David Yates has spent the better part of the past 15 years in the Wizarding World. The English filmmaker directed every Harry Potter movie from 2007's Order of the Phoenix through Deathly Hallows: Part 2, as well as the first three films in the Fantastic Beasts series. (In all that time, Yates only briefly stepped outside the franchise to helm 2016's The Legend of Tarzan.) As he was busy at work on 2022's Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, though, Yates was simultaneously making plans to step into in a completely different world.
"I'd walk on a snowy set here in England at Leavesden Studios, where we made most of those movies, with wizards everywhere you looked, and a big green screen, and here comes the guy in a puppet suit who will be rendered into a CGI creature of some description," the director recalls. "And then I would go home at night, and there'd be a treatment or a draft of a script from Wells Tower, who is our wonderful writer on Pain Hustlers. It was like an alternate reality."
Inspired by journalist Evan Hughes' book The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup, Pain Hustlers is a true crime dramedy centered around single mother Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), who is scraping by as a stripper until she is recruited to work at a pharmaceutical start-up by a morally bankrupt sales rep, Pete (Chris Evans). Together, they to great — and ultimately criminal — lengths to get doctors to hawk their drug, but at what cost?
"For me, it was just as compelling and just as rich and just as complicated as any big, complicated visual effects movie," Yates says. "And I appreciated the opportunity to explore a completely different landscape and a contemporary one as well."
A.frame: What was it about Pain Hustlers, in particular, that excited you as a filmmaker?
Well, it was a bit of a tightrope walk. Right from the very start, we said we wanted to create something for the audience that was involving, intoxicating, entertaining, but which still left them with something to think about by the end credits rolling. Obviously, you want to honor the seriousness of the subject matter and the fact that this is a pretty heavy thing that's happened in America and is happening to America. But we felt the biggest and best way to bring that message home to people was to bring them into the story, to bring them into that character's journey. Emily plays Liza Drake, and for us, she was an everywoman — someone who we could all relate to and root for. And we were hoping that the audience might get as intoxicated as she does by the rewards that were in front of her, and we wanted to then follow that heady, intoxicating journey, as she realized there were implications to her success, there were consequences to what she was creating and what she was building, and for the audience, ultimately, to suddenly feel, 'Oh my God, this is all going terribly wrong.'
I have to assume that after so many years spent working in such a fantastical world, tackling something fact-based was part of the appeal here.
Yeah. Evan Hughes' book is so meticulously researched and orchestrated, in terms of its detail and the multitude of characters, and we went through a process of very careful adaptation. So, we invented Liza Drake and a few other characters, but they were all inspired by multiple characters in the Insys book. We took a lead from what Evan was creating, but ultimately, we wanted the leeway and the freedom to build our own parable of the American dream, if you like. It was really about, 'When we're all encouraged to reach for huge success and the rewards are high, what sacrifices do you make? And what compromises do you make in terms of your moral framework?' So, Evan's book's like a piece of jazz — it's full of detail — but we wanted to make something more symphonic with Liza's journey. And that's what we did.
What was the inspiration behind framing the film around these mockumentary setups?
That was baked in right from the get go, from the earliest draft of the first script. Because I was completely new to the pharma industry and how it operated, on one level, they were a really clean and simple way of conveying a lot of information to the audience very quickly about how certain aspects of the pharma industry operates. So, Chris Evans doing a monologue about speakers programs, for example, he can do that in a super-fast, super-entertaining way in mockumentary style, and we move on with our story very quickly. It was a great way to condense information and to give the audience the background that they needed to appreciate the context of the story.
What they also offer is, they offer this opportunity to remind the audience subtly that this happened. That sort of mockumentary style climaxes towards the end of the movie with footage of the real players from the Insys story and the court cases and the news items that report the story. So, it's a nod to the fact that we've created some of these characters, but outside, in the real world, this happened.
As you said, Liza was invented for the film. Why was it important for you to frame the story around her, instead of someone like Chris' Pete or a lightly fictionalized version of one of the actual Insys players?
