'Painkiller': Pete Berg explores 'outrageous' influence of OxyContin boss

Starring Matthew Broderick, the six-part series about the origins of the U.S. opioid crisis premieres on Netflix on Wednesday.

Uzo Aduba and Matthew Broderick star in "Painkiller." Photo courtesy of Netflix
1 of 5 | Uzo Aduba and Matthew Broderick star in "Painkiller." Photo courtesy of Netflix

NEW YORK, Aug. 10 (UPI) -- Pete Berg -- a filmmaker known for spotlighting, not exploiting the stories of ordinary Americans -- says he wanted to produce and direct the Netflix drama, Painkiller, because he personally knows people whose lives have been destroyed by OxyContin, heroin and alcohol abuse.

"I tend to connect to the humanity in real stories. If it's Friday Night Lights, I spend time with football players. If it's Lone Survivor, I spend time with Navy SEALS. For Deepwater Horizon, I went and lived on an oil rig. I like immersing myself in those realities," Berg told UPI in a Zoom interview Monday.


"I knew so many people who dealt with addiction, it was easy for me to find the connection to the everyday truth of this story [in Painkiller]."

Set to premiere Wednesday, the limited series is a fictionalized retelling of the origins and aftermath of Purdue Pharma's role in the U.S. opioid crisis.


"I had known a bit about Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family and how they operated and how they had been so successful in making so much money and killing so many people," Berg said.

"I was inspired and I felt as though it would be something that I would have a lot of creative momentum going into."

The series is based on Barry Meier's book, Pain Killer, and Patrick Radden Keefe's New Yorker magazine article, "The Family That Built the Empire of Pain."

It chronicles how the Sacklers, wealthy owners of Purdue Pharma, marketed OxyContin to injured, working-class in rural communities by telling their doctors the drug wasn't addictive when they knew users would quickly become dependent on it, craving more pills at higher dosages.

"The show, like my book, is about power and greed and the dangers of self-delusion," said Meier, who served as a consulting producer on the series.

"It's a crime story, but it's also the story of a tragedy that started 20 years ago that could have been stopped or blunted at any point, but it was allowed to go on and today we are reaping the fury of it."

Since OxyContin's release in 1995, more than 200,000 Americans have died from prescription painkiller-related overdoses.


Purdue Pharma LP pleaded guilty in 2020 to criminal charges over the handling of OxyContin.

In 2022, the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma agreed to a new settlement to resolve lawsuits in almost every state over their connection to the opioid crisis.

The family also signed off on a bankruptcy plan with states that had been holding out on an earlier agreement. The settlement is intended to free billions of dollars for opioid addiction treatment nationwide.

Berg said he doesn't oppose capitalism, but is adamant that one person or company's success shouldn't come at the expense of others' health and safety the way Purdue Pharma's did.

"The more I learned about how Purdue operated and how they were able to get a drug -- that is essentially heroin in a pill -- mass distributed and prescribed and approved by the [Food and Drug Administration], the more I really became a believer that we can't trust certain companies," he said.

"We should fact check. We should think twice. If you're going to put a pill in your body, you should really ask yourself: 'Why am I putting this pill in my body? Who's making money off of this?'

"Because if you even slightly unpack the OxyContin story, you realize that we were influenced by people who really didn't care about our welfare, who cared about making as much money as they possibly could, and that is kind of outrageous."


Executive producer Eric Newman, who previously worked on Netflix's Narcos, said he wanted to get involved in Painkiller after reading Meier's book and after the legal proceedings against the Sacklers and Purdue.

"It became a mission to tell this story as loudly as we can," Newman said, explaining he wants justice for the people whose lives were ruined by the over-prescription of OxyContin and the assurance that something like this can't happen again."

In the course of making the six-episode drama, Newman met many people who had lost loved ones to prescription drug overdoses.

"It always began with an absence of information, an absence of the truth and the misguided and mislaid trust in healthcare professionals and pharmaceutical reps and, in many cases, government regulators," he said.

Even if their lives haven't been directly touched by the opioid crisis, viewers will likely connect to the series' depiction of power dynamics and how there seems to be two systems of justice in the United States.

"There is one for the very rich and one for everybody else," Newman said. "That is a very dominant theme in this -- the victimization of the little guy and then blaming them for their victimization."


The series casts Ferris Bueller's Day Off and The Producers alum Matthew Broderick in the role of Richard Sackler, a physician and the billionaire chairman-president of Purdue Pharma.

"First of all, it was kind of a bucket list item to direct Ferris Bueller," Berg said.

"People throw the word 'icon' around, but he was kind of an icon of mine," he added. "I was excited to meet him. He's a very interesting guy. It's hard to always understand exactly where he is coming from. I thought that would be interesting, for that type of personality to play what could be perceived as just a villain."

The filmmaker noted that Broderick portrays Sackler with a twinkle in his eye and the hint of a smile.

"The Richard Sackler that he has created certainly doesn't think of himself as being a bad guy," Berg said.

"There's a boyish quality to him and a real likability to Matthew Broderick. It was a pleasure to work with that and I think he served the role very well."

Newman agreed.

"When you are telling the story of Pablo Escobar or Richard Sackler, these aren't characters people are going to inherently like. You're not [going to]. You can't. There's a villainy to them, in some cases, a sociopathy, that makes it really difficult to get next to that person," the producer said.


"Casting can really help mitigate that if you have a Wagner Moura or Matthew Broderick playing them. Instantly, you go into it thinking: 'Oh, I like that guy! It's Matthew Broderick!'" Newman added.

"What that allows him to to do as an and us to do as storytellers is take us on this ride that begins -- I won't say 'innocuously' -- but you are definitely not near as angry in the beginning of our show as you are at the end and that is by design."

Painkiller co-stars Uzo Aduba, Taylor Kitsch, Dina Shihabi, West Duchovny, John Rothman, Clark Gregg, Jack Mulhern, Sam Anderson, Ana Cruz Kayne, Brian Markinson, Noah Harpster, John Ales, Johnny Sneed and Tyler Ritter.

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