TAMPA ― Personal injury attorney Tom Parnell’s other career is ironic.
He moonlights as a screenwriter and producer and makes films about angry men who maim and murder.
“I’ve never hurt anyone, but yeah, my characters do," Parnell, 61, said with a chuckle.
But that laugh quickly turned to a weary sigh when he detailed the tragic inspiration for his movie Pain Killer that just wrapped principal photography in Hillsborough County.
Pain Killer is about a man who loses his child to an opioid overdose and then goes on a killing spree targeting those who sell such drugs.
“He starts with drug dealers,” Parnell said, “and then doctors who get kickbacks and then pharmaceutical executives.”
While Parnell would never turn violent, he understands some of what the lead character is going through emotionally and channeled that into the script.
Parnell also lost a child to opioids.
“My son Jordan passed away at 22 years old” of an accidental overdose, he said. “It was Dec. 23, 2017.”
Parnell was uncomfortable discussing his son at length.
When pressed, he’d steer the conversation back to filmmaking.
“I am a continuity junkie,” he said at one point, of the practice of ensuring that a scene’s details are consistent from shot to shot, such as the level of water in a drinking glass. "It drives me nuts.”
Still, Parnell acknowledged that real life inspired the film.
“I didn’t plan to write about this,” he said. “I just sat down to write something and it came to me. Yeah, it had to be subconscious.”
The movie’s killer wears a mask that has the U.S. flag painted over half of it because he considers himself the good guy, Parnell said. “The tagline is ‘The war on drugs just got personal.’"
This is more than a slasher flick, though, Parnell said. He seeks to educate viewers too.
The main character hosts a radio show in between murders. The focus is the opioid crisis and its realities. For instance, the killer asks listeners why the government isn’t doing more to stop this “epidemic,” Parnell said, and he informs them that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that, on average, 130 Americans each day die of an overdose.
“I hope to have it done and released by July,” Parnell said. “I’d like it pushed out before the elections so it can get people thinking.”
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This isn’t his first movie inspired by his real-life emotions.
Back in 2014, Parnell admitted to the Tampa Bay Times that filmmaking was his mid-life crisis. His son and daughter had moved out of the house, he said, and he needed a way to fill time.
He broke into the industry by writing and producing the dark comedy Stressed to Kill, starring Armand Assante as a cop on the trail of a serial killer. That murderer targeted everyone he thinks is to blame for his high blood pressure, such as those who talk on cell phones in the movie theater.
“That one is not based on me at all,” Parnell laughed.
But he later wrote and produced the short film The Deposition about an attorney going through a mid-life crisis.
“A once proud attorney goes through the motions of yet another tedious deposition,” reads the summary on IMDB.com. “But when irritation turns to disgust with his narcissistic client and the arrogance of his opposing counsel, a brawl erupts which forces him to come to terms with his job and his life.”
His latest film, Parnell said, was “cathartic.”
His son was a right-handed pitcher who played for Jesuit High School and High Point University in North Carolina, then transferred to the University of Tampa to earn a business degree.
“He was a senior,” when he died, Parnell said. “He was supposed to be moving into my house and he was going to run an event company that I bought.”
But first, Jordan Parnell visited family in Reno. That’s where he died.
Parnell said he doesn’t know where his son got the drugs that killed him.
“He had no injury. He wasn’t an addict,” Parnell said. Then he took a breath and added, “He was gone.”
Mark Savage, his friend who directed Stressed to Kill, was among the first Parnell called with the tragic news. And when Parnell needed a director for Pain Killer, he again sought out Savage.
“He said, 'Let’s make this movie and dedicate it to Jordan,” Savage said. “Jordan was there with us on set, looking down.”
Still, Parnell changed topics when asked about watching Savage shoot the scenes detailing the overdose.
“What I love most is writing the scripts," he said.
A year ago, Parnell wrote on Facebook about his struggle to cope with the death of his son.
“His passing has left a hole in my heart that I will never be able to fill,” he wrote. “I will miss him every day for the rest of my life.”