Chasing all that glitters but only finding meaning in authenticity.
A drug and alcohol fueled journey to movie-making and political success, on the way to discovering the 12 steps, recovery and what really matters.
Read Joe’s story as part of our “In Our Own Words” series.
0:27 – Start
1:22 – Meet Joe – The man, the myth, the legend
2:05 – Discovering alcohol
6:09 – Found that relief… at 12
8:01 – School with ADD
11:45 – 1st period of sobriety
13:40 – Falling off the wagon – Still an alcoholic
15:53 – Helping others – Selfishly
18:10 – AA, the history
19:41 – Hollywood Career
21:28 – Hollywood – Shallow, selfish, depressing
22:10 – Forgiveness stories
25:50 – Eliminating the trauma
27:29 – Film that he is most proud of
29:57 – A crazy business
33:04 – Politics
39:34 – Addiction began before even drinking
46:05 – Is this life enough?
50:51 – What is the next step for treatment?
54:10 – Final message
[beginning of recorded audio]
Introduction [00:00:12]: Welcome to Rubber Bands, an Avenues Recovery podcast, conversations about the push and pull of addiction and recovery. And now, here’s your host, Shlomo Hoffman.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:00:27]: Hello everybody, welcome to Episode 8 of Rubber Bands, conversations about the push and pull of addiction and recovery. We continue to shed light on the world of addiction treatment by talking to the people who make up its heart and its soul; those who have gone through it and those who have helped them get through it. Sharing their experiences and insights on how people can find their way back from the darkest places and light up the world for themselves and those that love them. Today, we have the pleasure of welcoming in-studio Joe Van Wie. Joe, our Avenues in-house creative genius, has juggled an award-winning career in filmmaking along with managing a number of successful political campaigns. The haze of addiction and the blessing of recovery has touched him personally and he’s eager to share his experiences of the highs and lows of reaching the top of his profession, the aching loneliness and struggles with addiction, and the peace he has found in a simpler life rooted in recovery. Joe, welcome. How have you been?
Joe Van Wie [00:01:23]: Thanks Shlomo, thanks for having me, and thanks to Avenues for the very flattering introduction. I’m glad to be here today and I am flattered to get a chance any time I could now to speak on recovery and my struggles with it because it’s the truth of who I am, and I’ve had periods of sobriety where, I don’t know, it felt like something I wasn’t going to wear on my sleeve. It was part of my identity I wouldn’t want you to know about. And, I don’t know, that creates a really deep conflict in someone who wants to embrace recovery, so I’m glad to speak to that today and be here. Thank you.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:02:10]: So let’s start from the beginning. It didn’t take you long to discover the joys of alcohol, from what I understand.
Joe Van Wie [00:02:20]: No, no. It’s just whiskey that runs through our pipes there. No, it didn’t. You know, oddly enough, alcohol, probably for generations, was common, probably on both sides of my family. But my mother was – she didn’t drink around us or have it around the house. By that time, maybe at an early age in the ‘80s, my father struggled with an addiction.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:02:47]: Specifically alcohol?
Joe Van Wie [00:02:48]: Alcohol, cocaine, criminality. He was a gangster type. So that was interesting.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:02:57]: So are you a made man?
Joe Van Wie [00:03:00]: Me? No. We’re Irish. So I was understanding of the idea that alcohol could have a really damaging effect. That was probably the first memory I had. I’m a kid of the ‘80s, DARE programs, sports camps. It wasn’t something that looked attractive, by any means, unless I saw it romantically in a movie that it was something people indulged in. But by ’83, ’84, my father was in recovery to reconcile my family. My mother brought us to a rehab where he was going to celebrate a year.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:03:28]: Wow. Was he away from home? Was he doing outpatient?
Joe Van Wie [00:03:31]: He was away. He’s the type – he took off to do something and he’d be in Florida for two years and you wouldn’t see him.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:03:39]: Mom was thrilled.
Joe Van Wie [00:03:40]: Yeah, she was, probably. But it gave me a perspective where people go when you hang up your guns, you go to a rehab. It was Marworth – Marworth was like, the Scranton family donated their summer home to become a drug and alcohol treatment center. And rehab surged then. So I saw AA as a really strange place where people like gangsters retired or you went to sell insurance after drinking the drinking game, and my mother thought it was an obscene place. They’re laughing about horrible things they do that no normal person would do. And he got a medallion and a cake for joining civil society, like this was something to celebrate. She found it foul. We didn’t get cake, we got shoved in the car and we had to leave. This place is insane; they’re celebrating your father. So that was my first recollection of AA, I was seven-to-eight years old at the time.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:004:45]: Were your parents together?
Joe Van Wie [00:04:46]: No, no, my mother didn’t want us to share her judgments on my dad at that early age. It was going to be up to us.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:04:55]: It seems like you got on the train.
Joe Van Wie [00:04:57]: Yeah, well, I got to appreciate my dad for what he is and how that has no effect on me becoming an adult. I couldn’t reconcile that at an early age. It was a very volatile relationship, especially in my teenage years. But I think a lot of that had to do with despising how much I probably could be like him. I didn’t see my dad as a victim of trauma, able to sympathize with a dad I didn’t know before I was born to really kind of alleviate and pepper me up for forgiveness. Who was my dad as a child? Who am I going to blame for my problems? My trauma. My addictions. Back to the 16th century and it’s like, oh, there’s that guy. The one that killed some maniac, got us all in trouble with booze. It’s ridiculous, but to not acknowledge that there is a feeling of that, because it’s immediate. Here’s parents, they’re causing these problems. Here’s grandparents. But if you could let go of that, you could see time from a bigger scale. Addiction is an existential problem. It’s a problem of my conscious mind. I’m living in torment and I only get relief from drinking. I found that relief at 12.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:06:14]: At 12?
Joe Van Wie [00:06:15]: At 12, around there, that’s when drinking became kind of a rite to passage, weekends, keg parties.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:06:22]: At 12. How did you get hold of product at 12?
