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Intervention: The Oral History of A&E's Reality Show About Substance Abusers

Tonight at 9 p.m., A&E will air the final episode of Intervention, which has anchored the network's reality-TV schedule for nine years. Created by Sam Mettler in 2005, the series gave some heft to a then-lightweight genre by introducing a public-service element: Every episode depicts a week in the life of an addict who has hit rock-bottom and offers each a chance to get sober via a surprise intervention. After these troubled substance abusers head off to treatment (and all but four of them did), they reflect on their harrowing experiences three months later in epilogues that cap off each episode. Over thirteen seasons and 189 episodes, the format changed remarkably little, and the show never stopped being riveting. But if the arc of an Intervention episode was predictable, the experience of working on it was anything but. To get the no-holds-barred, inside story of the making of Intervention, Vulture spoke with six people who spent years of their lives on the show: executive producer Sam Mettler; interventionists Jeff VanVonderen and Candy Finnigan; director Peter LoGreco; producer Sarah Skibitzke; and her husband, director of photography Bryan Donnell. Read on for their by turns tragic and uplifting true tales of contact highs, runaway addicts, and unaired encounters — plus, find out why so few subjects ever guessed that they were on Intervention.

I. Intervention was created by Sam Mettler, a struggling comedy writer, in 2004. He had to overcome a lot of skepticism to get it made, particularly since it didn’t follow the blueprint of existing reality shows.

Sam Mettler, Executive Producer: I came to L.A. to write comedy, and ended up producing tragedy. [Laughs.]  I mean, frankly, my career as a comedy writer was not very successful. I never left my day job at Paramount Pictures, where I was basically putting fax machines and copiers in people's offices. And it really wasn't until I was working at MTV on a project that I started to be introduced to the world of nonfiction. It was really when Real World was starting to pop, and other reality shows were coming out. And I said well, there's gotta be something here.

Jeff Van Vonderan, Interventionist: Sam told me he had an idea for a show, and when he told me about it, I told him, "That will never work." Because I just couldn't even imagine anyone that I worked with wanting to sign up to have cameras follow them around and do what they're doing. He said, "Well, we'll figure that out."

Sam Mettler: All reality TV at that time was contrived: You put real people into a construct that was written. And what we did was really take a documentary approach to Intervention. I really consider it a documentary series and not a reality show. I mean, we didn't need to construct drama. An addict's life is inherently dramatic on a day-to-day basis. The stakes are literally life and death. We didn't need to put them on an island.

Candy Finnigan, Interventionist: To be honest with you, I'd thought of this whole show two or three years before this, and people thought I was crazy, so I just dropped it. I just found the paperwork about seven months ago — it had the same name and all of that. I don't even think Sam knows it! I went around and talked to a couple people and they went, "Naaah, I don't think so. I don't think people want to look at a drug addict." I said, "But it's helping them!" So when Sam contacted me, I thought, Omigod, someone feels the same way I do. This is fabulous.

Jeff Van Vonderan: The reason I said yes is because, probably half the time when I'd do an intervention, somebody there would say, "Wow, I didn't even know there was such a thing" or, "If I had known about this five years ago, maybe my dad would still be alive." And I thought, What a way to put the word out. I kind of pictured mom and dad sitting on the sofa wringing their hands because they'd just kicked Junior out and they've tried everything and they don't know what to do, and they're surfing around on the TV and they come across this show called Intervention and they go, "Wow, you know, there's one more thing we can do." And I told the producers, if the presence of the cameras or the crew ever gets in the way of a successful conclusion, I'll quit. I'm not doing it, because there's too much at stake. And you know what? They never did.

Sam Mettler: It was such a simple and organic formula. It's a five-act show with the intervention coming in the fourth act. It made it pretty mechanical in terms of producing it. We're in their life, we see the day-to-day awfulness. Then we have pretty extensive interviews so we get some backstory of how they go there, and how that family is just at their wits' end, not knowing what to do. There's usually some sort of fight that has to do with (a) their addiction, or (b) with the blame or the trauma that got them there. There's the pre-intervention training. And then there's the intervention, and will they or won't they go, and bam! Within that, there are always curveballs. An addict can get arrested. An addict can disappear. There are things that can happen. They got hospitalized. But for the most part, it was pretty seamless.

