Nicholas Jarecki: ‘Crisis’

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Director, Nicholas Jarecki. Photo by Myles Aronowitz.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes director Nicholas Jarecki, whose latest film “Crisis” tells a story of the opioid epidemic. Jarecki’s previous films include “Arbitrage” and “The Informers.” Jarecki tells The Treatment that he was inspired to make “Crisis” in part because of his personal experience losing people he knew to opioid addiction. He says many films of the 1970s have inspired his filmmaking choices because of their take on systemic corruption and dysfunction. And Jarecki says he enjoys putting flawed characters on the screen who might do the wrong things, but for the right reasons.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest, Nicholas Jarecki, was last here in 2012 with his film "Arbitrage." His new film as writer, director, and co-star is "Crisis." You've been interested and attracted as a filmmaker in dealing with contemporary subjects and in your work, I wonder where that comes from for you.

Nicholas Jarecki: I was thinking about this the other day. I had loved as a kid those films that we all love "Back to the Future," etc. But when I was about 14, or 15, my mom said, OK, I got some tapes, I want you to take a look at "The Godfather." And I said, No, I don't want to watch a black and white movie. And she said, Listen, no son of mine could be this stupid, so sit down and watch this movie. And I did, and I was just blown away because it was a whole different kind of filmmaking.

 At the same time, my dad gave me Sidney Lumet's great book "Making Movies," and so I started watching the Lumet films, and I was really drawn right away to "Dog Day Afternoon."  I watched "Serpico" and "Prince of the City." And I just fell in love. These films of the ‘70s: they captured, of course, extreme characters, wonderful actors, wonderful situations, but they really were a reflection of the time. I'm from New York, and so seeing New York in disarray in the ‘90s, and everything was go-go and big money and the beginning of the internet. I saw, wait a second, there's a whole interesting look at systemic corruption, institutional dysfunction, these great themes, and I think they really imprinted on me at that time.

KCRW: There's this almost journalistic sense about the kind of movies that you're attracted to. I think again a little bit about "The Informers," and that feels like almost something that's meant to correspond to dysfunction happening in society in real time.

Jarecki: Well, I became a great fan of Bret Easton Ellis, the author, and he really captured people at the top of society having all kinds of problems and ennui. Just as a fan, I wrote him a letter and said, What about making one of your books into a movie? That's how "The Informers" began. But I like these chroniclers of things that are going on in society. I think Kathryn Bigelow's another filmmaker that influenced me. Billy Friedkin. They tell great stories, but they take place in a time and context, and they're often about the abuses of unchecked power in the capitalist system.

Both my parents worked on Wall Street, and so I knew some of the powerful; I got to see them firsthand. And I realized, nobody's a villain. Whenever things go wrong in society, you can usually just trace it back to a profit motive. There's something wrong with the system that set it up. And that system is encouraging and rewarding questionable behavior.  And so I thought, well, if I'm going to be a filmmaker, you want to capture what's going on today. And so in the time I did "Arbitrage," that was the financial crisis, the housing crisis, how did we get into all that trouble? But I saw with "Crisis," it was the opioid epidemic, and that had a personal residence because I lost some friends to the epidemic.

KCRW: You tend to also take these things that are happening in your world as they're happening in the rest of the world because you think a window should be turned on [to them].

Jarecki: I knew the financial world, and like everybody else, I was reading all the great financial reporting. And with the opioid epidemic, I love research as a filmmaker. Hopefully it doesn't make the films too didactic. But I started reading these wonderful reports from The Los Angeles Times, and I hooked up with some of the people who wrote them about what had gone on inside the opioid companies. Did they know the product was dangerous? Did they try to look away from research that could show it could be harmful? At the same time, I hooked up with this wonderful undercover detective, Steve Opperman. He was retired, but he'd been head of the LA Sheriff's prescription narcotics task force, and had busted many of the real people that this film is based on. This film is really very inspired by true events, and he gave me access to the case files. 

Photo by Philippe Bossé and courtesy of Green Room Films.

KCRW: Your films also tend to be about people who are really confident about what they do, who start to understand that their confidence in their work doesn't mean that they're doing something good. 

Jarecki: I love the idea of will. Goethe spoke about it. I remember Warren Beatty, who had been an early supporter of mine, he told me about this quote, where, through will, people can make amazing things happen, things that seemed impossible all of a sudden come to be. And I would say, as a filmmaker, I always wanted to be a director, and it's impossible to become a director. So you kind of have to force people to let you make these movies, you have to come in and bombastically somehow romance them and convince them to bring all these elements together. And so I think I'm drawn to that in characters.  

David Mamet writes about this a lot: what is a movie? Guy or gal wants something, and they go after it. And so I like that idea. But I also like the inversion of where does that become an obsession? Where does that become an insane pursuit, and lead the characters into some sticky situations? What those films of the ‘70s and later the ‘90s did, is they explored the extreme character, and they took you down the darker roads of passion. And I think that's always fascinating to watch someone who's so obsessed with something that they then go through an unraveling. 

KCRW: For me, it is really fascinating, this crisis of character for both the characters played by Oldman and Hammer in the movie. Tell us who they are, and what their characters do.