Joe Van Wie [00:06:25]: Easily. You steal it from back porches, homes, there’s always the classic, you know, vagrant or homeless man that would hang out at a corner store, you just duke him a five and out came the 40s. Our guy, his name was Phil. Phil the Bum. Phil would help us.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:06:46]: Phil the Bum. He was your alcohol “dealer.”
Joe Van Wie [00:06:49]: Yeah. Or you bought your way into a keg party, the high school kids already had their infrastructure set up.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:06:55]: The high school kids were willing to look at a 12-year-old?
Joe Van Wie [00:06:58]: Yeah, we were cool 12-year-olds, man. 12, 13, I could roll a J with one hand. I was the product of a catholic education in Scranton; you’ve got to know what you’re doing. If we could drink blood on Sundays, you could have a whiskey on a Saturday night, you know? But it was a big relief. I think the way I saw the world, even at an early age, starting to feel the idea of economics. Went to catholic school, but my mother, without my dad’s support, there was a lot of distress in her family cutting her off from not leaving my dad. We lived in a projects but none of the kids that went to school seemed to be experiencing that life, so I had two sets of friends: roughnecks, and then my friends that went to catholic schools. It creates a duplicity, like I’m living a double life. There’s two Joes. There’s Joe that’s kind of a clown, jester at school, and then there’s Joe in the projects that’s tough, I have to change my shirt.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:08:02]: Were you doing well in school academically?
Joe Van Wie [00:08:05]: I did, but I did have ADD and my mother wasn’t going to let me be prescribed anything, which was interesting.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:08:12]: Was that a fear of substance abuse?
Joe Van Wie [00:08:15]: Just she didn’t understand it, what causes that. She thought I was just hyper, I needed different ways to express myself. I was pretty creative. I think she had a fear of medication, not understanding it. It may have helped, but ADD I don’t think was discussed properly back then, wasn’t described as an emotional problem of detachment. It was more described as you don’t know how to pay attention. And that is an untruth. I’m distracted by my emotional nature and I can’t focus my intention on things.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:08:52]: Intention – as you get to know Joe, intention is a big theme. A big way of centering your life and recovery.
Joe Van Wie [00:09:01]: It is. It’s something I’ve been avoiding my whole life. The intention keeps you aware in the moment, or being present. I found most of my life, I was planning another life. I was in my head experiencing a different version of life.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:09:15]: You were listening to a song and thinking about what you were going to sing next.
Joe Van Wie [00:09:19]: Yeah, or a life that didn’t exist yet. While life was happening, I could be experiencing it. I was off somewhere cognitively retreating. And we call it an ego, but an ego isn’t always posturing; it’s the fantasy life where things are alright for me. Alcohol was the first way to embrace the ego feeling a little more…it was more grounded in reality. It was stronger than a personality, maybe, I could develop. And I think that goes hand-in-hand with addiction. My ego protected me a lot faster than the rational things that could happen in a person’s personality. Alcohol helped that, marijuana.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:09:59]: You’re starting at 12, you’re drinking straight through high school?
Joe Van Wie [00:10:02]: Yeah.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:10:03]: Do you think it was a level of abuse? Were you functioning? Were you…
Joe Van Wie [00:10:06]: I think it was addiction from the start because when I drank, the effect was something I couldn’t produce in myself. It was comfort, a sense of ease, a reality, maybe, I’m one person. It felt relief to a condition that might have already existed. That’s the alcoholic I would – like in AA we would describe a Mai Tai. They’re the people I relate to. Alcohol did something really great for me. Now, it won’t always be the case, but initially I think alcohol got me through the tougher parts of adolescence and high school until it started causing problems sophomore year. I started being expelled from schools.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:10:45]: Because you were coming to school drunk?
Joe Van Wie [00:10:47]: Drunk, fights, you know, acting out, feeling what some people might not articulate, I feel most of education was lies, there were some fantastical ideas. I just rejected them through my behavior, being a wise-ass and you know, really developing the parts, attributes, that I liked of myself, not being afraid of getting in trouble. So I think after a couple times I was expelled, I did go to an adolescent treatment center at 16. That’s when I was introduced to what 12-step life is, what treatment looks like. I did feel a sense of relief. I wasn’t ready for recovery in any serious capacity, but I did feel relief that these people were listening to me. They were people of my nature. And it cut the loneliness. And then maybe a year later, I was in a military reformatory school. Got in some trouble for fighting, and I left there and I stayed sober for a few years – about four years, and I was very active in AA.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:11:48]: So that was through your college days I’m guessing?
Joe Van Wie [00:11:51]: Yeah, from – I repeated sophomore year because the reformatory school was more of a disciplinary for a year, and from sophomore year to sophomore year in college, I stayed sober.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:12:03]: Wow.
Joe Van Wie [00:12:04]: Very active in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:12:06]: Those are like to two least likely years to be sober, I would imagine.
Joe Van Wie [00:12:09]: It was. The freak, man. You’re the freaky sober kid.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:12:12]: Were you home at college? Were you at a local college? Did you go away for college?
Joe Van Wie [00:12:15]: I went to the University at Scranton.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:12:17]: So you were local. So you were sleeping at home, or you were…
Joe Van Wie [00:12:20]: I was sleeping at home. I started going out more and being social sophomore year. More conventionally going out to bars and hanging out with friends, interested in girls instead of reading books about Jesuits.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:12:37]: The religious experience of Joe Van Wie.
Joe Van Wie [00:12:39]: Yeah, I was getting pretty radicalized by my own self. But I don’t know, I felt so odd. I felt like I couldn’t connect at the level I saw old friends connecting at in college. I felt like I was on the outside looking in.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:12:55]: You mean socially?