Bryan Donnell, Director of Photography: This is one of the few shows I've been involved with where they really didn't want us to fake anything or add anything. There's other shows that want to tell the truth but are just as concerned with getting really cool shots, and sometimes there's not a lot of story going on so that's all you can do. But Intervention was a really unique concept where there actually was a lot of story. You'd be there for three days and you'd get an entire family's history worth of story, spilling over at the crisis point, so you didn't even need to do anything to trick it out.

Candy Finnigan: When I started on the show, I told Sam, you gotta get people on the crew who are in recovery. Nobody was in recovery. And it drove me crazy. But what Sam knew, far superior to me, was that if he'd had a bunch of people in recovery who were the producers and the directors and the editors, what would have ended up happening is — when you're in recovery, you see people differently. We try not to look for the bad person, we try to look for the ways they're changing ... And he was right. The show would have never worked if he hadn't gotten down and dirty.

Sam Mettler: I was never a drug user; that wasn't my thing. I'd really only seen cocaine twice in my life before, at college. So I learned a lot very quickly. And I don't want to say I became numb to it. But it did get easier, as with anything. I mean, yeah, I've had horrifying instances where I literally watched a woman for two hours hunt for a vein that wasn't collapsed so she could shoot. But, to watch someone shoot up heroin? It got to be almost normal.

II. A typical Intervention shoot lasted only a week, but so much took place during that time that some of the most dramatic experiences didn't make it on-camera.

Sarah Skibitzke, Producer: The episode that we won an Emmy for, with Chad the pro cyclist — I directed that one, and my husband Bryan shot it.

Bryan Donnell: Chad went into the intervention and he was just a jerk, you know? He listened to everybody and got up and went "see ya," and gave them the finger. I think most people would assume that we would also been given the boot, too, but he was like, no, come on. And then we spent the rest of the day with him. The next thing I shot was him crying in an alley, like, how could I do that to my family? Why did I act like that? He gave the finger to his family, but we were in.

Sarah Skibitzke: He was homeless at that point, and we're sitting on the sidewalk eating hamburgers, and this other homeless friend of his came up and sat down next to us and started to slowly grab Chad's hamburger away from him. And he just looks at me and he's shaking his head. And I'm like, "You have an opportunity to leave all of this right now. What are you gonna do?" And if you watch the show, he eventually did go.

Jeff Van Vonderan: I remember one in Fort Worth: The guy was addicted to morphine and he had a morphine pump. About halfway through the intervention, he said, "Screw this, I'm leaving," and he went down the stairway of the hotel and out the door and down the street, and he was gone. And one of the camera guys said, "You know, I had a pretty good relationship with him all this week and I think if I could talk to him, I could get this done." I said, "Well, you can't. Because the crew can't be part of the show." So I called California, and I said, "So what I want to do, and I need your permission, is I want to fire the camera guy. I'll say, you have now completed all your obligations and you're no longer working for the show. And then he can go get this done." So I did. I fired him, and he went out the door, and he got him to go to treatment. And you didn't see that! And you didn't see Sam Mettler in a swamp with alligators, chasing an addict through a marsh.

Sam Mettler: I got a contact high once, which was rather awful. We were in a very enclosed space with a young girl in her little pink bedroom, it looked like the bedroom of a 12-year-old, and she's smoking heroin for about 45 minutes. The window was cracked, but we're sitting there, the cameramen and I, and I'm on the floor sitting, watching, asking questions — what are you doing? How do you feel? All these questions. You know, they sort of take us through the using of it. And after about 45 minutes, I stood up and fell straight down. I didn't realize I was breathing in all of the heroin smoke. And I'll tell you, it wasn't a high. It was just nauseating. The camera guy had it, too — the two of us were outside on a porch, gagging and holding our heads between our legs for a while. That was rather sickening. 

