In the opening scene of the new documentary Meth Storm, DEA agents and Arkansas State Troopers pursue an alleged associate of Mexican cartels down a rural stretch of road. A trooper drives his cruiser into the left tail of the fleeing Toyota Coppola and forces the suspect to swerve left, veer right, and roll three times into a ditch. “Get on the ground,” the trooper yells outside his vehicle, his firearm drawn and aimed at an unseen man. “Show me your fucking hands.”
Bold white letters fill the screen for background. “Over the last decade law enforcement has virtually shut down American meth production…Into the void have rushed Mexican cartels flooding the US with a cheaper more pure super meth called ‘ICE’.”
The dramatic chase is a taste of the gritty documentary, directed by Brent and Craig Renaud, which premieres on HBO on November 27th. The 96-minute film follows DEA agents and police fighting against cartels, local dealers and users and their families in central Arkansas. There are no jobs here, especially since Walmart moved on, and residents seem chained to a life of poverty, addiction, and dealing to support their habits.
For the film, the Peabody Award-winning Renaud brothers (behind HBO’s Dope Sick Love and VICE’s Last Chance High) returned to their home state of Arkansas to spend over two years documenting the life of Veronica Converse, a longtime meth user whose dealing sons Teddy and ‘Little’ Daniel find themselves in-and-out of jail. “There’s really no need to cooking meth no more,” Teddy says during one scene when injecting meth into his arm in front of his mother. “If you know the Mexicans, you can get it by the pound. They’re bringing it over by the fucking truckloads.” In the following shot, Veronica drives down a trailer-lined back road and adds, “Nine out of 10 people out here are meth heads.”
The Renauds also embed with Johnny Sowell, a compassionate Arkansas DEA agent who takes them on raids for Operation ICE STORM, an investigation resulting in dozens of arrests and large-scale seizures of meth and firearms in Clinton and Van Buren counties. “This central Arkansas area is where the cartel mainly focuses and brings in the large amounts of methamphetamine,” Johnny says in the film. “When it was backyard labs, it was just local people making small amounts. Now we’re seeing 20 to 30 to 40 pound shipments on a weekly basis.” At the Van Buren County Detention Center, Johnny says that he’s worked long enough with Sheriff Scott Bradley (since resigned) that “we’ve arrested people’s parents and now we’re arresting their kids and sometimes even their grandkids.”
“Dope is just a common everyday part of life,” he adds. “And in the environment that these kids were raised in I don’t know if they had an opportunity not to be involved.”
Here, Rolling Stone talks with Brent and Craig Renaud about filming the Converse family and DEA agents, and what they’ve learned about meth dealers and users in the South.
Why did you decide to make this documentary?
Brent: Several years ago, we were working on a story in a burn unit in Memphis, Tennessee, where most of the patients were kids with burns on their hands and faces. Many of the parents had the same stories of burning trash in their yards and then their kids coming up and throwing gasoline on the fire. Growing up in Arkansas, that seemed plausible to me. I’ve spent time throwing gas on fires. But the doctors said, “No, most of these kids are victims of meth lab explosions.”
Craig: In 2010, states started banning over the counter pseudoephedrine – a key ingredient in making meth. The American meth industry collapsed almost overnight. But then around 2013 or 2014, a friend of ours – a cop in Arkansas – said he was busting former meth cooks selling ICE for the Mexican cartels. Our friend recommended we talk with the Converses. The sons were selling.
Brent: Around that time, we went back to the burn unit in Memphis and there were very few kids with burns from meth labs. It was all coming from the cartels.
How familiar were you with the meth before making the film and what was your initial plans for shooting?
Craig: We knew the characters here, the people, the landscape very well. That allowed us to jump in and immerse ourselves in a way we were comfortable. We knew the kinds of people using drugs and we knew the cops, too.
Brent: There’s so much judgement and analysis on people who use drugs in our culture and on social media and cable news. Our work was the reaction to that notion. We were trying to embed ourselves in places where most people couldn’t go and allow those characters to reveal themselves to us and show context and empathy for their stories.
In the 2005 documentary Dope Sick Love, you followed New York City couples struggling with drug use. Were you covering similar territory in Arkansas?
Brent: We didn’t want to make Dope Sick Love in the woods. We asked ourselves, “How do we do something more substantial?” We set up a dual-narrative, where both sides show what it’s like from their perspective and challenge stereotypes. The cops in our film are not the cops that are shooting and beating people up. And the users are not blood-thirsty criminals.
Dope Sick Love had no music. But Meth Storm both adds music from composer Amman Abbasi as well as capturing the George Strait, Jason Aldean and Meghan Trainor songs that fill the Converse’s everyday life.
Brent: We thought the music gave life to the dueling narratives. We’re from Arkansas and we’re into country music. Southern music. We added some music to move the story along, but a lot of the music was already present there.
Craig: I remember, we were struggling to edit one scene about how Veronica suffered as a young girl. Then I heard an interview of Loretta Lynn about her and Willie Nelson sing “Lay Me Down” and it was dead on. It felt like it worked so well. We tried to include music to show the toughness of growing up in the South.
Describe the experience of immersing yourselves with the Converse family and DEA agents.
Brent: We probably went along with Johnny for a month before filming, and one year while we were filming. What you see in the film we’ve seen transpire 100 times. We know that is how he acts and how he sees people. The cops don’t go into raids like an invading army. The attitude really is a community policing model: the law is the law and we have to uphold it, but people deserve their dignity.
Craig: When we were with the Converses family, it’s not so much like you feel like you keep your distance. We have done drug films. We are used to seeing very intense scenes and our roles were to show an emphatic side of their lives. It’s an HBO documentary, so we’re not going to soften too much. Doing it in a balanced way makes sense.
In the film, Johnny says that he feels frustrated after working 25 years. “Even with what we do it affects my family, my family members, and my friends’ family,” he says. Is this a never-ending cycle?
Craig: Veronica talks about the limited choices they have here. People turning to the opportunities in front of them, which is most often dealing drugs. And Johnny admits that if they bust 50 dealers, the cartels send 50 more to take their place. I talked to Johnny recently and he said that the DEA was pushing to make arrests in Mexico. But, even when they take down El Chapo, there’s always someone else to take their place in the cartels and then at the local levels. It’s a never-ending cycle.
Do you have hope for these Arkansas communities plagued with meth?
Brent: It’s face-to-face with the forgotten American, and this is a growing America. They are abandoned. People’s opportunities for education, jobs, and healthcare are terrible. Kids have records at 18 or 19 years old. We’re putting them in almost impossible situations. You almost have to be that superhero kid that wins the debate and gets a scholarship to Harvard. But that’s not the reality. We’re asking too much of these kids and requiring them to have a basic level of success.
Craig: A lot of times I walk away with a pit in my stomach. But I’m hopeful. These people are the salt of the earth in Veronica and Johnny. In terms of policing, I think this film shows a very good example of community policing. Johnny’s sensitive approach and Veronica’s resiliency to keep going make me hopeful.