When Barry Meier first published what would become his explosive book Pain Killer back in 2003, which investigated the billionaire scions behind Purdue Pharma and the drug OxyContin, it was optioned by production firm Anonymous Content. But, the author says, Hollywood wasn’t actually ready to tell the story. “They had a very hard time selling a script at that point, because Purdue had not been indicted yet by the Justice Department,” Meier tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So people in Hollywood were going, ‘Are these good guys; are they bad guys? How do we cast this?’ Well, by 2007, it was pretty clear that this company had pled guilty to a federal crime, and that OxyContin had planted the seed and was the gateway drug to this horrible opioid epidemic that was still unfolding.”
Nearly 20 years later, after Patrick Radden Keefe’s New Yorker article “The Family That Built the Empire of Pain” exposed the Sackler family’s involvement with the drug’s invention and deadly proliferation, Painkiller is hitting Netflix. The series, which is based on real events with a few fictionalized elements added for dramatic purposes, is an adaptation of both Meier’s and Radden Keefe’s work. It follows Edie Flowers (played by Uzo Aduba), a lawyer for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Roanoke, Virginia, through her dogged investigation into Purdue and the Sacklers, charting the road blocks she encounters in seeking justice. Edie and several of the main players in the series are composite characters meant to represent the victims (like Glen Kryger, played by Taylor Kitsch, who is prescribed OxyContin after an injury), the perpetrators (like the Purdue sales reps played by Dina Shihabi and West Duchovny) and, in the case of Edie, the truth-seekers whose lives are all altered by OxyContin; Matthew Broderick plays Richard Sackler.
Each of the six episodes opens with a parent or parents of real victims of the opioid crisis reading the show’s legal disclaimer about fictionalized events, an idea that came from series director Peter Berg and showrunner Eric Newman, the latter who filmed the openings. “This epidemic is still going on, and not just in America,” Newman told THR. “It’s global. Each of these parents said the same thing: If someone had told them how dangerous this was, how addictive, when their child was first prescribed OxyContin, their kids would likely still be with them. Our openers have a quality of: Take our word for it. And the power of that is staggering. There is a vast network of survivors of loved ones who died from overdose and addiction. Sadly, we didn’t have to look far. They are wonderful people who did nothing wrong by following the directions of people they trusted to take care of their children.”
Painkiller topped Netflix’s Top 10 list in its debut week and the series is also resonating with a global audience, tracking as No. 1 for the streamer also in Canada, the U.K., Sweden, Norway and Ukraine, to name a few. In a legal twist, on the day the series released (on Aug. 10), the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the ongoing bankruptcy deal for Purdue Pharma, which would give the Sackler family immunity from additional civil lawsuits.
Below, Meier spoke to THR about how he helped inspire the character of Edie Flowers, his correspondences with the Sackler family over the years and what he expects from the bankruptcy case.
You first published your book Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic, in 2003, but you rewrote it in 2018, correct?
Yes. And now it’s out again just this past month as a paperback; it’s been updated slightly again in conjunction with the Netflix series. So there’s a new paperback edition updated with information from developments between 2018 and today. Material about the evolution of the bankruptcy case, legal developments and, I think in some ways, just the broadening understanding of how massive this catastrophe has been.
How and when did the development for Painkiller the series come about for you?
In 2017, I got a Twitter message from someone named Micah Fitzerman-Blue [co-writer of Painkiller], who I didn’t know at all, saying, “I’d like to talk to you about your book; I’m very interested in your book.” Truth be told, I totally blew him off. I ignored him because when the book came out in 2003, it was originally optioned by Anonymous Content and they [even] wrote a script. So finally the second or third time that Micah reached out, he explained who he was and that he had partnered with Noah Harpster on Transparent and they were very interested in trying to do something with Pain Killer. He said, “Let’s meet for lunch.” So we got together at a hotel here in New York and from that point on, they started developing the series. It first went to Amazon, which had it for a couple of years. And then it eventually made its way to Netflix. At that same time, Alex Gibney had acquired the rights to Patrick Radden Keefe’s article in the New Yorker about the Sacklers. So rather than competing with each other, they decided to pair the projects together. They brought it to Eric Newman and he brought it into Netflix.
That’s cool that you joined forces.
It was. I got to know Patrick and he got to know me. The material that I had gathered was very useful and he had dug into the Sackler family. While I wrote about them in my book, he had spent his time sort of focusing in on them so he discovered lots of things that I didn’t know about the Sacklers.
He quoted you in this article before you even merged for this series, so it seems there was a mutual respect there.
