What I learned interviewing “Pharma Bro” filmmaker Brent Hodge about his movie on Martin ShkreliView transcript
If you think it’s weird to hear your own voice played back to you on a recording, or see your own face on a TV screen, try interviewing the maker of a documentary you are in, in which you talk about your infamous, incarcerated ex-boyfriend. Let’s just say I’m probably the only person on this planet who might find themselves in such an awkward situation.
But for better or worse, I am endowed with the ability to walk through social discomfort like Daenerys Targaryen through fire. This is a useful quality for a journalist, or anyone else who might have to keep a cool head in difficult circumstances. And it’s invaluable if you present yourself as the former better half of the “the most hated man in America.”
Similarly, Brent Hodge also braved the colossal stigma surrounding Martin Shkreli when he was making his documentary “Pharma Bro.” Available starting Oct. 5 on Amazon, the movie goes “behind the smirk,” as The New York Times described it, to find that the one-time drug company executive isn’t quite the monster he has been made out to be.
To recap: Shkreli is a 38-year-old hedge fund and drug company founder, who rocketed to notoriety by hiking up the sticker price of a toxoplasmosis drug in 2015, only to end up in prison for securities fraud just a couple of years later. (He also inflamed public opinion further by shelling out about $2 million for a single-copy album by the Wu-Tang Clan, recently auctioned off to an unknown buyer by the U.S. government.)
I am a former legal reporter for Bloomberg, who broke the story of his arrest, and (improbably) forged a relationship with him over dozens of hours-long visits with him in prison, as well as hundreds of emails, letters, calls and other communications — which you haven’t seen in the press because I’m too classy to expose them. Before becoming his prison girlfriend, I was working on a book about Shkreli. And I shared a lot of my perspective with Hodge for his documentary.
Interviewing Hodge about his work was an interesting about-face. I didn’t realize, for instance, until now the extensive lengths he had gone to in an effort to untangle the riddle that was Shkreli, including spending hours tuning into his constant live streams and even moving into his apartment building.
If that sounds a bit creepy, well, you’re in the right genre. Hodge’s film was produced by Blumhouse Television, a division of the powerhouse horror production company behind the “Paranormal Activity,” “Insidious,” and “The Purge” franchises, as well as “Get Out,” “Us” and other well-known titles. Blumhouse CEO Jason Blum also served as executive producer for HBO documentary series “The Jinx,” about accused serial killer and real estate scion Robert Durst. (Hodge's film was acquired by 1091 Pictures.)
Bizarre as the circumstances might have been, it was fun catching up with Hodge. Here is more of what he had to say in our chat.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ok, so Hodge approached doing this film a little like a stalker00:00:00
Business of Business: It has been a very long time since we saw each other. I think the last time was maybe four years ago or so, when you were interviewing me for the documentary. Fascinating turn of events. Very meta. So my first question for you about this upcoming film is how long did you live in Martin's building?
BH: Oh, right. Suprise! Not as long as you'd think as not as long as I would have liked, because the point of doing it was "how do you get to know a guy where the headlines are so increasingly," what's the term...?
That's a great term, yeah. Or like uneducated. I mean, like there were so many headlines and I didn't believe them. I would read further and be like, "that doesn't make sense." I sort of stumbled upon his live streams like a lot of people did. I started making this film, and as his live streams kept going, which we talked about in our interview, like he would just answer your questions constantly. And I was like, "the whole documentary is here, I can learn everything about him. I can learn where he is from, I can learn his past, why he got into drugs, hedge funds. Where he's at with the trial. You can literally just check in with this guy."
It was the most incredible sort of like weird sliver of pop culture that was happening. As it happened, I was like "the only thing I need to do is get to know this guy." Why isn't anybody going to Shkrel, Albania? [Where Shkreli's family name originates.] Why hasn't anybody talked to Daraprim [the name of the toxoplasmosis drug] patients? Why hasn't anybody just tried to run into him and see what kind of person he is? You did. You did a lot of that work with your book and that was the goal. The problem is, we all know, Martin went to jail pretty early on. It happened really fast. So we were there for about a year.
“Whether we like him or not, he's a fascinating part of pop culture.”
I only knocked on his door. You'll see in the film, I knock on his door, and he lets me in, and we chat. And I wanted to hear the Wu-Tang album. Then the journey kept going for me. I got to know a lot of the people. We talked to Wu-Tang, and we talked to Daraprim patients, we talked to [Shkreli's lawyer Benjamin] Brafman and Billy the Fridge and different people, just kind of understanding the complexities of this human being. Whether we like him or not, he's a fascinating part of pop culture. He's a hedge fund kid who represented big pharma. Maybe he shouldn't have. And also he has this Wu-Tang album, like you can't make this up. I just found that really fascinating.
Well, I have to hand it to you. There have been I think easily a dozen documentary attempts, in terms of people reaching out. Martin forwards me his mail from prison, so I see the letters from other producers. But yours made it. How does that feel? How did you manage to pull that off?
Why to me, this is such a great publication, like The Business of Business, is that you look at the business of making this film. It's a bad business choice, a five-year documentary. And it was a really hard sell. I don't know if you're going through the same thing with your book, but like, Martin Shkreli, his name is kind of approached like a dumpster fire when it comes to storytelling. Like people don't want to have anything to do with it.
And we all know the Daraprim pill is still $750 per pill [Note: There is a generic now of the pill, but the price hasn't been much reduced]. Nothing in this story has changed the story. So how did we do it? We just grinded it out. I mean, I think COVID helped. Honestly, I think some of the news between you and Martin kind of helped. Whether he's put away, he's constantly in the news.
