Some of the people addicted to drugs or alcohol whose lives are examined in the documentary series “Addiction.
Facing ‘Things That Destroy Your Life’
ADDICTION, whether to drugs or alcohol, doesn’t lack for TV exposure. The likes of “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood” seem to exist these days to chronicle various stars’ spins in and out of rehabilitation facilities.
But real-life addiction is distinctly unglamorous, and the goal of HBO’s new “Addiction” project, which makes its debut on Thursday, is to help everyday victims and their friends and families. One of the series’s defining premises is that, celebrities aside, addiction comes with such stigma attached that open conversation about treating it is difficult and even doctors don’t want to deal with some addicted patients.
The centerpiece and first installment of the project is a 90-minute film that is essentially a primer on the state of the medicine, science and treatment options available today. Produced in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the film and supplemental materials argue that addiction is a chronic brain disease and one that is treatable, with an ever-increasing array of medicines in addition to the more widely known therapy-based 12-step programs.
“If all we do is succeed in letting people know there are medical treatments for alcoholism, we will have done our job,” said John Hoffman, who produced the series over nearly three years with Susan Froemke.
Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and one of the project’s featured scientists, said at an HBO-sponsored luncheon in February that she saw the film in an even broader context: “How do you generate a culture that has empathy for a person who is addicted?”
The main film, with nine segments contributed by many of the top names in vérité filmmaking, will be shown on HBO and its digital channels; it will also be streamed on HBO.com. Some topics are expanded upon in another 13 extended pieces, which include interviews with top scientists working on addiction and profiles of successful treatment programs, like a South Boston drug court.
The supplemental series, and four independent addiction-theme films, will be shown Thursday through Sunday on HBO2, with repeats over the following weeks on all of HBO’s digital channels and HBO on Demand, as well as online. Although HBO is a pay-cable channel, some cable systems, including RCN in the New York City area, will offer the project free during its first four-day run.
The word addiction is used loosely in today’s culture, where overspending, overeating and compulsive sexual activities all have their own self-help groups. HBO chose to stick with drug and alcohol abuse. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that 23.2 million Americans needed treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol problem in 2005, but that just 10 percent were receiving it.
“We tried to limit it to things that destroy your life,” said Sheila Nevins, HBO’s president of documentary and family programming and the project’s executive producer. “A cigarette smoker can have a life. This was a show about people who were losing their lives to addiction.”
Interspersed with the science are personal stories: a mother who had her heroin-addicted daughter arrested; a young couple who attempt to break longtime opiate addictions with a replacement drug. The segments were produced and directed by filmmakers who have worked closely with HBO, among them Alan and Susan Raymond (“An American Family”), Albert Maysles (“Grey Gardens”), Jon Alpert (“Baghdad ER”), Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight”), Liz Garbus (“The Farm: Angola, U.S.A.”) and Rory Kennedy (“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”).
Despite its ubiquity, addiction is often misunderstood, as some of the film’s subjects lament. Parents are blamed for a child’s addiction; managed care companies restrict treatment; relapse is seen as a moral failure, rather than a normal stage on the road to recovery from a disease in which the addictive substances themselves distort the brain’s reactions.
Ms. Nevins said the filmmakers had been recruited to bring an emotional element to an essentially educational project. “People who make didactic television often don’t make vérité documentaries,” she said, calling the marriage of the two forms experimental.
The filmmakers were given what Ms. Froemke called a crash course in the science of addiction and assigned to specific topics but mostly found their own characters. It was an unusual process for filmmakers used to marinating for months, even years in their subjects’ lives, to build trust and let events dictate a story line.
Mr. Alpert said he was happy to adapt. “I’ve made four HBO documentaries that were really only about the problems of drug addiction,” he said. “This was a chance to do something that had a good positive back end on it.”
Ms. Froemke, a filmmaker herself, even sent Mr. Alpert a list of questions she wanted answered by the piece he filmed in a Dallas emergency room. “I have a feeling those questions never made it down to Dallas with him,” she said with a laugh.
But Mr. Alpert said he did take the questions with him and worked them in while filming in the chaos of the emergency room. “They were well-researched and thoughtful questions,” he said, but he did not want to do a formal interview with the doctor. “I don’t know how to light. I haven’t used it in 30 years.”
Most filmmakers had just days or weeks to find people willing to go public with their addiction issues.
Barbara Kopple, who won Academy Awards for her films “Harlan County, U.S.A.” and “American Dream,” both about labor unions, was assigned to chronicle the innovative and unusually successful hands-on approach that Steamfitters Local Union 638 of Long Island City, Queens, takes to dealing with members who are addicted. By pushing “a tiny bit” and talking about her past work, she said, she was able to persuade some members to let her team film inside the union-run post-rehab weekly therapy groups.
The counselors initially didn’t want the cameras, she said, but eventually “some people decided it was O.K. to expose themselves and their lives.”
After submitting half-hour director’s cuts to HBO, the filmmakers gave up control over how their work was used, as the films were cut down, occasionally chopped up and re-edited to fit the themes HBO wanted to explore.
“It was like joining the U.N.,” said D. A. Pennebaker, who with Chris Hegedus (his co-director on “The War Room” and other films) profiled a model treatment facility in Bangor, Me., where replacement therapy drugs help addicts with opiate addiction.
Ms. Nevins said she was nervous about showing off the final film. She called the filmmakers “good sports” for allowing their work to be manipulated at will.
Ms. Kopple, for one, said she had no qualms about handing over her material. “I just wanted it to work,” she said of the HBO project. “You just can’t hang on to everything.”