It’s funny because I wrote this book so long ago. Initially, it just sort of disappeared from public view. It went out of print. I don’t think people at that time were ready to wrap their head around the scope of the corporate crime and betrayal of public trust that had happened. But then as things evolved, more people wrote books or made documentaries. And in the process of it, I was kind of transformed from being a journalist to being a character in their books. And that would happen with me in Patrick’s book [Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty] where I kind of serve as the journalist who first stumbled onto this whole issue.
What has your role been in the process of making this show?
My initial principle involvement was to provide Micah and Noah with all the research material I had gathered and kind of help them pull back and understand the evolution of this story: What had happened; what had gone wrong. Why people in government and medical organizations hadn’t responded to Purdue’s predatory marketing of this drug. How it dispatched sales reps — the two reps who are played in the series so wonderfully by Dina Shihabi and West Duchovny — and how they were sent out to be ambassadors of both pain and comfort to doctors.
And then when they wrote their scripts, I would check them to make sure they hadn’t veered too far away from reality. Patrick did that as well. I think we both knew that this show was going to be a dramatization and as such, it was going to take liberties with certain events that had occurred. But what we wanted to make sure of was that in doing so, it remained faithful to the spirit of the material. And I think we were both pretty satisfied that in large part it did.
What was most important to you that was included or portrayed; was there anything you pushed for?
As the script was originally written, I was flattered when Noah and Micah told me that the Uzo Aduba character [Edie Flowers], the investigator who is a wonderful composite character, had certain elements of me in it — particularly, that she curses a lot. But they were struggling with where she ends up in the end. Is she happy that there has been some level of justice meted out to this company, that they were forced to plead guilty to these justice department charges? I think they may have perceived that this character would see this as a victory of types.
And I told them that back in 2007 that I also initially thought of it as a victory, but quickly came to realize that the justice department had suppressed what these prosecutors really wanted to do, which was to charge these executives with felonies that, if they were convicted, would have sent them to prison. And personally, I’ve always believed that had the justice department gone forward with that, it could have really put a dent in the opioid epidemic. It would have put every other drug company’s executives on notice that they’re going to risk going to prison for breaking the law. And even if these executives who all denied wrongdoing were found innocent at trial, the type of evidence that the justice prosecutors had gathered would be like a wake up call as well to doctors, who would realize how badly they had been deceived by this company. We’re talking about doctors where all they wanted to do was help their patients, but they were being fed false information by this company and its medical allies. And really were betrayed by them.
So I told them that I would think this character would be sort of devastated by how justice had been thwarted, really. And I think that’s ultimately how she’s portrayed.
When you ask yourself, “How did this happen?” I think the show answers it when Edie explains the game of telephone, from Rudy Giuliani (Purdue Pharma’s lawyer) to the White House and back to U.S. attorney John Brownlee (played by Tyler Ritter in the series). Edie realized how high up this goes; and so does the audience.
Yes, how it got shut down. Purdue and these executives got the most highly paid, most politically connected lawyers it could find. Al Franken tweeted out a day or two ago how much he loved the show, and he said he had forgotten that Rudy Giuliani was involved in this whole episode. And he very much was; from the minute he got involved, he started lobbying for the company. This was really one big step on his eventual descent to Four Seasons Total Landscaping — where they had that ridiculous Trump press conference — or those scenes where his hair dye was running down his face. He was an enabler. He had cancer; he took OxyContin, he said, to treat the pain from his prostate cancer, I believe. And that’s great. Certainly, OxyContin has its place in the medicine chest that doctors can draw on for serious illnesses. But he was essentially a paid mouthpiece.
In the show, the game of telephone went through the White House. But George W. Bush’s presidency isn’t mentioned.
How would you say that administration is involved in what happened here?
I don’t think it’s unique, this type of cowardiceness and dual standards where white, well-heeled corporate executives never go to prison. But people of color, or even less fortunate or less well-resourced white people, go to prison who get involved with or who sell or who are caught with drugs. I don’t think that dual standard is in any way limited to the Bush administration. Even if you look at the Obama administration and the housing crisis and all of the people who lost their homes because of the games that these Wall Street firms were playing, with loser loans and mortgages; I think there was maybe one low-level person who got sent to prison. Not any of the real benefactors. And here you have a case where the true benefactors kind of got off easy.
You mentioned some of the composite characters, and there’s Taylor Kitsch’s Glen as well. In a THR chat with Eric Newman, he said the creative team was very conscious about not making “grief porn.” What was trickiest about finding that line; was there anything you were uncomfortable about dramatizing on either side?
