- LOS ANGELES
Director Patricia Riggen, whose work spans features and TV, is no stranger to witnessing actor auditions but her experience on them for Dopesick proved especially impactful, inspiring and disconcerting at the same time. Dopesick, an eight-episode drama series that debuted on Hulu last week, delves into opioid addiction in America, drawing us into a distressed Virginia mining community, a rural doctor’s office, the boardrooms of Purdue Pharma, and the inner workings of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The auditions affirmed early on for Riggen that she made the right decision to get involved in the limited series, directing episodes 5 and 6. Riggen recalled that when they were trying out for roles in Dopesick, actors were asked about how they connected to the story. “The saddest thing is everyone could mention somebody they knew who died from opioid abuse--a son, daughter, brother, sister, mother, father, a friend. It’s shocking to see how huge the problem is in the U.S. and how much it has cost everyone in this society.”
The auditioning actors’ feedback served to reinforce for Riggen the importance of telling this story, addressing the issues involved and bringing them to the attention of the public at large. Last year alone some 93,000 lives were lost due to opioid overdoses.
“The subject matter of Dopesick is one of the biggest tragedies of this country right now,” said Riggen who was additionally attracted to the series for the opportunity to reunite with creator/exec producer/writer/director Danny Strong. Like Riggen, Strong directed a pair of the show's episodes.
Riggen had directed the pilot for another Strong series, Proven Innocent, and came to value him as a colleague. “When you meet somebody who is a great collaborator like Danny and so talented, you want to come together again.”
She was also “honored” to follow Barry Levinson who directed the first two episodes of Dopesick. In her prior TV experience, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Riggen didn’t have the luxury of getting stylistic guidance from the pilot or pilot director. No pilot was in the can when she went to work on episodes 3, 5 and 7 of that show. For Dopesick, however, Riggen shared that being able to see a rough cut of the first episode helmed by Levinson proved invaluable, “putting me in the world of these actors, what they were doing with their characters.”
Riggen additionally was grateful that she felt simpatico with Levinson’s approach. “In terms of style, I’m not unlike him. He’s a storyteller. Storytelling and performances come first.”
Among those Dopesick performances is that of Michael Keaton who portrays Samuel Finnix, an old-school, good-hearted doctor from a small mining down in Virginia. Convinced by a Purdue salesman (played by Will Poulter) that OxyContin is pretty much “nonaddictive,” Dr. Finnix prescribes the drug to relieve pain. Among the patients we meet is a young mine worker, Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever), who becomes addicted. Her parents (Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham) desperately try to save her.
Other prime characters in the narrative are Richard Sackler (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) as the mastermind behind Purdue’s push for profits via OxyContin, Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard), the assistant U.S. attorney who leads the Justice Department investigation into Purdue Pharma, DEA agent Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson), and assistant U.S. attorney Randy Ramseyer (John Hoogenakker).
Based on Beth Macy’s 2018 best selling nonfiction book, “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug company That Addicted America,” the Hulu series spans the past 25 years with different storylines that personalize a drug epidemic fueled by Purdue’s insidious behavior.
With different directors in the Dopesick mix--including Levinson, Strong, Riggen and Michael Cuesta--cinematographer Checco Varese played a key role in maintaining an overall visual continuity. Riggen observed that having the same DP throughout the episodes provided “a great safety net” for directors who want to retain the show’s big-picture visual feel while still having room to bring their filmmaking sensibilities to bear. “You can rely on his (Varese’s) style, taste and feeling,” said Riggen, to maintain a unifying visual consistency for the series.
Riggen and Varese have a close collaborative and personal bond. On the latter score, they are married. As a working couple, they have teamed on varied projects from the aforementioned pilot for Proven Innocent to the feature film The 33, the 2015 release which followed the extraordinary real-life survival story that captured the world’s attention five years earlier—the collapse of the Copiajo gold and copper mine in Chile and the miraculous rescue of all 33 miners after 69 days of being trapped below the earth’s surface under an enormous boulder twice the size of the Empire State Building.
Perhaps the biggest challenge posed by the two Dopesick episodes that she directed was shooting in the midst of the COVID pandemic. Riggen described the experience as being in an ongoing “experimental mode” to figure out how to best keep people safe while getting the work done. “We were one of the very first shows that went on to shoot during the pandemic,” she related, noting that mask and shield wearing was required, with air being blasted through the set. This made for a noisy environment which made it difficult at times to hear one another. “Directing is about whispering into an actor’s ear. We couldn’t do that during COVID.”
Riggen added, “I’ve been a director for many years. I had never been on a set when I was not able to see anybody’s face or to show anybody my face.” For her, a smile and facial gestures--which normally convey important parts of her direction--could not come into play.
But she and her compatriots learned how to adapt, motivated by a sense of purpose. “We were on a mission with this story, bringing it to the attention of the world.”
Riggen harbors hope that the series will both spark and contribute to conversations about the issues involved. “I’m going to have my daughter of 14 watch the show,” said Riggen who affirmed it is vital that young people be conscious of what is happening, the risks involved and the tragic consequences that can result.