Washington City Paper
March 30 April 5, 2001

The Habit of Perfection
The partnership of the Entertainment Industries Council, Inc. and the national Institute on Drug Abuse helps Hollywood get its depictions of drug use exactly right.

In the 1994 movie Pulp Fiction, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) snorts a fat line of uncut heroin, inhaling the powder through a $100 bill. Her head instantly jerks back and her hands cover her nose as the rush hits with the force of a hurricane. As she crawls on the floor, blood drips from her nose and she vomits. She's clearly dying.

Her date, Vincent Vega (John Travolta), uses two hands to plunge a syringe full of adrenaline through her chest and directly into her heart. Mia's eyes pop open and she screams bloody murder. Lance (Eric Stoltz), who has watched all of this in a panic, tells her, "If you're OK, say something." Sitting up with the needle still in her chest, she says in a normal voice, "Something."

Now, everyone in the moviegoing audience knows that the long, thin needle Vega uses would snap off in the sternum, that adrenaline would do nothing to save a heroin-overdose victim, and that even if Vega used the right drug — Narcan — injecting it into the heart would result in an absorption rate too slow to do Mia any good.

Clearly, writer-director Quentin Tarantino didn't do his homework. Had he cared enough to get it right, he could have had his homework done for him by the folks at the Entertainment Industries Council, Inc. (EIC) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), two local organizations that work in tandem to keep the drug-addled scenes we see onscreen authentic.

But these aren't the White House wonks who last year got caught quietly doctoring network sitcom scripts to convey an anti-drug message in exchange for forgiveness of $22 million in public service advertising. And they aren't the members of Congress who regularly exhort studio honchos to tone down the drugs and violence or face regulations.

The EIC and NIDA, who count the philanthropic Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as a partner, don't badger, berate, or belittle the creative forces of Hollywood when it comes to drinking, drugs, and tobacco. They merely make the facts available, by request, free of charge.

"We do not make any judgements," says Brian Dyak, president and chief operating officer of the EIC, located in Reston, VA, with additional offices at the Disney compound in Burbank, Calif. "If somebody wanted to create the most obnoxious, glamorous drug-use film ever made, we wouldn't feel good about it, but they have the right to do that."

Producers and writers "come and ask for advice," says Alan Leshner, director of NIDA, part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. "They tell us they want to depict an overdose and recovery and ask what would be accurate."

Clearly, Hollywood likes the help. The number of briefings with West Coast creative types that EIC arranges for scientists from NIDA is rising with each TV season.

"Last year, we had 50 briefings with development executives, writers and producers," says Marie Dyak, vice president of programming and government relations for the EIC (and Brian's wife). "A couple of years ago, we did maybe five or 10 briefings, then built that to around 25 to 30. This year we hope to add an additional 30 to 40 briefings. We keep thinking we're going to plateau at some point, but the interest is higher than ever."

"New writers seem to have an underlying current of getting it right," says Brian Dyak. "There is a growing cadre of writers getting in touch with the idea that they've got to do their research."

The two groups' highest-profile event of the year is taking place on April 4, when the winners of the Prism Awards will be presented with their 15-inch acrylic trophies in front of an audience of 500 at CBS' Television City in Los Angeles. The show will be broadcast in syndication sometime between Aug. 6 and 19 (Local TV coverage has not been determined).

The awards, overseen by Marie Dyak, are given for the accurate portrayal of drug and alcohol use and abuse, and among this year's nominees for Theatrical Feature Film, ostensibly the highest-profile of the 13 awards categories, there seems to be no slam-dunk winner like lst year's tobacco-industry whistle-blower drama The Insider. This year, the challengers include the drug-smuggling Oscar-winner Traffic, the diet-pills-and-heroin story Requiem for a Dream, the Ben Affleck-as-recovering-alcoholic romantic drama Bounce, and the Sandra Bullock-as-court-ordered-recovering-alcoholic-party-girl-saga 28 Days.

There are 56 nominees for almost 250 submissions, up significantly from the 30 submissions five years ago, when the awards were first offered. "It's getting harder for our judges," said Leshner, "and that's good."

"The number of submissions, and the number of people coming to the Prism Awards, has escalated," Leshner says, "because (a) we are somewhat neutral — we're 'the science guys go to Hollywood' and (b) we're only going to help them. We never criticize them. We never get into arguments about who caused what to happen."

"But we can tell you that accurate depiction [of drug use] is, in fact, the best educational device this country has, and the entertainment industry is the largest educational system in the country, and it's phenomenally effective."