First of all, as someone who has sort of been involved with this story for two decades, I can only commend [director] Pete Berg and Eric Newman, who helped bring it into fruition, for the idea of using the stories of parents to open each episode; to read these corporate, legal disclaimers and to infuse them with their personal stories. Because, this story is a tragedy. There’s no way of getting around it. And I think it’s right for the show to embrace that, to not to look away from that tragedy. It’s also a crime story at its heart. But I think by and large, the show succeeds in that it very much focuses its story on how this happened. On the actors who made this happen.
The character that Taylor plays, the victims here — they’re important. Grief is real. Grief is genuine. And we shouldn’t look away from grief. But it’s really important to understand how it happened, who the players are who put this into motion, who planted the seed and who are the people who failed to stop it when it was really their duty and their job to do so. And I think telling the story through that lens is a really powerful way to do it, because I don’t really think it’s been told that way before. Hopefully a lot of the people who saw the show who may have heard the Sackler name or heard about OxyContin, or who even knew someone who had been affected by it, can see in a more global sense why this happened.
What has your correspondence been with the Sackler family ever since the release of your book?
It’s been two-sided. One where I send them politely worded letters, in which I ask questions. And what I receive in return are either emails with no comment or letters threatening to sue me. So from their side, it’s basically been, “We have nothing to say to you. Obviously, you’ve made your mind up about this and by the way, we may sue you. Don’t be surprised if you wake up one morning with a lawyer at your door.”
Has that been through representatives or legal representatives?
Both. It’s been directly through the company and its lawyers, and it’s been through outside lawyers for the company as well. Who knows. Maybe another one will be arriving any day now. It’s been a couple years.
Eric said he felt protected by the Netflix legal department and that he hadn’t heard of anything, so perhaps the same goes for you as well.
I’d really hope so. I received a letter from one of their lawyers a couple years back, a sort of threatening letter, and in it this lawyer made all sorts of crazy accusations and allegations, and on the top of the letter there was a disclaimer saying: “This is a private communication between me, as an attorney, and you. Please consider it off the record.” And I wrote him back and I said, “Thank you very much for your letter. I appreciate your sending it. But I never agreed to this arrangement. I do not consider it off the record. I will release this letter at any point that I decide that it’s appropriate to do so, and I will treat any subsequent correspondence from you in the same way.” That’s the last letter I got.
Richard and Arthur Sackler (the latter played by Clark Gregg) are fleshed out characters in the series. Even though you didn’t have interactions with them, based on your years of research and your impressions, how did you help form the characters in the show?
I think the characters who represent them were really the work of Noah and Micah in the writing of the show, drawing on things that I have written. Certainly, lots of things that Patrick had written. Patrick and I spent some time with the writers when they were working on the show. They said, “Ask these guys whatever they like and they’ll tell you what they know.” While the writers were asking us questions, I had this thought of trying to grapple with the idea of what I knew about Arthur Sackler, who was much more public a figure than Richard Sackler; he had been called in to testify before Congress, he had made various speeches, he had a publication where he expressed his editorial views. He wasn’t necessarily totally hiding in the shadows. And Richard did very rarely ever go out there. He certainly never interacted publicly with the media and basically had these frontmen sort of acting on his behalf.
So trying to imagine how these people were, I saw Arthur Sackler as an incredibly self-confident person who never questioned whether they were right or wrong. He had this instinctive belief that anything he would do was right. Whereas when I tried to imagine the person that Richard was, I thought of him more as a person who wanted to think they were right all the time. And in order to do that, they really couldn’t ever let themselves question whether they might be right or wrong. That to me was one way of thinking about the difference between them.
It’s interesting because Arthur Sackler died a decade before the first tablet of OxyContin was sold and his branch of the family sold off their interest to his two brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, and Richard was Raymond’s son. In recent years, they have come out publicly and said, “If Arthur was alive, he would have never allowed this to happen.” I don’t know if that’s true or not. But what I found remarkable is that you had one wing of this family basically finding its closest relatives, its uncles, its first cousins, you name it, just dumping on them.
If you could have a conversation with Richard Sackler today, have you thought about what you’d ask?
I have lots of questions I could ask. I think I wouldn’t get answers to them. I don’t think he’s ready to answer questions. I don’t think he wants to sit down with me.
Do you think he is someone who would watch Painkiller?
