Born to hippie artists, Jeremiah Zagar grew up in South Philly spending most afternoons in a dark movie theater or wandering the aisles of his local TLA video store. Later, on trips home from Emerson College, he started filming his parents, resulting in the documentary, In A Dream, which premiered at the SXSW Film Festival and screened theatrically across the US and in film festivals around the world. It was broadcast on HBO, shortlisted for an Academy Award and received two Emmy nominations, including Best Documentary. His next feature-length documentary, Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival and aired on HBO to much fanfare in 2014. He directed and co-wrote the feature We The Animals – based on Justin Torres’ best-selling novel of the same name – which was selected for the Sundance Directing and Screenwriting Lab fellowships and premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. His latest work, the documentary series The Fix, based on Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, is now streaming on Roku.j
Four years ago, I was driving home from the office listening to the TED Radio Hour on WNYC. It was raining hard, but I remember Johann Hari’s voice cutting through the patter: “Almost everything you think you know about addiction is wrong.” I pulled over after his talk and cried.
My brother struggled with addiction for years. When I was young, I revered him. He was handsome, funny, and a brilliant musician. He taught me to swim and bought me my first cassette tape. I grew long, messy dreadlocks to look like him. But as I got older and his dependence on drugs got worse, I began to resent and pity him for his weakness and cruelty. When we were together, I often feared for my safety and his.
At the time, everyone told me to cut him out of my life. They said he had a disease and that he’d only get better after hitting rock bottom. I was told by health professionals that for my own wellbeing, I had to cut him out of my life. For a while I followed that advice, to varying degrees.
But after listening to Johann’s TED Talk, my view of him changed completely. Johann provided an empathetic, human perspective on addiction, challenging both “the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain.” What I can say is that in an instant my resentment and pity transformed into empathy and understanding.
I bought Johann’s book Chasing the Scream that very night. And after reading it, I gave it to my producing partner, Jeremy Yaches. We wrote Johann and told him we wanted to make his book into a show. That we wanted to give others the sense of empathy and understanding his work had given me. Johann connected us with producer Jeff Hays, who owned the rights, and as fate would have it, Jeff had already been in touch with Geralyn Dreyfous and Story Syndicate about the project. Geralyn executive produced our first film, In a Dream, and is one of our closest and most trusted collaborators. It felt like kismet to everyone involved. This show was meant to be. So we began pitching it to networks.
Everyone turned us down. It was too controversial, too intense, too much, too fast. But then came Quibi (Thank you Jihan Robinson!!! And Jeffrey Katzenberg!)
We envisioned the show as eight 10-minute episodes formatted as “Ken Burns on speed.” Or “the first few minutes of Magnolia in documentary form.” It was intense, life-and-death material, so we decided early on to add some levity and thrill to the storytelling in order to bring the message of the book to a new audience. The idea was to pack as much information and fun into as few minutes as possible, so you could watch a full episode on the subway, at the office, or on the toilet.
We decided to do the show as a Public Record family. Public Record is the production company I am part of, and nearly everyone in it has either grappled with addiction themselves or had to deal with its effects on their loved ones. Nathan Caswell co-ran the show with me and directed and edited three episodes. Cassidy Gearhart directed and edited two episodes and Josh Banville directed one and edited three. Matt Lombardi adapted the book into 10-page scripts, which was an enormous challenge. Matt, Nate, Josh and I met at Emerson and have been working with each other for 20 years. Jeremy and I met when we were 12 and have been making movies together since high school. We started shooting during the height of the pandemic, directing interviews via Zoom, as our production team helped to organize shoots with more than 50 interview subjects in dozens of cities around the world. Our D.P. Adam Uhl created a look for the show and our crews in each city shot while wearing full PPE (this was new at the time, and very strange to all of us). Johann was with us through the whole process, generously giving feedback on casting, the scripts and many iterations of the edits.
When the show was wrapping up, we batted around ideas for the narrator. Samuel L. Jackson was our dream (his narration in Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is the absolute greatest). There was no way we were ever going to get him, we told ourselves, but why not try?
So we sent him the rough cuts, he dug it, agreed to do it, and then he fucking crushed it!!!
I cannot tell you how excited we all were. The Fix was entertainment, catharsis and re-education all in one. It had the potential to change people’s hearts and minds. But a week before we were supposed to deliver, what happened? Quibi went out of business.
For a few months, we wallowed in depression. Then Quibi was sold to Roku, and we got a new release date. Now, four years after that first car ride in the rain, the show is out there in the world. And the best part is that it’s free – anyone can watch it anywhere in the U.S. So, if you have a few minutes and want to learn a little something along the way, turn on your Roku or just click here.
In many ways, I made the show in honor of my brother (who, by the way, is doing really well these days). I wish I had it as reference for myself, back when his addiction became so acute. Maybe I would have been more of a help to him. A better brother, a better friend or, at the very least, a better listener. I hope it will be a tool for others in that way, a pathway toward empathy and progress.
Featured image of Ezekiel Zagar and Jeremiah Zagar is by Julia Zagar. All images courtesy Jeremiah Zagar.