Joe Van Wie [00:12:57]: Yeah, socially, intellectually. The way I experienced – they seemed to enjoy just whatever would seem shallow, just drinking. What am I missing? They really look like they’re enjoying themselves. I was so disconnected. I was more drawn to that social aspect of college than what I was identifying in AA, and then I was dating someone, broke my heart, I think the pain from that pushed me towards wanting to socialize more, and I thought it was worth the risk. I should drink. And I was still alcoholic. That idea of addiction not having a memory in someone who doesn’t treat themselves, it sounds cliché, but it is fascinating. It’s like I can’t measure what the reality was for me two years prior to that. I have an addiction; I could die. Two years later: it might be safe to drink. And it was just as unmanageable as it was when I was younger. Now I could drink more. And now I liked cocaine. It keeps me up. Cocaine gave me the effect where I felt normal; I felt like my thoughts were organized. I didn’t feel high. I’m a madman. I don’t know; it made me feel normal. I don’t feel normal.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:14:31]: Right. It’s almost like you were starting at a lower place and it got you to level.
Joe Van Wie [00:14:37]: Yeah. Progression is real. And then once I’m drinking, it’s almost my emotional nature is someone who has PTSD. I can’t handle intimacy or relationships or things like – I have to be on the go. I feel like I’m socializing and connecting with people, say like in a bar, it’s an illusion, but it’s powerful, because you feel like you’re doing that there with strangers, but I don’t want to be around my family. It’s completely uncomfortable because it’s a conflict. I know there’s two Joes living up there, and one has an identity of shame, the addict and the alcoholic in me.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:15:23]: And that was something you faced with your “real” relationships or deeper relationships?
Joe Van Wie [00:15:25]: Yeah, I can’t live a lie in front of the people who know me or at least have affection for me. It becomes tremendously difficult. What am I going to talk about? I don’t want to be there. I want relief – I want to be around people who drink. They’re not demanding much of me except for wit and jokes. I get really uncomfortable getting close to people.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:15:50]: Is that something you still struggle with?
Joe Van Wie [00:15:52]: I can, yeah. You know, I do it methodically through the steps. My commitments – my obligations to help newcomers in AA I take very seriously because I don’t think there’s a free lunch in the spiritual terms of getting sober. You have to help newcomers. I do, or I will not stay sober.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:16:03]: It’s even for your own self, actually.
Joe Van Wie [00:16:05]: Yeah. Like say for instance I work up Lake Ariel, I spend my whole week up there, I enjoy it. But I don’t consider that my service work. It’s a fulfilling career. But outside of work, I’m – on average, I take two people a week through the steps, the process of going through the steps. That’s my number. That’s the debt I owe Alcoholics Anonymous, I feel. My wife is comfortable with that. My obligation is to my family first, but she knows that’s…
Shlomo Hoffman [00:16:33]: That’s what you need for you.
Joe Van Wie [00:16:35]: That’s the full circle of maintaining my sanity. I have to be around people who are suffering from addiction.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:16:43]: Wow.
Joe Van Wie [00:16:44]: I’ve gone without it and my thinking changes. My thinking about myself as well. It’s like a spiritual axiom. And it’s weird talk, I was predominantly an atheist. In the sense there is a truth in that: I’m relieved from addiction because my hands have to stay out constantly to someone who needs the same exact help. Yeah, that’s the final safeguard to working the steps. If anything else fails…
Shlomo Hoffman [00:17:16]: Do you think it’s because it’s as if people are counting on you to be sober so that’s going to keep you sober?
Joe Van Wie [00:17:23]: I think it’s one element. But you know, AA doesn’t get so lofty. I always liked that about Alcoholics Anonymous or any 12-step program. It’s the paradox of charity; it’s selfish, it’s helping me. So, but yeah, in turn, someone else is getting help. Do all of that action, that debt. But don’t mix this up that you have let’s all just wink and admit, this is selfish, this is keeping me sober. Bill helped newcomers for six months without any success, but guess who didn’t drink? Bill. He started AA. Why did that work?
Shlomo Hoffman [00:18:03]: Yeah, in Akron, Ohio.
Joe Van Wie [00:18:04]: Yeah, I appreciate the history of it much more, how delicate it was.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:18:09]: And how it could have really not happened. Like the sliding door effect of it.
Joe Van Wie [00:18:30]: How do a hundred arrogant, egotistical people who haven’t been drinking for a year take the considerations to write a book together? Letting Bill be in charge, who is the most, you know, ambitious, restrained ego man you’d ever meet. How the hell did they pull that off is pretty phenomenal. I think that’s always the burden of trying to revise this book.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:18:49]: That it was almost like a miracle in the first place.
Joe Van Wie [00:18:52]: How could you do this again? If it was written today, it’d probably be much different, it’d probably be a little more secular. Because God is I think even a more hard work to unpack for a bunch of strangers in a room. But all in all, I think it leaves us with the experience in AA and the obligation to help someone read the book together. You sit down and you go through it with a guy who already went through the steps and it’s not a power-based relationship. Hey, this book was written in ’38. Let’s take a look at it together, unpack it. How did they intend for you to work the steps? And then you know, it’s up to them to unpack their own definition of God. I never define it to anyone I’m working with or at treatment because it’s a huge word. How are you going to do this?
Shlomo Hoffman [00:19:36]: It’s a loaded word.
Joe Van Wie [00:19:38]: Yeah.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:19:39]: Let’s jump for a second to your career. You’re obviously a creative person and you made good on that sort of. Is that – how did that work? Did your addictions to the substance bring out your creativity, do you think?
Joe Van Wie [00:19:58]: At times, I would say. At a high cost.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:20:03]: Do you remember – you know like Stephen King talks about how he wrote books and he doesn’t remember writing them, he was just in a haze.
Joe Van Wie [00:20:12]: Yeah, Hemmingway, you name it.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:20:14]: Do you have those – do you feel like you had those moments?
Joe Van Wie [00:20:19]: I do. When I was younger, you know, pot was so mystical when I first smoked it. It makes your mind exploratory. As an adult, I’ve had that experience, but the window was closed rapidly. I mean, you really go into different stages of addiction and then there’s no return. There is no creativity; there’s just relief from a life I’m not living or want to live. So I think hallucinogenics had an effect on my creativity; not only my creativity, my perspective of life. But they did not bring back a discipline or a modality to live by like recovery would. But to say there’s no truth to that would be – I mean, it’s short-sighted, it’s not accurate.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:21:10]: And you’ll never be able to really recover if you don’t realize that.