Absolutely not. He would absolutely not watch it, nor do I think he would want to be told about it. There was a deposition of him in 2015 by one of the states that was suing Purdue Pharma. Eight years earlier, the company that he was very much running agreed to plead guilty to these significant federal charges. And when a company does that, they agree to a certain set of facts: “We acknowledge we did this wrong, blah blah blah.” And in this deposition, he’s asked by the plaintiff’s lawyer whether he had read the agreed statement of facts that his family’s company had agreed to plead guilty to. And he said no. And I think that answer tells you everything you want or need to know about whom this individual is.
The title cards at the end of the series state that no one in the Sackler family has been criminally charged and that as of March 2023, Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy, which they filed in 2019, is still pending. There have been consequences for their legacy — their name has been removed from cultural and educational buildings where they had donated. But justice is pending. What do you predict will happen?
I’ve given up predicting. I thought this bankruptcy would steam through, and that the bankruptcy gambit would pay off and they would be free and clear. Through some remarkable coincidence, the Supreme Court decision was released on the day that Painkiller dropped, which was sort of mindboggling: The decision to freeze the bankruptcy plan until the Supreme Court got a chance to review it later this year. So that’s going to decide everything. It’s possible the Supreme Court will look at this and say, “Great. Go forward.” But it’s also possible that they will say, “No. This is not why the bankruptcy system was set up. It wasn’t set up to allow wealthy people who, without declaring bankruptcy themselves, utilize the bankruptcy system to shield themselves from future liability.” I don’t know. And if it falls apart, I don’t know what will happen then. But it will be very interesting to watch because it’s very possible that the Sacklers themselves will now face a massive wave of lawsuits.
You called OxyContin a “nuclear weapon” in your book.
Yes, compared to existing pain pills like Percocet and Vicodin.
As the expert in this and when you consider Purdue and the Sackler family’s role in the epidemic, what would you hope to see happen?
First and foremost, I think it’s important to state two things. One is that I believe that the Sacklers did not foresee the catastrophe that was going to happen. I can’t imagine that anyone would plan this, right? Having said that, the thing I want to know most is what they did and how they responded when they realized it was happening. When they realized, as they did fairly earl on, that this drug was becoming widely abused. That tons of prescriptions were ending up on the street and that the sales money from those prescriptions was getting mixed in with the sales revenue that Purdue was receiving from legitimate prescriptions. Did they ever sit down in 2001, 2002, 2003 or 2004 and say, “Ok, we can’t control everything that’s happening, but what can we do to stop it? And, what do we do with all this money? We certainly deserve the good money. What do we do with this other money?” That’s what I’d like to know; what they did and didn’t do.
Hulu’s Dopesick, which released in late 2021, also tackled the opioid crisis. When asked about that series, Eric said this story should be told as many times as possible, as loudy as possible. What do you hope people take away from Painkiller?
From the reactions that I’m seeing on Twitter, from friends, from friends of my daughter or people in their 20s, it’s sort of this uniform revulsion that this was allowed to happen. That no one stood up and stopped it. If there’s one thing I would like people to take away it’s that: This is going to happen again, unless when we see it starting to unfold we do stand up and try to stop it. And we don’t let powerful corporate interests suppress information. We don’t let powerful corporate interests buy off our lawmakers and law enforcement officials and professional medical organizations. If we realize that this situation only happened because the system itself was rotten, that’s what I’d like them to take away.
This crisis is ongoing. Is there another season or another version of this show to tell more of the story?
I think this is it for this project. I was thinking the other day that there’s probably a great documentary to be made about the whole bankruptcy preceding, as arcane and crazy as that might seem. I have tremendous respect both for Nan Goldin and Laura Poitras — the documentary that Laura made about Nan, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, I was so deeply moved by that. Not just about Nan’s campaign with respect to the Sacklers, but just the story of her life and her extraordinary triumphs over enormous obstacles. So there are creative people who are going to find ways into telling this story or aspects of this story that are going to reverberate. And I look forward to watching them.
Any sense of how the show is performing, and what you make of the global impact it’s having? [Note: After this interview, Netflix released that Painkiller was No. 1 in Top 10.]
According to Netflix, it’s doing great. I got a note that it’s now the top No. 1 Netflix show in countries around the world. I heard it’s No. 1 in the Ukraine. Which I just find mind-blowing. Incredibly mind-blowing. And I don’t take any credit for that, but I take pleasure from it. It’s a testament to the power of visual storytelling and how people can get drawn into a story. I got lots of texts and emails from my friends who said, “I binged the whole thing. I turned it on at 6 a.m. and watched until noon.” Or “11 p.m. and I shut it off at 4 a.m.” Like, wow. That’s all I can say is, wow.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Painkiller is now streaming all six episodes on Netflix.