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The Anti-Adderall Diaries: New Netflix Doc Questions Your Need for Speed

Why Maria Shriver and Christina Schwarzenegger want you to slow down.

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If you were at Friday inaugural night of South by Southwest’s Interactive Festival, you may have barely registered the singular importance of Take Your Pills, the premiere of a new documentary by award-winning documentarian Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry) and executive produced by former First Lady of California Maria Shriver and her daughter Christina Schwarzenegger. After all, you could still be all loopy from your Guided Meditation with Headspace class earlier that morning, or still deprogramming yourself after an ill-advised Become a Machine Learning Expert in Under an Hour course (sponsored by Capital One) later that afternoon. In fact, with its 6:00 pm start-time, festival-goers could have many, many chances to become their most maxxx-ed self possible before seeing the global premiere of the Netflix documentary (which will air on the streaming service March 16th).

Which is ironic, only because Take Your Pills is one of those documentaries that should scare the sh-t out of you if you are the type of person who enjoys going to SXSW. Or, maybe that’s me being a little too blanketed in my judgement here, so let’s boil it down: Take Your Pills is a terrifying look at the Adderall epidemic that–and here is where a lot of us start to tune out, because clearly, this isn’t OUR Adderall problem they’re talking about, and who wants to be lectured to, anyway?– is kinetically-edited, with a LOT of animation, 1950s commercials and footage of college kids showing off their amphetamine-created masterpieces.

Okay, so that got your ADD-addled attention, right? Even if you’re not a huge fan of documentaries of “bummer subjects” (-a direct quote, from me, regarding anything from An Inconvenient Truth to Planet Earth 2) or have never danced with the candy-colored clowns yourself, Take Your Pills is not-to-be-missed; a nu-new journalism where the line between not the creator but the viewer and the subject become blurry as the film progresses.

I was lucky enough to grab Maria, Christina and Alison right before their SXSW premiere and discuss the origins of their interest in the topic of uppers on the eve of Take Your Pills debut.

Drew: Congratulations on this film, ladies. It means a lot to me, personally, as someone who has been prescribed one form of stimulant or another since I was 8-years-old and have gone through many, many struggles with it. And am still on it, though on a way less dosage than I used to be. So watching Take Your Pills, it was a little bit like coming home. What made you want to tackle such a personal and pervasive issue in a documentary?

Christina Schwarzenegger: My motivation for producing this film stems from experiencing the Adderall epidemic first person. I took Adderall throughout college and seeing how over-used and over-prescribed it was: that kids would be able to walk in (to a doctor’s office) and walk out again ten minutes later with a prescription for something so highly addictive. At the end of my senior year, I started talking to a lot of my friends about our plans post-college, about whether we’d continue using Adderall or not. It was really hard for all of us to imagine a life working without it.

I was actually forced to get off Adderall after I graduated, and it led to this total identity crisis. Not just the emotional attachment I had become dependent on it for, but not even knowing who I was without it. Again, I talked to my friends, and a lot of us were going through the same thing. We were looking at other sources for advice, anything we could find, but we had trouble finding certain information: of how people got off of it, how to deal with the addiction element of it or the identity crisis issue. So I wanted to make a documentary about those questions we couldn’t find answers to ourselves.

Drew: I think the “identity-crisis” is such a good way of putting it; I would never have thought of it in those terms, but it’s a perfect description. Especially coming off of (amphetamines), you start to doubt, “Wait, am I even the same person that I used to be? Because I used to be SO GOOD at doing things! Like working! And socializing! And multi-tasking! And not sleeping! And being thin! And being interested in the world around me! And now I am terrible at all these things!” So that definitely resonated.

Maria, what was your entry point to this issue?

Maria Shriver: My entry point was being the mother of someone who took (Adderall), and struggled to know who she was as she got rid of it. I think what you just said about the identity thing–watching someone attribute everything– all of their successes, their diploma, their creativity– to a drug, as opposed to herself.  In addition, it was striking how little information was out there about the addictive nature of this drug. I always like to make films that create conversations across socio-economic groups and across gender groups. Our hope is that this film will really speak to those who are on (Adderall) or speak to parents who might feel pressured by educators or psychiatrists to put their kids on it at a very early age, without knowing the effects of them.

