TORONTO — How do you get people to pay attention to the opioid epidemic? For English director David Yates and Canadian producer Lawrence Grey, the answer was simple: make it funny.
Actors (left to right) Chris Evans as Brenner, Andy Garcia as Neel and Emily Blunt as Liza are shown in a scene from "Pain Hustlers." THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Brian Douglas/Netflix**MANDATORY CREDIT**

TORONTO — How do you get people to pay attention to the opioid epidemic? For English director David Yates and Canadian producer Lawrence Grey, the answer was simple: make it funny.  

In an effort to draw "as broad an audience as possible," per Yates, they created "Pain Hustlers," a highly stylized Netflix film in the vein of "The Big Short" that takes aim at big pharma instead of big banks. 

"When you see opioid on the tin, you might go: 'Oh, it's a drama about the opioid crisis,'" Yates said last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie premiered.

"But if you cast two big movie stars, or three or four movie stars, and then you watch a trailer that looks kind of fun, then there's a good chance that you will tune in and give it some time." 

Those Hollywood celebrities — a bottle blond Emily Blunt and a goateed Chris Evans — portray pharmaceutical sales executives who conspire to bribe doctors into prescribing a new opioid for cancer pain. 

The remaining star wattage comes from Catherine O'Hara — doing her second-best Moira Rose — and Andy Garcia as an eccentric pharmaceutical company founder.

While pushing doctors to prescribe his drug in ever-greater quantities, Garcia's character becomes increasingly erratic, at one point screaming at his staff to remove their shoes in the office.

That character is loosely based on a real figure whose case formed the basis for the film: former Insys Therapeutics CEO John Kapoor, who in 2020 became one of the first pharma execs to be sent to prison for his role in the opioid epidemic. 

Crafting a comedy out of real-life tragedy was not a task Yates took lightly, he said, though he was determined to do it.

"We were very committed to a subversive rendition of this story," said Yates, who has spent much of the last 20 years directing the "Harry Potter" franchise of films and its spin-off series "Fantastic Beasts." 

"We didn't want it to be a drama, and the tone of it is a tricky balance. It's a tightrope walk."

To navigate that tightrope, the filmmakers leaned in to the extravagance of the pharma sales reps and the doctors who took their bribes. 

The film employs some of the same tactics as "The Big Short" and other based-on-a-true-story dark satires to do so: plenty of voiceovers and freeze-frames, a handful of slow-motion shots of lavish parties and a smattering of real TV news footage.

"None of the comedy in the film comes from artifice," Grey said. "All the people in this world don't (care). They're living in their own moral bubble...and so their behaviour is so completely outrageous. Just to tell it authentically is a great lens into telling the larger story."

Grey knows the entertainment landscape is crowded with offerings probing the opioid crisis: there's "Dopesick," the Disney+ series starring Michael Keaton, along with "Painkiller" — another Netflix product — and "Crisis," which failed to make a splash in 2021. 

There have also been a slew of documentaries: "The Pharmacist" was another Netflix production, and "All the Beauty and the Bloodshed" screened at TIFF in 2022.

"To me, this felt very different from the other stories," Grey said. "I'd actually been looking for something in the opioid space, and this felt like a very different angle into it than what we've seen with 'Dopesick' and 'Painkiller' and some of the other things."

Unlike those other stories, he said, this case played out in the last 15 years when the world was well aware of opioids' addictive properties.

"And yet, we're seeing doctors being bribed to prescribe this medication despite knowing the risks of it," Grey said. "So it really felt like a very interesting lens into the intersection of capitalism and our health-care institutions."

"Pain Hustlers" hits Netflix on Friday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2023.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press