By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Charles Taylor
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Brian Feinzimer
By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By Amy Nicholson
Apologies for the macabre opening, but the documentary Behind the Orange Curtain was born out of the deaths of Jarrod Barber and Mark Melkonian, South County teens who succumbed to drug overdoses. Barber, 19, drifted away on the family couch in Laguna Niguel on Jan. 8, 2010, after a cocktail of Opana, a narcotic painkiller; Seroquel, an anti-psychotic; and Clonazepam, an anti-convulsant often used to treat anxiety. Melkonian was a 17-year-old junior at Dana Hills High School when he overdosed on prescription pills on May 25 of that same year.
Friends and loved ones have been obliged to keep memories of both teens alive through various South County anti-drug projects that have coalesced into the feature-length documentary Behind the Orange Curtain, which makes its world premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival; it's first screening sold out so quickly a second was added in the 1,130-seat Big Newport theater.
The film explores what executive producer Natalie Costa, in her mile-a-minute Jersey accent, calls "the Orange County tsunami": young people of relative affluence dying after getting hooked on prescription medications such as those Barber ingested as well as Oxycontin, Oxymorphine, Ativan, Adderall and Klonopin.
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How easily dangerous drugs find themselves into the mouths of babes who were not prescribed them is an overarching theme. Peer pressure and rave culture are fleshed out as possible gateways. The pharmaceutical industry's flooding of prescription pills into society, the "dirty doctor system" that often allows those medications to reach addicts and legislative efforts to hopefully stem the flow are all explored onscreen.
The project began when Christine Brant and Jarrod Barber's mother, Jodi, walked into the Performer's Academy, Costa's Laguna Hills acting, dancing and modeling school. The pair wanted Costa's help in making a video for Red Ribbon Week, the drug-and-alcohol-awareness program in local schools. Costa knew Brant through the passing of Melkonian, a gregarious student and athlete whose friends included both women's daughters. The first dead body Brianne Costa saw was her childhood friend Melkonian's; it was in his casket. Barber was known to Costa as a grieving local mom who put up posters around South County with pictures of her son and 18 other young overdose victims.
As the three women talked about the project, Costa realized this was more than a one-off video played at a school assembly. She envisioned a short film, and because her academy's faculty includes filmmakers, she immediately thought of Brent Huff as the perfect director. He has numerous Hollywood film and television acting, writing and directing credits, as does Zac Titus, who was enlisted to produce and co-write with Huff.
The filmmakers, with Costa and Barber in tow, began trolling South County schools for subjects. That's when, Costa says, "the floodgates opened with parents telling us how they lost a child." Some even had a second currently hooked on drugs. Many addicts started on prescription pills before moving to heroin, which produces the same high for less money.
"What blew me away was I'm a parent in the know, a hip kind of parent, and I had no idea this was taking place right under our noses," Costa says. "This is happening in gated communities, at blue-ribbon schools, at Orange County's famous churches, on our well-known athletic teams. Kids who, living here, have a leg up are dropping dead like flies from prescription medication."
It was decided a feature-length film was required to tells this South County story that resonates nationally. Having sunk $10,000 of her own money into the project, Costa turned to Kickstarter, an online resource that solicits donations for creative endeavors. That more than quadrupled the Behind the Orange Curtain budget.
"It was sort of a miracle," Costa says. "For $56,000, to have such a really well-done film is unheard of."
The additional funding allowed the project to move beyond interviews with parents and siblings to include pastors, physicians, first responders, interventionists, CEOs of companies, directors of sober-living institutions and representatives of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
Costa dragged along Brianne, whom the mother describes as "a good girl with no drug or alcohol problems," to the Orange County Coroner's office during filming. "Any mother can take her daughter out to lunch, but when I'm dead and gone, she'll be able to say, 'My mother took me to the morgue.'"
It was very eye- and nose-opening. Inside the beautiful building was a large room in which bodies are kept in bags that ruffle from blowing fans. "We will never be able to get that freezing cold and bleach smell out of our heads," Costs says.
Personnel had respectfully turned toe tags around so the deceased could not be identified on film, but looking at one body, Brianne Costa discovered it had belonged to someone she knew. At the exact moment she covered her mouth with her hand, a still camera snapped the horrified look of recognition washing over her face. That image is now on the Behind the Orange Curtain movie poster.
With no narration, just up-close interviews with those most rocked by young drug deaths, the film soberly brings the issue home.
"Parents need to be aware that there but for the grace of God that could be your kids dying," Costa says emphatically. "All a child has to do is make one bad choice. These drugs do not discriminate. It could be Park Avenue or the park bench—they are one and the same. Open your mouth for one pill, and you could be in for the ride of your life."
This article appeared in print as "OC OD Tsunami: That's how Behind the Orange Curtain describes a prescription-drug 'epidemic' killing local kids."
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