Orange County, Calif. may seem like the perfect place to live, but it has a dirty little secret: it’s number two in the country for deaths by prescription drug overdoses. In May 2010, Laguna Niguel resident Natalie Costa was thrust full force into the epidemic when her daughter Brianne called her from her high school, frantic: her good friend, 17-year-old Mark Melkonian, had passed away after overdosing on the painkiller Opana. Costa, who owns a performing arts school, teamed up with director Brent Huff to produce “Behind the Orange Curtain,” a full-length feature documentary that delves into the tragic trend afflicting the affluent area, which has more rehab centers per capita than any other county in the nation. The film premieres at this year’s Newport Beach Film Festival on May 2, and has been chosen by the Film Fund out of 400 films representing 50 countries as one of “five films to see.” Oxy Watchdog caught up with Costa ahead of the premiere for more details on the making of the documentary and the extent of the pill addiction epidemic in Orange County.
Watchdog: Tell us more about why you decided to make this documentary.
NC: When we found out my daughter’s friend had died of a drug overdose, we had no idea he was even using – never mind that he was using prescription drugs, or what Opana even was. I took my daughter and her friend to [Mark’s] funeral; it was her first one. The church was packed – people were lined up out the door and around the corner. The bishop brought Mark’s casket into the lobby and opened it, and my daughter saw her first dead body. It was very traumatic. At that point, I knew something had to be done, but I didn’t know what. It was crazy that someone as bright and enigmatic as Mark could die of a drug overdose.
I was hoping that Mark’s death would have an impact on other kids using, but it really didn’t, and that was the sad part. Six months later, I met Jodi Barber, whose 19-year-old son Jarrod had also passed away of an overdose of Opana, Seroquel and Clonazepam. Jodi and her friend Christine Brant came to my academy and wanted to do an educational video. I thought we could take it to another level. I really believed the message had to get out. The whole thing happened by word of mouth. From there, it just exploded. Every day we were inundated with phone calls from parents who lost kids to overdoses, or whose kids were currently struggling. We had so many people contact us, we actually had to eliminate interviews. It was a real eye opener for me. Here in Orange County, we have gated communities, blue ribbon schools, the finest activities for our kids, famous churches. So why were these kids turning to prescription drugs? We wanted the film to be about awareness, and to be a call to action. We had to shake people up.
W: Describe what you consider to be one of the most powerful scenes in the film.
NC: We went to the Orange County Coroner’s office to film one day. It’s a big, beautiful building, but very cold. There’s one huge room with a window and a metal door. When it slides open, you’re in an ice-cold room that smells of bleach. There are bodies in white plastic bags. They have toe tags, and some of them have bags with their belongings sitting on top of them. Their heads are covered, but you can still see the shape of them. I took my daughter with me. Any mother can take her daughter out to lunch, but when I’m dead, she’ll be able to say that her mom took her to the morgue. The ironic thing was that the very first body was someone she knew who had passed away earlier that week. I took her picture as she became overwhelmed, and that’s one of the pictures that ended up on the film’s poster.
Another powerful thing about the film is the parents [we interviewed], particularly the dads. As a female and a mother, it’s natural to be emotional. But when I’m watching these fathers talk about trying to reach their daughter, and then getting a phone call that she’s dead, or a firefighter being hours away from home and getting a call that the paramedics are at his house doing CPR on his son – that’s powerful. To see the dads break down, that tears me up.
The other remarkable thing is that the whole film is based on parents coming together to tell their stories in the hopes that there will be a great awakening on the part of the community. They had to relive these horrible experiences, and they were willing to do so at the drop of a hat so that others might be saved.
W: What about parents who haven’t been touched by prescription drug addiction – or who think it can’t happen to their family? Do you see a lot of denial in your community?
NC: I tell parents all the time, this is a door I opened, and there’s no going back. A lot of them will look you in the eye, and they’re sympathetic, but it’s not in their reality yet. You have to tell them about the statistics. In the film, these aren’t people living under a bridge. These are people who did everything to give their kid a leg up on life, but their child made a choice, and that choice took them down this road. There’s definitely still a sense of “it’s not going to happen to me.” But more and more, at any social gathering, when you start talking about the problem, everyone knows someone who has been affected. People are really starting to open up.
W: And the kids? Is there a sense of infallibility, even with the deaths of their peers?
NC: For some kids, maybe the ones who haven’t tried pills or heroin yet, the danger seems to have registered. But not for others. I was at a dinner party in my neighborhood recently, and their kid had an Oxy problem and was smoking heroin. He’s not doing those drugs anymore, but he’s still into weed and drinking. I don’t know what would actually shock a child away from it. I think kids really think they’re invincible. It’s like, “it sucks that it happened to that kid, but it’s not going to happen to me.” And alcohol makes them feel infallible, leading them to pop pills, and from pills to heroin.
Heroin was always a dirty word, but now these kids are switching to it because it’s too hard to get pills, or too expensive. The kids tell me it’s about $10 per milligram right now, so if you’re using 500 or 600 milligrams a day, you could be smoking heroin for a lot less money. And then you turn to the needle.
I wish no one ever had to tell this story. The football captain, the president of the student body – why are they turning to heroin? But it doesn’t matter if you live on Park Avenue or on a park bench. Once opiate addiction takes over, there is a very small chance of survival.
For tickets to the film, visit the festival’s website.
Jodi Barber and Christine Brant’s short film, Overtaken, is also showing at the festival.