Joe Van Wie [00:21:12]: Yeah, you don’t. Or listen to someone who’s having that experience. It’s a part of their addiction that doesn’t seem fatal to them. Are you going to brow beat them? You don’t see, the danger is coming. That’s not how it works. I mean, I could appreciate where they’re at and nobody has to get sober; they have to want to. I think that’s the success of recovery communities.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:21:25]: Right. So what was it like in Hollywood?
Joe Van Wie [00:21:27]: Heartless. Shallow. Bizarre. Desperation. Just areas of desperation. You’ve got to go there with a plan.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:21:37]: Did you go with a plan?
Joe Van Wie [00:21:38]: I went there to sell films made on the east coast. And so, yeah, I did. But the air of desperation and magic could captivate you quickly. A lot of people have no idea who they are; just dying to be someone that they haven’t found out yet. You could be surrounded by that. If you don’t have your craft already, you know, polished, and what you want to do, what stories do you want to tell, there’s no reason to be in Hollywood.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:22:07]: What stories did you want to tell?
Joe Van Wie [00:22:09]: Gritty stories about forgiven – forgiveness, hard ideals, what is the bounds of forgiveness, how dark can a person get? Are they still human after that?
Shlomo Hoffman [00:22:21]: Do you think that had to do with your experiences of your father?
Joe Van Wie [00:22:25]: My father, what stories I appealed to, that appealed to me.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:22:30]: Were you trying to – no, I mean to say like were you trying to, you know, you were talking about you had themes of forgiveness and understanding parameters. Were you sort of trying to find your way back to figuring out how your relationship with your father is and what it is and how it’s going to be?
Joe Van Wie [00:22:47]: Maybe a little bit, yeah. Definitely without question, to what degree, I never really measured in my head. Maybe it had a lot to do with myself, thinking I wasn’t a worthy person. How was I going to measure up to that? Was I going to become kind of a burnout of talent or a victim of my own life? Like my dad, as tough as he thought he was, he was always a victim of some other bigger system over him, was making him this is how I have to do it. Oh, okay. Yeah, I guess I’d have to consider that more, but I think this year was a year for me. My dad passed last August. He was ill; his health was – during COVID, and that same year I was married and had a baby, and I started really…
Shlomo Hoffman [00:23:47]: Wow. Like the true life cycle.
Joe Van Wie [00:23:49]: Yeah. I started a daily meditation practice I stayed committed to. A, because the immediate need was my anxiety was out of control, the way I measured media, news, I couldn’t – it was all untethered, and it wasn’t on a time scale that was immediate to A, my wife. I’m having a baby, my business is not going to be something I want to recover, can I, nor do I want to? I could now admit it to myself. Meditation helped fill this void. What is Joe going to do? I obligated myself to other people I love and care about, but my mind still seems out of control to impulse and fear. When I started to get that practice down, I tried a meditation that was tried a meta meditation. I just started picturing, what did my father look like when he was five or six? And he had a hair lip and it was very traumatic, for years of surgery. It was the ‘50s, they butchered him. And what did he look like smiling when he was six? And my child was just born and it just melted every resentment. Now, I did resentments in the sense of, like, procedurally right resentments, going out and making amends, I’ve done it. This was really impactful because I saw my dad as a victim of existence. Man, these are the variables. It really challenges what I think free will is in some respects. You don’t get to choose your variables to make your decisions. Probably 90% of them have been chosen for you before you were born. And I saw my dad that way. And I forget – it was just forgiveness. The only regret I might have even felt out of that meditation, I wish I had more time so I could have at least…
Shlomo Hoffman [00:25:38]: To express that to him, you could have…
Joe Van Wie [00:25:40]: To express it to him, if he could understand what I was expressing or not.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:25:44]: Help you make it real for yourself.
Joe Van Wie [00:25:46]: Yeah, because I want to limit any kind of trauma or that passing on, definitely, to my daughter – I have a ten-month old daughter now. When does this end? When do we become awake to this? That it’s not someone’s fault; it’s a condition that existed. Addiction. The drinking.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:26:06]: Eventually – and forgiving yourself is an important step. Forgiving your own self is an important step to real recovery.
Joe Van Wie [00:26:15]: My forgiveness of myself came through forgiving others. I didn’t actualize it. I could say – I’ve heard people say that at meetings, somehow it always made me feel disgusting, like I’m tired of being concerned with myself and my addiction; that’s just all I think about: me. But when I started to forgive people, I didn’t expect to, I thought when I wrote them down, someone heard this resentment, they were going to agree with me. Yeah, this guy, he was a jerk. When I got tricked into the idea they might be as broken as me, this idea, this forgiveness idea could wiggle in, it kills that torment of where most of my cognitive life is spent in re-living pain, the idea of resentment, to re-feel. Get rid of this. Real creativity is going to come from healing this. You can’t be creative anymore unless you emotionally heal yourself; you’re stuck. And drinking wasn’t working, but I could not stop using it. If I felt any kind of emotion or movement in there of the limbic center, that was it, I was toast; I’m drinking that day. I’m going to quit drinking, but it’s not going to be today because I’m going to go crazy if I don’t drink.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:27:34]: What’s the project, film that you’re most proud of?
Joe Van Wie [00:27:40]: Well, it was the most successful one and it all came together organically, would probably be “Forged.”
Shlomo Hoffman [00:27:50]: Tell us a little bit about “Forged.”
