It sounds like something out of a pulpy comic book: A grieving father seeks to avenge his son’s murder by circumventing the police to identify the killer. But it was reality for Dan Schneider, a New Orleans-area pharmacist who channeled his grief over the drug-related shooting death of his son, Danny Jr., into a tireless DIY investigation. In The Pharmacist, Netflix’s latest documentary series and one of its most gripping to date, Schneider finds that justice for his son is only the beginning. Soon the well-meaning pharmacist embarks on a crusade to combat the unfolding opioid crisis that’s ravaging his region, and soon the entire country.
On first look, Schneider would appear to be an ideal subject for a documentary. His infectious personality, charming Louisiana accent (I can listen to him say “Mr. Claude” on a loop, forever), and an All-American story makes him compelling. More importantly, his meticulous notes and home video footage dating back all the way to 1999 go a long way to make him a credible source and a dream collaborator for documentarians. Over four episodes, The Pharmacist slowly reveals that Schneider is more than a modest pharmacist and family man; he’s the author of a real-life vigilante story, one in which he shows true courage as he takes on drug dealers, crooked and indifferent cops, a notorious OxyContin pill mill, Big Pharma, and even the FBI.
Over two decades after the loss of Danny Jr., the story found its way to directors Julia Willoughby Nason and Jenner Furst, whose previous collaborations include Time: The Kalief Browder Story, Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, and Hulu’s much talked about Fyre Fraud. In the interview below, Willoughby Nason and Furst discuss how character-focused narratives can help frame larger issues, what the story says about the opioid crisis, and why Dan Schneider decided to take action from his intense grief.
DEN OF GEEK: When did you first become aware of Dan Schneider’s story?
JENNER FURST: We became aware of Dan’s story in late 2018. That’s when we started hearing about it through our partner on the project, producer and writer Jed Lipinski. He was writing for the Times-Picayune, and had put together a big story about Dan Schneider, and had been reporting on it for over a year. And so, Jed worked with us on Rest In Power and also on Fyre Fraud, and Julia, myself, and Mike Gasparro, our executive producer, began working with Jed to develop this.
We developed it for about a year, and then were able to bring it to Netflix. And we just always felt from day one that this was a perfect Netflix series, for obvious reasons, but we knew that it would take a partner that really leaned into the filmmaking side of this, and the quality of the story, and would allow us to truly find a unique voice for this.
When did you decide to pursue this as a docu-series vs a film? How did that change the storytelling structure?
JENNER: I think that it was always a series from day one. We felt that with the archival and with the scope of the story, that so much was going to hit the cutting room floor if this wasn’t a docuseries and was simply a feature.
We also felt that the way it unfolded naturally, the way that Dan Schneider’s mission, the dog legged turns and twists, and all the high stakes, the insanity of it all, was perfect for a series template. And so we always envisioned this as a docuseries. I think it would have lost something as a feature. I think The Pharmacist is a perfect example of what warrants a docuseries, in our mind. And withholding Dr. Cleggett is all part of that dramatic build that we care so much for as storytellers.
We’re really trying to craft nonfiction that plays like scripted, with the stakes of real people. [The series has] stakes of an international corruption and conspiracy to falsely market a pharmaceutical product that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. For us as storytellers, we’ve never seen a story that has so many dynamics that check boxes for us.
Because of all the footage and audio Dan shot during that time period, did having such detailed footage and notes help streamline the creative process for you?
JULIA WILLOUGHBY NELSON: I don’t know if it made it more streamlined, but definitely made it compelling, and the ultimate docuseries to sink your teeth into. The scope of this epidemic over the last 20 years was really illustrated through the personal archive. And then, truthfully, it’s just a magnificent force of time passing, and how elevating a small story can go huge in the national zeitgeist.
Why does Dan’s story feel like the right fit to contextualize an ongoing national epidemic in the opioid crisis?
JULIA: Dan is a very approachable dad. He definitely has this very warm and charming way about him that’s very disarming. And the fact that he was an actual pharmacist really connected back to the epidemic through a backdoor lens.
We thought that Dan could really disarm the viewer. People could really identify with the All-American guy story, an All-American family. And then there was a twist where that job of just being a pharmacist wasn’t just that. There was something underneath that. That’s where we really see the story.
JENNER: I also want to add that everybody has lost someone in this epidemic. And even beyond the epidemic, when families are hit with tragedy, whether it’s an illness or a murder or an accident, grief is universal, and it’s a matter of what people do with grief in the defining moments of their life. And we covered this with Trayvon Martin’s family. We covered this with Kalief Browder’s family.
Dan Schneider’s family was just a different version of people inspired to take action from grief. And he saw the loss of his son and he said, ‘I’m not going to take this. These police officers are corrupt. There’s more to this story. I want my son to have justice.’ And that transformed his life. And he could never look at the world the same way. And so when we went back to work, he was transformed.
