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Writer-Director John Swab on 'Body Brokers'

February 24, 2021
4 min read time

Writer-director John Swab's latest film Body Brokers follows protagonist Utah (played by Jack Kilmer); a drug addict who finds himself at the center of true-to-life rehab schemes, where patients are funneled in and out of facilities, allowing rehabs the opportunity to collect millions of dollars from the federal government. 

The film opens deep in action, setting up Kilmer's character as a drug-addled thief. He and his girlfriend Opal (Alice Englert) are robbing a convenience store to score cash for their next high. A stranger named Wood (Michael Kenneth Williams) approaches the couple, offering a golden ticket: an all-expenses-paid trip to a luxurious rehab facility in California. Opal's fight-or-flight instincts take over, and she refuses to follow through on the opportunity. Utah, however, hops a plane to Cali, where he detoxes and gets sober; collecting therapist allies, recovering junkie friends and clinic workers as friends, too. Although Body Brokers is fiction, the story is reflective of the real-world profits questionably earned by rehab owners thanks to the 2012 Affordable Care Act, which required insurance companies to pay for recovery treatment no matter the cost. Thus begins Utah's journey as a real-life body broker, where Wood mentors Utah in recruiting drug addicts in exchange for kickbacks.
 

Swab, who wrote Body Brokers, also directed the film.

"I'm way more precious with performance by a long shot over the words I first write," he said.

"If Michael Kenneth Williams, who plays Wood, is saying my words, I'm going to give him the keys to the car and let him drive because whatever I wrote, he's just going to make it better." 

Swab is the kind of director that believes a good story cannot be saved in the editing room.

"I play a huge part in editing, because it's the collection of and the retelling of your story; something you just spent weeks gathering. A movie like Body Brokers, with this narrative structure, you really can't over-edit it; you can't lose very much because of its very linear structure. One event leads to the next event. One character helps evolve another character... it's very necessary to have all the pieces of the script at your disposal in the editing room with something like this," he said.

"I find if you get into the room and you need to find your movie, you're in real trouble. I've learned how to write in a way that mitigates the problem. Discovering style in an editing room is cool, but hoping that the editing room will make your movie work is a huge cause of trouble."

Swab has never specifically written in the crime drama genre and says, "I'm not a highly educated person. I've learned the hard way on a lot of things  this specific story, Body Brokers, actually happened to me. I've done these things, so I come at writing this genre knowing that nobody can say I don't know what I'm talking about  I lived it."
 
His lived experience shows.
 
"I actually wrote the script in four days," he said.

"I wrote the last 67 pages of the script in one afternoon and the entire piece never changed, no matter how many drafts it went through, but words on the page are not precious to me. Everything I write is scalable  I really try not to write myself into a corner so that I can avoid future issues. It's all about staying mindful while you write."
 
Because of the complex relationships of so many of the characters in Body Brokers  each who had their own distinct motivations and arcs  Swab says planning was important in the writing process.

"I've written seven or eight scripts on Final Draft; I used to be a cue card person but now I do it digitally. Once I figured it out, it's so useful," he said.
 
Body Brokers is an efficient script with a solid structure. Swab says, "I watch a lot of movies. Structure, for me, isn't rocket science. Sometimes I watch movies on silent, watching to visually see when a plot point happens. Sometimes I watch them with a stopwatch; this happens at 20 minutes, this at 27, this at 40. A well-structured script is just understanding the skeleton of storytelling. If you watch enough movies, you understand the diagram. Movies are my new drug, so after a while, after watching enough movies, structure becomes an innate sense."
 
Swab, who also shares a casting director credit with his producing partner Jeremy M. Rosen, says, "[Jeremy] has relationships with people and I have relationships with people. Part of a great movie is casting people you trust so we really like to cast our friends and work with people we know... so that’s how most of this casting played out. Being a casting director is really just a part of the producing process. He has a special eye when it comes to finding talent and having ideas about talent; who would work in what role, so together we make lists of characters and strategize, 'Who do we know? Who would fit this role?' It's a fun process."

With a number of very developed characters in Body Brokers, Swab says it's hard to pick a favorite.

"I think Frank [Grillo]'s character Vin was fun to write. But I also enjoyed writing Alice [Englert]'s character, Opal," he said.

"I've personally been in the shoes of most of the other characters in Body Brokers, except for those two. I've had the junkie girlfriend, I've had the rehab relationship — all those events and characters were very personal to me and getting those troubled memories out on the page was cathartic. But the rehab mogul Vin made the story sexy. It's through him that we are really drawn into the film. He's like a car salesman, where capital is king. Creating him was a lot of fun."
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