Like two other Laguna Niguel mothers concerned about the local prescription drug epidemic, Natalie Costa is on a mission.
A resident since 1986, she is the executive producer of Behind the Orange Curtain, "a documentary that delves into the staggering problem of teenage prescription drug abuse in one of the most affluent counties in the country."
Click here to watch the trailer on YouTube.
"Young and privileged teenagers are dying of drug overdoses in record numbers in Orange County—particularly in prosperous cities, including Laguna Niguel. This documentary, sets out to ask the question why," said Costa, who is the owner of the Performer's Academy in Laguna Woods.
"This is an epidemic issue. It happens on the park bench and Park Avenue. Good people are dying because of one bad choice. Pills are addictive. You can't experiment because you might not get a second chance. Start off with one Oxycontin or Opana, and the road to hell has been paved. Most turn to heroin because it produces the same high but is much less expensive. There are ‘dirty doctors’ who will prescribe for money.”
The film explores who those doctors are and why they prescribe drugs to teens.
“We want to find an honest, objective answer,” said Costa. “The teen years are challenging for both teenagers and parents.”
Costa said the film also wants to explore such questions as: Is it harder these days with the online bullying and social networks? Is it peer pressure? Low self-esteem? Do kids turn to drugs to solve their problems? Is it easier to find drugs if you have money? Do rich kids have more temptation?
“These are questions we want to address, and try to answer or at least shine a light on,” she said.
Raising the Funds
To date, more than $44,607 has been raised to help pay for the production of the film, she said. The original goal was $43,500 and the total cost of the film is $53,500.
“I put in the initial seed money of $10,000 and we are raising the balance of $43,500 via Kickstarter," she said.
On Kickstarter you can set your financial goal, give incentives for donations and set a deadline. If you do not reach the goal and the time clock runs out, everyone gets their money back. More and more independent films are using this service to finance their projects, she said.
“More importantly, we have had so many individuals donate their time or work for basically nothing once they got wind of this project,” she said.
The list includes producer Zac Titus, director of photography Derek Bauer, editor William Sevilla, composer Roland Jenster, and photography from Casian Photography and Vincent Gavin.
“We have been very blessed by those in front of the camera sharing their stories and those behind the camera that are giving this epidemic the attention it needs,” she said.
In the Beginning
Costa said the idea for the film began in May after Dana Hills High School student Mark Melkonian, a childhood friend of her daughter Brianne, passed away.
“I remember my daughter calling me from school and telling me. There was silence on the phone. We attended his funeral and I saw over 1,000 young men and women just beside themselves with grief. I knew then that something had to be done, because Mark could not have died in vain,” she said.
Costa said she was working with Christine Brant's daughter because she wanted to make T-shirts honoring Mark. Brant and Barber are the producers of the documentary Overtaken, another film about the drug problem among teens in Orange County. Brant and Costa agreed again something must be done.
About a year later, Brant brought Barber to see Costa. They discussed getting the film into the schools.
"I agreed with them 1,000 percent but I saw a different path. Since I had access to film directors, we could potentially get this story made and get it out to larger audiences around the country to really hit home what an epidemic this has become ... even in an unsuspecting place like Laguna Niguel.”
She approached Brent Huff, a film director whose projects often have a faith-based message. He also has a 21-year-old daughter, so Costa figured the topic would interest him. Around the same time, Barber and her husband were filmed by Huff and started referring families to Costa.
"Little by little, the word was out that we were doing a documentary and the phone was ringing off the hook," she said. "Parents were willing to share their stories of loss in an effort to get the message out about this growing problem in this affluent community.”
A Different View
So what makes Behind the Orange Curtain different from Overtaken by Barber and Brant?
“Our target market will be the mass public versus schools. I think getting to the parents and letting them know that no one is exempt from this issue is key. There seems to be a sense of snobbery that it 'won't be my child,' ” she said.
The film is appropriate for everyone from parents and teens to young adults, Costa said.
She hopes it will be completed by March.
For now, the trailer can be seen at Kickstarter.com as Costa continues raising money for post-production.
“At a recent screening of the trailer, I asked by a show of hands how many lost a loved one to prescription drugs and 95 percent of the room held up their hands. There was an eerie silence, and tears running down faces. Everyone knows someone who has been touched by this,” she said.
In the end, the overall goal is “awareness on a massive level. We need to let parents know that this is not an isolated problem. It's in every community across America and parents need to understand what to look for in their children.”
Behind the Orange Curtain is currently in the post-production process. The documentary has been submitted to the Newport Beach Film Festival as a work in progress. “We got our fingers crossed that we get accepted into the festival,” said Costa. The producers also received a letter of intent from the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to air their documentary once it is completed.
Here are some locals who are featured in the 90-minute documentary:
Jodi and Bill Barber, whose son, Jarod, died of an overdose.
Sylvia Melkonian, resident and mom of Mark Melkonian.
Larissa Denton, a Dana Hills High School student and Laguna Niguel resident.
Vernon Porter, a pastor in Laguna Niguel.