Joe Van Wie [00:27:52]: “Forged” is an indie film that went into production, we got the script in 2008, went into production around 2009.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:28:00]: So you were writing scripts…
Joe Van Wie [00:28:02]: Like six people ended up being the writers on this by the time it was done, we’re on draft 36. We just kept rewriting it, and it was a group. It was: Will Wedig, Josh Crook, the Crook brothers out of New York, great indie filmmakers, and Manny Perez, who was the star of the film. He became close friends on La Soga, who was a producer on that in the Dominican Republic, it was his story about the drug trade down there, did well at the Toronto Film Festival and it was a departure of what you usually see in Dominican Films, melodramatic, this was hard guts, would seem like action to us, but it was drama. It was the highest grossing tribune film to date that was made and produced in the Caribbean. So I became close with Manny then, and this script was originally written for Texas and I got involved, became the executive producer right away, took kind of…
Shlomo Hoffman [00:28:48]: What do you mean, written for Texas?
Joe Van Wie [00:28:50]: The script was written and Texas was the background for it, it was almost like a biker movie. And if you see it, there’s no bikes and you’re not in Texas. I immediately said, this is a Scranton script. I wanted a film that we could shoot in my hometown. I was like, this is an old rust belt, burnt out town, and all you see is ghosts of what was.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:29:07]: What was, what might have been.
Joe Van Wie [00:29:09]: Yeah. And up rises criminal factions, and in those criminal factions, you do see a sense of community. Good, bad, or in between, it’s a community. So that was the perfect script and it was a hard shoot, it was usually – we’ve had days that it was 11 below zero with wind chill in Scranton and 90% of the film is exteriors. It was brutal. Shot for 40-something days, went into production, post-production for a year. I thought I ruined my life making that movie. It just hemorrhaged all of the money I had.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:29:54]: How does that work? How does the backend work? How does the backend work? Do you have to find investors constantly?
Joe Van Wie [00:29:59]: Back then, it was a different – it was kind of a recipe. It’s changed dramatically, obviously. It’s changed a couple times since then. Netflix wasn’t even a real emergence then, you were still getting the foam CD cases. So what you would do is if you were a rogue producer like me, I was an indie film – I would put money into making a film with no avenues of distribution. If the film is excellent, I’ll go out and win awards for it, and I’m going to sell it to a distribution company. That’s probably the most sadistic way to make a movie. So we won a lot of accolades with that.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:30:37]: A complete gamble. A full gamble.
Joe Van Wie [00:30:39]: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:30:42]: You’re making it before you’re selling it, you have no landing, no safety net.
Joe Van Wie [00:30:45]: This isn’t a reasonable business. It’s not for rational people. It’s insane. You’re a madman with creative genius and you have about a crew of 80 carnies around you and nobody cares; we just want to make movies.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:30:57]: How are you paying your actors?
Joe Van Wie [00:31:00]: Well, you would raise the capital, like say the film cost a half a million dollars and we could pull it off on time. We’d go and market that as a $1.2 million – look what we did for $1.2 million, and try to court a distributor.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:31:15]: In reality, does it cost $1.2 million?
Joe Van Wie [00:31:17]: No. Absolutely not.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:31:18]: Much more or much less?
Joe Van Wie [00:31:19]: Much less. That’s the game. How can we get this done so we can compete with films saying they’re $6 million budgets? We’re doing it with a couple hundred thousand dollars.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:31:31]: And an iPhone camera.
Joe Van Wie [00:31:32]: Yeah. Back then, our rig – you know, we thought we were, wow, technology broke through the camera. I know this is radio, but it was this big, the lens was this big.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:31:42]: This big – Joe is holding his hands apart at certain intervals.
Joe Van Wie [00:31:44]: About four feet apart, it was the red camera.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:31:47]: Paint it in your heads, folks.
Joe Van Wie [00:31:48]: It was the red camera. The red one. The first camera that shot in 4k in 2007. We were the first of 20 films to shoot with that camera and it became an industry standard for the next decade, using a red camera.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:32:12]: How did you get a hold of the equipment though? You were able to pay for that?
Joe Van Wie [00:32:15]: I had a partner; he bought it. Yeah, he was a real maverick political genius in Pennsylvania and we were partners on an ad agency. He was a wild cat, man. He was a cool dude. But he bought that rig and that was it. We were out there making a film with it.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:32:34]: Wow. And you’re recruiting actors?
Joe Van Wie [00:32:36]: We’re recruiting actors.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:32:37]: What are the days like?
Joe Van Wie [00:32:38]: They’re grueling, 12-to-18 hour days, six days a week, on an independent film. It’s not being financed by a studio.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:32:46]: You don’t have a cushy trailer.
Joe Van Wie [00:32:48]: That’s the only way to pull off that great value expectation of making the budget look great. It’s very demanding. It’s not conducive to a healthy lifestyle. At my age, I’d never be able to do that now; never. I would have to do the Clint Eastwood kind of model, 9-to-5. He’s always strict with his…but it was hard. I was addicted to that lifestyle, because politics served it too. A campaign could be three months; my clients could call at midnight, 3AM.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:33:18]: Joe was a political consultant as well. Kind of moving the jumping the back and forth.
Joe Van Wie [00:33:24]: Yeah, I didn’t mean to jump.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:33:26]: No, no, it’s great.
Joe Van Wie [00:33:27]: They went hand-in-hand. I made movies while doing campaigns. Total psychosis.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:33:34]: 12 hours at the shoot and then nights at the campaign headquarters.
Joe Van Wie [00:33:39]: Yeah, trying not to frighten the state reps, the congressman. Drinking coffee.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:33:45]: Alcohol.
Joe Van Wie [00:33:46]: Alcohol didn’t come in until I relapsed. I was doing that sober. My last six years, I stayed sober from 24, I didn’t mention, for 14 years. And the last four years of that fit of sobriety was total mania. I mean, through sleep, behavior, diet, the way I was treating people. I didn’t recognize or be able to say, hey, that’s anxiety. That was a demand.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:34:09]: You weren’t the nicest guy on the set.
