Tommy Swerdlow is a self-expresser from the old school. He’s a poet-screenwriter-actor-director-teacher, whatever he can get his hands on. He wrote a movie called Cool Runnings that people seemed to like, and a few others as well, including Little Giants and Snow Dogs. Swerdlow was the uncredited first writer on the movie Shrek and came up with Donkey. He does not receive residuals; it is a source of great pain and trauma. Swerdlow also created the television series Brutally Normal with his old partner Michael Goldberg, which aired on the WB in 2000. You never saw it, but it was good. Swerdlow was a stalwart on the briefly thriving L.A. poetry scene of the early ‘90s. His poetry CD Prisoner of the Gifted Sleep was released on New Alliance records, and poems are featured on various compilation CDs and in a lot of magazines. He considers himself a poet first and foremost, which is pretty obnoxious but has some truth to it. His movie A Thousand Junkies, which co-wrote, directed and co-stars in will be released in January 2018.
The following is one of two Talkhouse pieces published today about the late actor Blake Heron, whose final film, A Thousand Junkies, will be released early next year. You can read TJ Bowen’s piece here.
We were friends and ex-junkies and we decided to make a movie. A movie about the 9-to-5 workday of three heroin addicts. No drugs, just the chase for them, and we would play ourselves. The movie cost less than a hundred grand, took us four years to make, and premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival to strong reviews. A couple of months later, one us was dead of an overdose.
I met TJ Bowen and Blake Heron at a small Thursday night Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at a private house in mid-city Los Angeles. TJ was a Boston-born junkie with a face you couldn’t help love. We bonded over Bob Dylan and became good friends. As for Blake, he was a handsome and charismatic child star who had grown into a tatted-up pit bull. Blake had seen the rough and violent side of Skid Row dope life before turning it all around in AA. That was 2009, and for the next few years of Thursdays we’d sit out on the porch before the meeting, smoking cigarettes and swapping stories about the life we used to live. The stories were never about how high we got or how great junk was, but instead focused on the absurd and funny situations we got ourselves into trying to score.
I got an idea for a short movie: me, Blake and TJ waiting in a car, debating whether or not to rob a drug dealer. It turned out pretty good, and TJ and I expanded it into a feature. Dope movies always try to make heroin and heroin addicts look cool. What we wanted to capture was that feeling in those stories that we told on the porch. So we wrote A Thousand Junkies.
The movie was a labor of love. A chance to make sense of what the three of us had been through and turn the lead of those lost years into the gold of art. It wasn’t easy. At times, the search for money to keep shooting was as desperate as our search for drugs in the movie, but we somehow saw it through. There was nothing about making the film that wasn’t positive and affirming. … Except for one little thing. About two years in, Blake decided he could drink. Not shoot drugs or get crazy, just have a drink. And, for a while, that was all he did. But then he started taking pills and before too long he was shooting dope again.
TJ and I didn’t know what to do. We’re not AA hardliners and the last thing we were going to say was, “No dude, no more filming until you get clean.” And besides, it wouldn’t have mattered. No one could have ever said anything to us, so there was nothing to say to him. That’s what’s so difficult for non-addicts to understand. The whole thing makes no sense. Why are people destroying their lives with drugs? Why do they continue to use them when people around them are dropping like flies? Don’t they care about their families, their friends, themselves? What the fuck is going on? There are no answers, only questions, and when I ask myself, “How I could be so reckless with my own life?”, the only answer I can come up with is, “I don’t know.”
Back to the movie. Two years in, we have 47 minutes of cut footage, but no idea how we’re going to finish. Somehow our producer comes through with a little dough and we get back out there. Blake’s strung out and all TJ and I are thinking is, “Just don’t die before the movie’s done.” Gallows humor. Anyway, he’s not going to die. He’s going to keep fucking up until he gets so worn out he has no choice but to get clean.
Flash forward to spring 2017. We’re in New York City for the Tribeca Film Festival, and nobody is prouder than Blake. The three of us are being interviewed and sharing our story and Blake is telling his as if his dark days are behind him, but they’re not. A month or so later, the movie is bought by a distributor. Our little ragtag homemade junkie flick is going to get out into the world. On September 8, I’m sitting in an office in Santa Monica with the film’s producer Lee Buckley looking over poster ideas when I receive a text: “Tommy, I am so sorry to hear about your friend.” I turn to Lee, and say, “Oh no.” Lee checks the internet and there it is: “Actor Blake Heron found dead at 35.” I text TJ and all I write is: “Blake.” He calls me back immediately, and we make sounds of disbelief, our denial of the past few years crumbling into heartbreak.
When I think about Blake, I keep going back to the phone call I had with him the day before he died. He had OD’d a week earlier and had to be brought back by the paramedics. He sounded lost and bewildered, finding himself in the same situation one more time. During all our other calls, no matter how sad and desperate he was, there was always an underlying hope. But now all I heard was, “It’s too much, I can’t go on, I’ve had enough.” Usually I would give him a very reasonable, drama-free pep talk, but on this call I just told him how much I loved him and that this movie we had made together was one of the most important things that had ever happened in my life. As I spoke, I cried, not because it was so dramatic or powerful, but because some part of me knew I was saying goodbye.
I’m so fucking pissed at him. TJ is too. The three of us had something special. We really knew each other and that made its way onto the screen. Blake was the third side of our unique triangle and now he’s gone. Yeah, it’s wonderful that he leaves this movie behind and that he was so proud of it, and yes, it means a lot that we all got to share that experience, but what is so awful about drug addiction is how suddenly it takes away the people we care about. When I watch Blake in the movie, what I see is magic. He had magic in him, and when drug addiction takes someone, it takes their magic too. I think we can all agree that right now, this world needs as much magic as it can get.