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Alter Everything

A podcast about data science and analytics culture.
Alteryx Alumni (Retired)

How do filmmakers use data to make a positive difference in human issues such as the opioid epidemic? Julia Willoughby Nason and Jenner Furst, directors of the Netflix docuseries, The Pharmacist, share how data plays a role in their storytelling.







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Episode Transcription

MADDIE: 00:01

[music] Welcome to Alter Everything, a podcast about data science and analytics culture. I'm Maddie Johannsen. And for this episode, you'll hear my recent chat with directors of the Netflix documentary, The Pharmacist. Jenner Furst.

JENNER: 00:15

The Pharmacist is a really special project and rarely do we get projects that have been incubating for so long.

MADDIE: 00:24

And Julia Willoughby Nason.

JULIA: 00:26

Using data is really a tool to shake out and become more flexible in order for the viewer to absorb a situation, a story, a systemic, huge issue. They can absorb it and feel it through an artistic balance and lens even if they haven't lived it.

MADDIE: 00:47

In our last episode, I spoke with Dan Schneider, the actual pharmacist in the documentary, The Pharmacist. In Dan's episode, he talks about the tragic loss of his son Danny, how he observed at the beginning of the opioid epidemic as OxyContin was overprescribed to members of his community, and ways he's committed to fighting the opioid epidemic. So now in this episode, the directors of The Pharmacist, Julia and Jenner, are going to take us behind the scenes to learn about the use of data and filmmaking and the importance of telling stories with responsibility, especially when those stories have a real human impact. Let's get started. So The Pharmacist documentary that we're here to talk about today is a very powerful and moving account of how destructive the opioid epidemic is. And I'd love to start our conversation with having you tell our audience about the story told in The Pharmacist and maybe a little background on your decision to create The Pharmacist.

JENNER: 01:54

The Pharmacist is a really special project, and rarely do we get projects that have been incubating for so long. But in the case of The Pharmacist, this was a story that was 20 years in the making. And it involved such a personal and heartfelt connection to a family. And those are the types of stories that really move us. And so we were really lucky to have gotten a front-row seat to the story being finished for print. Our writing partner, Jed Lipinski, was writing Justice for Danny, which was a very long-form story for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans and we were able to see that story as it was getting ready to be published and really understand all the dynamics of what Dan Schneider went through, through our writing partner Jed Lipinski. And it seemed like not only a Hollywood thriller, when you think of the things that Daniel Schneider had to go through, but it was also a chance to have a back door into the opioid epidemic in a way that was very unconventional and very heartfelt and very engaging. And for us, those types of stories are the best kinds. We find that there are so many different things to tackle in the daily news that affect us, that we care about, but for us, all of them have to be rooted in character and they have to be rooted in story. And when we have those dynamics, it's an incredible canvas to incorporate data, to incorporate science, to incorporate history. And this was just a perfect opportunity that had been in the works for two decades.

MADDIE: 03:48

Yeah, I think coming at it with that approach of incorporating data, history, science, just really adds to how multidimensional your storytelling is. And you mentioned the news, right? So with COVID at the forefront of our minds and in much of the reporting when it comes to healthcare and medical news, especially now, how has the opioid epidemic changed and become more critical through this lens of the COVID landscape?

JULIA: 04:17

With the COVID landscape and the opioid epidemic, I think COVID has taken such a front-row seat in our attention with the medical community and kind of just seeing the strengths and weaknesses within the infrastructure and how quickly things can shift kind of in a blink of an instance. I think that I would imagine with the economy and the shift with COVID and with the workforce, it has deeply affected huge amounts of families. And with surviving and not being able to maybe do the same job they used to because of the pandemic and therefore, there may be a lot more at stake in terms of taking risks and jobs that aren't good for the body, that people need quick relief even more now because there isn't infrastructure and safety and no attention, resources to kind of the bigger human condition of wellness and not crisis management through medicine, but a preventative. So I think there's a huge effect with the pandemic right now on the opioid epidemic. Pandemic and epidemic, how they really fit together, is going to kind of unfold in the years to come. But I would think that it's really shifting the focus, and that can have a lot of enlightenment in terms of where things could use more attention but also a lot of grief.

