America has an odd and dangerous relationship with pills. That’s one of the main takeaways of Prescription Thugs, an excellent new documentary from Chris Bell that premieres in select cities and on iTunes this Friday. Bell, whose previous docs include Bigger Stronger Faster and Trophy Kids, is sort of a bro-y version of Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock. (For example, he sees Moore’s proclivity for T-shirts and jeans and raises him a pair of cargo shorts and a backwards cap.)
With Prescription Thugs, Bell mixes interviews and eye-opening statistics—America represents 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes 75 percent of its prescription drugs—with his family’s own battles with addiction and painkillers. The result is a compelling 90-minute film that makes you stop and think about what we’re doing in this country vis-a-vis prescription drugs and who is to blame—from doctors and pharmaceutical companies to politicians and our own damn selves, the often-gullible consumers.
We caught up with Bell to ask him about the doc and his own attempts to kick a rather serious drug addiction. Here’s what he told us about drugs, rehab and change.
“These drug companies make amazing drugs. They’re good for treating severe pain. The problem is, most people taking them are not in severe pain. And then they like the way the drugs make them feel and they get addicted.”
Prescription Thugs includes dozens of clips of people talking about prescription drugs—everyone from Bill Clinton and Rush Limbaugh to Chris Rock and David Letterman. It seems like it must’ve taken quite a while to put together. Did it?
I worked on it for about two and a half years. It was kind of a weird process. Vince Vaughn, Peter Billingsley and Glenn Beck were teaming up on a reality show on Glenn Beck’s network, and they created a contest on the Internet for documentary filmmakers. I was just finishing up Trophy Kids, so I entered. I figured they’d be like, “Screw this guy, he’s already established.” But they were excited because apparently a lot of the submissions were bad. So I ended up winning the contest and they basically funded the film.
Wait… a filmmaking contest that actually produced a good film? Project Greenlight should take note.
Ha, yeah. It’s actually gotten easier to make documentaries. Not easy, but easier. Because of YouTube. When I did Bigger Stronger Faster, all YouTube had was MMA fights and cat videos. Now it has everything. So I could find any drug commercial that’s ever been made, or search and find any clip from a TV show. You still have to license it, but you can put it into your film to get an idea of what the finished product will look like.
How involved was Vince Vaughn in the making of this movie?
I only met Vaughn once. He watched a few cuts of the movie and would send feedback. His producing partner, Peter Billingsley, was much more hands on. But when you’re trying to sell a film, it’s great to have Vince Vaughn’s name on it.
One of the twists is that you yourself became addicted to prescription drugs and ended up going to Cliffside Malibu for 60 days of rehab.
After winning the contest, it took five months to get the project off the ground. And it’s true what they say about idle hands being the devil’s plaything. I had nothing to do so I drank. I still had residual pain from two hip surgeries, so I drank a lot. I’d wake up and be hungover, so to deal with the pain I was taking Xanax that I bought on Craigslist. What I realized while making the film was I needed to get professional help. You can’t kick it alone. You don’t have the tools. Going to rehab, that’s 100 percent what got me cured. I was hiding my alcoholism. In rehab I realized it was curable. I didn’t have to live like this.
How are you feeling now?
I feel great. I’ve been clean for more than 18 months. I’m training again. I go to the gym every day. It clears my head and lets me be my best self. I’ve lost 50 pounds since the movie ended. I’m actually embarrassed by how I look in the film. That said, it’s a daily battle. I have to be conscious of my addiction every day. I go to AA once a week. I love it because I get to talk to the new people who have just come in and help them. It’s a great program. Every week at the meeting, I see 250 guys dealing with the same problems as me.
Just how much booze and prescription drugs were you consuming while making the documentary?
I was drinking about a fifth of vodka every night. I was never drunk on camera but I might’ve been hungover. At one point I weighed as much as 260 pounds. When you’re messed up like that, you don’t tend to make the best food choices, ha ha. But now that I’m off all of it, I feel better than I ever did when I was on the painkillers. Because what happens is they mask a lot of stuff. So in my case I would work out more than I should have. When you’re on all of it, it keeps you going crazy. When you’re not on them, you know not to push yourself as hard.
“I feel like we have this lost generation where everybody is in their own little world on drugs.”
How many pills were you taking at your peak usage?
I was on Percocet for two years. I would take 12 of those a day. Then it would be 15 or 25. I would get it from my friend. He’d get a bunch from this shady doctor he knew. Then, like a true drug dealer, my friend would say, “I got no more Percocet and Vicodin, but I can send you Oxycontin.” I got into this crazy, crazy habit. I was spending about a thousand dollars per week on pills. It was financially taxing.
So what is your main message with this film—be careful about getting started on prescription drugs?
I don’t think it’s even “be careful.” I think it’s more than that. Let’s say you’re doing squats and you hurt your knee, and you go to the doctor and the doctor gives you Vicodin. Well, I would ask, “Is there any way I can get well without these drugs?” You know, these drug companies make amazing drugs. They’re good for treating severe pain. The problem is, most people taking them are not in severe pain. And then they like the way the drugs make them feel and they don’t feel any pain and they get addicted.
Another focus of Prescription Thugs is your brother MadDog, who was a professional wrestler and used a lot of prescription drugs in order to deal with the physical pain of his job. You also talk to other ex-wrestlers who were heavy drug users. Have you heard from the WWE? We can’t imagine they’re too happy about your film.
I haven’t. Triple H actually agreed to do an interview, but my camera guy flaked that day and then we just couldn’t figure out a time to reschedule. But I will say, I think Triple H and Vince McMahon have done a great job cleaning up professional wrestling. The reason I wanted to make this movie is my older brother MadDog passed away from prescription drugs and alcohol about a year after I made Bigger Stronger Faster. I made this movie for him. Drugs were rampant in pro wrestling back then, in the ’90s. But it’s not like that anymore. I actually love WWE. I worked for them as a writer in 2004.
In the film you say that America represents 5 percent of the world’s population but we use 75 percent of its prescription drugs. That’s a startling statistic. Could some of this have to do with Americans’ competitiveness? It’s like we’re all looking for an edge to beat the next guy.
I think that’s true. We always want to win. I saw that a lot with Trophy Kids, with these overbearing parents. And there are so many over-the-hill guys competing in amateur MMA and bodybuilding. Too many people push their bodies too hard for too long and then we all break down. That’s where prescription drugs come in. They’re so overprescribed and over-consumed in this country, and that’s where the trouble happens.
Viewers might also be surprised to hear that one in 10 Americans is on antidepressants. That seems really high.
Yeah. There’s a good documentary called Making a Killing that’s all about antidepressants. The conclusion is, it’s basically a crapshoot. They have no idea what’s wrong with you, what your symptoms are or if the drugs will help. And I think that’s one of the reasons why, when you look around, so many kids and adults seem so sheltered nowadays. Everybody’s looking at their phones and computers. I feel like we have this lost generation where everybody is in their own little world on drugs.
What’s the biggest difference between this film and your first documentary, Bigger Stronger Faster?
Bigger Stronger Faster, I put my heart and soul into that. But this one is further-reaching. Like, my parents were excited about Bigger Stronger Faster. But they told people at their church—friends their age—about Prescription Thugs, showed them the trailer, and they were all talking about it. They weren’t just being polite. They were very interested in seeing it. Because prescription drugs are a big issue among older people. This affects them every day. But really, it affects all of us.