"Cook County" director David Pomes. (Polly Cole, Polly Cole )
David Pomes didn't set out to make a movie about crystal meth. The attorney turned first-time feature filmmaker initially wanted to write a story about the people who live their lives on the rugged Texas landscape where he spent his childhood.
"Growing up in Texas, I knew people who were resourceful outdoorsmen," said Pomes, 42. "I set out to write about them and their woodsy culture, but I quickly saw that meth is a pervasive problem. Crystal meth has infested that world, more so than in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. It's a backwoods drug."
Pomes' film, "Cook County," which opened in limited release in Los Angeles on Friday, centers on the culture and lifestyle of a family of meth addicts living in those Texas backwoods. Bump (Anson Mount) shares his home/meth lab with his young daughter and his 17-year-old nephew, Abe (Ryan Donowho). When Abe's father, Sonny (Xander Berkeley), returns from prison, he struggles to instill a sense of normalcy and pull his family out of the grips of addiction.
In shaping the script and the performances, Pomes and the cast relied on documentaries, online video clips, graphic photographs and interviews with members of Narcotics Anonymous. Mount says those resources helped him better understand and mimic the look, style, attitude and body language of a meth addict.
"Before I started to even think about the psychology of the character, I wanted to find the character physically," said Mount, who just wrapped production on AMC's western series "Hell on Wheels." "I started dropping 20 pounds, and that had a huge effect on my disposition. Being in ketosis is a pretty good visual match for playing somebody who's addicted or somebody who's in a pretty volatile place."
Pomes says he filmed the movie in a way that was designed to transport the audience inside the meth addict's world — his aim was for viewers to feel as if they could smell the chemical fumes and witness the destruction the drug wreaks firsthand.
"We shot hand-held and kept everything pretty tight," Pomes said. "To me, it was a raw story, and I wanted the audience members to have a sense that they're right there with them, experiencing the rawness."
"Cook County" was shot in 20 days in Houston and Cleveland, Texas, in 2007 on a shoestring budget of $500,000. In the intervening years, the film toured the festival circuit, winning prizes at the Dallas International Film Festival, the Nashville Film Festival and the Hollywood Film Festival.
Pomes shrugs off the inevitable comparisons between "Cook County" and other films centered on meth culture — including last year's Oscar-nominated "Winter's Bone," saying "comparisons between 'drug' movies are always going to be made … but it doesn't bother me. It also doesn't bother me that 'Winter's Bone' came out first, even though we made our film beforehand. I'm happy they've had such great success. Perhaps it will pave the path for 'Cook County.'"
While Pomes' film tackles a heavy subject matter and concludes on an exceedingly dramatic note, Berkeley says there is still something positive audiences can take away from "Cook County." He hopes moviegoers can gain "a feel for the struggle of those who are going through this, maybe a better understanding of how to help if you can or when to cut your losses and back out of the way if you can't.
"The film has this modern-western vibe about it — telling a cautionary tale in the bleak tonalities of that medium seems like it could almost have an uplifting impact at the end of the day," he said.