JENNER: 05:55

What we know about addiction is that it's rooted in pain and it's rooted in trauma and the co-occurring pandemic and epidemic of addiction, specifically opioid addiction in our country, is they're aggravating each other. And that the pain and trauma that's been created from loss of work, from loss of loved ones, from social isolation and people going crazy in their homes from the stress of families. And that's falling predominantly on women around child care and losses in workplace equality that's happened. There are so many different aggravating factors that are all amorphously contributing to the underlying stressors that create addiction. And I think that these two massive tragic events, one that's happened recently and one that's been in the works since the dawn of time, which is the epidemic of addiction, are very deeply related and that we are seeing so many more people grappling with addiction. And that's why now more than ever stories like The Pharmacist, support communities, all different types of advocacy to treat addiction like a disease, treat addiction the way we treat COVID-19. And that's, I think, the connection between the two.

MADDIE: 07:31

Yeah, super important to keep them both in the story. And as we were saying before, I think just COVID has been so dominant. And I saw in an interview you did recently or before COVID, I'll be sure to link it in our show notes, but I remember you said something, Jenner, about addiction and grief really going hand-in-hand. And you were just saying how it's really easy for people to shut themselves away and kind of disappear. And I think especially during quarantine, that was amplified. So I think it's really important to keep stories like this alive and remember that this is still an issue that's happening.

JENNER: 08:08


MADDIE: 08:09

So what was something that you found particularly shocking when you investigated the data around the opioid epidemic?

JULIA: 08:16

What was shocking to me about working on this piece about the opioid epidemic was how many years this was fueled by a very conscious and Machiavellian [and?] corporate pharmaceutical structures to put people in very, very debilitating positions. And the other thing that was shocking is that just how many people in our country, in our world, are in physical pain and how we're so detached from our bodies and we get sacrificed a lot of times into addiction within this predatory society of medical corporate infrastructures.

JENNER: 08:59

Yeah. I would agree and I'll just kind of jump in. So what was shocking to me was the amount of time that had gone by. And I think it's just such a testament to our culture that things can be right in front of our face for decades and that we can be lured into a state of denial about them, that we can be distracted by other aspects of the news cycle and things that come and go, that we can be taken out of the obvious felt experience of seeing these things, of even seeing the data, of seeing the body count or seeing the amount of people that were becoming hooked. And all of that can be overlooked by the hustle and bustle and also careful orchestration, as Julia was mentioning, of our corporate marketing information machine that can carefully lobby, control, and manicure data for themselves and continue to operate and create massive windfalls in profit off of literally the blood of working-class, disenfranchised people around the world.

JENNER: 10:17

And what was personally shocking to me was, I remember in college that one of my colleagues produced a feature film about the opioid epidemic and OxyContin in Maine and how it was rampant. And that was in 2003. And it felt completely and totally obvious through that film and his depiction of several people in that community who were completely and totally hooked and had been preyed upon by pill-mill doctors in that area, that this was a problem that was at a catastrophic level. And that was 2003. And so to come out with a show in 2019 that is tackling the same thing with so many people who have been lost since then, that's what was personally shocking to me.

MADDIE: 11:17

Yeah, that's a great point. And a lot of the places where data was included, even in the language that was used by some of the folks that you interviewed, like one of the DEA investigators, Iris Myers, I believe she said the US attorney's office doesn't see people, families destroyed by the opioid crisis, they only read numbers and stats. But she was saying the DEA is on the front lines and they really see what the effects of the opioid crisis are. And then also the stat that you included at the end that said since Dan started investigating in 2001, more than 400,000 overdoses occurred in the US. And that was just since the creation, or the release of The Pharmacist. So, yeah, to your point, the 2003 timeline versus 2001 since Dan started investigating, it's just crazy how mirrored it is in different parts of the country.

JENNER: 12:12

Totally unnecessary. That's the part that I think we all have to learn from the data is how many times are we going to be willing to repeat this story. It's already been repeated a hundred times since the dawn of history, our denial, our inability to face the facts and the data, our succumbing to the pressures of corporate America and their demands of us fueling their machine and their profit. How many times can we do this again? That's the question we have to ask ourselves. When will enough be enough?

MADDIE: 12:46

And as filmmakers, you know the importance of being clear and simultaneously engaging when you're telling a story. And similarly, this is something that the data community thinks about because data needs to be handled responsibly, especially when telling stories like these that have a real impact on human issues. And so when using data in the creation of The Pharmacist, what was your strategy? I'd really love to hear some behind-the-scenes logistics on the research process, the fact-checking, and ways you made sure the data was going to be understood in the way that you intended it to be.

