Gritty New Drama "Cleaner Daze" Shows Life in a Teen Rehab

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Gritty New Drama "Cleaner Daze" Shows Life in a Teen Rehab

By Amy Dresner 04/25/18

"I want to build community and remind people they aren’t alone. Cleaner Daze honors the humanity of people who have the disease of addiction."

Image: 
A woman standing in the street, looking concerned.
Actor Abigail Reno plays Jasmine in "Cleaner Daze."

“Cleaner Daze” is a digital darkly comedic digital series about a fictional juvenile drug treatment center in Santa Cruz, CA called The Cliffs. It is directed by Tess Sweet and written by Sweet and her “normie” husband Daniel Gamblin. I was privy to the first five episodes where I was laughing, cringing and completely identifying with the people in treatment as well as the well-intentioned but overwhelmed counselors wrangling addiction, hormones and the chaotic behavior of their young clients. This is not a reality series (nor is any of it exploitive or candy-coated) but Sweet has brilliantly captured the “reality” of youths struggling to get clean in a treatment facility. She shows us and the world that you can create a riveting series about addiction that is accurate, moving and funny without any of the salacious trimmings that frequently characterize this kind of show.

The Fix talked to Sweet about her own history, the inspiration for the show, and casting people in recovery as opposed to actors.

You yourself have struggled with addiction, right?

Definitely. I struggled with addiction for many years. When I was a kid, I was completely addicted to television and food - I just couldn’t entertain myself or stand being alone. It wasn’t about trauma or anything specific happening to me. I think I was just born sad and clung to anything that made me feel better. It was a slow progression from living vicariously through the lives of The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island - but let’s just fast forward to my late twenties and say - it got bad! In the end it was a steady diet of Jim Beam, heroin, crack, and Snicker bars. But I have 16 years clean now. Honestly, one of the biggest struggles for me has been recovering from shame, particularly around the IV drug use. For years, it felt like a dirtiness I couldn’t wash off. As I continue to grow up and evolve, I’ve been able to gradually transform that shame into a source of strength. A creative force! When I open up, speak my truth loudly, and invite my skeletons out of the closet, my past no longer has power over me. And then, if I’m lucky, I can turn it all into comedy in my work and make people laugh. That’s just the best. Humor makes everything better, even if it’s dark. I did IV drugs “for fun” but I’m terrified of needles. That’s funny, right?!

You decided to mostly cast real recovering addicts instead of actors. Why? Looking back, what were the pros and cons of this?

From the beginning it meant a lot to me to try to cast people with addiction histories. I wanted to provide opportunities for people who haven’t had many - people who felt broken and like life sort of passed them by. Maybe because I’ll never forget what it was like to feel that way. I’ve always sort of felt like it was “too late” for me. Even when I was a kid! When we started casting the teens, I made a poster and hung it all over town. It was an open call inviting local youth and street kids, no acting experience necessary. I wrote in big letters “Life experience with addiction, the foster system, juvie, and/or homelessness a plus!”

Because of the work I do ongoing with at-risk youth and teens in recovery, I really wanted to give some of them a shot at making some crazy unrealistic Hollywood dreams come true. Of course we saw a bunch of “real” actors with headshots as well, because I wanted to see everybody I could and cast a wide net (literally). But the reality is, the people who give the most authentic performances are the ones with life experience. It just shows. You can see it in their eyes, especially in the close-ups. It makes me tear up just thinking about it. I can’t tell you how many times I just stood there with my jaw dropped while the camera rolled. It was so moving. And healing for everybody.

The downside is that I have had to watch some of the cast fall. And when they fall, they fall hard. That’s usually what us addicts do! Several have relapsed and two are in jail again. If that’s a “con,” than so be it. It’s testament to the power of the disease of addiction. That’s what Cleaner Daze is about! As we move ahead and look to developing for longer format and partnering with a big studio - I’m going to have to stand firm and insist on being able to continue to take risks on people. This is the gritty magic of Cleaner Daze. It’s high risk, high reward. I don’t want to play it safe.

Image via Tess Sweet.

