Set over the course of a single night, 6 Balloons follows Katie (Abbi Jacobson) as she drives around Los Angeles trying to find a rehab clinic for her heroin-addicted brother, Seth (Dave Franco), who’s in the throes of withdrawal. An unflinching look at the nature of addiction and codependence, the movie attempts to humanize the problem of drug abuse while never pulling any punches about its subject matter. Set to premiere on Netflix April 6th, 6 Balloons screened as part of SXSW this year, giving audiences the chance to see it on the big screen. We got the chance to sit down with both Jacobson and Franco, both known for their comedic roles, to discuss what they did to prepare for the movie, as well as their mutual desire to branch out as dramatic actors.
This seems like a pretty challenging project. Was that appealing to the both of you?
Abbi Jacobson: Most of the stuff I’ve done has been comedy, and this was definitely a different kind of project, a different kind of a role, and I was — and am — really kind of trying to be a little bit more experimental with myself in that way. So I was excited to try something new, and the content itself is about a really tragic epidemic that’s facing our country and has been for a long time, and I don’t think there are enough stories about it.
Dave Franco: The script was great and the role was like no other roles I’d played before. And I was very flattered that the director [Marja-Lewis Ryan] would even think of me for this role. So it took me a second to decide to fully commit, just ’cause I knew that I was going to have to go through a pretty big physical transformation and I was gauging whether or not I was in the right head space for that at the moment.
Once I decided to sign on, I ended up losing 20 to 25 pounds, which really took a toll on me and messed with my head. I was more depressed than I’ve ever been in my life. I was thinking yesterday how I’m so happy that Abbi is still friends with me just because I wasn’t myself while we were filming. I wasn’t the most fun person to be around. But I’m glad I did it and I think the fact that the role did scare me so much was part of the reason I was really drawn to it as well, because it really did put me out of my comfort zone and I think a lot of the time people do their best work when they are in those circumstances.
Did that situation help to create some of that contentious relationship between your two characters?
Franco: I think so.
Jacobson: We met on this film so we shot this in 2016, I think? We met for dinner about this project and we hit it off right away as friends but then once we started working, there is this tension between the characters so it almost helped that we weren’t hanging out. We couldn’t have too much fun. I think that would have spilled into the project too much.
Franco: But I think the thing, though, that makes it believable that we’re brother and sister is our sense of humor, and even though there are only a few moments of humor in the entire film, I think those moments will hopefully make the audience buy into our history of these characters.
Jacobson: There’s a familiarity that I was, like, “Oh, I feel like I know Dave.” But then, that weight loss was a very intense thing that I watched him do. And I was very in my head about this part, too, because I’d never done anything like this. So, I was so happy that we were friends after ’cause I was like, “We can hang now.”
Speaking of, so much of what’s going on with Katie is happening under the surface. Was that part of the appeal you saw, to challenge yourself as an actor in that way?
Jacobson: The hardest part, I think, was wrapping my mind around “Okay, this isn’t the first time that her brother has relapsed. He’s been addicted to heroin for years. This has been something they’ve been struggling with for a long time,” so that looks different than when it first happens. I felt like it was more almost ingrained anger in there, but also this love. It was this push-and-pull that I was trying. So it wasn’t an immediately devastating thing. Just what does it look like when someone’s been going through something for a long time versus what does it look like when…
Franco: …they first discovered this about their loved one.
Jacobson: Yeah, so that’s what I struggled with. That was probably the hardest part for me.
That brother/sister dynamic seems like the most vital part of the story. In almost any other type of relationship, someone would likely just wash their hands of it.
Franco: If it’s a friend dealing with this it’s almost easier to walk away.
Jacobson: Yeah. It’s like why would you let someone treat you like that?
Franco: Right, right. It’s easier to have a co-dependent relationship with a family member or someone you’ve known for your entire life.
For a film that’s so grounded and character-driven, there are those shots where the car slowly fills up with water, representing Katie being increasingly overwhelmed by this situation. That seems like it would’ve been tough to get on camera.
Jacobson: Yeah, the water. Really scary. We did it two ways. We were in a tank, we were in the car in a tank, like an hour outside L.A. where they have water tanks, I guess.
Franco: A giant tank of water.
Jacobson: And the car was dipped in so the water filled [it], and then on the street in Echo Park they filled the car.
Franco: The water can’t be too warm or else the steam starts to fog up the windows, and so we’re sitting there in this car with water rising and we’re shivering and trying to get through the lines.
Jacobson: Also, [a] 15-page scene.
Franco: Right! Literally a 15-page scene.
Jacobson: A 15-page scene, like the longest scene maybe I’ve ever shot in succession. I’m just thinking it was the first dramatic role we had both done and that was really intense, because they’re in control of the water based on where we are in the scene, but it also was like I know that there’s a point in time where we’re both going to be underwater. Like in the tank, underwater. Not too long, but it was scary.