Joe Van Wie [00:34:11]: I was becoming tyrannical. Short-sighted. Objective-driven. You know, recovery is dependent on how am I treating other people. I could have these goals, but why am I doing them? I was running from what I was totally afraid of.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:34:27]: Because you did mention that you feel like you relapsed before you ever actually took drugs with alcohol. Talk about that a little bit, what that meant to you.
Joe Van Wie [00:34:42]: I think there’s like a gel in the curve of what the relapse – it’s pretty spot on. I’d say I hit an existential crisis with AA. I knew I was an atheist and you know, a lot of my friends are faithful, but atheists in the degree, I did not believe in the God that, A, I was raised with. I felt like I was an imposter in AA. What am I really saying when I say “God”? Because I’m saying it at meetings, but I’m saying it not to cause conflict. When am I going to have this discussion with someone where I could reconcile that I’m not a fraud within these steps? I didn’t have that discussion. And there was a kid I was friends with, a young guy, came to meetings, doing really well for a while, relapsed, and on his relapse, he got mixed up with some bad guys and they were psychotic. They killed this kid, executed him. And it was all out of this fake little young crime family. It was so deranged, to see that happen to him and the way some people, I experienced them talking about it at meetings with such cruelty, that is what happens when you relapse. No, this is not – drinking alcohol, being executed is not a consequence of not working the steps. What are you talking about? I took that as a whole sale kind of notion. Why am I wasting my time at meetings? The arrogance and hubris just started to grow on me, that my alcoholism is different, it’s relinquished, it’s gone. My problem is with tolerating people here. Maybe I’ve outgrown this. That narrative; that story I started telling myself.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:36:28]: That was like when you were hitting 34?
Joe Van Wie [00:36:30]: That’s the relapse. That’s when I relapsed.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:36:33]: When you stopped believing.
Joe Van Wie [00:36:35]: I stopped believing that that was where the solution was for me, or at least in those people. I share the same affliction that they do and condition. That was a Rubicon I’ve kind of crossed. Having conflicting ideas of how I was making money, maybe taking a crappy raise, maybe a candidate I didn’t fully believe in, but hey, I’ve got to keep the lights on. There’s those conflicts.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:37:02]: Were you getting rich? Was getting rich important to you?
Joe Van Wie [00:37:05]: Yes. Yeah, it was, and it was in conflict to the integrity I wanted to keep, which one was going to win.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:37:12]: Money sort of started superseding everything else?
Joe Van Wie [00:37:14]: It did, because my fear of not being important was so big, I would do anything to get rid of that fear. And it failed in the end because it wasn’t based in truth. It was an adolescent fear; it never reconciled as a man. My purpose for doing these things had no intellectual weight. It was shallow. It was about Joe.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:37:28]: It was being important. It was about mattering. It was about…
Joe Van Wie [00:37:32]: I got guys that were with me ten years. It stopped being a concern for them. Here’s a guy who’s working with me, saw my vision, how do I admit to them that I made mistakes, that we shouldn’t be doing this kind of work? Instead of taking responsibility over that, I started blaming others. Or if something went wrong and it really went juxtaposed to who I want to be, and it got so out of control, you start now putting out little fires here and there, before you know it, my brain just ceased. I couldn’t make decisions or have emotional relationships, so I started smoking pot to fall asleep. And I told friends that. Marijuana wasn’t legal yet, but it was on the curve. So I’m thinking, this could be helpful. And being that I’m an addict, it was – it wasn’t prescribed to me, but it was. It started to reduce anxiety, but it didn’t solve problems. None of this problems got solved, I could just maybe go to bed, and then it stopped working. Then it was causing anxiety in me.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:38:35]: And then you headed back down the rabbit hole of alcohol and cocaine? All that?
Joe Van Wie [00:38:40]: Yeah, they just kind of all tip your toe in it. I must not be an alcoholic. I was a mentally ill, angry young man. I am not that anymore. Why is my life defined by fermented fruit? This is absurd. This is absurd. I see other people drinking with impunity. I’ve got to be able to do this, and if I can’t, I’m going to stop. That’s – for an alcoholic thinking that way, he’s flirting with suicide. When the irrational thought of step one is I’m admitting I have a fatal illness, I was gone. So I was willing to take the risks.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:39:25]: Were you married at the time?
Joe Van Wie [00:39:27]: No, I was not. I was not with my wife. I was with someone else and I was just absent from the relationship. Addiction was before I even drank. Drinking just accelerated – it was almost this subconscious admittance, not so much immediately that I wanted to die, but I wanted my life to. I couldn’t solve any problems in my own life anymore; I was checked out. So once I started drinking, that was that. It didn’t take long; I drank like a beast. And it wasn’t too long that I wouldn’t really be leaving my house.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:40:06]: So work was…
Joe Van Wie [00:40:08]: I was incapable of working. I am a stone cold drunk. My brain shuts off. I give up on life. I become totally nihilistic. And then I’ll put it together once in a while to get out of the house, take a job, not alarm the family, because that’s even worse, don’t let them know alcoholism is out of control. What are you thinking? So, you know, but it was just on a ski slope and it declined just going down, it was never going back up. There would be moments of grace where I could get a week together or take a bunch of benzodiazepines, get my nerves together, take a job on. The work…
Shlomo Hoffman [00:40:44]: Film work? Or was it political work?
Joe Van Wie [00:40:46]: Political work. Film work, I was just doing marketing work at that time, and you know, it was starting to show, my defective work product. I have no shame in admitting it; I told them that. I made these amends. I had to come clean with that. I made amends to most of my ex-clients on that behalf because I stopped.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:41:04]: You stopped producing work?
Joe Van Wie [00:41:06]: Yeah, and I didn’t want to. I should have – like an adult would make a decision, or someone on a spiritual path, sit down, reorganize this and be straight with people. I didn’t take that course. By avoiding that course, addiction takes over. This adolescent 16-year old in my brain grabs the wheel. I know how to handle this life, don’t worry about it. Hide.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:41:35]: And being involved in politics, what did that do to you? Was it an idealistic thing in the beginning? But you were choosing the candidates and the people you believed in?
Joe Van Wie [00:41:47]: Yeah, in the beginning.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:41:49]: You have the West Wing scene where he’s like, “I found President Barlow.” Was that your type of thing? Or you’re paying me, I’m going to get you elected?
Joe Van Wie [00:41:59]: It started by opportunity, and the opportunity showed me an ability. I was limiting myself to just doing films. I was always politically active. But I immediately knew I was good at it and so did other people. It was a congressman that wrote the bailout check, and he was valuing my judgment over someone that was in the industry for, you know, decades. So, flattered by this, I just went and redeveloped the skills. I branded myself as a maverick immediately. And that was one congressional race. The following year, we had four judge races, six state rep races, a state senate race, five county commissioner races, and we won 82% of them. Like, dang.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:42:45]: What was wrong with the 18% that lost? It was just bad candidates, eh?
Joe Van Wie [00:42:49]: Just the candidate.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:42:55]: Look, you can lead the horse to water… [crosstalk] You ain’t paying me enough.
Joe Van Wie [00:43:02]: Do you want to be in charge or do you want to win, usually. You’ve got a month left.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:43:04]: Is that your tagline?
Joe Van Wie [00:43:04]: You can’t have both. So I did like it. But it became a product.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:43:08]: Did you feel like you were making a difference to the world? Did it give you that rush more than filmmaking?
Joe Van Wie [00:43:16]: At times, but it gave me more of a self-indulgent rush and it took me a little while to admit to it. I had some great candidates, really great guys, all in public office. I’ve had some below par, everybody does. But the gratification was coming to me. And I knew my integrity wanted to be more intelligent than that. There’s a fight going on in my head, a total conflict. And the rise of things getting really binary after 2016 with Trump and the democrats, I felt like I was a part of a problem – it doesn’t matter if you’re left or right – instead of a solution. It was so polarizing. And I almost sabotaged before I stopped drinking, my own business, political business, by having active protests and organized activism. That was being paid for by any candidate, organization. And it was frightening. Even my left, my more conservative friends. So that was one creative way to deal with it.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:44:26]: But you were mostly running campaigns to the left, right?
Joe Van Wie [00:44:30]: For the left, yeah. And I lean that way. And then COVID changed everything for me, my political discourse, and my wife, my family, my obligations to them. Of just finding a moderation to the way I’m perceiving media, the universe, my own Kool Aid, or what we were all getting fed into this pandemic wherever you came from. I didn’t see any value. What is this doing for us? Nations? Species? I really wanted to measure. How am I going to move forward? These political ideologies don’t fit with anything that got me sober, this mindfulness practice, this presence. Am I present for the person sitting in front of me? Instead of having a Facebook fight over climate change. These are all important, valuable issues, but my stance on them is kind of a luxury I don’t have any more that I want to express. I found where I’m going to have the most impact. Say you’ve got 30, 20 years to live, or 40, whatever is left in there, do I want to spend time pissing up a rain pipe, or do I want to help addicts and alcoholics? I have a lot of experience in that. It almost killed me. I don’t want to waste time. I know how to talk to addicts and alcoholics; I don’t have to come with the flag or cross. I can come, hey, I have experience, I almost died of addiction, can I share it with you? And can I listen to you?
Shlomo Hoffman [00:46:02]: So, you know, coming from the high adrenaline and high rush type of situations like filmmaking, like winning awards, like being involved in the thick of a political campaign, is this enough for you?
Joe Van Wie [00:46:15]: Today, yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:46:17]: Do you miss the rush? Are you looking for it? Have you found a way to replace it? Are you at peace?
Joe Van Wie [00:46:22]: The rush was great. But the cost was terrible. I think all alcoholics, my kind of nature and type of person, need adventure. It’s been replaced. It’s been replaced because boredom for me is usually a crisis of – an existential crisis. Experienced boredom. I’ve never been present in my life in the way I am now just because of the consequences. I love my wife. I love having a child. I can’t experience it unless I’m home when I’m home. And when I’m at work, I’m at work. I never parsed those. And am I going to be the same Joe?
Shlomo Hoffman [00:47:04]: This might sound cutesy, but, like, is your sense of adventure because of the way your mind is centered now and with your intention and everything else, is that giving you that sense of adventure, just experiencing life with a wife, with a child? Sort of like viewing the world through your little baby’s eyes as they’re growing up. This all sounds like cutesy stuff. This is where my sense of adventure is coming from. Like I don’t need to be, you know, screaming at some political intern, why’d you eff this up, you know what I mean?
Joe Van Wie [00:47:40]: Drop and give me ten.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:47:43]: Sort of like living your life and really, instead of living it in your self-made TV show.
Joe Van Wie [00:47:50]: Yeah, yeah. Thank you, Shlomo, I’m listening to you going yeah, I guess that is a consideration, I guess that’s how you describe it. Yeah, I’ve never been present into the moment, a lot of excitement came from plans. Plans were executed, boredom arose. Oh, this wasn’t what I thought it would be, or this was great, but that feeling, what am I going to sustain it for months? It’s insane. I have an addict’s mind.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:48:21]: Is there any world where you see yourself in sort of a regulated way? Is there any way you can see yourself going back into that world?
Joe Van Wie [00:48:28]: No. Not in any way that would be recognizable when I was there. Nothing that I could recognize.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:48:38]: What you have left to give you want to give to this community. Our community.
Joe Van Wie [00:48:45]: To recovery. I think it keeps me focused like a scalpel. I’m always cognizant of time and the value of it now that I’m sober. I’ve had a lot of projects. It would take for every one project I got done, I had ten that wouldn’t.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:49:03]: Basically what I’m asking you is if I were to run for office, would you run my campaign? You’re not getting it.
