"I See Pablo Escobar as a True Psychopath"

By John Lavitt 01/29/16

Narcos co-creator Chris Brancato talks to The Fix about bringing Pablo Escobar to life on Netflix.

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12 Questions with Narcos' Chris Brancato
Chris Brancato on location with Pablo & family via Author

With the first season of the Netflix show Narcos receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Series, Chris Brancato has a lot to smile about. As the executive producer and co-creator of the drug-fueled dramatic series, Chris helped bring the 1970s and ‘80s world of Pablo Escobar and Colombian drug traffickers to life. Former executive producer of Hannibal and the writer of the feature film Hoodlum, Chris had experience with questionable characters before he ever tackled Escobar. Shot on location in Colombia, Narcos has been compared to classic drug-fueled crime films like Goodfellas and Traffic. Interviewed while working on his new ABC Biblical drama, Of Kings & Prophets, Chris reveals how Narcos opened his eyes to the international consequences of cocaine use and the brutal toll extracted from Columbia in the battle against the drug barons.

In Narcos, when we first meet Pablo Escobar, he doesn’t even really know what cocaine is. He’s just your everyday black marketer in Medellín. I don’t know any other telling that starts so early in the storyline. Was this a specific goal of the show? Did you want to get the audience invested by starting at the very beginning so we could experience the dark journey with Escobar?

When we initially started to work on the show, Eric Newman had developed the concept of a Pablo Escobar movie, but he realized that it was a story that would not fit into a two-hour movie. Shifting gears, he set it up at Netflix with a Brazilian director attached, José Padilha, who has achieved a lot of success with his Elite Squad movies. I came aboard as the showrunner to develop the first script of a 10-episode order.

 Effectively, they saw themselves the same as Americans selling beer. If Americans can sell beer down here, why can’t we sell this white stuff to Americans if they want it?

When José and I started talking about the project, my initial intention was to start a little bit later with Escobar already well on the way to becoming a cocaine baron. José said, “You know what. I think we have to start very, very early in his career because, in Brazil, we have our own famous drug dealers. Nobody really knows anything about Pablo Escobar.” When he said this, I realized that in the United States, perhaps people knew who Pablo Escobar was, but very few people would know the ins and outs of his career. 

José as the director really had us focus the first two episodes on setting up a lot of contextual fabric for the series. His goal was to not only allow people to understand how Pablo developed into a major cocaine baron, but also, on the other side of the fence, to show how the DEA agent Steve Murphy rose through the ranks in the '70s and '80s to be fighting this enormous War on Drugs. That is exactly why we chose to make the first two episodes largely contextual as opposed to delving deeper into the story. 

Mateo Moreno, the Chilean exile and underground chemist, pitches the idea to Pablo of going into business together to produce this new drug. As we know, given the famous use of cocaine by Sigmund Freud and Thomas Edison, plus the use of the drug in the original formulation of Coca-Cola, it has been around for a long time. Why did it take so long for it to catch on as an illegal export? Was Mateo Moreno really the beginning of the modern cocaine nightmare?

The best way to answer that question is to say that we took quite a bit of dramatic license. In some of our research, we had heard about a guy whose name was La Cucaracha or The Cockroach who had alerted Pablo to the enormous profits in cocaine. On a separate track, we also knew the refinery part of the cocaine trade had started in Chile. The Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet ran such a brutal regime against his own people, including drug dealers, that he effectively chased the cocaine industry out of his country.

Obviously, because coca leaves grow in Bolivia and Peru, there has probably always been a clandestine manufacturing of cocaine from the early 1900s onward. Native Indians chewed coca leaves for hundreds, if not thousands, of years for extra energy. I am sure that once the product was able to be turned into the snortable powder that we all know, it was probably exported from South America to the smart set all over the world, but in much, much smaller amounts and without the huge profitability. Once chemistry advances had allowed for the creation of this drug, there was probably a way to get it if you had the contacts. 

Of course, it wasn’t until the product was mainstreamed, so to speak, by having it brought into the United States in much larger quantities. Suddenly, cocaine caught fire in the '60s and '70s as an elite substance, which slowly and surely and sadly became a mass-consumed drug available in almost every town and city in the United States and eventually all over the world as well. It was a true case of demand encouraging supply.

At first, in the '30s, '40s and '50s, there are certainly references you can find to cocaine among musicians, the artistic set, and the elites who managed to get their hands on the drug, but it did not become a mass popular drug until later. 

Also, there were a number of laws in the United States in response to the flow of cocaine into this country in the 1930s. Harry Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was terrified that the black population was running wild on this drug. He was a hardcore early supporter of the criminalization of drugs by the federal government. As a result, a racially based, fear-based series of laws were created that outlawed cocaine and other drugs. 

Getting back to your question, Mateo Moreno was a fictional creation to represent a guy named Cockroach who supposedly turned Pablo on to cocaine. He may or may not have existed. We decided to sort of take the ball and run with it, making him the character that represents the shift of the cocaine labs from Chile to Colombia as well as the starting point for Pablo’s entry into the cocaine business.