It was like a burning bush moment for him in his life, in that he couldn’t see things the same way. I think that is very relatable. The kind of Die Hard version of the vigilante story is very romanticized. But when you really look at it from a humanistic lens, from a spiritual lens, this is deeply relatable to everyone in the world, because we either know this ourselves or we know this from another family member or from a family friend. And we’ve seen what grief does to people. And I think what Dan did is deeply inspiring, and that’s what drew us to the story.
How much time did you spend with Dan and what was he like when the camera was off?
JENNER: Dan is a one-of-a-kind documentary subject. He’s always on. If you don’t have the camera on, he’s still on. So we spent hours, days, weeks with Dan and Amy at their home, and he was just so eager and so brimming with enthusiasm to have the chance for this story to be told. To think that he had the foresight to record on those audio tapes and the VHS, and to constantly memorialize his feelings and thoughts for 20 years, and to think that it would go live on 100 to 190 countries around the world instantaneously. And that his son, who had been largely forgotten until now, is going to have a life beyond life.
It’s incredibly prophetic. Danny junior used to write poems about a lot of things, and they’re kind of haunting. We have one at the end of the series. But Dan was just so blown away that he would have the chance to tell this story on this stage, and that people would finally know what he and his family went through. So he was a live wire, and it was an absolute gift, as storytellers, for Julia and I to be able to work with him.
Did you get an explanation from Dan on why he decided, in the aftermath of his son’s death, to start those recordings?
JULIA: I think that he made the recordings because he felt so isolated in his grief. The beginning of it was really an investigative documentation of finding the killer of his son. So I think that he started to record himself as a therapeutic message to get into reality, because when you’re in so much grief you lose all sense of reality. It’s an interesting question, and it’s definitely an interesting technique for managing and handling such a painful situation of losing your son.
How did you convince Dr. Cleggett to go on the record?
JENNER: I spoke with her directly and let her know that, as documentary filmmakers, we’re committed to all sides of the story, that we felt that she had a story to tell herself, and that we weren’t going to support one side of this. And we did do a long interview with her, and the highlights obviously make the film, but the reality was that it’s a sad tale. It’s a sad tale of addiction, of grief, that parallels a lot of the addiction stories that we see in the series.
Dr. Cleggett herself was addicted. She, I think, is still somewhat in denial about that, as we see in the interview. And it’s sad. It’s a sad story. She was the top of her class. I mean, she was one of the only African American female doctors in New Orleans who had these types of credentials.
She could’ve done anything. She could have been anyone. She had literally been the top of her class for her entire life, since she was in third grade. We deeply empathize with that, and also empathize with the idea that people can go wrong. And we didn’t want to fall into this idea of demonizing her through this trope of this evil doctor. We wanted to also show how orchestrated the campaign was to deceive doctors, by Purdue Pharma. I mean, this is documented stuff. They deceived doctors systematically about the impact and about the risks related to OxyContin. And I think that Dr. Cleggett fell victim to that. And then there was a personal side to that, that she fell victim to the same disease that Danny junior fell victim to.
Addiction is a deeply relatable disease, and millions of people in America suffer from one form or another. In addition to grief, addiction is also a deeply relatable storyline in this series.
Did Dr. Cleggett go on record about her state of mind during the time period when her clinic became a pill mill?
JENNER: I think she was deeply in denial. She had a lot of documents she insisted on showing to us, stuff that when we cross referenced the facts, some of the facts were in her favor, but the vast majority show someone who was overprescribing and who was running a pill mill. And I think to this day she denies that that’s what she was doing. But the case is the case. And we show the United States against Jacqueline Cleggett, and the facts are the facts. I think that she has had a long, long period of suffering after her clinic was shut down; car accidents, illnesses, strokes, multiple brain surgeries. So she has paid a serious price karmically, but she’s still lost in some kind of netherworld when it comes to taking accountability.
Your last film, Fyre Fraud, gained a ton of traction after it was released on Hulu. What did you learn from the process of making that film and the life it took on after it was released? Did it influence how you approached this doc?
JENNER: We’re grateful to be working with Netflix. I think long-term there’s an appetite for great films. And there’s no shortage of things about the opioid epidemic, but I think what Julia and I are doing at the Cinemart is trying to find truly unique stories that tap into the zeitgeist, that are character-driven. And so with Fyre Fraud, we wanted it to be character-driven. With The Parish, we’re character-driven. With Rest in Power and TIME: The Kalief Browder Story, we’re character-driven. For us, characters come first. And we believe that it’s the most relatable way to explore these huge zeitgeist issues that are facing the world. And that continues to be the guiding light for us. That’s our compass. That’s our North Star. We look for characters.