Making The Pain Detective

Barry Gibb reflects on how his latest film came to be.

The Pain Detective began as a rough pitch to the Mosaic team that was honed and developed over weeks. Back then, there was never a hint this would develop into one of the most affecting film-making experiences of my life.

The first time I spoke to Colin Froy, the film’s central character, on the phone I was a little concerned. When you film and edit interviews, that experience starts to creep into everyday conversations. You become aware of the people who’d cause you more work, you become overly sensitive to the spacers people use – the ‘um’s and ‘ah’s that will need to be painstakingly removed – or to a propensity for circumnavigating a question before finally making one’s point. With Colin, the alarm bells didn’t quite go off but perhaps sounded gently in the distance: this was a man who liked to talk.

Weeks earlier, Chrissie Giles, my executive producer for the film, and I had taken our pitch to Granta Park, a haven for biotechnology and pharmaceutical-based industry near Cambridge, UK. Amazingly, two of the most senior people there, Ruth and Iain, from Pfizer and MedImmune respectively, had granted us an hour.

It was a great meeting. Ruth and Iain were very keen to participate, willing to share their experiences, open up their labs and help create a level of transparency unexpected in the hard-nosed, secretive and competitive world that media stereotypes would have us believe pharma is. But first, we needed to find our everyman, the hero who would guide viewers through the potentially bewildering and complex culture of science. Enter retired policeman Colin.

Ruth and Iain suggested we contact Praveen Anand, a leader in the world of pain research. He has access to patients involved in various clinical trials – one of them, we hoped, might just agree to have a little fun. Colin called a couple of weeks later and the story within a story began.

Before meeting Colin, I knew three things about him: he had cancer, he was in chronic pain and he liked to talk. The purpose of this first meeting was to get to know him a little, to build trust and flesh out these spartan facts with colour and personality: all of which I was confident could be achieved over a cup of tea. As our drinks cooled, we chatted, and I was absorbed. One thing that struck me as I sat with Colin, his wife, daughter and family dog, explaining the aims of the film, was an overwhelming sensation of love – love for this man. 

It became obvious that Colin was a real joker with an indefatigable sense of humour, made all the more poignant by the fact that he was also very ill. I liked the family immensely and was beginning to see how a film about the origins of pills and drugs could work very well alongside Colin’s cheeky disposition. 

Because of Colin’s health, we did our absolute best to ensure filming trips weren’t too demanding for him, and that our trips were tightly focused, maximising the footage recorded for the time spent. The day Colin visited the labs and met with the scientists was, by far, the most exhausting day’s filming I’ve done. It included around six hours of continuous, largely handheld filming, capturing several interviews and some action, across two buildings and several labs.

It was a brilliant day. Both Colin and his wife, Trish, loved it. Colin teased and questioned the scientists, putting his sense of humour and years of police experience to good use. By the end of the day, it was hard to say goodbye – I knew there’d be little reason to meet again but hoped we’d stay in touch. I was excited to show them the film we’d made together, once edited.

On 3 December 2013, I received a text from Trish. Colin had passed away.

The film, nowhere near finished, was my current priority but, that next day, I simply couldn’t face editing. I couldn’t face Colin. I needed time to reflect. Never having been in this situation before, I knew the edit would be affected by Colin’s death. Suddenly, this wasn’t just a film about the drug industry; it was an archive, a legacy of Colin’s spirit, something that his family would watch to remember and rekindle warm memories.

In the end, it’s impossible for me to disentangle how much impact Colin’s passing had on the final film. All I know is that this kind, funny, cheeky man managed to bring a warmth and humanity to a subject oft perceived as mercenary. My hope was that we managed to capture a glimpse into the long, difficult journey it takes for every pill or medicine we see on the shelves to get to market. To clarify why pain, in particular, is such a complex area of research. To gain an insight into the machinations of how modern pharmaceutical companies operate and work together. To make the process of science just a little bit more transparent and human to those who will never enter a lab.

In April 2014, Colin’s two children and Trish attended a private screening of The Pain Detective. I’d never been more anxious about showing a film. I felt fairly safe regarding the musical choices, all of which, while unconventional, were inspired by Colin’s favourite genres. This, though, was about far more than music…

The most gratifying moment was when I heard the first laugh. Then another, and another. That, for me, was the triumph. Despite this being a film about the pharmaceutical industry and how scientists are working to treat pain, it’s also a legacy of a good man that his family can cherish.

Watch The Pain Detective: