The Filmmaker Wringing Truth — and Comedy — From Addiction

The Filmmaker Wringing Truth — and Comedy — From Addiction

Tess Sweet at home in Santa Cruz, California.

SourcePhotographs by Leslie dela Vega/OZY

Why you should care

Tess Sweet, a recovering heroin addict, is the writer-director behind Cleaner Daze, a darkly comic web series about rehab.

Seventeen years ago, Tess Sweet wanted to disappear. Suicidal, addicted to heroin and consumed by shame and rage following a sexual assault, she couldn’t see how she might someday help others suffering similar pain. Today, Sweet is a filmmaker living in Santa Cruz, California, using her experiences with addiction and mental illness to shift the conversation about recovery and help other addicts — by turning them into actors.

When Sweet launched her passion project, Cleaner Daze, a darkly comic web series set in a youth rehab facility, she knew she wanted to do things differently. As the show’s writer, director, editor and occasional cast member, she wasn’t interested in another glossy treatment of at-risk youth played by actors with zero connection to the subject matter. Instead, she would capture the reality of kids today growing up on drugs. To get there, and drawing on Larry Clark’s approach for his 1995 cult classic Kids, Sweet took to the streets of Santa Cruz, handing out flyers inviting young people and adults in active recovery to audition.

The result? An authenticity that other takes on the topic can’t manufacture. And people are responding. Released to the public in April, Cleaner Daze premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the first episode won last year’s Jury and Audience Awards for best original scripted series at the Austin Film Festival and Best Writing Award at the Independent Television Festival.

Sweet attributes the show’s early success to the courage of her cast and the dedication of her mostly volunteer crew. They say the credit is all Sweet’s.

“It’s very dynamic working with her,” says Karin Babbitt, a schoolteacher in long-term recovery who plays the curmudgeonly rehab director. Babbitt was impressed by Sweet’s hands-on directing, describing the day she jumped into a scene and got the cast speed walking down a hallway. The result is a dizzying tour of the facility on the protagonist’s first day, the motion capturing the claustrophobia and anxiety trapped within those walls.

She isn’t filming an anti-drug PSA; she wants to show the genuine highs, lows and dark humor of addiction.

“It’s definitely been a roller coaster,” says Daniel Gambelin, Sweet’s husband and co-writer, about her decision to cast real people in recovery, many of whom had never acted before. Gambelin recalls they almost lost an entire shooting day when one actor showed up too intoxicated to perform — a risk they navigated throughout the production. Sweet confirms that the majority of her cast relapsed, forcing her to adjust the shooting schedule or to create improvisational workarounds. It’s an ever-present danger that could tank the show if one of the production companies they’re negotiating with helps them transition to network TV.

“I think she’d need the right partner,” says Kirsten Schaffer, Sweet’s longtime friend and executive director of the feminist advocacy group Women in Film. “But I think keeping that spirit and some amount of real people is what gives it authenticity.”

What Schaffer applauds, others attack. Sweet has received backlash for the show’s authenticity — one Cleaner Daze viewer, “Tommy,” complained on Facebook that the series was triggering. And while it’s true that a number of scenes have a documentary-like quality — Sweet even created realistic “screen heroin” with the coffee replacement that had fooled her in real life — she tries to be cautious and is careful to exclude major triggers, like images of users shooting up. But she isn’t filming an anti-drug PSA; she wants to show the genuine highs and lows of addiction.

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Kemi O’Connor plays Squirt, a young lesbian whose girlfriend just died of an overdose. Although O’Connor had no prior acting experience, she claims that working on Cleaner Daze helped keep her clean and the role she was playing was actually her former self.

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Left to right: Teen rehab clients Zelda (Angie Marie Espinoza), Joaquin (David Salinas) and Penny (Leanne Convis) sketch out scenes from active addiction during an art therapy session in the new digital series Cleaner Daze.

Making light of addiction is not off-limits, though, and morbid humor is woven throughout the show, like the scene where two kids trick another into snorting drywall. It’s dark and sometimes crass, but Sweet believes that gallows humor is an essential survival tool for trauma and addiction survivors. “I dance a fine line between honest, authentic representation — and hope,” she says.

Listening to cast member Alex Magallanes, who was out on bond and facing a life sentence during production, hope is a major player on set. “[The sentence] was always in the back of my mind, but being in Cleaner Daze was a very uplifting experience,” says Magallanes, who recently accepted a more favorable plea bargain. “I am an ex-con and that’s the life I come from. I was never given an opportunity to do anything like this before.”

Sweet, 46, has never faced jail time, but she knows what it’s like when hope is in short supply. Raised outside Washington, D.C., she did not have the sort of upbringing most people associate with heroin addiction. But depression hit her hard after puberty. She started experimenting with drugs in junior high; after a violent rape in her early 20s, she turned to heroin. “I just lost hope,” she says. “I didn’t care anymore.”

With the help of a 12-step program, Sweet finally got clean in 2001. Eight years later, she met Gambelin, a paramedic firefighter, at Burning Man. After getting an MFA in directing from the University of California, L.A. — a goal she had pursued but failed to realize during her addiction — and working on projects including a cable access show, Sweet moved to Santa Cruz to be with Gambelin.

Then, with her life on the uptick, misfortune returned in the form of a cancer diagnosis in the midst of editing season one and before she and Gambelin were to leave on a film festival tour. Gambelin describes his wife’s near-superhuman drive to push forward with the show and admits he had trouble keeping up with her. Babbitt remembers watching live feeds of Sweet on a chemo drip, encouraging the cast and confirming that the show was very much on track.

In remission and looking ahead, Sweet is scouting potential partners for season two — with a bare-bones script at the ready in case they have to go it alone again. The goal is to move Cleaner Daze to network TV; should that happen, she plans to stand her ground and cast inexperienced actors in recovery.

Honesty, authenticity and finding the humor in fucked-up situations. It’s a formula that got Sweet here — 17 years sober — and she’s sticking to what works.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized a scene on Cleaner Daze in which a character snorts drywall.

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Creator, director and recovering addict Tess Sweet poses on the railroad tracks behind her home in Santa Cruz, California. The graffiti wall is the backdrop for the opening titles of her award-winning new digital series Cleaner Daze.

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