What inspired you to do this project?

It all started with suicidal depression. Hah! The story of my life. I was living on an isolated mountain top in the redwoods, after relocating from Hollywood to the Santa Cruz mountains for love, and I kind of had a breakdown. I had just graduated from UCLA with an MFA in film directing and left all that behind. My industry was in L.A. and I was not. And to make matters worse, the tiny town 12-step meetings offered no comfort. The one meeting I went to was literally two old guys, a candle, and me. I was withering.

Luckily I was still able to pick up the phone. One of my friends was working on a little web series that has since been picked up by HBO (shout out to High Maintenance!) She suggested I write something small, like a web series, with the resources I had and shoot it in Santa Cruz. That was the little spark that got me thinking. At the time, I was volunteering at a high school for kids in recovery and they’re the kids who were my original inspiration.

During that same time, I was also really struggling to navigate step-parenting. It was tough because I felt so unloved and invisible to these kids who I was suddenly taking care of. Step-parenting is lonely. I channeled that anxiety into my writing. The main character in Cleaner Daze is a single stepmom. I took a version of my story, poured gasoline on it and turned it into fiction. I raised the stakes and made her life way more shitty than mine!

I know it was no easy undertaking as you built an entire rehab facility with no false walls to give it a real sense of legitimacy for yourself and the cast. Tell us about that.

I just wanted it to be real, period. I wanted the rehab center we built to have a life of its own. I wanted the teens to move in, toothbrushes, pajamas, all of that. I wanted to be able to shoot anywhere, almost like a documentary. I use improv a lot. Some of the best scenes in Cleaner Daze were not on the page. They happened when we just let the camera roll and played stuff out. In order to pull off a lot of improv, there needs to be chemistry. What that really means is, everybody needs to be fully at ease with each other and able to let their guards down. My dream rehearsal with a new cast is to take everybody on a two-day camping trip - and never even touch the script. Just hang and get jacked up on caffeine and donuts and play Pictionary. We did that kind of stuff a lot. I’m a big fan of remote control fart machines to lighten the mood.

Image via Tess Sweet.

Tell us a little about the music you used in the series.

Music is the pulse of Cleaner Daze. It’s everything to me! I spend a lot of time curating it - listening to tons of tracks. The mood has to be just right. I put out calls for music in the same way that I cast for actors. I strive to find artists who have addiction histories or connect to our mission somehow. Several of our featured artists have crazy stories of their own. One of our favorites was a homeless meth addict when he was 13. He got clean young and used his recovery story to get a full ride scholarship to a fancy private college. His lyrics have so much depth. I just love it - it adds so many layers to the show. Without music, Cleaner Daze would be mediocre. It’s an essential ingredient to our secret sauce!

How much is scripted and how much is improv?

Every episode is scripted. The story has a spine and traditional arcs and all that, but I really see the script as a blueprint. For the most part, we stick to what’s on the page. But if actors aren’t pulling it off, I’ll toss it aside and say “say it like you’d say it!” Also, sometimes an actor will surprise me and bring something so cool and magical to it, I’ll just let them roll with it. Some of my favorite moments are improv or written by the cast themselves. One of my favorite scenes is a group therapy scene when the teens read goodbye letters to their drugs of choice. I had them all write their own letters. It was really powerful. They were funny and sad and totally right on. They nailed it. Better than I could have.

Image via Tess Sweet.

Aside from being a filmmaker, you work ongoing with at-risk youth and volunteer with both adults and teens in treatment. How much of that work informed the series?

My own personal using history, my trips to rehabs and hospitals, and millions of 12-step meetings over the years - all of that is undeniably the biggest source of inspiration. Also, there’s a lot of laughter and goofing around in 12-step rooms. We joke about the sick stuff we used to do and somehow it makes us all feel better. I strive to get those laughs into Cleaner Daze, because it’s such an important aspect to recovery! I didn’t get clean to lose my sense of humor. If I’m not having fun, I won’t stick around.