Joe Van Wie [00:49:13]: What’s your budget? That’s the question. You have a two-hour meeting and there’s only one thing on everyone’s mind: what the budget is. And you have to talk about things for two hours to say, who is going to tell us what the budget is? Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m happy now. Right now, my life has been pieced together in a way that is refreshing. It’s present. And the sense of obligation of giving others is a consideration I’m putting before myself, or making me feel more alive than thinking about myself, how I could get rid of my own fears, match my own ambitions with hiding my fears. I exhausted that. I almost died doing it. That’s the consequence for addiction. In my mind, recovery has to meet truth. I have to be looking for truth. I don’t know where that lies. I have to be reading. Like when we talk about a spiritual awakening in recovery, it really is an awakening to why can’t you be present? What is tormenting me? Once that’s reconciled, it’s a commitment to stay present, and that requires new information, reading, a practice. It’s not a redundancy. The rituals are redundant, but the information grows, what it means to me. And listening to you say that was the first time I considered, oh, I guess that’s what I did.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:50:51]: Glad to be of service, Joe.
Joe Van Wie [00:50:53]: Thank you.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:50:54]: Sure. What do you think treatment needs to get to? What do you think the next, you know, the next wrung is? The next hallow ground? What are we not doing that we could do better?
Joe Van Wie [00:51:04]: I don’t know what the answer is. To see, you know, in the last five, six years, heroin totally transition to a synthetic version, fentanyl, is a frightening prospect. That you could be in your first week of your addiction, 16, 18, and without experiencing the consequences of losing a job, school, your parents even finding out you’re using drugs, you can die.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:51:35]: It can happen that quick.
Joe Van Wie [00:51:37]: Well, the probability is astronomically different than it was ten years ago. So to reach that kid, usually, you know, the last six decades of treatment was this awareness you would have to come to from an inkling desire that you’re in danger. How do you develop that in a week? And I think Lake Ariel is constantly talking about this and doing really creative things to address this. How do you break into a mind that doesn’t know fatality is around the corner? The risk they’re taking with fentanyl is far different than me floundering through high school smoking pot and drinking. You know, car accidents happen, these tragedies happen, but not at the astronomical scale of opioid deaths: 80,000 climbing, six figures probably this year. It’s mind-bending. Mind-bending to think this is not being addressed. What can you do to reach that person?
Shlomo Hoffman [00:52:30]: So ultimately, in terms of scalability, is it really not about reaching the person that’s already in, it’s about really, really laying groundwork in schools, education, inserting that concept of this is fatality and it’s around the corner?
Joe Van Wie [00:52:47]: That’s the long ball game. Every time I’ve seen it done, we’ve seen failures – monumental failures of it.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:52:52]: Does it work?
Joe Van Wie [00:52:53]: No, it won’t work. I think it was the product that didn’t work. What will work is identifying trauma in schools. Trauma – the victims of trauma, or not so much the event, will be your future addicts and alcoholics, and reaching them at a scale that if the addiction does start, it doesn’t have to be fatal, it doesn’t have to be mind-numbing, abusive. This is an addiction. You can identify it earlier; they can. I think with a good education base it’s first identifying the kids that have trauma in their homes or experienced it. What you can do, and a lot of it is really listening. Once you identify them, don’t pigeonhole them into the idea. Who’s listening to this kid two hours a week? Let them express what’s going on at home. Then when he uses his first drink or drug and it has that kind of marriage to trauma and it feels like a solution to it, a bigger truth is going into that addiction – oh, this might be an addiction. And you can know that before you lose everything.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:54:00]: Right.
Joe Van Wie [00:54:02]: We still have a lot of work to do is what you’re saying. We’re all stuck here together, let’s figure it out. Let’s get it nice here.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:54:12]: Yeah. Any message that means a lot to you that you want to share? Sort of like, you know, a message to the people. Anyone who wants to know – I think about this a lot, there’s people…I ask most of my guests this. You know, everybody sort of sees it happening on the fringes, everyone is living with it. Someone’s neighbor, someone’s kid. This guy overdosed, that kid didn’t make it home, that kid went to college and never came home, you know. How can people just – regular people – just be involved in sort of an effort for recovery? What can I do in my little patch, my little eight feet, what can I do to make an impact? I’m not working in a recovery center; you know what I’m saying? That’s not my career. I sell insurance.
Joe Van Wie [00:55:00]: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It starts by listening to people. You might find out you’re standing right next to someone with an active addiction, a collapsing life that you wouldn’t recognize immediately. Asking questions. Taking the fear to ask someone a question. Maybe listening to them. You’ll find out they have an addiction very quick, especially if they want to talk. Caring. My message that I always like to – I’ve been in and out of AA and I took such an approach that it was never going to work again, this community. I’m different. And I would present it as almost Pasqual’s wager, but not to the leap of faith. If you’re giving up and you’re in that much pain in an addiction, that you’re going to reconcile the idea of dying is far more comfortable than approaching sobriety, being sober is not the answer. That’s what I would say to them. A spiritual awakening is the answer. That’s different than being sober. And before you give up, try one more time. And that’s what I did. And that’s why I’m sitting here today. And it was because three friends came to the house and confronted me and confronted the truth. This is what’s happening: you’re dying. And I took the chance. Two years later, my life is revolutionarily different – it’s revolutionized compared to what I was living.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:56:18]: So it’s also about three friends that cared about you.
Joe Van Wie [00:56:22]: It was, it was. You know, they cared about me because I cared about them at one point. I wasn’t being such a good friend at the end of my addiction, but they came. They knew I was sick. It wasn’t that I was a bad friend; I was very sick. And I couldn’t see how sick I was. I needed a lot of help. I needed time. I needed to be in a safe place to have that time.
Shlomo Hoffman [00:56:44]: Guys, you heard it from Joe: before you give up, try one more time. Thank you very much Joe for giving us the time today, for sharing your message, sharing your story. Everybody who listens to Rubber Bands, please listen, subscribe, post, say how good we are, tell the world. It’s been another episode of Rubber Bands, conversations about the push and pull of addiction, with our live, in-studio guest Joe Van Wie, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you everybody for listening, we’ll be back soon.
[END OF RECORDED AUDIO]
“Strength of the Titans”
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
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