While Addiction Incorporated sounds like a depressing chore of a movie-watching experience, it is in fact an incredible underdog story, and an inspirational tale of how one man can overcome personal obstacles to better public health in America. Charles Evans Jr.’s directorial debut traces the life’s work of Victor DeNoble, a former scientist for Philip Morris, who helped expose the tobacco industry’s desire to get America hooked on their addictive drug. DeNoble, who as a child suffered from dyslexia and ADHD, changed the public perception of cigarette smoking, and now devotes his life to speaking to kids, trying to give them information and tools to lead healthy lives. Addiction Incorporated opens today at the Nuart in Los Angeles, and showings today and tomorrow will be followed by Q&As with Evans and DeNoble. I recently spoke with Evans and DeNoble about DeNoble’s life’s work and making Addiction Incorporated.
Jackson Truax: Charles, Addiction Incorporated is your directorial debut, after spending years in various aspects of film production. How did it come to be your first feature?
Charles Evans Jr.: It was a story that I wanted to tell above others… I just focused myself on making it. I came across [DeNoble’s] story in the nineties, and…it really spoke to the idea of…a fellow who wanted to do good to his science. It took a while to figure out how to tell that story… I had to tell the story of the decline of the tobacco industry, to the point where it was regulated… It was a vehicle to tell the story of a man’s exemplary life of service… People can just look at the succession of collisions that happened beginning in 1994. That is riveting… Telling the story of a man who wants to do good I hope will get people in touch with their inclination or their potential to do good.
JT: Victor, what were the initial steps of you being involved? Was this always something you wanted to do?
Victor DeNoble: I testified in front of Congress with my associate Dr. Paul Mele in April of 1994. [Evans] contacted me very shortly thereafter and introduced himself and said that he was a filmmaker and thought that there would be a movie in this… To be honest with you, I didn’t have the vision [Evans] had. [Evans] said, “What you’re doing and how you’re going about it is going to have social consequences ten or twenty years from now. I think that needs to be documented.” Frankly I didn’t see it. I was so involved with the process of working with the government and working with the lawyers. But [Evans] was persistent. The more we talked and the more he got into the story and the more we collaborated…and talked about the science, it became clear as the years went by that this was going to be a really interesting project to be involved with.
CE: If people know the history, hopefully we won’t repeat it. Knowing where we came from with the tobacco industry in the unregulated years. It’s important to remember the brazenness.
JT: Victor, the movie shows your current life’s work of talking to kids about the dangers of tobacco and the science involved. Both there and in front of Congress, you come off as such an eloquent, dynamic, and engaging speaker. The movie hits briefly on your growing up with dyslexia and ADHD when those things weren’t being diagnosed or treated like they are today. Was it easy to overcome them in becoming a public speaker, or was it a challenge?
VD: My childhood was a happy childhood, there’s no question about that. My parents were wonderful. But I always struggled in school. Back in the sixties, when I was in middle school and high school, they didn’t have the diagnostic tools. I was labeled as, “Victor’s not too bright. He’s a slower learner than the rest. He should become a plumber like his father.” Back then, that’s the way they did it. I did struggle in school. I didn’t have so many behavioral issues as I did issues of not understanding what I was being taught. I never had the idea of going to college. It was never on my radar… When I finally did go to college…I took a course and discovered that I had dyslexia. Once they knew what I had, they taught me how to reverse letters and numbers in my brain… I found out I wasn’t as dumb as I thought I was… That was a major turning point in my life, being seventeen-eighteen years old and having such a low self-esteem about myself, and then finding out it doesn’t have to be that way… I meet so many kids on the road that have that low self-esteem for whatever reason. That’s part of the message. You have to believe in yourself before others will believe in you.
JT: By the time you became a public speaker and advocate, was accepting that role easy for you?
VD: It’s very easy for me. I don’t really view it as advocacy, honestly. I view it as education. I never bad-mouth the tobacco industry. I do not tell kids…what they should and shouldn’t do. My job is to tell them how the scientists used the data, “Here’s what I found. You guys evaluate the data.” I think it’s important to give kids tools, so that they can make a decision. Even when we testified in Congress, [Mele] and I were very careful not to be judgmental and not to be advocates. We wanted to say, “Here’s the science. Here’s what happened. You, the American public, judge whether or not this is an appropriate act by an industry.”
JT: One of the things the movie shows is you being very publicly released from your confidentiality agreement with Philip Morris in front of Congress by President William Campbell. Your life’s work since then has been talking about your work at Philip Morris. Has everything you’ve done since been protected under that initial release?
VD: Yes. Once we were released by the President of Philip Morris…that release was made to Congress… We were basically given immunity as long as we told the truth. When we testified before Congress, [Mele] and I both insisted on being placed under oath. That was the only way that we would do it. We wanted to do it because once everything was in the Congressional record, and it was never challenged, that meant we were free to talk about and discuss whatever we talked about in Congress to anybody.
JT: Charles, you have a lot of interesting perspectives on all sides of this issue, including attorney Russ Herman, CBS news producer Keith Summa, Congressman Henry Waxman, and former Philip Morris VP Steven C. Parrish. Was it easy to get everyone to agree to be interviewed?