Jarecki: Gary Oldman, wonderful actor, we met right around the time of "Darkest Hour." I was, of course, a fan like everybody else. He was the first person I went to; we were talking about something else. And then I had friends who got in trouble with opioids, and the topic took on more urgency for me personally. So I wrote the script quickly, and I brought it to him. And right away, he said, Okay, this is urgent, we got to do this. I'll come on as a producer; you can use my name and help put the film together. So he was very supportive right away.

He liked the idea of playing a conflicted character. He said the other day that he has a cupboard full of villains. But here, he was a man caught in terms of what is the right thing to do. He plays a biologist in the film, a biology teacher, based on real people that I did research on, who is a kind of rubber stamp guy. He does work on the side for pharmaceutical companies; they fund research in his university lab, something I found was quite true. 

KCRW: It's really scary, by the way, that ongoing conflict of interest that basically the entire movie is about.

Jarecki: Well, Greg Kinnear speaks about it in the film. And as I did the research, I learned how the pharmaceutical companies will often play a role in university funding. Products developed at universities in the research labs can bring in a great deal of money for the universities, because they get patent royalties, and a patent royalty on one drug could run into the billions. So there is a conflict when it comes to: are these drugs safe? And this is something I want to make really clear. I am not anti-pharmaceutical. I'm pro-pharmaceutical. I'm pro drug discovery. Even pain medication has helped and helps millions of Americans who are in great suffering. What I'm against is when the lines of safety get blurred out when the FDA maybe is influenced by these companies a little bit more than they should have. 

Photo by Philippe Bossé and courtesy of Green Room Films.

KCRW: There's this idea of these people who start off in rather heroic ways, and also their love of family, and that love of family tends to complicate matters, too. And there's almost a kind of a Russian literature feel with what you write, this idea that basically every great tragedy starts at home.

Jarecki: Yeah, that's something I saw very much when I investigated people involved in the drug war, especially law enforcement. You find that people who go into drug enforcement, huge number of them have family members who are involved in drugs, as users and there's almost an ambivalence about what are the ethics of drug use or an understanding often from the law enforcement people, the smart ones, that drug addiction is not something that is for the bad people, that it's really your brother or your sister, your mother, your friend. And I think it crosses now all walks of life. 

What I learned through the research on this film is that people get prescribed an opioid, they had a back injury or something, they'll take it, and somewhere between 20 and 50% of the people who take it, their brain chemistry just reacts and they become dependent very quickly on it even within the 30 day prescribing window, and they need it. They go back to their doctor, and the doctor gives it to them for a while, then he won't. So then they go to buy it illegally. It's very expensive. And then they start to burn through their 401k or their savings. By the time they know it, they're totally hooked. They don't have much more money. So what do they do? Well, heroin is really the exact same thing as oxycodone in a way. And it's $10 a hit. So they end up going to heroin. 

KCRW: There's also a kind of addiction these guys have to chaos. They kind of like when things are in freefall. 

Jarecki: Well, I love it, and I think the thriller is a great forum for that. You know, we are old enough to remember when we would go down in Manhattan to 42nd street or somewhere to one of the theaters, and you'd see people sitting there screaming at the screen, watching "Scarface," No, Tony! Don't do it! And that, for me, was always the great joy of cinema. When you have people in a dark room staring at light on the screen and being emotionally invested and worrying about what the character if he's making the wrong decision. 

I went to Detroit to research this film. There's a police station in this movie where Evangeline goes after tragedy befalls her son. I went to that police station in Eight Mile, and I sat with the police captain there, and I asked him What's going on? And he said, Well, just go drive down to this block. We got 40 deaths a week from this thing, that's just in this precinct. It's an intractable problem that we're fighting, and a very underfunded fight.

Evangeline's character is a woman who gets hooked into these drugs through an injury, and she beats it. She's in recovery, and then all of a sudden, her son gets involved with the very same thing that she was involved in. And then she tries to figure out who got him involved in that.  You talk about a character on the edge; Evangeline Lilly talked about her character reaching a kind of desperation point of no return, you know, there's something perhaps maybe Dirty Harry in it, a vigilante story, but she plays it with great nuance. And I think you get inside this sense that she's abandoning herself to chaos, and that she's embracing chaos. She, in a way, loses the will to live. And this mission of vengeance, not in a trite way, not in the silly movie trope way, but in a really kind of raw, animalistic way. 

KCRW: You've written, again, about having an addiction to danger, and you're talking about that being one of the really one of the things that keeps us sitting on the edges of our seats back when we used to go to movie theaters. And you've done that recurrently, this idea of marrying events that are inspired by real life, to these movie characters, who, in some way, are constantly testing themselves and almost in some way addicted to chaos, even though all of them seem to know better.

Jarecki: Well, I think there's something attractive about the abyss. We see that in our culture today: people who seem to have it all and for whatever reason, they chase a very dark thing, and they put themselves at risk. You know, hopefully, in this film, these characters are doing it in service of, quote, unquote, the right thing. You know, maybe they're doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.



Rebecca Mooney