I'm so thankful that Blumhouse jumped on board and 1091, and they want to put this movie out. They just think that it's interesting and entertaining. And that's what documentaries have become in the last 5 to 10 years. It's kind of like this experiment in human nature, or like conduits of the human experience.
Getting to the root of what makes the "most hated man in America" tick00:05:01
So I think it was described as getting to the root of what makes him tick. What do you think is at the root of that?
I didn't get to know him long enough. You'd probably be more of a person to ask because you actually speak to him. I only get the snippets of the blogs that he sometimes posts from from prison or what a friend might say online. I'm really curious when your book comes out. I think it's gonna be huge. I really want to read it. I just sort of like understand a little bit more of of him and what actually makes him tick. Because the live streams is, you know, like, maybe they're just a character that he's presenting to us as well. That it was a really worthy and an incredible like, odd New York story, too. So I don't know what makes him tick. What do you think make him tick?
He told me right away when I first saw him that he wants to be great. That's what makes him tick. He wants to leave his mark on the world. That's what he wants to do.
Do you think he can be great? This way he interacts with the world, do you think there is a way for him to be great through that?
I think there's a chance. Yeah.
I think there's a chance for everyone to be great. I think he can be great. The world might not see it.
Yeah, I agree. Not maybe until, after, you know, decades later or something.
America loves redemption stories. They love comeback stories. I mean, like the guy's extremely smart. One thing I think he did really well was the Wu-Tang album. I think that was a genius, creative move. And I saw this post that he wrote about the music industry, and how it's like under $50 billion, and that's less than some companies make, the entire music industry. Why aren't we paying for music? Why is music the only thing that is given away for free, when companies are charging for every other product? That's a very bold move to pay that much money for something and hold it. Like, that's art in a weird way. It moved a lot of people. I think people saw a real sliver of extreme genius in that move.
Well, you talked a little bit about this. But yeah, it is it is kind of a slog, it when I initially tried to sell my book, years ago, you know, I encountered people who just wanted to like spit on him, kick him walk away, and that's it. If there was more of a story, they didn't want to hear it. First of all, why did you think there was more of a story and how were you able to convince other people that there was more of a story?
If you think of the landscape and culture and what's happened in the past six years, it's wild, like from a pandemic to cancel culture, you name it, right? It's been an insane six years. I think that's helped. There's a generic version of Daraprim now. I think there was some time needed to help settle some things. I think him having a punishment, like the justice system spoke and he's in jail, and that needed to kind of happen for this story to have a conclusion.
“I'm so happy that we challenged ourselves to make a very sort of odd movie.”
As far as people taking a chance on on a film, I'm just very grateful we've made in that time. We've also made like, seven other movies in that time. So this has been a very much a long stretch movie where the people that are on board, got to see it and really enjoyed it and said, "this is entertaining what you're doing." But it's hard, this business model around a quirky movie. I'll tell you, "don't do it." But also, like, I'm so happy we made this movie I'm so happy that we challenged ourselves to make a very sort of odd movie.
So you mentioned some things about distribution for this film and how that works. Can you explain that and and tell me more about like the business of documentary distribution now?
Yeah, I mean, docs are beautiful. And right now, it's not a coincidence that they've been doing really well in the last 10 years. I mean, you got Hulu, Netflix, Disney Plus. HBO, you can watch "Game of Thrones" are right next to a little thumbnail for a documentary that costs way less than what "Game of Thrones" takes to make. So the barrier barrier to entry for documentaries is really low. We can come up with an idea right now and just start filming, you don't need a script, you didn't need a meeting with any executive producers or studios to try to finance anything, you can just start. And the cameras these days are good enough, and everyone has a YouTube page. So that helps. That means any idea can get started. But it doesn't mean every idea can get finished. And that has been that's the journey.
What's really going on for Daraprim patients00:18:24
Yeah, yeah, that's really interesting. I What, what did you what was what did you find most surprising through this process? What did you learn that like really shocked you?
How misinformed people were on toxoplasmosis, how misinformed people were on patient care. I talked to so many patients on the phone. A lot of them don't like Martin at all. It wasn't even for what he did. It's more like the fact that people who are sick don't want [publicity]. None of them wanted ot do interviews with me. I was very lucky to get one in the film. And he's lived and survived, and his story is he actually went on Reddit and got a hold of Martin and he got the pill. Most people are embarassed. They don't want to be part of this story, and they don't want to reveal their status and that they're HIV positive, or that they have toxoplasmosis or other reasons. They don't want anything to do with that, let alone my cameras coming into their house. So that was pretty interesting.
Is there anything that you hope that people do come away with after watching this? Like some something that they may have in mind that might change the discussion?
I think that the experience I want for people is to understand that real life is funny, and it's kind of scary. I don't know what to say when people ask "do you like Martin." I'm like "no, I don't know Martin." I think he really needed a PR person. Like my God, that guy needed a PR person because he handled this so poorly, if he was trying to educate people on something. You obviously got to know him differently. You might have a different opinion but like on the general surface he's like an asshole to the world.
Yeah, sometimes people do things that are not likable, but they're not bad people under that. That is a distinction I think some people don't get. New York City is full of people who act like jerks all the time. But like if someone was hurt, someone got hit by a car, like I was walking past an intersection the other day in Harlem, and some person on a bike got hit by a car, everyone around stops what they were doing wanted to check on the person who got hit...someone's taking down the license plate. It's the difference between how you project your personality and what you do and whether you care and the actions you take. Like this person reaching out to Martin through Reddit. I don't think Martin should have made it necessary to reach out to him through Reddit but when someone does come to him and says, "hey, look, I'm suffering. There's something wrong here." He listens and he does something about it. Not every CEO would do that. I would say probably most would not.