Meth's Downward spiral
Community supports Madras filmmakers' effort to show the destruction of methamphetamine use
Small, rural towns have not escaped the spreading epidemic of methamphetamine use, especially towns like Madras which are located on the drug pipeline of U.S. Highway 97.
Most often, it's law officers and ambulance crews who see the real effects of meth and its destructive influences in a small community. So when local filmmaker Duke White and his family were discussing an idea for their next project with Capt. Greg Partin of the sheriff's office, he told them bluntly, "You should do a movie on meth, it's a huge problem."
The result is the feature-length movie "Downfall," which features real police, deputies, fire and ambulance personnel, Central Oregon Drug Enforcement (CODE) team members and former drug addicts, all playing themselves in an effort to open people's eyes to the dangers of methamphetamine.
"We, like the rest, were uneducated about it and were just shocked to find out about the ages and kinds of people involved," White said of his own family. White, his wife Diane and their sons Garrett and Brandon all produce movies together and this is their fourth feature-length film. They also make training films for law enforcement to help officers learn how to react in certain situations.
In order to write a script, White and his family did extensive research on meth, gleaning information from Internet Web sites, periodicals, and interviews with former meth addicts.
"One woman I spoke with on a meth chat room said she started using meth in her 50s to loose weight and became addicted," White said.
The local sheriff's office showed the White family what the drug looked like and provided them with information from the FBI lab on how it is "cooked," or made. It is concocted from a mixture of easily-attainable chemicals including Coleman fuel, acetone, lithium from batteries, ether, Sudafed, and phosphorous or anhydrous ammonia.
"It's nasty stuff, totally produced from chemicals," White observed.
They also provided drug paraphernalia for the movie's scenes of a meth lab. White said he learned 80 percent of all crime is meth-related (especially burglary and assault), and in 2003, nine meth labs were seized in the tri-county area. Meth is a rural problem because meth labs are easier to set up and are less noticeable here, he mentioned.
To keep viewers interested, White settled on writing a narrative drama about one man, "Lance Summer," a former meth addict who's turned his life around and has been clean for five years. But by hanging around with people still using drugs, he loses his house, custody of his daughter, then uses meth "just one more time" for a sore shoulder. At that point, his downfall spirals out of control. The 60-page script does end on a positive note, however, when one of the characters seeks help from a treatment program.
White said to convincingly play characters who were drug addicts, he and his family had to learn druggie lingo and mannerisms. For a family that doesn't even swear much, it was pretty hard to produce a movie that's rated R for its foul language.
"Before filming, we had to hold an `F-fest' to learn how to swear," White laughed.
They learned about "tweaking," where meth users stay awake for days at a time, which contributes to a lot of their violent and paranoid behavior, and about the telltale open sores on users bodies called "meth bugs."
The drug destroys calcium in teeth, which leads to a condition called "meth mouth." "I interviewed a guy in Prineville who used for 10 years and his teeth are all gone," White said.
Meth is preferred over cocaine because it's very affordable at $20 for a 12-hour high. People often start out using meth recreationally, without realizing how extremely addictive it is.
"They use it to stay up and party on the weekend, or to increase productivity at work," White said. On meth, users experience a burst of nervous energy and can work or clean house incessantly. "But after four or five years, they can't function anymore," he added.
Since the Whites all work daytime jobs (the men in construction and Diane at a bank), the filming all had to be shot on weekends and nights over a four-month period. With a cast of all volunteers, White said he was able to produce the movie for an unbelievably-cheap budget of $300, which went to pay for the fuel used in the cars. They shot on digital video film, and already had lighting and sound equipment from their other films.
Even with a volunteer cast, White said they still did screen tests on everyone, because they wanted the movie to be professional quality so it could be sent to film companies.
Locals who made the cut included main characters: White as ex-addict "Lance Summer," Diane White as his girlfriend "Teresa," Garrett White as meth cook "Jeremy Neal," Brandon White as deputy "Reece Thompson," Sandy Monchamp as Lance's ex-wife "Sharon," and 7-year-old Hannah Monchamp as Lance's daughter "Annie." Garrett White also directed and edited the film.
Young Hannah was a natural in front of the camera. "We explained to her how she would react in the scenes and she'd get it the first time. We called her the One Take Wonder," White said.
Brandon Dubisar and Lorinda Conner play drug users, CODE team member Troy Wiles plays a drug dealer, Jeff Clough provides data on meth as a newscaster, while officers John Barrett, Capt. Partin, Ervey Dominguez, and Dan Allison act out their real-life roles. Jefferson County fire and ambulance personnel and CODE team members also play themselves during domestic disturbance and meth lab explosion scenes.
Scenes were filmed in locations around Madras including Ace Hardware and Madras Trading Post, where store personnel played themselves, an abandoned house near Sonny's Restaurant, and the Madras Air Show dance, where a chase scene was shot.
"I was driving around looking for a location where we could stage a fire (meth lab explosion) when I saw an old singlewide trailer on Belmont Lane. I stopped at Jim Demaster's house and asked about it, having no idea of his past history," White said. Demasters readily agreed to let them film.
Later, when they learned Demasters had been a biker in the 1960s and used meth, he became one of several former meth addicts interviewed on a "special features" segment accompanying the movie. Other former addicts interviewed include James Yates, who plays a meth cook who is killed when the lab explodes, Dan Disbrow of Prineville, who was able to get off meth on his own, and former meth cook Mark Evans, who quit and became a counselor with BestCare in an effort to give back what he'd taken from communities.
A private screening of "Downfall" was held Feb. 12, in Madras, for the cast and select guests, and it received an enthusiastic review from "The Source" newspaper in Bend.
A short preview of the movie will be shown at the Methamphetamine Seminar being held in Madras March 1, for people all across the state, and White is hoping to make contacts there with others interested in using the movie as an education tool.
Its distribution will also be promoted at screenings like the Oregon film industry gathering with legislators in Salem Feb. 24, and through contact with the Oregon Film and Video office in Portland. White would like to see the film, or a condensed version of it, shown in high schools to steer kids away from experimenting with meth, because it gives them a glimpse of what they're in for.
"We gained a lot more sympathy for people like that (who try it recreationally and get hooked)," White said, citing strong peer pressure, bad decisions, and an addiction that only gets worse.
"It leads to their downfall and death. It's a devil drug and there's nothing good about it," he stated.
(To view photos and a film clip of "Downfall" check the Web site www.hudsonpro.com.)