David Yates, perhaps best known for directing four “Harry Potter” movies (and three “Fantastic Beasts” spin-off films) is back with a much more down-to-earth project. “Pain Hustlers,” based on a 2018 New York Times Magazine article by Evan Hughes that was expanded into a book last year, traces the lives of a pair of pharmaceutical reps (played by Emily Blunt and Chris Evans) who play a key role in the opioid epidemic that has swallowed the country. As it turns out the American healthcare system was just as otherworldly to Yates as anything J.K. Rowling could have dreamed up.
Yates’ colleague Lewis Taylor sent him the original article and Yates was blown away. “I read the article and what immediately attracted me was it portrayed a healthcare system and an industry that was so far removed from anything I knew in the UK. It seemed extraordinary that these practices were taking place when it came to the whole industry of looking after people,” Yates told TheWrap.
“That was exciting and intriguing to me coming from a national health system basis in the UK. And I was looking for a drama, I guess, having spent a long time doing various wizard films. I wanted a drama based in the real world, a social issue-based drama that was part of the national conversation. And this had all of that and to boot, it also had a bunch of characters in situations that felt very vivid and extraordinary.”
Together with producer Lawrence Grey and screenwriter Wells Tower, Yates said, they “came together four years ago or so and we sort of built the screenplay from the ground up.” Far from being intimidated by capturing a world removed from his British upbringing, Yates said he was “excited” by the possibility. “It was part of the appeal and the attraction of diving into that world and exploring it,” Yates said.
“Pain Hustlers” is lean and mean, with Blunt and Evans (and a superbly unsettling Andy Garcia as the head of the pharmaceutical firm) all giving terrific performances but without the cumbersome complications of massive visual effects or other technical hurdles. It was enough to wonder if Yates could have slotted this movie into his ongoing commitments to the “Fantastic Beasts” movies, which were at one point scheduled to stretch across five movies.
“The plan was really to just develop the script and Sony picked it up originally. We built it originally for Sony. Then we went into turnaround and took it to market to Cannes last year, and then Netflix came in,” Yates explained. “The plan, as ever, when you develop things, you develop half a dozen things at a time and you kind of go, ‘Well, hopefully that will fit into the schedule.’ And this one fit into the schedule. I finished ‘Secrets of Dumbledore’ and we released that last year and we took this to Cannes. Netflix stepped up with a good offer and we flowed straight into production. As these things often happen, it was part planned, but partly things just aligned in the way that you hope they sometimes do.” Yates said the Netflix version of the movie is nearly identical to the one they initially developed for Sony.
As much as he loved his time in the Wizarding World, Yates said that the process of making “Pain Hustlers” was a breath of fresh air – literally. “It was really invigorating to be outside, real locations, on the road doing three locations a day. The contrast couldn’t have been greater,” Yates said. For the filmmaker it was like a return to his roots.
“I started in British television making stories, dramas predominantly, and that’s what put me on the radar with Hollywood. But they were all location-based, real world stories with a very earthy agenda,” Yates said. It was these projects that “catapulted” him into the Wizarding World and projects like “The Legend of Tarzan.” But “Pain Hustlers” took him back. “It felt like I was coming home, I was coming back to the kind of work that I always enjoyed doing. And it was great to dive back into that kind of stuff,” Yates said.
You can feel certain touchstones in “Pain Hustlers” – the kitchen sink dramas of English auteur Ken Loach and Mike Leigh are nestled alongside the candy-colored vibrancy of Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project.” But first and foremost to Yates was the story – both the original article and the screenplay by Wells Tower, which he described as “massive creative opportunities.” Well, that and Florida itself.
“Everything about that Floridian landscape seemed to lend itself to the slightly more outrageous elements of this story, Yates said. “It was a series of images and photographs that I’d seen that I just thought, Whoa. This could be quite a fun context for our story. Obviously there are lots of movies that you see that kind of inspire and excite you, but these photographs I’d seen were quite fun of Florida and Wells’ writing and his sort of hold on character was kind of fun.”
Yates was also keenly aware that other projects about the opioid epidemic were being developed, which helped him solidify the tone and style of “Pain Hustlers.” “We decided really early on, right from the first draft, to take a more playful, subversive approach to the storytelling,” Yates explained.
Comedy quickly became “a huge part of the experience for the audience.” “I think if you’re going to bring an audience into a film, you really want to entertain them and beguile them to get the message across,” Yates said. Humor has been such a big part of everything I’ve ever made, even my thriller, ‘State of Play,’ or all the early television work, however serious the story was, it was always embedded with a bit of irony or subversive humor.” This was another way Yates was able to harken back to the work that he “used to love doing – social issue drama, touching on lots of bigger themes and ideas to do with capitalism and how we choose to organize our lives to be successful.” But, of course, with “some real wit and some real dark humor.” Both are very much present in “Pain Hustlers.”
Another way that “Pain Hustlers” sets itself apart from other stories about the opioid crisis is how small it is – the entire narrative is shot through a prism of these pharmaceutical reps. It’s not the story of Big Pharma or lapses in the American healthcare system, although you get glimpses of all that.
“We wanted to look at the grassroots. I’m intrigued by salespeople and the whole business of sales. And because our whole life and the way we orchestrate our societies in the West, it’s based on sales. It’s based on the need to maximize profit,” Yates said. “It’s the ideology that we all embrace. It’s brought as many benefits and it’s been hugely helpful in some ways. But when it gets out of control, it goes a bit nuts and dodgy things can happen. And to navigate that, to really zone in on a single character, Liza Drake [Blunt’s character] who’s a fictional character that we created, made a lot of sense to us. She’s an everywoman. We could all relate to her. She’s someone who’s trying to do the best she can for her kid. She’s someone who’s never had the validation that she deserves. She didn’t really get a high education, but she’s ambitious and she’s persistent.”
Instead of looking “at the whole hierarchy of the pharma world,” Yates said, “I was more intrigued by the grassroots, in the thickets, low rent element of it. And that to me appealed more as a world to be in than trying to do the whole thing.” In other words: Yates wrote the perfect prescription.
“Pain Hustlers” will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released in select theaters on October 20, 2023 and will be on Netflix on October 27.
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