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How I Came to Terms with My Dad’s Lies, Charm and Heroin Habit

Meet filmmaker Phillip Wood, who turned his lens onto his father to patch up their broken relationship and understand substance abuse disorders.

by Max Daly
16 April 2016, 12:00am

Philip Wood, the filmmaker's dad (Photo: BBC, Rare Day, Phillip Wood)

Britain's estimated 120,000 injecting drug users don't have the best rep. They're often seen en-masse as "lazy junkies" and petty criminals who leech off the state in between getting their doors busted down during cops-on-camera TV shows. But to many people they are sons, daughters, fathers and mothers – and are dying at record rates.

Living with a family member who has a substance abuse disorder isn't easy. According to drug charity Adfam there are between 200,000 and 300,000 children in the UK living with at least one parent who struggles with addiction, and those kids can be seven times more likely to develop drug problems themselves as a result.

Filmmaker Phillip Wood had been estranged from his heroin-addicted father for 15 years. When he heard last March that the 53-year-old's health was failing, Phillip, now 31, decided it was time he tried to understand his dad. Before then, they'd never had a proper conversation. The result is new film Chasing Dad: A Lifelong Addiction, where Phillip enters his father's chaotic world, with a camera as his witness, for several months. He sees addiction up close while trying to break through his dad's habit of lying and search for some kind of reconciliation for them both.

I caught up with Phillip to ask him what it was like making such an emotionally difficult film on a subject that's so often sensationalised or brushed under the carpet.

VICE: Hi Phillip, the film hits really hard. What made you do it?
Phillip Wood: My dad was careering towards death. I felt that this was my last chance to sort stuff out, and he was so natural on camera that I knew it was the right thing to do. There was a burning desire to get answers to questions I've carried with me for longer than I'd like to remember.

Didn't the camera make it harder?
No, the camera was like an intermediary. I couldn't even face picking up the phone to him, and I really didn't like him, but I thought this was the only way – to have a camera between us. It made the process somewhat easier.

The film depicts your dad's chaotic life: endless "friends" dropping by, police and his eviction. What was it like being parachuted into his world?
He was a compelling individual to document, and it worked on film because he is unfazed by the camera. I found him magnetic and charismatic, yet equally repulsive and maddening. I wanted to show, beyond the actual addiction of the drug itself, the environment in which an addict can function for over 30 years.

It was quite exhausting keeping up with the daily dramas of his world, but I found the underground economy within which he functions infinitely fascinating. But there's nothing positive or romantic about that world. What you are dealing with is unpredictable, bleak and gut-wrenching.

Your dad tries to maintain the lie that he is off heroin. How did that make you feel?
Lying underpins the whole film; it's hard to work out what is truth and what's not. One of the reasons that it was hard for me to build a relationship with my dad was because I couldn't trust that he was ever telling the truth. I never knew how long the lies would persist, and it made me question everything about myself.

He said he couldn't be truthful because lying was habitual, and that he feared I'd leave him if he told me everything. I told him that he didn't have to lie and that even though I knew what was going on, I would still turn up.

Father and son reunited for the film, after more than a decade apart

Your dad was addicted to heroin when you were born. What can you remember about growing up?
One of the earliest memories of him was when he came home when I was around four years old with a beautiful puppy – a Basset hound. I think that was the only happy memory I have of him, other than the odd result at the bookies. Like many others in a similar situation, it was pretty obvious growing up that he was in a bad place. The main thing is that I didn't understand why we were left alone to deal with it. We were children.

Did the fact he apologised for being a bad father help you in any way?
It's a difficult question to answer. A lot of people have their own interpretation. He's not a monster, but there are complex and deep issues going on. Maybe the film was his way of saying sorry.

In the film your sister says she pities your father, "for what he could have had, for what he's had and lost, for having a life that no one would want". What did you learn about addiction that you didn't know before?
His world is very chaotic, and although the phone is always ringing and people are always knocking on the door, it's actually a very lonely place to be. I understand him and the wider situation a lot more. It's a very different world and set of rules that they operate in. You can see how you could get trapped in a never-ending circle.

What I understand less is how he's been able to fall through all the cracks of society. For me, his situation also paints a stark picture of how inadequate our understanding of addiction is, and how society deals with it. I don't want to sound like I am defending addicts, but I find it perplexing that there is still an arms-length approach from the authorities for helping long-term addicts. I wish there were more intelligent, comprehensive and evidence-led approaches to help families and addicts dealing with addiction.

What was the hardest scene to film?
At one point, after a hospital visit when they couldn't extract blood from his veins, he was told he would die within 18 months if he continued [using heroin]. We walked to the bus stop and he saw one of his mates there. They had a joke and his mate pulled out some cans of super-strength lager. We were back to where we started, ten minutes after he'd been given a death warning.

What do you think people will take from this film?
One hope of the film is that it can help people see beyond the stereotypes of substance abusers and alcoholics. I think my dad and his girlfriend are both intelligent people who clearly have deep-rooted, complex issues.

It's a film that should get under your skin. I watched every episode of The Sopranos before making it, for Tony and Dr Melfi's exchanges. They were all talking and talking, both lying to each other – as we all do – to get to a bigger truth. That is the message of the film in some ways: talking and talking and talking can help you see through it, but it requires patience, perseverance and honesty.

Thanks for talking to me, Phillip.

Chasing Dad is out now on BBC Three.

@narcomania

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