CE: Pretty much everyone that I approached and asked for an interview, with a few exceptions, wanted to talk and made time in their busy schedules… People seemed to want to help support the telling of this story. I felt really lucky.
JT: The movie features lots of archival footage from various news sources, as well as a number of supporting documents. What was your research process, both in finding the footage and documents, as well as figuring out whom to approach for interviews?
CE: A couple of different phases. Essentially, an awful lot of pulling stuff off the internet and reading it. In terms of…recreating [DeNoble’s] labs…we wanted to rely in documents that we saw that we could identify. Because of the litigation, all of this stuff is available… We were able to put together corporate directories, journals that were kept by scientists and [DeNoble’s] bosses. Stuff about how they were going to fire him the next day… They gave us a look in startling detail, into a world where [DeNoble] lived for four years. That was one part of it. Essentially, a lot of reading through transcripts… About nine months of sitting in doors reviewing documents.
JT: Throughout your entire research process of doing these interviews and reviewing these documents, what did you see, or hear, or learn that surprised you the most?
CE: The most surprising disclosure was from Philip Barnett’s Washington interview. He was and still is [Waxman’s] primary counselor. He mentioned that the subcommittee’s acquisition of [DeNoble’s] paper emboldened them to actually call CEOs to testify, because that’s what they thought of as a smoking gun. They could invite these guys to explain themselves and swear that nicotine was not addictive, when they knew they had evidence in their back pocket…that it was addictive. The “I swear it’s not addictive,” moment causes a direct problem with [DeNoble’s] paper… The subcommittee members knew that these guys were stepping into a trap. Which, aside from producing an iconic moment of book writ arrogance for the ages, they also perjured themselves and the subcommittee knew it. That was a connection that I hadn’t made.
JT: The movie is structured around interviews and archival footage, and these are traditional approaches to documentary filmmaking. Conversely, throughout the film you have these animated sequences that are really creative and innovative and interesting. How did you settle on these approaches, and how did you manage blending them together?
CE: I knew the story that I wanted to tell. I knew the points that I wanted to get across. How do you communicate changes in brain chemistry during a process of addiction without being a talking head or a…graph? I went with animation. It’s a gamble when you don’t know what it will look like, so you’re getting into it and you’re making a commitment that that will carry that part of the movie. You hope for the best. I’m pleased with the result.
JT: Reenactments are still a point of controversy within the documentary community. You’re reenacting experiments of which there is no footage, and doing it in a way that relates to things like you said, like brain chemistry, where it’s hard to communicate visually anyway. Did you every worry about engaging in reenactments of these events? Or was it an easy decision?
CE: I wanted to illustrate the cause-and-effect of how the introduction to a drug leads to the production of dopamine, and a lot of dopamine…and to signify addiction, that’s where the dopamine river came from. To associate it with youth…a time when most addicts are made, it’s in their teens when their hormones are pumping and the early stages can be fun. It just leads to a lot of bad things… I wanted to portray that in the animation. It’s useful when the lab is closed and you feel for a sub-story or community that’s disposed of when the lab is closed.
JT: The film is about a series of events that took place in the eighties and largely in the early nineties, and resulted in a bill that President Obama signed into law in 2009. With that being said, why was it important for you to make this movie right now, and why is it important that people go see it this weekend?
CE: The signing of the bill, giving the FDA the authority to regulate the tobacco industry, gave the film an ending and a structure. Everything from [DeNoble’s] stage of being hired in 1980 through the signing of the bill was the road to regulation. It’s important now, because it’s the most lethal product on Earth. It will take 500,000 American lives this year, as it has in recent history. It’s been a huge killer. People should see this killer, one, because it’s entertaining and shows you an example of a man that with a singular sort of enthusiasm does extraordinary work. And two, because it provides a window into corporate America that we have to remember will see human lives as the cost of doing business and remember that they should be regulated.
VD: I think also it’s very important to see the movie because the fact that the regulation bill has been signed doesn’t mean that they’re regulating. It just means they’re subject to regulation. That’s not going to happen today. It’s not going to happen tomorrow. It may not happen for several years. I think what the film does is that it reminds the public that you’re dealing with an industry that has fought every step of the way [against being] regulated. Has fought every step of the way [against] having any useful manipulation of their product for public health. I don’t want people to get complacent. The history of the tobacco history is a very important history for us to remember.
JT: If everyone goes to see the film this weekend, what’s the biggest impact both of you hope the film will ultimately have?
VD: I think the film reminds us that we still have a lot more work to do. That tobacco is still the number one killer of Americans, the number one cause of disease and death in the country. We’re far from over with it. I think the film also shows us how far we’ve come. You think back to where we were thirty years ago, to where we are today. It’s an amazing, amazing process what we’ve done. Smoke free restaurants, bars, hotels, airports. I think it’s a reminder of where we were and what we should think about. It’s also an acknowledgment of what has been accomplished over the years.
Filed under: LiC Interview