Greetings friends! Barbarella here reporting to you from the frozen lands of Texas. It’s been an insane week here with boiling water notices, half the residents losing power and/or water, and pipes bursting all over the place. Despite the chaos, I was able to connect with writer and director John Swab who was currently living in a hotel room in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a place in which he grew up and knew intimately. John's new feature BODY BROKERS launches today On Demand and Digital. The film delves into a world of addiction, manipulation, and fraud as Utah (Jack Kilmer) tries to find sobriety in a system more concerned with the dollars to be made than the addicts to be saved.
As a kid, I was obsessed with S.E. Hinton books. “The Outsiders” was the first I read, and I read it so many times, I could quote huge sections from memory. I eventually delved into “That Was Then, This is Now,” “Tex,” and “Rumble Fish.” Even though I was speaking with John about BODY BROKERS, I had to know how similar Tulsa was to the author’s portrayal of the city.
Everything that I think that I know about Tulsa, I learned from reading S. E. Hinton books. Was your experience living there anything like those stories?
“Yeah. I grew up here, like you mentioned. We had her books, and that was it in terms of pop-culture stuff that originated here. I went to the high school that THE OUTSIDERS was based on. My parents were around here when they were filming it. So yeah, it's a strange city. It's cool in the regard that it has this forgotten, lost Americana DNA. There are not necessarily kids running around in leather jackets, but there are still elements of that book that are very true to this day. It’s a cool piece that Tulsa has that we're proud of.
BODY BROKERS is fairly autobiographical, right?
“Yeah. Very much so. I've, unfortunately or fortunately, spent, I think, a total of about two and a half years in drug rehabs of all kinds. I was a junkie for ten years. I have about five and a half years of sobriety now. I told my wife when I was writing this, “This is the one opportunity I have to be a total expert on what I'm writing.” I was excited for the opportunity to do that. So yeah, it's autobiographical for the most part.
Would you talk a little about your personal experience with body brokering?
“Yeah. It's interesting, because, and as it outlines in the movie, this all started in 2008 when the Affordable Care Act was signed, and it required all healthcare providers to cover substance abuse treatment. It was only slowly that people really figured out how they could exploit it. I got sober about five and a half years ago. The couple of years leading up to that, I had people pay me to go to treatment centers. There was a time when I was living in a crack house in New Jersey and wanted out. I called one of those 1-800 numbers, and they basically said, "We're going to Western Union you $1,500 right now. Head to the airport. We'll buy you a plane ticket, but you can't show up sober." I was like, "Okay, so you want me to get high?" And they were like, "You just can't show up sober." I flew down there with a bunch of drugs, and the driver from the airport to my treatment center pulled over, and I'm shooting smack and smoking crack in the back of this blacked-out Lincoln Continental till I was done with it. Then he just drove me to treatment.”
“That's one example of many. But I've been paid to go to treatment on a couple occasions, and I've also been paid to recruit people to go to treatment on plenty of occasions. Since I've gotten sober, it's boomed into this really well-refined and oiled cottage industry, where they're making real money, and it's not just a couple of bad eggs. It's actually publicly-traded companies involved in this stuff."
Wow. So how were you able to become sober?
“Meeting good people, meeting people that had good hearts and that were doing it for the right reasons. I went to a lot of treatment centers, like I said, but really the only thing that actually worked for me were twelve-step programs and places where there's no incentive other than they're helping you because it helps them. Nobody’s getting rich. So, that was how it stuck for me.”
How did you first get into writing and filmmaking?
“I don't know. I've always wanted to do it. Like I said, I'm from Oklahoma, and there's really no connection to the film industry other than the movies you mentioned. I wore out the VHS tapes on RUMBLE FISH and THE OUTSIDERS and was determined to figure out how to do that.
“I started writing when I was fifteen. I made a short film when I was, I forget how old, I think I was twenty-one or twenty-two. I just remember watching the footage on that day, the first day we shot, and I was like, "Oh, shit. This looks good. I can do this." I just tried to build on it from there. I work really hard, and I never stop working because I'm always trying to get better, and I work with really good people. I've got a producer that I've done these last three films with who's amazing and plays a huge role in getting these films made. I surround myself with good people, and I work as hard as I can. So that's how I got into it and how I stay in it.”
Regarding casting, what quality or qualities did your lead actors possess that made them perfect for the roles in which you cast them?
“That's tricky. I think Jack, the star, Jack [Kilmer] is a really pure, gentle kid, or guy, I guess he's not a kid. But he has that innocence in his eyes that we wanted for Utah. Alice [Englert], who plays Opal, she's got this very enigmatic, shapeshifter quality that's really special, and I think she did an amazing job in the role. So that's why we thought she might be right there. Michael K. Williams is probably the coolest guy on the planet and one of the most iconic character actors we have. For the role of Wood and the guy who's luring us into this underbelly, what better guy than Michael K.? Melissa Leo is one of the most gracious and elegant people I've ever met, so we thought she was perfect for the therapist. And then Frank Grillo, the guy's like a lightning bolt. Every time he's on camera, you don't know what he's going to do next, and he's got this volatility. It's incredible and one of a kind, so he was perfect for Vin. Then Peter Greene and Jessica Rothe…top to bottom, I was floored with the people that came on to play these characters.”
Would you share a story from the set that would effectively illustrate what it was like working on this?
“I'm trying to think of one. For every day, there's a story. A lot of the locations we filmed in were the places that I used to use drugs, so there was a really cool connection to the reality of this story that I think everybody really appreciated. In terms of stories from the set that kind of illustrate the shoot, we were shooting in real places, whether it was drug-ridden motels to shady doctor's offices that actually performed the drug implants, it's all rooted in truth.”
When you were writing, what were the biggest challenges that you encountered and how did you navigate those?
“This script I wrote in four days, and I wrote the last sixty-seven pages in one afternoon, and it never changed. Because of my connection to the material and to the world that I was writing about, this one just fell out of me in a way that I've experienced since then in doses but never in that profound of a way. There weren't really any complications or anything like that this time because I knew what I was talking about, which is a rarity.”
Well congratulations. Of what aspect of the movie are you most proud?
“I think the ending. When writing it, like I said, it just kind of fell out of me. Every year, I feel like there's about two movies that come out that are addiction themed, and they're always bullshit. For anybody who's an actual recovering addict, they're just riddled with Hollywood tropes and telling you half-truths and not really going the distance. We made a film on a very small budget with some Hollywood actors, thankfully, but we tried to punch above our weight class and tell a story that was truthful from the beginning to the end. I was most proud of being able to tell a story and actually tell the truth, and I think everybody was proud of that.”
Who’s had the biggest impact on you and your career?
“My producer Jeremy, who I do these movies with. He's my partner in crime in all this. My wife, who is also sober and my muse. And then Melissa Leo, who's been a mentor to me. There's three for ya.”
John Swab’s movie BODY BROKERS, with its commanding cast, is part infuriating, part fascinating, and entirely entertaining. Check it out now On Demand and Digital.