Jeff Van Vonderan: When I'd be at the airport, I'd have people coming up to me going, "Wow, you're the dude from the Intervention show!" and there's this freaked-out jonesing addict on the way to treatment, and now their confidentiality is broken and the whole airport knows they're going to rehab. But people didn't think. I hated that. A funny story about that, if you want to hear it, is that one time I did an intervention outside of the show; it was a 19-year-old girl who agreed to go and she didn't want to ride with me, she wanted to go with her dad. So he went, and he booked me on first class, which was nice of him. So I'm in the first two rows, and everybody else is coming in, and the line is backed up. So here's this lady with a really thick Southern accent, and she goes, "Hey, you're the guy from the Intervention show! I love you!" So she starts pointing at me and broadcasting it to everybody, and she's not going by very fast, so it's horrible. When she finally goes by and it calms down, the guy next to me says, "Well, you don't have to worry, because I don't have a clue who you are." And I said, "Well, that might be true, but now everybody thinks you're going to rehab."

Sam Mettler: I had a policeman hold me at gunpoint once. We were shooting a subject who was drinking in an alley, and someone in the building thought I was robbing her at gunpoint, and thought the camera was a gun. I don't know how you mistake a three-foot-long camera on a shoulder for a gun, unless you thought it was a bazooka. But a police car came into the alley, and the officer pulled out a gun. That was quite terrifying. I held my hands up and said, "Okay, just tell me what you want me to do. My hands are here! Tell me what you want me to do!" When I'm nervous, I tend to speak more quickly. And he kept saying, "Calm down, sir." [Laughs.] He was the nicest guy, by the way.

Peter LoGreco, Director: One that's really memorable was back in April 2009, this guy Joey, who was a tattoo artist in Pittsburgh. When we got in the room, and he saw his family, he didn't just walk out — he sprinted. But what ensued was pretty funny. We were on the eleventh floor of the Doubletree, and he got unlucky with the elevator and the subway, let's put it that way. So he sprints off really dramatically, and then he's standing there waiting for the elevator with me and the DP.  So we get in the elevator with him, and we run after him into the street. And again, he gets caught in a busy intersection where he can't go out into traffic. And so once again, we're just awkwardly standing there. So he ends up crossing the street, and in the middle of the street, turns around takes a swing at the camera, hits the mic off of it — which is very dramatic — and then goes down the stairs into the subway station. We're with him, and he takes another swing at us on the platform. But again, it's this situation where he's on the platform and there's no train, and enough time passes that the entire family manages to get on the subway with him ... and Ken Seeley just starts the intervention on the subway platform.

Candy Finnigan: We we went to some really strange places, like Crawford, Nebraska, where Tressa the shot-putter lived. We stayed in a ghost-ridden speakeasy. And when the producers asked if they would please change the dark dungeon downstairs, someone got out a can of spray-paint and spray-painted a couch. Now, if you spray-paint a couch that's about 80 years old and you sit on it, it's gonna crack. And the noise that came out of the thing was not like you'd had bad gas, but like your life had just crumpled.  You couldn't even get a cheeseburger, because there was one bar and one church and the haunted house. But oh my God, Tressa was so wonderful. She was afraid to fly, so the producer and I got her in a van and drove to Minneapolis. There was no stopping us. That's what I always think about that show. 

Peter LoGreco: What was left on the cutting-room floor more than anything, was humor. I was with a PCP addict — now, there's no way this could ever end up on a TV show — but he was the sweetest guy, a Puerto Rican rapper in Paterson, New Jersey. And PCP really does a number on you; he was really just kind of out if it, and had a limited capacity for motor skills. So anyway, we get to his apartment with him, and it's flurrying outside, early March, and ... he realizes he doesn't have his key. But he also sees that there's a window open. And we really try not to affect anything; if anyone asks for help with something, we're not gonna help them. So in that spirit, we're watching him try to get into his house. He's opening this ground-level window, and the window's broken so it slams down shut every time you lift it up. And he's moving at a snail's pace. So what ensues is him lifting the window up, getting an inch or two of his body into the house, and having it fall on him again. And he lifts it up, he gets another inch in, and it falls on him again. And this goes on in this sort of absurd, surreal performance for 25 minutes. I mean, it was ridiculous. Finally, he got to a point where his entire body was in the house, he was on the floor, but one of his legs was still up and sticking out of the window. His foot was trapped and he couldn't figure out what to do, because his brain was so messed up. And I was like, "Okay, I think we captured what it's like to be on PCP and get into your house." The DP and I were both pissing our pants laughing, and it was horrible in a way. But I did feel that we were a little too conservative with the extent to which these addicts were very charming and funny people, who used that charm to get what they wanted on a day-to-day basis. I mean, it's not an easy thing to hustle the way a lot of these people do. And I think there was a fear of making light of the addiction and of the situation that the person was in. So I think there was a funnier side of Intervention that the public didn't get to see, that for me, as a person on the field, I really appreciated, because it went a long way towards really humanizing these people and making us realize that they really are like everyone else.

