Sean Dunne on the drug-addled truth of middle America

The American Juggalo director discusses his gritty new exposé of a drug-plagued town

Arts+Culture Q+A
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Over the past few years, Brooklyn based filmmaker Sean Dunne has been building a reputation as the hot new documentory director of the moment. Dunne's short films – including American JuggaloStray Dawg, and Man in Van – aim to construct an aesthetically beautiful image of characters existing on the periphery of society. His work is entrancing, and the extended panning shots of flawed scenes or subjects are key to it all, allowing the viewer space for contemplation and questioning.

Dunne's debut feature, OxyAna, hones in on Oceana, a small, forgotten town in West Virginia that has become crippled by an outbreak of Oxycontin abuse. The film is emotionally gruelling in the most beautiful way. Dunne moves through the town observing and interviewing citizens, both users and the few who manage to remain clean, in an attempt to tap into the heart of the problem. This is where OxyAna is truly fantastic. Dunne manages to do what many other filmmakers do not attempt or cannot achieve, he opens up a dialogue and implores people to question what they may not have been comfortable questioning before.

DD: How did the OxyAna project come about?

Sean Dunne: The issue of prescription drug abuse had been on my radar for quite some time. My father struggled with it for a good chunk of my childhood. It was devastating and terrifying to see what it did to him. It robbed him of everything: his job, his friends, his family and eventually his freedom as he served a little over a year in prison. To witness that happen to your own father never really leaves you, it haunts you. He cleaned himself up about 6 years ago and is, quite frankly, lucky to be alive.

I came across Oceana, West Virginia when I was on a road trip with a couple friends. We stopped there for the night and, by chance, met some local Juggalos. One of them was hooked on Oxycontin. He shot up right in front of us; it was shocking and disturbing. He proceeded to tell us that Oceana had really fallen on hard times and many, like himself, were addicted to Oxycontin, to the point where they had nicknamed the town Oxyana. I remember getting that familiar sinking feeling I would get when I would see my father all fucked up on drugs. That was in January 2012. We went back that April to talk to some more people and that’s when we decided that this needed to be documented.

DD: What did you aim to achieve with the movie?

Sean Dunne: The main goal was to show the harsh realities of what addiction looks like. The prescription drug epidemic that’s going on in small towns all over America is something that most people would prefer to ignore. This film is meant to put a face on the issue, show what it is in order to spark the dialogue about how to fix it.

“It fucked me up personally. You can’t go into a situation like that and meet people going through these types of struggles and not have it profoundly effect you"

DD: What do you feel that the Oceana locals got out of being filmed?

Sean Dunne: For most of them this was the first time they had a voice. There is a huge stigma attached to being an addict in America. They are looked down upon so we don’t often get to hear their voices, their struggles first hand without judgement. Many of them found it therapeudic to talk to us. I found each and every person that was courageous enough to appear in this film to be an inspiration. We need to hear these stories in order to make more informed decisions about drug policy. They understood the risks they were taking when they spoke with us and they chose to do so because they need help.

DD: Why do you feel that you are drawn towards those who live as outsiders? 

Sean Dunne: I think that there is a certain brand of honesty you get when you’re dealing with people who are on the so-called fringes of society that you don’t see in everyday life.

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DD: Music is used very subtly in the movie. How did you develop the final score?

Sean Dunne: I knew that I wanted to use music sparingly and have the music serve less as an emotional cue and more as a break for the audience to digest what they’ve just seen and heard. We got John McCauley from Deer Tick and Jonny Fritz (formerly Jonny Corndawg) to do the music. I finished shooting in Oceana and went straight to Nashville for the recording. We holed up in Jonny’s living room for a week, watched some rough scenes and recorded a whole bunch of stuff. It was really surreal to see it all come together. These guys really nailed it. They understood the tone of the film and made something I’m really proud of. 

DD: What are you opinions on the critiques of the film that claim it should have represented a more informational project and that you should have committed more screen time to proven statistics and facts?

Sean Dunne: That’s just not the film I ever intended to make and that’s not the type of filmmaker I am or want to be. Oxyana is meant to be more immersive than informational. It, like any good documentary, challenges the audience to draw their own conclusions. It should raise more questions than it dares to try and answer. I’m more concerned with documenting the human experience than regurgitating a bunch of statistics.

For most of them this was the first time they had a voice

DD: How do you feel that the process of developing, filming, and completing OxyAna has affected you both personally and as a filmmaker? 

Sean Dunne: It fucked me up personally. You can’t go into a situation like that and meet people going through these types of struggles and not have it profoundly effect you. It was a really difficult shoot. These people become your friends and you care about them and there is really very little you can actually do to help them. It starts to weigh on you…still does.

As a filmmaker, it would be a huge understatement to say I learned a lot from making Oxyana. It completely changed me. The adversity you face when making something like this made me more resilient as a director.  Sometimes it feels like you have so much working against you and that can be daunting, it certainly had me off my game at the beginning. But when you’re making something that you truly believe in you have to be steadfast in your approach and not let outside factors like critics or hillbillies with guns impact your vision.

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DD: Are you happy that, whether it stems from a positive or negative reaction to the film, Oxyana has opened up a focused dialogue about the dangers of Oxycontin abuse and the lack of substantial state support being provided?

Sean Dunne: Yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t call Oxyana a social action doc. I feel it’s more of a portrait, but opening up an initial dialogue about what’s going on in these rural communities was always something we had in mind. We only just released the film and the discourse that it has sparked is at a fever pitch. This isn’t just a problem in West Virginia or in the USA, we’re hearing from people all over the world that their small towns are struggling with similar issues. If a film like Oxyana can get people in other parts of the country and other parts of the world to take a closer look at the drug issues facing their communities, then we’ve done our job.

DD: Have you got any more projects in the pipeline? 

Sean Dunne: Lots. My next film is called Cam Girlz. It’s about women who perform live sex shows on the Internet for a living. Really fascinating little, underground community. So many stories.

OxyAna is now available on iTunes and at oxyana.comHead to veryapeproductions.com to stay up to date with future projects

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