Almost half of Narcos is in Spanish while the other half is in English. Are you that fluent in Spanish or did you have translators? Were the scripts written half in Spanish and half in English? Was it a requirement for the actors to be bilingual?

There were a couple of factors that led to the show being half in Spanish. Initially, when Eric Newman and I were talking about the show, we decided to have all the Narcos speak in Spanish. We had seen in certain movies the decision by the filmmakers to have people like Pablo Escobar or other narcotic traffickers in South America speak in this kind of accented English, and we always thought that was silly and cheesy. In truth, Pablo did not speak English, nor did many of the people who were prominent in the cocaine trade at that time. We decided we would have the Narcos speak in Spanish, but we weren’t sure what the studio would think. 

We talked to Netflix about it and not only were they allowing of this decision, they actually encouraged it. I remember being in a meeting and saying, “Look, we want the Narcos to speak in Spanish, and that could be about 40% of the show.” They were totally open to it because their general attitude is to be different and bold. They don’t have advertisers to please, and they don’t have typical network requirements for the show. More importantly, they wanted the show to hopefully help expand their service in Latin America. As a result, they thought it was just a good idea all around.

Now, I’m not fluent in Spanish at all. Before we started the show, I couldn’t speak a word. Although I’ve gotten a lot more proficient, I would never be able to do the translations. What would happen is that I would write the scripts, along with my writing staff, in English. When we released the scripts to production, the scenes that were to be in Spanish would be in blue ink and the scenes that were to be in English would be in black ink. When the script was sent to Colombia, a translator would turn the blue ink scenes into Spanish. The translator and I would spend time on the phone, talking about linguistic differences that weren’t working quite right. 

There are many expressions common in English that don’t make any sense when they are translated into Spanish and vice versa. For example, to tell somebody to "F- off" in English, you say, "F-off." In Colombian Spanish you say, "Están mamando gallo," which is like "Go suck off a rooster." They basically mean the same thing. The translator would inform me about those kind of linguistic problems. By and large, we were able to do the translation quite effectively. 

During the production, I spent a lot of time in Colombia and I would be with the actors and the director, who were all bilingual. I would often rehearse the scene with them, and they might make little Spanish adjustments, which I was always fine with as long as they understood what the intent of the scene was in English. Frankly, whether a phrase was said one way or another didn’t much matter to me as long as the intent was preserved. Certainly from reading the subtitles myself, I was satisfied with the way in which the translation went down. 

What did prove to be fascinating was how a lot of Spanish speakers make fun of the various accents that the different actors have because they were from Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil and the United States. Of course, the first language of Brazil is Portuguese. As a result, there has been a lot of talk in the Latin American press about the inaccuracy of accents, which are as distinct and as different as, for example, a Southern sheriff, a New York cop, and an investigator from Scotland Yard. In other words, Spanish speakers can really notice the accented differences of all of our characters. At the same time, we wanted to cast actors from all over Latin America because we wanted the very best, and we got some of the best actors from almost every single country. 

I felt like if you don’t speak Spanish and you watch the Narcos speaking in Spanish with subtitles, you feel like you’re being invited into this privileged and dangerous realm. If they spoke in English, you would immediately realize that this was a fake TV series. I really liked the idea of giving the audience a coded entry into a secret world.

Beyond financials at best, most drug dealers do not keep records of what their business dealings are on a day-to-day basis. How much of Narcos is based on fact and how much is a fictional reconstruction?

The figures in the show about the amount of money that Pablo was making and the amount of drugs that were being brought into the United States are based in researched sources. Forbes magazine once listed Escobar as one of the world’s richest men. I do think he kept a fairly accurate account of his income, particularly in respect to how he laundered the drug money. There were multiple accounting agencies in Medellín that dealt with this insane inflow of American dollars. Although the Colombian traffickers were not book smart, they were very shrewd characters. They developed whole systems to effectively launder the drug money.

For example, they would buy millions of dollars worth of televisions, stereos, and appliances with the dirty money in Panama, a notoriously corrupt country at the time under Noriega, then bring all of it back to Colombia. In almost every small town and village in Colombia, they would have a high-tech weekly farmers market where the electronics would all be sold at a big discount to the people. The money they received would be in pesos, no longer in dollars, and it would be clean. 

What’s also fascinating is how much money was lost to water damage and rats. There’s a guesstimate that 10% of the money that they made was lost because it was buried without being sealed properly or left in warehouses without any climate control. It would rot or be eaten by rodents or infested with bugs. Clearly they were making a lot of dough. Although we took a lot of dramatic license in order to show the realistic spirit of the insane economy that developed out of Narco trafficking, most of what you see Pablo Escobar doing in the series is true and based on reliable records. 

Nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Actor in a Drama Series, Wagner Moura, who played Pablo, is amazing in Narcos. In an interview with Fast Company, you said about him, “We were having dinner, and I started to have this realization: This guy is so appealing, you’re going to like Escobar. And that’s going to put the audience in a terrible bind when he does awful remorseless things.” Beyond creating dramatic conflict, did you feel guilty about creating such a charismatic character based on such a bad man? Do you see Pablo as a monster?

First of all, I see Pablo as a true psychopath. He is somebody who created enormous terror, grief, heartache, and pain; not only in Colombia, but in the United States and all over the world. He was relatively remorseless about killing cops and civilians whenever they got in his way. Collateral damage meant nothing to him, and he got worse and worse over time. He clearly qualifies as a sociopath, and he had psychopathic qualities as well.

Do I find him a monster on that level? Yes. Much like mafia and other criminal figures in the United States and all over the world, he was able to justify his violence as a response to what he saw as an organized campaign of force that was enacted against him by the by the traditional elite, by the politicians and ruling families of Colombia who had always been wealthy and in control of the military and law enforcement. He cast himself quite often as a kind of underdog who represented the true people of Colombia. As the first season of the show suggests, what was his undoing was that he had a powerful desire for a seat at the table with the ruling elite. He was like a little boy who wanted more than anything else to be allowed to sit with the cool kids during lunch at school. 

He also wanted to have a voice in the political affairs of the country. He felt he had something to offer. He had what you would call leftist sensibilities. He did a lot of things that could be considered beneficial to the poor. He built barrios and soccer fields all over the country, mainly due to that fact that he had so much money, he felt he had to do something with it. José and I used to joke that when you have so much money that you can’t spend it on yourself anymore, then you give it to the poor people. It’s a very calculating move to curry popular favor. He was and still is somewhat glorified in certain parts of Medellín society, but Colombians in general think that he was a scourge on their country. I believe he was as well. 

As for Wagner, from the minute I met him, I realized that he was such an appealing human being that an audience would be placed in this deliciously difficult position of wanting to root for him at first. After seeing him do these increasingly insane and violent acts, they would end up being conflicted by their own feelings. They would feel bad about liking him in the first place. From hearing the responses to the show, I believe people did get caught in that bind.

Before we started filming, we had a meeting with the President of Colombia, and he approved the project, even if he did not like the subject matter. President Santos said to us, “Look, these guys are either dead or in jail because we won.” I think that’s one of the important things to note when watching the series. You clearly see that people that choose this way of life do not come to a good end. As people will see in the second season of the show, Escobar is pursued viciously for the last 18 months of his life. Nobody would ever want to experience that first-hand. It strips away all the glamour.

Chris Brancato with actor Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar -- via Author

How did the making of Narcos affect you personally? Did you feel as though any parts of your past life were illuminated by this experience? 

First and foremost, the subject matter of criminal drama is something that I have always been interested in as a writer. Given my bent towards historical drama, the opportunity to tell the Narco trafficking story was intriguing to me. I also lived during the ‘80s and certainly watched as this seeming wonder drug infiltrated the college I went to and the upscale lifestyle that we were all striving to lead. I saw the huge negative impact that cocaine and the addiction to any substances, including alcohol, created for people, for friends, for myself. Many of us have lost friends along the way. As you well remember John, years ago we both lost a common friend. 

For me, expressing that experience was an important part of doing the show, and it might not come through as readily as I would like. I hope people will see that the use of this drug to any extent by North Americans is tainted by the fact that hundreds upon hundreds, thousands upon thousands of people die in the countries where it is produced and in the process of bringing it to our shores. What the show does accomplish is to remind us that this was not really a Colombian problem per se. It was a North American problem—it was a world problem—because the consumers of the drug drove the market.

At first, they primarily were well-to-do, upscale North Americans and Europeans, and their incessant demand for the drug that created the supply. The Colombians certainly wouldn’t be supplying us with cocaine if we didn’t want it. Later, when the cocaine was turned into the much cheaper and much more highly addictive freebase form called crack, it made the drug much more available on a street basis at a much cheaper cost. When that transformation was made, it caused untold damage in the United States and around the world, and continues to do so. 

Personally, this is the kind of dark subject matter that I like to write about. If you ask me to write about the Italian mafia or the Russian mob, I’ll jump at the chance. With this particular story, I wanted to make sure that we weren’t doing this sort of white hat hero story where Americans roll down into Colombia and solve the problem. The show presents the ethical and moral quandaries faced by the Americans that came down to Colombia and were faced with the problem of the Narcos. They were consistently reminded that not only was the problem American-made, but that they would not end up being the heroes of the story. The Colombians are really the heroes of this story.

At the end of the day, the Colombians died fighting Escobar and they ended up being the ones to kill him. The American role in the story is advisory and financial as opposed to lives lost on the ground. In terms of lives lost, the American side of it has to do with the widespread cocaine addiction and other drug addictions that seem to continually plague our populace. The more the media focuses on these problems being about supply and demand, the more likely it is that we will eventually come upon a drug policy that’s more effective than the War on Drugs.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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