Massapequa native Daniel Baldwin made a promise to a friend. When that friend died of a drug overdose, he decided to keep that promise.
Baldwin’s new documentary, My Promise to PJ, follows the famous actor as he fulfills the oath he made to PJ Raynor, a family friend who was struggling with addiction. As a drug crisis interventionist, Baldwin, who has battled drug addiction and been sober for more than a decade, had helped place PJ in rehabilitation two times. On the third, he told PJ: “If you stay sober for two years, I’ll take you to run with the bulls in Pamplona” — which Baldwin and PJ found they both had on their bucket lists.
PJ remained sober for three years, then relapsed and died of an overdose. Baldwin hadn’t yet brought him to run with the bulls. In PJ’s memory and to raise awareness for drug addiction, Baldwin directed a documentary that explores his own path to sobriety, including interviews with his brothers — Alec, Billy, and Stephen — PJ’s family’s struggles, and Baldwin’s journey to run alongside the bulls with PJ’s ashes.
We caught up with Baldwin to hear about the film and its upcoming screening at the Long Beach Film Festival.
Why was it important for you to make this film?
I’ve known [PJ’s] mom since I was 5 or 6. She’s a long[time] family friend. A lot of people, when they hear “my promise” and they see what I did, although it’s great to keep your word, please make no mistake about it, I did this for me. I was greatly struggling with the death of this kid. It was not what the plan was supposed to be. He was supposed to get sober, stay sober, and then help me help other guys to get sober in the years to come. I was really shocked. And after a couple of years went by, you think that time is going to make that better and it didn’t. I needed to do something to put to rest the feelings of anger and loss that I have over this tragedy. I was in a really bad place over his death.
What was the most challenging part about making this film?
I couldn’t plan it. I didn’t know what was going to happen, I just filmed it live. There’s no script, there’s no way to project, ‘Oh, this is going to be great,’ It was just, ‘I know the bulls are going to come running at me, I know they’re probably going to try to kill me, put the camera on.’ So it was an adventure and a journey and very different from anything I’ve ever shot.
What did it mean to have your family be a part of this film?
[I sat] in front of my brother, Billy, and had him tell me some of his very unfavorable recollections of my path of destruction while I was [struggling with] addiction. When you compile that with the fact that I’m editing the film, so I’m spending hundreds of hours going over footage and watching and having to relive and rethink and re-feel those recollections of my family members, that was tough. That was really hard.
How did PJ’s parents respond to your journey, as it involved using his ashes?
They were very supportive. They were, I think, reluctant. It’s a very unnatural thing to bury your child, so it’s a very sensitive issue for them. And again, when you don’t really have a script and I tell them, ‘Well I’m going to ask you questions about your child and about his family life and his upbringing,’ what you don’t want to do is be put in a place where you see it and you’re embarrassed and you’ve already had a loss, so I think they were very happy with the outcome. [PJ’s mother] said to me, ‘You did my son proud.’
What do you think PJ would say if he were here today to watch the film?
If he would recall, and I think he would, that I did all the things I said that I was going to do on this run because I was quite cocky about what I was going to do. I think he would laugh and say ‘I can’t believe you did that.’ But I think more importantly if I had PJ in front of me right now and I could have him for a day, and I said, ‘Would you be OK with my taking what happened with you and trying to help other people and use your death to try to save lives?’ he would have absolutely said ‘yes.’
What do you want people to take away from watching the film?
I hope it gives a voice to the people who are left behind. There are some heart-wrenching moments where [PJ’s mother] talks about whether she enabled her son and [grappling with whether she played] a role in his death. These were hard questions that she had to answer. His father talks about his own alcoholism and whether PJ even had a chance being around what he saw at home. So those are things that for the millions of parents that have lost a child, they get to listen to that and I think it helps them, it’s almost therapeutic.
Why are you looking forward to bringing this to the Long Beach Film Festival?
Long Island is my home. It’s where I was born and raised. And we’re having a terrible opioid problem on Long Island. It is so bad, one of the hotbeds in the country. When you add Covid to that, which is now multiplying the problem because there aren’t meetings and 12-step support groups for these young addicts and alcoholics to go to, they’re left to their own devices, locked in at home, and we get what is being projected as a second wave with this Delta variation, we’re looking at a long winter right now. This might give them something to watch and to think about their actions, and I hope that happens and that it helps friends and family on the Island.
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