Screenshot of Tommy Swerdlow from The House Itself trailer.
You’ve probably never heard of the screenwriter Tommy Swerdlow, but if your childhood overlapped with the 1990s, he was likely a part of it. With his writing partner Michael Goldberg, he penned classics Cool Runnings, Little Giants, and Snow Dogs. This week on Reddit, he announced that he did all of that while high on heroin.
Tommy’s gotten sober since he made the world fall in love with Jamaican bobsledders and chubby football-playing kids; his addiction forced him to have open-heart surgery in 2007. Since then, he’s recorded an album, Twenty Years, with his ex-wife and their band Sad Girl and shot a short film inspired by his drug years. He’s now adapting it into a feature called The House Itself with some of his friends from AA. For the next 13 days, they’re raising money on Indiegogo. I called Tommy to talk about their movie, how heroin helped him lead a productive work life, and why he stopped writing children's movies.
The trailer for The House Itself.
VICE: How did you become a screenwriter?
Tommy Swerdlow: I came to LA on my 21st birthday [in 1983]. I was an actor in New York, and I had always been a poet. I got a bunch of leads in movies that fell through. Finally, I just got a little fed up with it. I wrote this two-character play called the Grabelski Concertos, which was the first full-length thing I'd ever written. My actor friend Freddy brought in his friend to direct it, Michael Goldberg, who ended up being my writing partner on all those movies. Michael was not a writer, but we started writing together, and then we wrote a movie about my family. An agent named Jay Maloney, who ended up committing suicide, read the story, loved it, and got us out there.
Were you already using?
I quit acting in about '88 or '89. I was strung out from '89 on. I went to rehab and came out in '90. I was living in a weekly room. I was using as the career took off. And it was unusual. It made no sense, of course. My career allowed my drug use to go on and gave me the illusion that I could function that way.
How did you end up writing family movies? It doesn’t seem like you set out to do that.
We went in to meet on Cool Runnings. The guy who now does the Despicable Me movies, Chris Meledandri, was Cool Runnings executive producer Dawn Steel's right man at that point, and he worked the script with us. I started off writing Sanka having sex with snow bunnies and smoking pot, you know what I mean? Fucking the Scandinavian ski team and smoking spliffs. And Chris would just move it a little bit here, a little bit here, and he slowly—without ever taking any of my passion away—just moved it into this family G-rated movie. And then because of Cool Runnings, we became known as guys who could deliver this family entertainment.
Did Michael Eisner or Steven Spielberg know you were an addict when they hired you?
Never. The only person who knew was my partner. Nobody was ever sanctioning it. Anyone who found out wanted me immediately to go get help.
How did you manage to use and stay productive?
The people I know who smoke pot have a lot harder time than I did. I had a partner who took on the responsibilities of being a social mouthpiece, and I was allowed to sit there with the blank page a few hours a day, and he would take them home and do the notes. I was free from adult responsibility of what it really means to be a screenwriter.
Did drugs destroy your love for screenwriting?
No. What happened was my partner got very sick. In 2000, he got cancer, and could no longer work. He didn't die, but he got very sick. And that was depressing. I started making music with my wife then.
So that’s why you weren’t working?
I did a bunch of TV pilots, but none of them made it. Michael and I tried to get back together and did a gig on that Nim's Island movie. They really didn't like our script, but they paid us. And I kept using. I made a record which I think is great with my band Sad Girl, but that was not paying me. I was doing the occasional TV work, making a little money here and there. Then in 2007 I got incredibly sick [from using].
I couldn't stop—I went to 25 rehab centers, and I was unwilling to go through the pain of withdrawal. I wasn't even that bad of a drug addict. I was a bad detoxer. I got so sick I had to have open-heart surgery. It was endocarditis, which is where a valve next to the heart valve is inflamed [and is indirectly caused by heroin use].
Many addicts return to using after hospitalization. How did you stay sober after surgery?
It was so traumatic that I had to get off. It was over. Fate had done for me what I couldn't do for myself. I started going to meetings. It was a level of consequences that were so severe that it finally got my attention.
What made you and your AA buddies decide to make the short film you’re now trying to turn into a feature film?
I had two friends in this Thursday night meeting that we have, Blake and my good friend TJ. I got this idea to write a short little movie. I just have this idea in my head that Blake would start off robbing someone going, "I'll do it, I'll do it.” It came out really well.
It’s a wonderful thing, because we have no romantic ideas about what that life is. The movie is about three guys doing their job from sunup to sundown. They have no money, and they can't get what they need, and they are willing to do whatever they can to get it. There will be no drugs in the movie. There won't be any needles. It’s all about longing and love and this place of desire and three little boys who can't grow up. It’s Waiting for Godot, except we try to go get Godot.
Has this experience helped you understand why you had turned to drugs?
In retrospect, I think all human beings long for some kind of structure in their lives. Drug addiction allowed me to be sneaky and have incredible structure. I have to wake up and do this. I have to get this. There is always a ticking clock. It’s always going through my system. It tells me what to do at all times. It’s a devil structure, but it’s still a structure, and I must have structure, so now I'm trying to structure myself by going to meetings and making movies. I am an unstructured creative sort of visceral person who must turn to the dark, if I can't structure myself to the light.
More about drug recovery:Why Are There So Many Mentally Ill Drug Addicts in Cornwall?