Todd “Z-Man” Zalkins Profiled in Award-Winning Documentary

By Paul Fuhr 11/01/17

The documentary zeroes in on “Z-Man’s” intervention skills as much as it traces his deep connection to Sublime lead singer Bradley Nowell’s family.

Poster image for The Long Way Back documentary
The new documentary focuses on the long-lasting effects of Bradley Nowell's overdose death on his friends and family, "Z-Man" in particular. Image via The Long Way Back

I can practically hear Todd “Z-Man” Zalkins smile through the phone. Whenever he laughs, it’s easy and effortless—but it’s hard-won laughter, I know. There’s struggle and strain in his voice, even for someone who says he’ll be surfing later in the morning.

“I didn’t seek any of this out,” Zalkins says of the recent attention he’s receiving. “I wasn’t going ‘Hey, check me out!’” But still, the Long Beach resident is the subject of a brand-new documentary, The Long Way Back, that’s as harrowing as it is heartfelt.

Following the loss of his childhood friend, Bradley Nowell (of Sublime fame), “Z-Man” began a 17-year descent into prescription pill hell: an agonizing blur of Vicodin, Norco, OxyContin and ultimately, fentanyl. That Zalkins is still alive is remarkable, but his recovery is even more so: he’s now an author, musician, counselor, interventionist, sought-after motivational speaker, and business owner. He’s even the co-founder of Bradley’s House, a “first-of-its-kind” six-room facility for musicians suffering from opioid addiction, set to open in 2018. The Long Way Back captures not only the man’s outsized personality, but his boundless love and compassion for fellow addicts.

Zalkins describes the first two years of his sobriety as something of an emotional briar patch, right down to waiting for his speech patterns to return.

“When I finally started to come to, things started to click for me,” he said. “I kind of fell in love with seeing families exhale. There’s an exhale that happens when a sick loved one agrees to get help—and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”

Zalkins is somewhat careful, if not reverent in how he describes his very first steps with helping others.

“I was taken under the wing of a wonderful man and a long-term master interventionist in South Orange County. He believed in me and said, ‘Dude, you’ve got that empathy that’s necessary for this kind of trenchwork.’” And it’s definitely trenchwork, Zalkins insists, detailing all the messy dynamics of being on the front lines of addiction recovery.

“I take a great deal of pride in what I do,” he says. “You can’t learn about this over a weekend. I was taught systematically and appropriately how to manage an out-of-control, life-or-death crisis.”

The documentary zeroes in on “Z-Man’s” intervention skills as much as it traces his deep connection to Sublime lead singer Bradley Nowell’s family. Zalkins wasn’t simply part of the 1990s ska-punk band’s inner circle—he had a front-row seat to the “Santeria” group’s turbulent, short-lived ascent to fame, tragically cut short by Nowell’s 1996 heroin overdose.

The Long Way Back brings together Nowell’s bandmates and family to share their memories of the late lead singer, but it also reveals the long-lasting devastation that addiction has on others. Two decades later, the shockwave of Nowell’s death still reverberates through the singer’s family and friends. So much so, in fact, that Bradley’s son Jakob wrestled with his own problems with drugs and alcohol.

“There was this subconscious desire to kind of understand what my dad's experiences were," Jakob Nowell says in the film. “Why would he smoke this? Why would he snort that? Why would he drink this? Why would he pop that?” In a touching, darkly ironic twist, “Z-Man” ends up playing a central role in Jakob’s recovery, the doc shows.

For Zalkins, The Long Way Back has been a full-time job for the past two years.

“It means so much to me as far as getting the message out there that there is hope,” he says of the film. “It’s really important for people who are sick and suffering to have that little glimmer of hope. When I was hopeless, it was a wonderful thing to know I could change.” And true to his tendency to commit to a zillion things at once, Zalkins wore many hats with The Long Way Back. Aside from being the documentary’s subject, he charted much of the film’s course, too.

“I’ve been involved from Minute One right up until this very point,” he says of the doc. “Directors definitely have a huge responsibility to tell a story, but I had to feed a lot of the story and the interview questions to the director to help mold the film. I had to massage people since there’s a lot of sensitive stuff and we’re rehashing old wounds. It’s incredibly emotional.” Zalkins’ personal touch in shaping the story shows: the doc is as effective as it’s been cathartic for everyone involved. Sublime drummer Bud Gaugh’s interview, for one, is particularly heart-wrenching to watch.

“[Bud] actually healed from it,” Zalkins says of the moment. “We embraced. Tears were flowing from both of us. He said, ‘I really needed this.’”

Still, Zalkins notes that some of the biggest challenges of The Long Way Back weren’t emotional, but rather creative. After shooting upwards of 50 hours of footage, the main problem was paring it down to a lean 95 minutes.

“It was so painstaking, going through 14 or 15 edits,” he says. “In fact, we went right down to the wire before it first screened.” (That screening, at the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival, resulted in the film winning Best Documentary.) Despite all the footage they had to cut, Z-Man maintains that “there had to be a light at the end of the tunnel” with the documentary.

If it didn’t serve that purpose, the footage was set aside. Now, since the documentary’s win in Phoenix and its October release, Zalkins is focused on developing a workshop around The Long Way Back. The current plan is to take the doc to colleges and treatment centers across the country to further educate and inspire others.

The Long Way Back has already rewarded Zalkins in one small yet profound way. “My favorite part of these film festivals are the Q&As. People ask great questions, but I also like to make myself available for people to talk privately afterward,” he says.

“After our second screening out in Phoenix, this guy walked up and asked to talk. He said, ‘You know what, man? I’m just coming on two years sober and for the first time in my life, I feel like it’s okay to get help.’ That was a magical moment. I’ve gotta tell you: If there was a Cloud 10—forget about Cloud 9—if that was the whole reason this film got made, to connect with a human being like that…” Zalkins trails off in thought. And while he quickly recovers, it’s clear that, for him, there’s nothing quick about recovery. For Todd “Z-Man” Zalkins, recovery is a process that’s not unlike storytelling: it unfolds carefully, in its own time, has unexpected twists and turns, and you never quite know what the ending is going to be until you’ve arrived there.

“The Long Way Back” is available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and all other digital streaming platforms.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.