Images via Michael Yebba
A lot of people have been talking about heroin and Oxy lately, and about how opiates are gutting suburban towns. We’re not mad about that conversation finally happening, it’s about fucking time, but it’s important to remember that some communities, particularly lower income ones, have been wrestling this beast for generations. With that in mind, we reached out to Boston screenwriter and filmmaker Michael Yebba, who knows this topic inside-out, to ask about his new documentary on drug abuse, A World With No Skies, which he’s currently crowd-funding and in the process of filming …
How long have you been in film, per se? I recall your first project being around a similar set of issues, namely OxyContin addiction and its impact on society.
Film has always been a passion of mine since as far back as I can remember. I sold my first screenplay back when I was 22 or 23 but the script was never made, so I figured at the time it was my one and only shot and put that “dream” out of my head and carried on with life.
It wasn’t until the winter of 2007 when I was approached at a coffee shop in South Boston by a casting director who asked me if I would be interested in auditioning for a movie. I sort of laughed at him but secretly wanted to. I always loved acting and I did theater while I was in the Marine Corps. But I associated “chasing that dream” with misery, so I declined the offer.
Somehow, that casting director got my number and called me daily for a week and convinced me to come in and read. The movie was Gone Baby Gone, and the role was Bubba. Eventually I went in to read, and quickly put it out of my head and went on vacation to Michigan to visit my parents. While there, I got a call asking if I could come and meet the director.
At this point I still hadn’t a clue it was Ben Affleck, but I was ecstatic to know a director wanted me to read for them. I was naive to the process so I thought it was a huge deal, so I cut my vacation short and drove back to Boston. The next day I walked into the room and low and behold, Ben Affleck was standing up to shake my hand. My very first thought was, “wow, his shoulders are so boney!” I expected such a massive presence because of his fame, but all I could focus on was his shoulders, which for me was good because it made me comfortable.
So I did my audition and still wasn’t expecting anything from it until his excitement … he jumped to his feet and quickly shook my hand letting me know, “I was amazing!” You can only imagine how I felt inside. He told me that he wanted to offer me the role, and that casting would be in contact with me in a few weeks.
My life was about to change, and I began to tell everyone about it. But then weeks passed, and I heard nothing and began to worry. Then one morning while I was grabbing my coffee and paper, I read an article that Slaine had been cast in the role of Bubba. I was furious! I was embarrassed, and if Ben had been in my presence, bad things would have happened to him.
It wasn’t so much the role; it was the fact that I had he sparked a passion in me that I had previously extinguished. I had long associated that desire of chasing this “dream” with ruining my life up until then. Prior to that audition, chasing the dream had ruined my life. I was always living in the future and waiting for that day I would “make it,” but that day never came and through the course of my journey I turned to drugs to find happiness.
After a battle with addiction, jail, and finally thinking I found “life,” I put all that shit out of my head and Ben Affleck reignited my demons, or so I thought. I was so heated I began to write again. I wrote the first draft of The Fallen, which depicted my life as a drug-addicted Boston firefighter who robbed 37 pharmacies before landing in jail. I was determined to show Ben a “true” Boston story.
Little did I know at the time that Ben would re-enter my life and give me a career as a writer. The Fallen, even though it hasn’t been made yet, totally due to my own decisions, is what brought me into the film business. Penny Marshall was the first producer attached to the project, and because of her I met and have since been fortunate enough to work with many amazingly talented people in the industry. Somehow, eight years later, I am still working and making a very good living writing and creating stories. And for the record, Ben’s an amazing man and gave me an opportunity to work side by side with him on The Town. It was on that set that I was able to pitch him, “Affair of Honor,” a TV show I co-wrote with Emilio Mauro, which we later sold to Fox.
What was your view of the situation at the time, both from a personal standpoint, and how do you think society, in Boston and/or beyond, saw things at the time?
When I first went through my own struggles with Oxycontin, the world and society was clueless. When I first got my hands on Oxys I was selling percs and someone gave me OC 20s to sell. I was reluctant and rightfully so; no one wanted to buy something they didn’t know of, so I found myself giving them away. But once everyone had tried them, I couldn’t get enough of them to sell.
I didn’t take them myself at the time, but after a severe accident in which I shattered my leg falling 30 feet off a roof, I was prescribed them, and it was due to that incident that got me hooked. I chalk it up to karma. After two years of battling with addiction and eventually robbing 37 pharmacies, I found myself in jail awaiting nine felonies and a possible 15 years in prison. But for the grace of God and an amazing attorney, I got time served and seven years probation. I vowed to change my life and pay my debt to society. Now, Oxys are a thing of the past, and heroin is what kids are turning to. I still don’t feel that the issues of pills or heroin is a major topic outside of Boston, even though it’s an epidemic across the country.
What are some projects that your initial foray into film led to? And which are you particularly proudest of?
