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Changing the Narrative around Addiction in Film

My first experience with addiction on film was by far the most memorable and realistic. Back in 1986 a children’s TV program about a fictional school called Grange Hill took an unprecedented decision to turn one of its most popular characters into a heroin addict. The character was called Zammo and his gradual decent into addiction was so gritty and realistic it had a huge impact, one which culminated in the launch of an anti-drugs campaign (and a rather horrendous pop music video) in the UK called ‘Just Say No.’

Such a concept would be impossible in today’s climate, as the BBC now has a no drugs policy in their children’s TV programming.

Indeed, addiction of any sort is rarely given front and centre stage in a medium designed primarily for entertainment. These days if a character has an addiction, it is briefly mentioned but the consequences of their condition are mainly ignored.

In my experience, there are only two types of addicts in mainstream entertainment – the drop dead gorgeous addict with zero consequences and the downtrodden, hopeless bum.

There’s no hesitation in casting a dashingly handsome actor as an alcoholic. It seems if you don’t have at least one character attending some sort of recovery group then it’s like they’ve missed an entire demographic from the story.

We will see him drink quite often in scenes, we may see him a bit ‘tipsy’ in a funny way but we won’t see him puking up, wetting his bed, telling everyone exactly what he thinks with no social filters applied. We won’t see the lies, the manipulation or the mental abuse, never mind any physical damage he brings onto others or himself.

However, if the script requires a ‘real’ addict, you’ll be sure to see a tramp scouring through the trash, the pale shivering junkie attempting to find a vein and the girl selling herself on the street for a fix.

Such characters are far from reality, but maybe that is the point?

With Surrender, I wanted to get across what it was really like to be addicted to a substance. When I wrote the script, I drew from my own personal battle with alcoholism. I was a functioning alcoholic. Most people were totally unaware I had a problem. I held down a good job, had a nice home and looked after a family. Inside though, I was falling apart; physically, mentally and spiritually.

"Surrender" - Official Trailer

This is the more common but mainly unseen alcoholic; this was the story I wanted to tell.

The cast and crew also used personal experiences. It’s scary to realise that most people have been affected by alcoholism in some way. Everyone seems to know a family member or a friend with a problem.

Chris (the director) was totally on board straight away. He urged me to go further, to really dig deep and dredge up the horror of trying to live through a sober day. In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous there’s a quote which claims alcoholics are, “driven by a hundred forms of fear” – I really identified with this, so I imbued each scene with fear that only the main character perceives.

This is represented visually, as if the character is hallucinating or living through a bad trip. Chris helped turn the horror on the page into a disturbing reality on screen.

The main character (David) tries desperately to function normally but every waking moment is terrifying. Eventually he succumbs and sneaks a drink. Then, for a short time, everything is fine; great in fact. However, he always goes too far, does and says the wrong thing until he blacks out, then wakes up the next day for the whole terrifying ordeal to begin again.

The other element Chris focused on was the sound. He wanted to draw the audience in with an auditory experience unlike any other. The end result is phenomenal. For example, in the script I mentioned a high-pitched white noise, something which David experiences whenever he regains consciousness. Chris transformed this into the most accurate tinnitus sound I’ve ever heard. I’ve suffered from tinnitus for years, something which I’m convinced I caused through my drinking.

Since Surrender has been released, many have commented on how that noise really takes them back to the darkest days of their addictions. It was this and other emphasised noises which added a whole new dimension to the experience.

Surrender takes the viewer on a slightly uncomfortable journey through an alcoholic’s darkest moments. It attempts to tackle addiction in a realistic manner without pulling any punches. My hope is that it inspires those suffering to seek the help they so desperately need. The film highlights that the battle against alcoholism is not one anyone can win on their own, hence the title. It’s only when we admit defeat and seek help can we truly begin to recover from this horrible and hugely underestimated condition.

"Surrender", directed by Christopher Carson Emmons, written by Mark Renshaw, is an official selection at Top Shorts 2017.


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