III. Intervention was uniquely tough on the people who worked there, who became deeply involved with the subjects' lives during filming.

Sam Mettler: Children. That's what gets me. I'm a father of two, and anytime where a kid is involved and has a parent who's an addict — I mean, it tears your heart apart. I specifically remember doing a show in Oklahoma, a woman named Leslie who had three kids from 14 down to, I think, 8 — and the kids, they're watching their mother passed out in the driveway, seeing their mother throw up in the wastebasket. Just absolutely tore my heart out. I remember getting on a plane after a shoot like that and just sobbing. It's hideous.

Candy Finnigan: We had one suicide. And then we had another guy that found out in treatment that he had terminal cancer, and he died six months later. But his kids got a sober dad those last six months.

Sarah Skibitzke: There was a character named Chris; he was really lovely. And he eventually died. He was one of a little handful of people who died after the intervention, probably five of them, way after their treatment. And so he was one of them. And that was pretty heartbreaking. I wasn't able to attend the funeral because I was doing another intervention on somebody else, but I immediately flew out the next day as soon as I could, spent time with his partner and his family. We think that we're strangers, and we are strangers, and you have to really have boundaries and keep these stories about the family, but real human emotions get in and you care about these people. And so that was really kind of a heartbreaking one to be a part of.

Bryan Donnell: As gratifying as it can be being on these things, it's really true that you just experience a lot of pain through somebody else's life … after a few years, I got a little emotionally burned out on it, frankly.

Sam Mettler: We actually provided therapy for our producers. Because it's so tough: Every person's innate instinct is to help. And we can't. We don't have the tools. We're television producers. We're not therapists. And so it's important to know that difference, to know that — just like a family member who can't help them — you can't help them. Right? They need professional help. Really, in a sense, we're pseudo-therapists in the field, talking to them, letting them explore all of the issues that made them who they are. But, when we're done, we've given them the tools to really get better on their own with professionals. And they need to then utilize those tools and not cling to us, because it's completely unhealthy. It's unhealthy for the addict, who really needs to find a support system of their own in their local communities; and it's unhealthy for us, to become codependent with an addict.

IV. As the show grew in popularity, the producers had to deal with new challenges: people who figured it out that they were on Intervention, or tried to con the crew in order to get free treatment.

Sam Mettler: Everyone always says, "How do they not know it's Intervention?" Well — their lives are so consumed with their addiction. They're not really connected to what's going on outside of that. Also, they expect that a big TV show like Intervention would have this huge crew and all of that. We kept a very small footprint. We treated it like a small documentary. Which it was.

Peter LoGreco: I had three or four [who were] what we could call "runners" — people who participated in the project, didn't necessarily know what it was but might have had a suspicion, and threatened to run. And we wouldn't say, "No, this is not Intervention." We did have a code where we didn't lie explicitly. And so I came up with something like — the addict would say, "If this is intervention, if my family's in that room, I'm gonna turn around and run" — and I'd say, "You know what? That's fine. At the end of the day, I just need to get the footage that we came here to shoot, because that's my responsibility and that's my job." Something like that. But it's horribly stressful.

Sam Mettler: I actually had a young man who [deep sigh] within the last eighteen months, he actually killed himself. He was a meth addict. And he figured out it was Intervention. What was interesting is, you know, meth causes great paranoia. And he just happened to be right. No one tipped him off. He was just paranoid and happened to be correct. And I went to his trailer to talk to him, and he told me he was going to fucking kill me if he didn't leave. We really played this as it would be in any real-life situation when someone knows there's an intervention, and we had the intervention anyway. The mother called the police with the interventionist; they actually went to the police station. And because he was on her property, she could legally have police come in there and detain him, and he had a choice of going with the police to jail or going to treatment. It didn't matter that he knew, because they pulled off the intervention anyway. My interventionist Jeff Van Vonderan always says, "A successful intervention is one that's had."