I hope this will also get educators to think about alternative ways of teaching and alternative suggestions to parents that do not just involve medication. There’s also this larger conversation we need to be having in this country of “Who are we, that we all feel like we have to take a pill to keep up” when we really don’t? I think this film will land in the zeitgeist, especially the way Alison did it: to make it something that’s cultural, that’s informative but not judgemental; and that’s the kind of film that when it ends, you sit back and you really go “Oh my god.”

Drew: Again, not to get too personal, but my dad is actually a neuroscientist and Chairman at the National Institute of Health. His job is to study the effects drugs have on the brain. And despite what you’d think, he wasn’t a total hardass about drugs growing up. But when it came to anything amphetamine-related, it was a BIG no. In a way that was kind of confusing at the time, because all of my classmates were on it. “That stuff is way worse than people think it is,” was what I remember from our talks.

And what resonated with that so well in the documentary was just how much class and culture played a part in how Adderall was perceived by parents, doctors and educators who didn’t know better. Like “Oh, it’s not meth.” “It gives them a boost for college tests!” Or “Oh, sports stars take it.” And then, of course, “Oh, it’s to give you an edge if you’re working long hours in a high-powered job.” It’s almost seen as an aspirational drug, and what’s insidious is that it’s becoming something that’s not just for school or college anymore. Now it’s for keeping up that Type-A lifestyle and giving yourself a competitive edge in an increasingly competitive workplace culture new graduates will be entering. Alison, was that something that came up for you, or that you had considered, going into the making of this documentary?

Alison Klayman: Well, first of all, the fact that you’re saying “Oh, I’m talking about myself!” makes me happy, because it makes me feel like the film means something. I think even when I’d talked to people about the project–almost immediately when Maria and Christina told me about this idea– I quickly realized how deeply this drug affected so many people. And they just don’t talk about it. But because I was going around saying “Oh hey, I’m making this movie about Adderall…” suddenly, people would be telling me all kinds of stories. And as a filmmaker, it felt very, very urgent.

From the outset, you hit it on the head: we knew it had to be a multi-character story. It couldn’t just be one person who stood for the whole of the “Adderall Experience.” Even three people, which is the typical number of characters for a documentary, we knew it would have to be so, so many more. Because you have to hit the quote-unquote “obvious” ones, and then you also have to go beyond that.

The casting process was a really important part; it was part and parcel with the research. We spoke to well over a hundred people for the whole project; whether that was on background, for research or looking for perspective stories. I knew from the beginning I wanted to use a lot of graphics and animation, both to bring the drug experience to life a little bit and because truthfully, I felt like we were going to have issues finding people to go on camera. You know, because we’re talking about a drug used by highly successful people. Or it’s just a very personal story.

I admire everyone who went on film. I think they did it for the same reasons you’re feeling right now; that Christina set out to do, which was to make people have a more nuanced and complex conversation about this drug as a whole in America.

Drew: I think one of the lines that really stood out to me, in the beginning, was the neuroscientist who said: “Back in my college days, we used to do drugs to check out, and now we’re doing drugs to check in.” And there’s something very telling about that: “Smoke pot, be anti-establishment; take Adderall, get ahead and win at life!” It’s almost the opposite of the anti-authoritarian distrust of the 60s.

Maria Shriver: I think what’s interesting about what you just said is that one of the other doctors in the film was saying “We’re living now where everybody’s just a piece of capital. Parents see their kids as capital, kids see themselves as capital; because we’re living in a time when everyone is working through 24-7 through technology.” This job is the only way to keep up; and what happens to all the people who don’t want to work like this; who don’t want to live like this?

That to me, and I think that to Christina, was one of the questions she wanted to bring up in the very beginning. What are we losing from ourselves when we become a culture of amphetamines? And you know, MOST parents don’t understand the overall addictive nature; they think they’re giving their kid a tool for school, and that’s it. So, it’s also a story on what substances we put on a pedestal, and which ones we say are a criminal element. It’s really more of a cultural story than a strictly science one.

Take Your Pills will drop on Netflix on March 16th.