Leshner, 57, a neuroscientist and psychologist, likens the Prism Awards to "a very simple, psychological principle, and that is: If you want people to behave in a particular way, you reward them for positive behavior. You do not consume a lot of energy trying to punish them for missteps.

"We're trying to help the entertainment industry not only do a better job of depicting drug abuse and addiction; we try to reward their good behavior when it occurs. Lo and behold, it works."

The idea of a bridge between Washington and Hollywood was Brian Dyaks's. A veteran administrator of what h calls the '70s "alternative-service movement" of free clinics, runaway centers, hot lines, and drug drop-in centers, Dyak, 51, came to Washington in 1979 as a policy director for the National Network for Youth, a nonprofit he helped found in 1974.

"I was sitting around these policy groups of national youth organizations, and all the time somebody would [suggest] getting a celebrity to do something or getting Hollywood to do something in a movie script. That just kind of worked on me through the years.

"One day in '83, I woke up and thought, 'Boy, there could be something done around the substance-abuse issue.' The Reagans were in [the White House], and Mrs. Reagan was still trying to figure out what she was going to do around the drug issue, and out of the blue I got a call to come over to the White House to talk to them about some of the drug-policy initiatives that were coming out of the president's office. They asked me to help work on their strategy.

"There was a sentence that I had written about bringing 'the power and influence of the entertainment industry to bear on our nation's war on drugs.' I wasn't sure what it meant, but that one sentence was somewhat haunting."

A 1983 meeting with newspaper columnist jack Anderson whose son, Randy, worked for Dyak - led to an introduction with movers and shakers on the Left Coast. By 1985, Nancy Reagan had signed on, and Lew Wasserman, former chairman of MCA, hosted what was then called the Nancy Reagan Awards. A thousand Hollywood denizens attended the fundraiser, ponying up a total of $1 million. "Next thing you know, we were funded and off and running," Dyak says. (The EIC budget these days is $2.5 million.)

Thus began the EIC's low-key crusade of what Dyak calls "depiction suggestions — simply science-based ideas in terms if the reality of addiction and substances, and providing that to the creative community in a nonthreatening way."

Nowadays, says Leshner, when Dr. John Carter's (Noah Wyle) cousin overdoses on ER, a NIDA clinician, responding to a request by the show, is dispatched to L.A. to fill in the writers and actors on what's correct.

Marie Dyak points to the CBS drama Family Law as a show that not only benefits from the briefings but also capitalizes on the information. An episode in January "was the direct result of some of the work we did with them about substance abuse," she says. Brian Dyak adds that the show's topic was fetal alcohol syndrome; the detail of the cut umbilical cord smelling of alcohol was provided at a briefing with the creative team of the show.

And when Dylan McKay (Luke Perry) returned to Beverly Hills 90210 a junkie, it was expert consultants linked to the show by EIC and NIDA who helped the writers "determine how that character unraveled," Brian Dyak says.

"I will tell you, I love this," says Leshner. "If you're a scientist, there's nothing more rewarding than someone coming to you and saying, 'We'd like to get this right.' And it's tremendously important they get it right."

Which is what the Prism awards acknowledge. Just don't try too hard to win one.

"We are against hyperbole and exaggeration' we do not reward people who overstate the dangers of drug use," Leshner says. "We are not interested in deceiving the American public with drama. Reefer Madness would not win today. Accuracy works; inaccuracy does not."

The hosts for this year's Prism Awards are comedian Richard Lewis and actress Jamie Lee Curtis; Kelsey Grammer is a presenter. Is it ironic that celebrities in recovery are celebrating the accurate depiction of drug and alcohol abuse?

"They're the people who care the most and have a very important message. This is the vehicle to get that message out," Leshner says. "People who have been through treatment and recovery processes and are functional are the best spokespersons. They know what this is about."

"For me, it's a really wonderful award," says Lewis, who starred in the 1995 Prism-winning film Drunks and has a new book out titled The Other Great Depression: How I'm Overcoming, on a Daily Basis, at Least a Million Addictions and Dysfunctions and Finding a Spiritual (Sometimes) Life. "And I'm not just saying that because I'm in recovery. Any organization that gives out awards for accurately depicting drugs and alcohol and even tobacco, that's cool. It means a lot to the people who win."

The EIC also helps Hollywood get it right when it comes to gun violence and firearm safety, HIV/AIDS issues, mental health, and drunk driving. And the Prism Generation Next program takes the addiction-accuracy message to students at six film schools, so that they don't start bad habits in writing about bad habits. Which means that the next breakthrough feature by a video-store-clerk-cum-lowlife-obsessed-auteur probably won't include an adrenaline shot to the heart.