Pete Berg Takes an Unsparing Look at the Opioid Crisis on “Painkiller”

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Photo Source: Keri Anderson/Netflix

This interview was conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.

Pete Berg has a long history of bringing his distinctive perspective to topics of American life and history, ranging from high school football on NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” to the 2010 BP oil spill in “Deepwater Horizon.” Now, the veteran writer, filmmaker, actor, and producer is setting his sights on the opioid crisis with “Painkiller,” which premieres on Netflix on Aug. 10. 

The fictionalized limited series, which Berg executive produced and directed, chronicles the rise of Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin, the pain reliever that led to a wave of medically sanctioned addiction across the country starting in the late 1990s. The problem persists to this day: Opioids were the cause of 75% of drug overdose deaths in 2020. 

“Painkiller” is a tale of corporate greed that focuses on the early years of the opioid epidemic—in particular, Purdue Pharma, the company behind the drug. Matthew Broderick stars as Richard Sackler, the then-president of Purdue. The supporting cast includes Taylor Kitsch as a mechanic who’s prescribed OxyContin for an injury, Emmy winner Uzo Aduba as a criminal investigator, and West Duchovny as a pharmaceutical rep. 

Creators Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster based the series on Barry Meier’s 2018 book “Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origins of America’s Opioid Epidemic,” as well as Patrick Radden Keefe’s 2017 New Yorker article “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain.” 

“We tend to look more at how we got here,” Berg says of the show’s take on the crisis, which was also the subject of the 2021 Hulu miniseries “Dopesick.” The goal, he adds, is to “make you think a little bit more about what your doctors are prescribing you and the intentions of Big Pharma.”

Working alongside casting directors Rick Messina and Rachel Tenner, Berg aimed to put together an ensemble that could bring naturalism and depth to the subject matter. 


He’s been a fan of hyper-realistic films since childhood. His fascination began when his parents took him to see “Dog Day Afternoon,” Sidney Lumet’s 1975 classic about a botched bank robbery that Berg says his parents thought was “a family movie about a dog.” Being exposed to this “adult, complex, intense film” at such a young age drew him to realism in cinema. 

“I had this secret obsession with films, acting, directors—particularly in the late ’70s and early ’80s—like John Cassavetes, Sidney Lumet, and Hal Ashby. [I was] studying them without realizing it,” Berg says. 

For “Painkiller,” he faced the challege of finding an actor who could bring a sense of humanity to a real-life villain like Sackler. “People who engage in bad behavior rarely think of themselves as the bad guy,” Berg explains. “[Sackler] was a capitalist and a believer in the idea that helping people manage pain was a good thing.” 

The director says that Broderick’s “inherent likability and empathy” allowed him to bring nuance to his portrayal. As for Kitsch, his “personal connection to the opioid crisis” meant that he could expertly convey the anguish of OxyContin addiction—as well as how easily it can destroy an ordinary person’s life.

Berg says that a limited series was the ideal format for “Painkiller,” as the medium offers a “deeper and richer way of storytelling” and allows characters to “evolve in more complex ways.” 

“Greed is a very real thing,” he says. “It’s important to take deeper looks to protect ourselves.”

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 3 issue of Backstage Magazine.