Bryan Donnell: It's a weird moral ground where it could be exploitative, and you don't want to be in the position of making somebody do something for the show. You're only doing it because you know they're going to go to treatment afterwards and they're going to be doing it anyway, and at least we're with them, and if something crazy happens we can monitor it. But you don't want people to OD thinking, "If I'm going into treatment tomorrow then tonight I'll just get really crazy."

Sam Mettler: This is one reason I really believe in the surprise intervention, by the way. When you have an addict that is in extreme denial, there is a lot of physical danger that can happen if an addict knows they're about to go to treatment.

Bryan Donnell: It almost got to be a tell-tale sign for me after a while, where if it felt really boring when I was working on it, it was like, "you know what, I wonder if we're being set up here." Because ordinarily, you're seeing a lot of real emotions, do you get really engaged; you just effortlessly get hooked in. And the first one I recognized it on was this older couple in Denver, and it was just incredibly boring. This guy and his wife were having conversations where the wife was like, "You know, you really need to stop having drugs." "Yes, I know it's true." "You know all the things you've lost because you're doing drugs." "Yes, I know." So one day he went into Sam's Club and they told me not to go in, so I went to Starbucks and came back into the parking lot, and I flipped on the camera and was listening. And then I heard — this guy had a mistress, I guess — and he was like, "Oh, baby, I'm sorry I'm gonna be gone from you for so long. I don't know where I'm going, but I'm going away, and they say it's gonna make me all better." So I recorded this long conversation, and then we kind of discreetly backed out of shooting for the rest of the day. I sent the audio back home to California and said, "Is there any way I misheard this?" And we had to pull the plug on it. It happened like that a couple times.

Sam Mettler: I had a mother once who told her kid it was Intervention, because she's so codependent she didn't want him to be angry with her at the intervention. So she gave him five hundred dollars to go buy Oxycontin. And he did it all in one night. And we dumped the story. I mean, we couldn't be part of that, you know?

Bryan Donnell: An intervention is only necessary if the addict isn't willing to get treatment, and the family has to come together and force them to go. I mean, we actually want a real story. And if they don't need an intervention, then why don't they just go to treatment? But we didn't want to lose our credibility as a show by having these bullshit stories. It almost always happened when people would forget that their microphone was on. Like this one guy, again, it was just a boring story and he would kind of throw us a bone every now and then — he would start crying, like, "oh, mom, I need to quit drugs, I know I'm ruining my life" — then he was just smug the rest of the time and not letting us into anything real. Eventually, he was in a car with his dad, and I got out to shoot from the outside, and his dad was like, "So where are you going to treatment, son?" And he's like, "Ssssh, dad, shut up, they're listening!" So again, I have that on tape, and exactly the same thing happened: We all listened to it and realized they were pulling our leg ... That family in particular was really angry. Finally the producer was like, "You're faking everything. We can't go around doing fake shows." And they were like, "Come on, all reality shows are fake, you know that! Why is this different from anything else?"

V. Even though Intervention is over, it remains a part of the crew and interventionists' day-to-day lives.  

Candy Finnigan: I have people coming out of nowhere, running down the aisle at Costco, going, "Oh my God, you're the lady from Intervention. Do you know you saved my nephew? We would have never known what to do." I get that day in and day out.

Jeff Van Vonderan: I have people come up to me in the airport and they say, "You don't know me, but I'm a big fan of the show and I used to use cocaine and I used to use it during commercials and laugh, and then one day, I thought, Man, my life sucks and I need help, and I checked into Hazelden and I've been sober for eighteen months. So thanks for the show." I still can't believe there was such a show, and I still can't believe I got to be on it.

Candy Finnigan: I've been rewarded like you can't believe. I was coming out of the grocery store the other day; it was about 10 o'clock, after my twelve-step meeting. And this woman was sobbing into her phone, and she looked up at me, and she said, "You're not gonna believe who's here!" I said, "What's going on?" And she goes, "My brother overdosed and he won't get help. Will you talk to him?" And I said, "Yeah, give me the phone." I told him to get off the phone and call 911. And he said, "Well, I don't think it's that bad." And I said, "If you don't, I will." I stood there for about an hour with this kid, while her brother went to the hospital, and the mother called from there, and we just sat on a bench outside of the Pavilion Center in Sherman Oaks and talked about it, and how they'd been so afraid to confront him. I was just going to the grocery store to get some cat food and some ice cream.