JENNER: 13:24

So I think what people don't know about premium nonfiction, documentary entertainment or the large documentaries they see on Netflix or Amazon or wherever they go -HBO - to watch critically acclaimed documentaries, that there's at least 50 to 75 people that work behind the scenes to curate that film or series. And in our instance, that's no different. We have an extended team of people that begin in the development process and carry on all the way through the last minutes before the show is delivered. And that goes from research to outreach. We have a private investigation process we go through sometimes when we need to double-check information and facts and understand more about characters or track down elusive figures to a story. We do countless FOIA requests, Freedom of Information Act. We have to work with multiple state governments depending on where the story takes place and we have to go through a whole process of receiving information through proper channels based on the Freedom of Information Act. Then there is the legal proceedings which we have to sift through. We have to go through, sometimes, tens of thousands of pages in some of our documentaries of depositions, at least thousands of pages of depositions. And that, in our sense, is a form of data gathering. We have to look at the statements that have been made. We have to understand who we're interviewing based on whether they've been deposed or not. And then there's the interview process.

JENNER: 15:09

And our interviews are very, I think in a sense, not so traditional in that we don't just ask the questions that pertain to the frontal superficial story, we go all the way back, in some instances, to people's childhoods trying to understand where they came from, trying to understand the communities they were raised in, their families, their working careers. And we build huge amounts of human data. We need to understand our characters from every perspective. Our interviews sometimes are eight hours long. And sometimes with our key subjects, we have multiple eight-hour interviews that is all part of, in our world, the data collection process. And then there's the editing in which we have to refine the data. We have to refine the story data that we've collected. We do that through transcripts, multiple reviews, we have boards, scripts, endless amounts of Post-it notes everywhere. But we have an organized, methodical process for creating these documentary events that people love to watch. And we have built that over a decade. And there's always a legal review. There's a legal review process in the beginning of the project in which we have to set things up aboveboard and legally, ethically, make sure that we're approaching our stories in a way that is sound. And then at the end, we go through rigorous fair use processes where our cuts are broken down into spreadsheets that have tens of thousands of entries of clips that need to be reconciled through a fair use doctrine. And lastly, our lawyers review everything to make sure that we're not defamatory in any way. We don't intend to be defamatory. That is never what we set out to do. So we have so many different team members down to the very last fact-checking, in which every statement made in the film has to be fact-checked.

JENNER: 17:05

And so this has been built over a decade of how to create projects like this efficiently on time, on budget. And in the end, the viewer sees a very tight, compelling documentary. You don't know until the credits that hundreds of people were involved in creating that through the gathering of data.

MADDIE: 17:27

Yeah, that's such great insight. And a couple of things that I heard in there, humanizing the data and remembering that the data you're collecting is human data and human stories. And then also just the way that you're able to stitch everything together. And to your point, I don't think that people realize the amount of work that goes into it or the amount of people that are working on it because it is so tight and it is so well told. I think that's just really important for people to realize. So what are some challenges that you've encountered with using data in your storytelling or maybe some tips that you have for doing this successfully?

JULIA: 18:07

I would say the challenges or tips for using data successfully in telling a story, I mean, for me it's data, in general, can be super static, rigid, and somewhat flat to me. And as an artist and a visual artist, I really try to see the balance between zooming in and zooming out on a personal story where there's a resonance of empathy, very privately told observations through the camera and story, to then zoom out and see a pattern of stories that are collective that have the same theme. So it's kind of-- using data is really a tool to shake out and become more flexible in order for the viewer to absorb a situation, a story, a systemic, huge issue. They can absorb it and feel it through an artistic balance and lens, even if they haven't lived it. Data can also be really fascinating and curious. It really fuels curiosity. So it's just really how to not get overwhelmed with the vastness of it and really see it almost like a Monet painting where you can zoom out and you can see the whole lily pond world within the dots and the colors and the layers that are present when you go very, very closer to the pigment and you can see the brushstroke. So it's kind of like that elasticity for me as a filmmaker, where data is really an art form within itself.

MADDIE: 19:51

Yeah, what a beautiful way of putting it.

JULIA: 19:53

Thank you.

JENNER: 19:54

Agreed. Yeah, That was really beautiful.

JULIA: 19:57

Thanks. [laughter]

MADDIE: 19:59

And thank you both so much for joining. I know our audience will really appreciate your insight.

JULIA: 20:03

Thank you so much, Maddie. It was really nice to speak with you.

JENNER: 20:07

Thank you, Maddie. We appreciate being on with you.

MADDIE: 20:12

Thanks for listening. The Pharmacist is available on Netflix, and our show notes can be found at community.alteryx.com/podcast. There you can find links and resources. Chime in on the conversation or join us on social media using the hashtag #AlterEverythingPodcast. Catch you next time.


This episode of Alter Everything was produced by Maddie Johannsen (@MaddieJ).
Special thanks to @jesperwinkelhorst for the theme music track, and @TaraM for our album artwork.