I liked the idea of a single mom, of pivoting the story around someone who you might not always traditionally pivot a film around. I felt it was more intriguing. We loved the idea of a woman who was undervalued, underappreciated, hadn't had a huge amount of higher education, but someone who, nonetheless, was enormously skillful, had high levels of emotional intelligence, was a bit of a dreamer, an idealist, and someone who could connect with people. And those kinds of qualities, we felt, would allow the audience to truly empathize with Liza. We felt we could be compelled by Pete, because he's a bit of a sleazebag and very entertaining for it. But we felt by building the story around Liza, we had a character that the audience could at once root for, which was very important, and then as the film starts to get darker and more complicated, suddenly realize that Liza had some questions to answer and some things to deal with that are uncomfortable and difficult. So, it felt like a good way in for us. And before I'd even read Evan's article in the New York Times Magazine, as we were looking for stories to tell, I'd said, 'Please find me a story about a single mom. We don't often see stories about them.' And so as we started to develop the screenplay, that notion of wanting to lean into Liza's story came to the fore for that reason.
Were there ways in which that character evolved or changed once Emily came on and you began collaborating with her?
The key thing for us always was the balance between how shady to make her and how complicit she was throughout the journey. That was a constant calibration and recalibration. Emily and I and Wells and Lawrence [Grey] were all very keen to make her as complicated and as culpable as possible. We felt that was a more interesting human being than someone who is just there to blow the whistle. And we would've leaned quite a long way that way, we think, but there's always that balance with the company that are financing you, Netflix, saying, 'Look, we've got to really like Liza. We've gotta really root for Liza.' So, if we went too far to make her too complicated and too shady, we'd have this discussion with our financers about how much they audience will root for this woman. Ultimately, we found a balance, I think. But Wells, Emily, Lawrence, and I, we were all in the camp of, 'Let's make it as complicated and as difficult for her as possible, and let's make her as culpable as possible in the latter third.'
Chris Evans, meanwhile, has proven that he is very, very good at playing these sleazeball characters. I have to ask you about one scene in particular: Chris rapping about titration, dressed in a medicine bottle costume and tights. What do you remember about shooting that?
To Chris' credit, we gave him the lyrics to the song literally 20 minutes before we shot it, because we worked so hard to try and find the right tone of song. I'd been promising him the song all week, and I kept saying, 'Chris, the song's coming today. The song's coming.' And we didn't quite get it. We went back to the guys who were creating it for us, and we gave them some more notes, until finally, we were right to the wire. Most actors I know would've said, 'You're kidding me. We're not shooting this now. I've only just got this. Give me another week with it, so I can really work with it!' But to Chris' credit, he was so understanding and gung-ho just to have a go. And the spontaneity of it, I think, added to the sequence. As we were lining up the shots and we were getting the stage lit and we were briefing the extras, he was literally learning the lines off stage. And it's a real testament to him that he didn't make a big deal of it. He just went for it and did a really super job.
I'm glad you mentioned spontaneity. Because there is so much dialogue in this movie, and it is rapid-fire in some of those walk and talks, and the actors have to nail their lines and all of this lingo and terminology. As a director, how do you still create space for spontaneity?
I do multiple takes, one after the other, really quickly. I encourage the actors to just go for it, and rather than calling cut and let's do notes, we go straight away again. George [Richmond], my DOP, won't even cut the camera. We just go again. And I might throw one word in or I might just say 'faster' or 'slower,' and we'll do three or four takes like that. So, by take two or take three, there is a sense of spontaneity and being in the moment. Also, the actors start to discover things, I start to discover things as I'm listening to them. And then, only after maybe three or four go-rounds, I'll call cut. And we'll have a chat, and we'll discuss what's good and what's not working.
The exercise of it really is to allow them to forget that they're acting in front of a camera, and to allow them to find the moment and be in the moment and for it to feel as spontaneous and present as possible. Every actor I've ever worked with loves doing it, and it gives you a real momentum and it gives you a real pace. And it's enjoyable too, because Emily or Chris or especially Andy García and Catherine [O'Hara], they would start improvising. I love improvisation. I encourage improvisation. I think it shakes everything up, turns things on its head, and even if after the improvised session, you then go back to what is on the page, it just loosens up all the muscle groups and allows people to be truly inventive. So, it's keeping the process as spontaneous and in the moment as possible.
I tried to apply the same rules to some scenes in those big, visual effects films, but with the Beast films and the Potter films, you can't do that. Because there's a big green screen and a very technically complicated movement you have to get right with the bloke on a string who's pretending to be a monster. Everything has to be calibrated around the stuff that's in the frame that's not the acting, which is profoundly frustrating if you are a director like me, who absolutely adores the moment where an actor delivers something that feels truly authentic. Those are the moments I live for, when I'm in a room and it can be literally the size of a cupboard, but I've got Chris Evans and Emily Blunt and they find something together that makes everyone around me — the crew, the cameraman, the sound guy — lean in. Because they recognize there's a moment of truth between these two people. Those are the moments I love.
By John Boone