Jeff Van Vonderan: Do you remember Allison, the huffer? That's the one where I said, "We're gonna bust the cats" and they took the cats away. Well, after she agreed to come to rehab, we picked her up and she was all hunched over and pissed off, so I didn't go near her because I didn't want to screw it up. She'd had enough of me; she didn't want anything to do with me. So anyway, when we went to the airport, I went to the gift shop and I bought her a stuffed cat. And when we were all on the plane — she was sitting with a nurse — I walked down the aisle, handed her the cat, and walked away. Didn't say anything. About six months after treatment, she sent me a very sweet e-mail making amends. So I wrote back, "I really appreciated your apology, and how did the cat do in treatment?" And she said, "Cat Van Vonderan is really doing well in the recovery." It was very cute.  And she's in school to be an interventionist. It's amazing.

Sam Mettler: I'm Facebook friends with Tom in Boston; we talk every once in a while, he just had his first kid. I mean, this is a guy who was dying, literally dying. And to have him now with a wife and a son, and speaking at schools and lending his life to public service — it just warms my heart, you know? And Hubert — he was homeless, living in the park. And now he works at a treatment center.

Jeff Van Vonderan: I got an e-mail the other day from somebody, her name was Lenore. She was sad to hear that the show was over and she had a story: Seven years ago, something was going on with her husband and she didn't know what it was. So she and her kids were visiting her family an hour's drive away, and while they were gone, the husband called up and told her he was a meth addict and really needs help. She said, I'll come home and we'll get you some help. Well — the closer she got, the less help he needed. And by the time she got there, he was saying he was fine and didn't need help. But all the way there, she kept telling herself, "Everything but yes is noise." Which I say a lot. So all the way home, she's doing that mantra. And when she gets there, she walks in and says, "Okay, you're gonna say what you're gonna say, and I'm gonna say what I'm gonna say, and then we're done." And the guy went to treatment, and he's been sober for seven years, and he became a chemical dependency counselor. Amazing. Who could have dreamed of that?

Candy Finnigan: The coordinating director of Intervention could tell you how many people were sober when she got in on Monday morning. She stayed in touch with everybody. She knew when people had a baby. And we celebrated every single one of their anniversaries of sobriety for as long as that show existed. They heard from the show, and they received a coin. That's astounding.

Sam Mettler: Did I see the cancellation coming? After nine years? Sure. Listen: Basically, it had played out. Really, when you have a show on for nine years, what more can you do? And I understand it. Listen, I'm grateful for the nine years.

Bryan Donnell: A lot of really talented people stayed on the show for years without any opportunity for advancement, because it was such a great thing to work on. And as a result, coming out of there ... any time any one of us gets on a show, we try to fill it up with as many of our friends from Intervention as possible.

Candy Finnigan: I'm heartsick that America would rather see people shoot ducks than shoot heroin. The network didn't have room for the only show in America that ever helped people? I don't think I'll ever find something I care so much about, that has such a public front … This is where I cry.

Jeff Van Vonderan: That's what's so upsetting about the show ending. If I didn't work for the show, but I still was in the field I'm in, I would still be sad that the show is ending. Because the show mattered.

Sam Mettler: I have a couple of shows in development right now that I can't talk about. I'm doing some comedies, going back to my roots.

Candy Finnigan: My biggest sadness is that they didn't let Jeff and I get in a van with two cameras and go up and down the Coast — because we did an intervention in almost every state — and go around and unexpectedly knock on people's doors. I wish we could find out where all of them are and surprise them and give them a hug and thank them for being part of a journey that allowed people to see how they lived and survived. I'm sure it would have cost too much money. I said, "Just get me an RV! I'll drive!"

Sam Mettler: I'd like people to continue to acknowledge that Intervention was an important show, that moved the public discourse, that helped people. Every so often, I hear that someone watched Intervention and they went to treatment the very next day. We get letters like that. So I mean, the fact is, Intervention changed people's lives.