But my own history isn’t enough. I have to keep current and stay relevant by spending time with newcomers, both teens and adults in treatment. I have to keep my fingers on the pulse of pop culture and what’s happening now so that Cleaner Daze can live in present time. The landscape of addiction has changed from my day. People don’t talk about crack anymore. If someone says they were addicted to CRACK COCAINE, it instantly dates them into the pages of history. That was the 80s and 90s, man! Now it’s pills. It’s zannys, dabs, molly and purple drank. And kids are dying. It’s not small potatoes anymore. The face of addiction has changed too. It’s not just the druggie kids. They look like normal kids, they’re jocks and girls-next-door. Some get hooked on pills after sports injuries and end up shooting heroin. Heroin is everywhere in Santa Cruz.

How did you finance this project?

We crowdfunded and self-funded this first season. It was pretty inexpensive, as far as film production goes. It definitely cost us way less than it would have cost us in Los Angeles. In L.A., everyone’s jaded and no one will give you anything for free. In Santa Cruz, everybody wants to help. We got all the meals donated from local restaurants and our location was basically donated by an amazing supporter of the project. We are lucky in that regard.

You live in Santa Cruz yourself where the series is set. In your press release you call it “A small touristy town with a big drug problem.” Tell us more.

Santa Cruz is a vacation destination. It’s Surf City USA. But it’s also a hub of the Heroin Highway. There’s a huge homeless population here and lot of kids living on the street. Homelessness and addiction go hand and hand. One of our actors - who has been homeless off and on for most of his adult life - says, “You have to stay high so that you can handle living on the street.” It’s a vicious cycle.

What are you hoping this series will accomplish?

I want to build community and remind people they aren’t alone. Cleaner Daze honors the humanity of people who have the disease of addiction. That sounds so corny and serious, but it’s true! I should also say, we are definitely not making an anti-drug PSA. Cleaner Daze is fun to watch and binge-worthy. As we look ahead at next steps, I want to continue to offer opportunities to people who have survived addiction. I can’t wait to have a writer’s room full of recovering drug addicts laughing our asses off, pitching ideas for the many seasons to come. Oh yeah, I almost forgot the most important thing - I really want a job. I want to finally have a job doing something I love, that thing I was born to do. I’m pretty sure it’s Cleaner Daze. In fact, I know it.

You dedicated Cleaner Daze to a childhood friend. Why?

Many years ago, way back before my addiction took off, I was a victim of a violent crime and it changed me. I was raped at gunpoint. I wasn’t alone when it happened. My boyfriend Matt, who was also a dear childhood friend, was with me. It’s a long story, but he saved my life and I’ll never forget it. Back then neither of us had done any hard drugs. A year after we testified and sent the guys to jail, I had a needle in my arm. Although Matt and I didn’t stay together, we were bound for life by an unspoken connection, like a golden thread. Although we grew apart, we always stayed in touch. We lived parallel lives for a long time. We both wound up addicted to heroin. But 16 years ago, I got clean. Last year, Matt died of an overdose. I’ve dedicated Cleaner Daze to him.

Despite the pilot winning awards at festivals including both the juried and audience awards for Best Original Series at Austin Film Fest 2017 and Best Writing at iTVfest, your show has been called “controversial.” In what way? And do you agree?

There is controversy whenever someone comes from 12-step rooms and talks about it publicly. It’s definitely frowned upon. There are deep traditions regarding anonymity and I honor the tradition to a point. I don’t specify where I get my recovery. Being open about it is also terrifying. I don’t ever want to come across as cured or having all the answers. If I’m not working on my recovery, I’m just one drink or drug away from losing it. Recovery is precious and magic. There are no guarantees.

Your show releases April 25th. Where can people see it?

We releasing to the world online on April 25th. I invite you all to watch it! And please share it! We are counting on our recovery community to have our backs on this. Once a junkie always a junkie? Not anymore! Help us prove that the lie is dead. We do recover.

If you are an artist in recovery and/or want to submit music to the show, please join our new Facebook group - LOUD & CLEAN Recovery Talent Show.

Watch season one now on YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, and cleanerdaze.com.

Check out the trailer here:

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