When producer John Goldwyn approached Danny Strong to write and direct a feature film about the opioid epidemic that ravaged America's heartland in the late 1990s , Strong — a double Emmy winner for HBO's Game Change — was up for the challenge.
"The more I researched the story, the more I couldn't believe what happened," he says. "The extent of Purdue Pharma's criminal behavior, the diabolical ways they misled doctors and patients, was shocking to me."
The story itself, too big for the confines of a two-hour film, became the eight-episode Hulu limited series Dopesick, a riveting look at how Americans were duped into addiction by the makers of the prescription painkiller OxyContin.
But the project took an unexpected twist on its way to the screen. Having sold their pitch to 20th Television, Strong and Goldwyn were ready to take it out to the networks. At the same time, Fox 21 TV Studios — unaware that Strong had just sold the story to their sister studio — bought journalist Beth Macy's book, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America, with Warren Littlefield producing.
Strong quickly endorsed the book. "It covered the U.S. Attorney's case; it told the story from the ground up in a special way," he says. The two projects were folded together; Macy, a Roanoke, Virginia–based reporter, cowrote two episodes of the series with Strong.
Set mainly in a depressed Virginia mining town, Dopesick unspools like a thriller, weaving multiple storylines of the late '90s and mid 2000s, when Purdue Pharma — owned by the billionaire Sackler family — goes on trial. (The company reached a settlement in 2007, paying $600 million in fines; in September a federal judge granted the family immunity from all future opioid lawsuits, though the U.S. Department of Justice is seeking to block this decision.)
Michael Keaton stars as a small-town doctor who's initially leery of the "miracle drug" touted by the amiable Purdue salesman (Will Poulter) who regularly brings him lunch. Peter Sarsgaard, Rosario Dawson, Michael Stuhlbarg and Kaitlyn Dever head the ensemble cast.
Strong — who directed two episodes and wrote or cowrote seven of the eight, in addition to executive-producing — juxtaposes the Sacklers' fraudulent marketing tactics with the devastating personal toll they exacted on OxyContin's victims. Composite characters are used to tell the stories of the addicted, who range from mine workers to doctors.
"Instead of telling one person's story," Strong relates, "I thought, why don't I try to combine as many of these stories into as few characters as possible?"
Strong used YouTube videos to capture Appalachian dialects; the production also hired renowned Appalachian author Robert Gipe as a consultant.
News about the case continued to break during production, with Strong inserting new scenes as needed. One revelation, which plays in episode four, centers on a scientific study touted by Purdue as credible evidence that less than 1 percent of users of OxyContin become addicted. But the U.S. Attorney's office discovers that the purported study was actually an obscure letter to the editor published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Born in Manhattan Beach, California, Strong began his Hollywood career as an actor in films and series, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls. But in his early 20s, an actor friend sold a screenplay and convinced Strong he should follow suit.
He began writing scripts at 25, setting a goal to "support myself as a writer by the time I was 32." His first sale was the script that became HBO's limited series Recount, a dramatization of the 2000 presidential election. He was 32. "Now," Strong says, "I'm completely focused on my writing and producing career."
Dopesick, which debuted October 13, is bound to elicit strong emotions. "I hope audiences come away with a more insightful and compassionate understanding of addiction," Strong says, "and how there are paths out that are highly stigmatized but are, in fact, highly effective."
Besides Danny Strong, the executive producers of Dopesick are Barry Levinson (who directed the first two episodes), Michael Keaton, Goldwyn, Warren Littlefield, Beth Macy and Karen Rosenfelt. Dopesick is produced by 20thTelevision, Fox 21 TV Studios, The Littlefield Company and Touchstone Television.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2021