Franco: I think two-thirds of the crew got sick after the big tank day. That was fun.
Jacobson: It was pretty intense. It’s cold in L.A. at night. I’ve forgotten a lot about this.
And here I am to remind you.
That moment when you’re driving down to score for your brother really gives you a sense of life in one of the worst parts of the city. I assume a lot of it was a set but were there any real locations used at any point?
Franco: I think we were pretty close to the actual Skid Row.
Jacobson: But when I get out of the car, that’s all set. Like that tent city is a set. But we shot B-roll of me driving and you might not be in the car, but I drove through Skid Row. I had never been down there and it was, like, “This is fuckin’ nuts.” Have you ever been down there?
I’ve yet to visit L.A.
Jacobson: Oh, you should go. That shouldn’t be first on your list, but it is a terrifying place. It’s like a block from a Whole Foods, to give you a sense of the juxtaposition of these heightened realities. It’s very scary.
You know, even given the fact that you’re playing siblings, Seth is so insufferable through so much of the film, but then after he fixes in a drug store bathroom, something clicks. You suddenly see him as this very likable guy.
Franco: That’s the sad thing about it all is that in that moment when I do shoot up, I almost become the best version of myself. It’s like, oh, he needs this drug to be normal and to be happy where throughout this whole process when I was doing research about heroin addicts, one thing that really stuck with me was an ex-heroin addict telling me that when you’re in withdrawal it feels like the worst fever you’ve ever had times a million. And you know that you take one hit, it will not only make that pain go away but it will make you feel the best you’ve ever felt, immediately, and so that’ why it’s so hard to just ride out the withdrawal and to get, move past the addiction. I think that’s all I have to say about that.
Speaking of research, what all did that entail?
Franco: One of the producers of the movie, Sam [Housman], based it on a night that she had with her brother, so we both sat down with her brother and I sat with Sam and we really talked about that experience, talking about what it’s like to be an enabler of an addict. It’s a story that’s not often told and the family struggle in a whole different way, and you have no control.
Jacobson: I read a lot about Al-Anon and it is a similar thing. You are addicted to enabling; you can’t help but enable the person. I also, unfortunately, grew up with lots of rampant drug use in my town, and so I was already familiar with that a little bit.
I think it helps to humanize both sides of it. You understand their respective situations while you’re literally stuck in the car and living this stressful situation in real-time.
Franco: And I had never seen a movie about a heroin addict from an upper-middle-class family, where [it’s] all very loving and the heroin addict seemingly has no reason to turn to the drugs. When I sat down with our producer’s brother, whom my role is based on, he’s a very normal, loving person and it was shocking to hear him talk about how he was working at a law office and then at lunch he would go to Skid Row and he would shoot up and then go right back to work. There is such a thing as functioning heroin addicts, which maybe I’m naïve to not know that that existed, but we were telling that side of the story.
Jacobson: And that story is so prominent. What happened to him…you were told to say he was injured and prescribed Oxycontin, right?
Jacobson: I bet that statistic, a prescription pain medication leading to heroin addiction is probably huge.
Franco: And its terrifying and anyone watching this movie might think, “This could happen to me.” It’s much easier than I ever thought. I see people who are addicted to heroin and it seems like such a different world, but I feel like I’m closer to that. Hopefully not, but you know what I’m saying.
Jacobson: Yeah, once you’re in a little, it’s very, very hard to get out of it.
But also there’s an honesty and a frankness to this story that helps to humanize this problem a bit.
Jacobson: I hope so, too.
Given the rather grim nature of the story, how was it working with the twin girls that played Seth’s daughter?
Franco: They are so good in the movie.
Jacobson: They really were.
Franco: It’s interesting working with a three-year-old because a three-year-old is not necessarily acting. Everything they’re doing is instinctual. The twins were going to say whatever came to their mind and when it worked for the scene it was beautiful, but 95 percent of the time they were screaming for their mom off-camera because there’s a camera pointed at their face and they’re surrounded by a bunch of strangers. So that was tough sometimes because I was in such a dark head space and I was trying to keep her in the scene with me, but I knew that their performances would cut together so well because all of their moments in the movie are so honest. That’s just them reacting to what’s in front of them. Like I said, they’re not acting.
Jacobson: It was challenging, but a really great challenge because whenever I’m with one of the twins in a scene the character has to be honest, the aunt, like, “It’s okay, we’re here,” and then it’s this duality of getting to feel what’s actually happening versus when I get to play with her. It’s like this high-low kind of within a scene, just feeling all those emotions was challenging. I loved that part of it because there was so much going on to balance.
Franco: And I’m supposed to have a very strong relationship with my daughter in the movie where you are supposed to see the love that we have for one another despite the circumstances, and so I was trying to bond with these girls but I was 25 pounds lighter than I am now and I had bags under my eyes and I looked like a monster, and trying to get these girls to trust me and warm up to me was very difficult. But I give them a lot of credit for giving themselves over and for being vulnerable.