The Fallen, which is based on a few years of my life as an addict, is mine and Emilio’s best script. It could have been made several times over, but I’m a stubborn individual, and I refused to compromise. Most people we worked with wanted to fabricate too much and or cast people I never saw fit. I couldn’t bring myself to sell out, so we decided to put the project on hold and wait until I could direct the film myself the proper way. Which after four years of it being on the shelf, I will finally be directing it with an amazing budget in 2016.
You have a lot of allies who have similar backgrounds to you – Slaine, Jay Giannone – who spent significant time in Boston as a youth, and saw the effects of opiates face-first. How has this influenced your work in general; when you go to paint Boston as a picture, how hard is it to see past the fog that this shit has hung over the city?
It’s extremely difficult, but I feel like I’ve been able to navigate through the fog. I removed myself from Boston for a few years, and was able to see things from a different perspective, finally. This gave me the ability to see Boston in a whole new light and see it as the amazing city it is. Before that, I associated Boston, mainly Southie, as a poison I needed to escape from. Being back here for the last year has been eye opening for me. I love my city and all the good, bad, and indifference it brings with it.
Before, I asked you what people saw the problem like 10 years ago. How do they perceive it now? What’s your take on the big words we’ve heard from Governor Baker and Mayor Marty Walsh? And what in your opinion actually needs to get done?
Initially it pisses me off! Southie and Charlestown have been suffering through this “epidemic” since 1999, and no one gave a fuck! Now that it’s spread into the influential communities, its a major issue. I buried six of my friends from 1999 to 2000, yet no one made a fuss about it then?! But then I calm myself down and rationalize the realities of the world, and I find myself being grateful that some type of help is coming even though it’s late it’s better than nothing.
As far as the politicians go, 90 percent of it is bullshit! I’ve interviewed so many people in the field of recovery, and the politicians dumping money into the problems, and not one of them has an answer. And you know why? Because it goes so far beyond their thinking capacity they’ll never be able to comprehend the true issues. This government is fucked. The heroin trafficking that generates billions off dollars to fund the ongoing wars is the issue. So you can spend all the money on treatment, prevention, and beds you want, but until people open their eyes and realize it’s more than what it is, we’ll never see a solution.
Who has been helpful? And who hasn’t? I heard the police out west were all about it, while not so much in Boston. I’m a harsh critic of the Boston police, but if we’re being fair, how would you characterize their current performance in regard to the epidemic? And do you think they really play much of a role in the bigger picture, continuing the so-called War On Drugs?
I don’t know if it’s because of my past, or because I’m not a major celebrity directing a film, but the state in general hasn’t been helpful at all. The mayor granted us an interview and we were very appreciative of his help, but BPD declined, and the governor’s office never even responded. The news and papers refused to do any press, other than you and the sober community as a whole has been very judgmental. I funded 90 percent of this documentary out of my own pocket, and I was completely shocked at the lack of help I’ve received considering the entire state has been affected by the heroin epidemic.
What made you take action in going forward with a documentary? Furthermore, why a documentary? How do you plan on getting eyeballs on it? How can people get involved right now?
I’ve been in LA for the last few years and my main contact with back home was social media on which last summer I kept seeing RIPs almost daily on Facebook. I couldn’t believe how many of my friends were dying at such rapid succession. When I came from back from Sweden in April, I had a month off and decided to initially do a short documentary about the issues. Documentaries have always ben a favorite of mine and I’ve always wanted to make one so, hoping to shed some light on the subject, I figured I owed my own community such a project at the very least. but when I began, I started uncovering some very disturbing issues and it started getting bigger and bigger with each interview.
I had a team of researchers digging up material, and the film soon turned into a feature with all the material. It’s a major, major issue and it involves our government. The idea is deeper than anyone could imagine. It’s actually a bit scary for me to vent into out of fear of being labeled a “conspiracy theorist,” but I am only showing the facts of what’s going on, and hopefully people draw their own conclusions.
As far as distribution, I have been in talks with both HBO and Entertainment One, and both are extremely interested in viewing the final cut of the film. If not those companies, I am confident I won’t have an issue obtaining international distribution for the film. We are currently in post-production, yet were still about $30,000 short to complete the film. We started a crowd-funding campaign with the hope the community will pitch in and help.
You’ve been away from a lot of the street culture, at least directly, for some time. In filming what you’ve filmed so far, what has been the biggest “Holy Shit” moment?
I have been away for some time and diving back into it I was completely shocked at how different it was when I was running the streets. I don’t know how a criminal surveys nowadays? There’s no loyalty amongst thieves and everyone’s a snake. But the Holy Shit moment I had was seeing so many of my friends and associates still having no ambition to help themselves. I find it so disheartening that there’s so many people content with living such a vile life. All I can do is pray for them and myself and hope I’m never back there, ’cause I know I am only one bad decision away from that life.