Tess Sweet is an award winning writer/director, a recovering drug addict, and a lover of dark comedy. In 2011, Tess graduated with an MFA from UCLA’s prestigious film and television directing program. After graduating from UCLA, Tess moved to Santa Cruz where she started a visual storytelling program for At-risk youth. Tess currently works in the bay area as a freelance director and editor, serves as President of Loud and Clean, and is currently developing her award winning web series, Cleaner Daze, for television.
I caught up with Tess to talk Cleaner Daze and her own recovery.
Kali: Hi Tess! Your new web series, Cleaner Daze, is out now and people can find it on YouTube. I watched it all in one sitting! Can you describe it for people who might not know what it’s all about?
Tess: Cleaner Daze is a dark comedy digital series about addiction, set inside a teenage drug rehab in Santa Cruz, California - a small touristy beach with a big drug problem. I wrote and shot it in Santa Cruz, where I currently live. Santa Cruz is Surf City USA but it also has a dark side, an underbelly of drug addiction, homelessness, and broken dreams. My series dives into that world. The story follows a newbie rehab counselor as she struggles to find her way wrangling a misfit bunch of teenage drug addicts, while secretly battling her own addiction. Cleaner Daze is a world I know. I work ongoing with At-risk youth and volunteer with both adults and teens in treatment. Authenticity means everything to me. Cleaner Daze is raw and real, tragic at times – but it’s also comedy. Shared tears and laughter with fellow addicts have been the keys to my recovery.
K: One of the coolest things about Cleaner Daze is that many of your cast are actual teens in recovery from Santa Cruz. You hung signs around Santa Cruz, for homeless kids and kids in foster care to come to your audition. How important was this idea to the series?
T: From the beginning, I always wanted to work with fellow addicts. And I also wanted to offer opportunities to local At-Risk youth. So, we hung posters all over town and held an open casting call at the community center, which is right next door to the homeless teen drop-in center. I really wanted them to feel welcome. We also invited “real actors” to the auditions because I wanted to cast a wide net. We filmed the auditions and it was amazing to see how honest and authentic the kids were who had actual experience with addiction. On film, you could see it in their eyes, in the close-ups. It was breathtaking. Cleaner Daze honors the outcasts, the birds with broken wings. Because I will never forget what it felt like to feel damaged beyond repair. We are all survivors and we are all recovering from something. As I experience more success with Cleaner Daze and beyond, I intend to work with addicts in recovery wherever possible.
K: You’ve been sober for 16 years (congratulations!). How has your recovery changed over time? How important is your creating art to your recovery?
My recovery has evolved into ongoing vigorous self-care. I have to take care of my mental health first and foremost. When I was lost in my addiction, I know I was self-medicating serious depression. Creating art as an outlet has been essential.
K: You say on the Cleaner Daze website, “When we ‘recover out-loud,’ the past no longer has power over us. Today I choose to be loud and clean!” How can people just beginning their recovery (or without as large of a platform as yours) start to recover out-loud?
T: The deep rooted culture of anonymity within the recovery world perpetuates a culture of shame. Of course I respect personal anonymity and personal choices. It’s not okay to “out” people. But I believe people in recovery have a responsibility to help others. And for me, that means vocalizing my life choice to be clean and being open to conversation around addiction. I never associate myself with any specific program or spiritual path. I just identify with out loud recovery. I don’t want to get preachy here, but it’s time to come out people! The opioid crisis is a crisis that is becoming catastrophic and I believe the those of us in recovery have a responsibility to show recovery is possible and that we aren’t just statistics. Silence equals secrets and secrets keep us sick.
K: It might surprise people to see that Cleaner Daze isn’t necessarily about treatment as the solution, but as a process. Were you intentionally setting out to show the good, and the bad, parts of rehab?
T: Yes! Great point! I have gotten a little push back about episode one being triggering and sad, by showing some active addiction and some graphic imagery. But we aren’t making an anti-drug PSA, it’s not candy-coated. We show the reality. Some people can’t get clean. Some don’t want to. Especially teenagers! Rehab doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does. Personally, I needed it. I needed a safe space away from the personal hell I was living in. Rehab was the jumpstart I needed. But it’s not a cure. It’s a band aid. The real healing is about building a healthy life with positive people and recovery community. You can’t stay in rehab forever!
K: You talk in an interview with Bust about struggling to know yourself after you got sober. How did you come to find who you were, and truly enjoy sobriety? Early recovery can feel like such a drag.
T: After treatment, I lived in sober living for 6 months and suddenly, I had a lot of free time on my hands. It’s amazing how much time and energy active addiction takes! Scoring, using, being hungover, thinking about getting more - that’s your whole world. And when you take that away, you have to replace it with something positive. Or else you’ll get high again. So, I looked around at other people in recovery. I paid attention and followed direction. Lots of people were going back to school, going to the gym, and getting healthy. It was hard to make that leap, but I followed their lead. I started exercising, got a therapist, and ultimately, enrolled in school. School was hugely important to my recovery. I am now the proud owner of a sparkly Masters Degree in Film directing from UCLA!
K: What are the most important tools of your recovery today?
T: Creating art, meaningful service work, 12-step-meetings, Jazzercise, and walking my dog outside in the sunshine are all keys to my recovery. And staying teachable! I love taking classes at community college whenever I can. Learning new things keep me excited about life.
K: What is up next for Cleaner Daze? When can we expect Season 2?
The million dollar question. We are actively looking for studio partnership as we develop for longer format television. Alongside that, in the meantime, we are really dying to shoot season two in the same short format - because its scripted and ready to go. We still have the cast and the location, we just need funding. So if anybody out there who has access to resources, loves Cleaner Daze, and wants to see more - please contact us! There’s an exciting road ahead. I have faith that it will happen soon. I have gotten letters of appreciation and support from all around the world. It’s just a matter of time!
K: Thanks so much for taking the time, Tess!