Snorting lines, having chemical-laden sex, stealing, dirty hotel rooms—there's no shortage of these images in Hollywood movies that feature heavy drug use. But what is often left out is the period of recovery that those who make it out from the other side of addiction must face. In Ashley McKenzie's first feature-length film, Werewolf, she tackles the unseen struggle of trying to get your life together when you're addicted to opioids and living life between methadone doses.
Set on the east coast of Canada, Werewolf explores the almost beautifully mundane existence of Blaise and Nessa, a young, codependent couple, who are outcasts in their small town.
VICE met up with McKenzie after the world premiere of Werewolf at the Toronto International Film Festival to find out more about why she chose to spend years researching and writing a film about methadone treatment and to see how she feels about it coming out during a time when opioid overdose deaths have reached record levels in Canada and the US.
VICE: Werewolf was inspired by a friend of yours, right?
McKenzie: There were a lot of things that happened. Years ago, there were a lot of young people trying to go out [where I live] and mow lawns to make money to pay for their drugs. That was an uncommon thing to have on your doorstep. Usually you don't see it; it more happens behind closed doors. When I saw that couple, it just felt super cinematic. It felt like the opening of a film when I saw them going to my neighbor's house, knocking on the door, walking in.
But yeah, a friend of mine named Phil [Tarr] who was in the band Mess Folk said, "Put me in a movie!" I like working with people who haven't acted before. When I was moving home to Cape Breton, I was driving home, and I thought, He would really work well if I did that lawnmower movie. He could totally play the male part. I started writing it with him in mind. Within a few months, he had passed away, and that reaffirmed the need to tell the story because it really felt like there was a story that needed to be told about young people back home. All of the sudden, it was personal... He committed suicide.
You've said that you like to bring your personal experiences to your filmmaking too. What does that look like in the context of Werewolf?
I was in a romantic relationship with my best friend that went toxic, and severing that bond was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I never expected that to happen. When I think of the whole werewolf thing, the transformations that happen in relationships, or if you have any sort of addiction, it's that you can end up somewhere you really didn't expect to go.
You can see that motif of codependency present throughout the film. I found it interesting that it didn't just address addiction, but also those relationships that develop between two people who are involved romantically and have addiction mixed up in everything.
They're sort of conflated, and that's what I was trying to understand... I often wasn't thinking about the film as an addiction film in a drug sense. I was thinking of it in a bigger context, trying to understand the dependency problems we seem to have... Why do we over-rely on one person? Why do we over-rely on a substance? I didn't really find all the answers, but I was trying to pry into that... I think it's something about being isolated. When you're isolated, you just don't have a variety of healthy options to balance, so you over-depend on single things. There's some sort of island complex or something.
How prominent of an issue is drug addiction in the area of Canada you're from?
The steel and mining industries collapsed, and there were a lot of steelworkers and miners on prescription drugs. Then everyone lost their jobs, became economically depressed; obviously people are stressed out, which leads to dependency. Then there was a prescription drug abuse problem. I don't know if you've seen the documentary Cottonland, but that was shot in Glace Bay and industrial Cape Breton and was about opioid drug abuse. The industries collapsed in 1999 and 2000; then in 2004, they introduced the methadone program.
Many films about drugs focus more on the period of addiction rather than recovery. Why did you choose to focus on the latter for Werewolf?
I think it was actually when I was talking to people about the couple I saw. That's when I first started to learn about the methadone program. I was working somewhere at the time, and there was a guy working in the same building who was on the methadone program, and he had just gotten a job placement. There was a couple of years where the methadone program had an employment incentive too, a reintegration thing. After that, I just knew it was really commonplace, and I thought if I was going to make a film about a young couple who are homeless and in their late teens or early 20s, chances are they would be on methadone.
I just wanted to do something different, too, as far as the portrayal of drugs in movies. We're used to seeing—as I'm sitting in front of a Trainspotting poster right now—I couldn't really imagine doing the Iggy Pop, lust for life, running down the street, stealing... Even though that comes up in the film, I just didn't think the energetic, glamorous side of addiction—the high highs and the low lows—felt like me. It didn't feel honest. I just naturally gravitated toward methadone because it was way more mundane, but maybe even more dramatic or horrific in some way. There's something about the banality of that struggle where you're not getting those big hits; there's no highs anymore. The lows aren't as low either, but you still have to find the motivation to say no to that other life you're trying to leave behind every single day.
Did you have anyone work on the film who had firsthand experience with opioid addiction?
A friend of mine who had worked on one of my short films, he went through losing everything and then going on the methadone program. He still is on the methadone program, but he was an actor who stopped acting in that period of time in his life when he was really caught up in drugs, and then he got back into acting with one of my short films. I saw he was part of the actor's guild in Cape Breton... we contacted him and asked him if he was free, and he said, "I'd love to audition. I haven't acted in ten years, but I don't think I can because I don't have any teeth." We were like, "Actually, that's perfect for us. It will be more authentic."
He came in to audition, and he was the best actor in the room. We cast him right away. That was on my film Stray. He was someone who was a wealth of information when I started to write Werewolf, and he worked on the film as crew. He shared so much, and I met with other people on methadone... In one case, one of the people we cast was on the methadone program, but I didn't really know that. We just started shooting with them, and they were like, "Oh, I gotta go to Sydney now to get my dose."
For the pharmacy scenes, those appear to be in an actual pharmacy. How did you get them to let you film that?
We called every pharmacy in Cape Breton and tried to tell them it was a love story, and still no one was interested in letting us shoot in their pharmacy. Obviously there are lots of touchy things that have happened—people have overdosed in their pharmacies. They make a lot of money off people on methadone. We were like, "Shit, what are we going to do?" Then we were walking next to the methadone clinic in Glace Bay, and I had been there several times over the years when I was doing my research. But this time, I walk next to the methadone program in the strip mall, and there was a sign for Black Diamond Pharmacy, and I'm like, "What's this?" This is brand new, and it was closed the day we walked by, but we looked in and were like, "Is this a movie set?" It looked like it was production-designed to be a pharmacy. We were actually like, "If we shoot here, we have to make it look less than the way it is."
My producer googled them, and they had a Twitter account... We direct-messaged them on Twitter, and they were like, "Awesome, contact us!" We were like who are these people? It was almost like they appeared out of nowhere... and they were super supportive.
I have a friend who is in a similar opioid addiction treatment program, and the struggles you see in your film—even just getting trained for a minimum-wage job at an ice cream shop—are so real. It's interesting for Werewolf to be coming out at the moment because there's such a widespread problem with opioids right now.
If it can provoke discussion and have people start talking about that issue, that's great. I sort of make my films in a bubble; so much of making this film was a private, personal process... If the film can come out at a time where it will mean something to people and people can connect with it... I'm not trying to say any super clear thing with the film, I was just trying to explore ideas and things that were happening around me and my life that I didn't understand and wanted to understand. Now I just want to let it go and let people interpret and connect with it in any way they want to.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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