Tom Parnell gets personal in the Stressed to Kill sequel, Painkiller. Tom wrote the story as a way to cope with losing his own son while also honoring his legacy.
After losing his daughter to a drug overdose, a broken father begins a vigilante campaign to bring down the white-collar criminals behind the opioid epidemic in Painkiller. The timely and powerful thriller stars acting veterans Michael Paré (Eddie & the Cruisers, Gangster Land) and Bill Oberst Jr. (‘Scream Queens’ ‘Criminal Minds’) and takes an unapologetic look at a crisis facing countless American families.
Directed by Mark Savage, Painkiller is a gritty thriller that takes a sharp look at those behind a crisis plaguing the United States. Written by Savage and Tom Parnell, the story is drawn from the plight of millions of Americans and is produced with the raw emotions of their suffering. Co-stars include Pacey Liz Walker (The Rosa Parks Story) & Alexander Pennecke (‘Blacklist’). The film was produced by Savage with Parnell also acting as Executive Producer, and in a pivotal role as a well-intentioned doctor.
Check out my Q & A with Tom!
When I first saw the film, I didn’t realize how personal this story was for you until the very end. Do you mind explaining what inspires you to tell the story?
Tom: Not at all. What happened was my son passed away of an opioid overdose December 23, 2017 and I started seeing a grief counselor, still do, and she asked what are you going to do to preserve Jordan’s legacy? And I’m like, he was 22, he was just starting his life. I didn’t want to start a foundation, everybody seems to jump at that. There’s so many of those, especially dealing with drugs and I just didn’t want to do it. And so I just let it go, put it off. But then in 2019, it just hit me. I thought ‘you know what, I’m not telling his story, but let me tell a story. Let me educate the people on how insidious this epidemic is, and do it in the form of entertainment.’ And so two characters Bill Johnson (Bill Oberst Jr.) and Dr Mac, which I play, were in the film Stressed to Kill that we shot in 2014. I brought those two characters back because I had saved Bill from a heart attack and so we had a little bit of a relationship. So he comes in and he finds me but the story is that he lost his only daughter to opioid overdose. And so even though I wasn’t talking about my son, I was talking about the crisis and disease. And I didn’t want to film a documentary, because I mean, some are good but, you know, people just don’t get into those or they don’t want to, they don’t want to be educated or be taught or preached at so I thought if we can entertain them and get it in the back door that’s what I want to do. Bill’s got a radio show where he takes callers and there’s a lot of dialogue with other characters where I get the statistics out, you know, 70,000 Americans, on average, die in this country a year of an opioid overdose. And I got a lot of educational stuff out in the dialogue. And to me that was the best way for me to preserve a legacy for my son, so that’s what we did.
Since you were adding on to the Stressed to Kill story, what was it like bringing Bill and Mark back to help you?
Tom: Mark and I are business partners so I talk to him almost every single day and with Bill, I just love Bill. I mean, working with him on Stressed to Kill, it was my first full length movie experience and my first script, and he was just amazing. I see that the passion he puts into everything he plays and I know he’s mostly known for horror stuff, but the guy is just, he’s an amazing actor. And if you get to know him personally, he’s the kindest, most generous man you’ll ever meet or talk to, he’ll do anything for you, you know, just like he does when he’s on set. He’ll do anything you ask him to do to help better the project and he’s such a giving guy, but he can play some mean scary characters in those horror movies. But it was fantastic. I mean, I think the shoot lasted 14-16 days and Bill stayed in my house with Michael Pare, so I just kind of housed them all and it was like a dormitory for a couple of weeks. It was a blast.
When shooting, writing and acting in a film, I’m assuming you have a process, but because this story was more personal, did that change for you at all?
Tom: We do have a process. In the other scripts, I’m just making stuff up, you know, it’s coming out of my brain for the dialogue and the setting and the action and with this one, Mark probably was more of a help to me in the ancillary parts of the script and the film. In other words, when you hear Bill talking about losing a child, for instance, he says ‘when a man loses his wife, he’s a widower and when a child loses their parents,they’re an orphan,’ but there is no word for a parent that loses a child. You know, things like that when I have Bill kind of accept responsibility when he’s talking to the detective, you know, why didn’t I see this, why didn’t I protect her, you know, I’m not blameless in this. Those kinds of feelings and emotions that come out in the dialogue were the things that I felt, and things that I wanted to say. So yes, in that respect, it was a lot different.
The central question of the film is who’s to blame for all of this, do you think that there is an answer?
Tom: I really believe this is going to get a little better. I mean, there’s just so much more public record and this film is going to help too. But for instance, when they created Fentanyl lollipops, that was for stage four cancer victims. They started to write scripts of that for migraines and back pain. The statistics show that you can become addicted to opioids in five days. I’m hoping it’s going to get better, but you’re not going to stop addicts from getting high. You know, they’re going to get street level drugs, but you can stop the doctors from writing these prescriptions and turning housewives and soccer moms into opioid addicts. I mean that’s got to change. Most people do have somebody in the family or a friend who is going through addiction or are suffering with it now. And I tell them just to stand by. I hate to say that but everybody at some point, is probably going to be touched by this. One of the lines in the film is where Bill talks about his best friend who did two tours in Vietnam, was married to the same woman for 40 years, raised four kids and put him through college. He was a self made millionaire who had a knee replacement that didn’t go well. Before that, he’d never taken a drink or a drug. The doctor prescribed oxycodone and in six weeks he was addicted and six months he was dead. And if it could happen to him. It can happen to anyone. That’s the message that I hope to get across… The news was talking about it a lot more before COVID and then all of a sudden the pandemic is taking over the epidemic. We’re not gonna talk about it. But I think from November of 2019 to November of 2020, I think statistically that the 70,000 deaths in the country from opioids, that I talked about earlier, spiked to nearly 90,000. Hopefully it’s gonna come down significantly. That’s what we’re praying for.
Did COVID interfere with filming at all?
Tom: No, as a matter of fact, this is the quickest project we’ve ever done. When I decided what I wanted to do with the script, Mark flew to Tampa and we worked on it. He stayed at my house for like a week and we roughed it out and then we started filming the second week of January. I think February 2nd was the last day we shot and the COVID announcement didn’t come until like March.
One thing that I loved about the film were the different newspaper headlines, do you have a favorite headline?
Tom: By the way, that was a horrible picture they took of me, when my face is in the newspaper, I’m like, ;can we change that? I look like crap.’ But no, they didn’t change it. But my friend, who played the man who got shot in the head at the end, the headline, I think said ‘Golfer gets a final hole in one.’ He was a professional golfer and because of that, I think that was my favorite. But most of them were comical.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add about Painkiller?
Tom: I couldn’t care less how much money the film makes, I just want to get the message out and have as many people see it as possible. You know, the line, ‘there’s nothing worse than seeing your child in a box,’ and it is the toughest thing you’ll ever have to go through. And I hope to God that nobody has to go through what my family had to suffer through. And so, if we can save one life and I hope we can, I hope we already have maybe just through exposure so far. But if one life is saved, my son’s legacy will matter.