"I See Pablo Escobar as a True Psychopath" - Page 2

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

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Did you find that writing about African-American gangster Bumpy Johnson’s fight with bootlegger Dutch Schultz over the numbers racket in Prohibition Harlem in Hoodlum helped you understand Pablo Escobar and the cocaine barons? Did you discover similarities between the two storylines that helped you with Narcos?

It’s funny that you ask that question because I didn’t much think about that comparison while I was doing Narcos. There are similarities between all criminal mastermind or criminal baron stories whether they are about gambling, illegal drugs, prohibited alcohol, prescription pills or what have you. All of those stories where we see people rise to the top of a criminal empire contain the same familiar tropes; falling into something that makes you incredible amounts of money, then the parties, the girls, the jets, the lifestyle and all the rest.

Of course, there is always the turnaround that includes the war with law enforcement, the use of your own product, the turn to greater and greater violence to protect what you have, and, ultimately, the story ends with jail or death. The tropes of those stories are similar regardless of who you are talking about, what country, or what drug. 

Bumpy Johnson’s story in Harlem had similarities to Pablo’s story in that you have a guy, finding himself in the right place at the right time, who uses his wits to create a criminal empire. In Hoodlum, I wrote Bumpy as more of a heroic figure than perhaps I did with Escobar. Unlike Escobar, Bumpy wasn’t involved with mass murder and criminal terrorism. One thing that caught me by surprise was when I went to Brazil to speak at a television conference, and a Brazilian journalist told me that years ago when Hoodlum came out down there, it inspired a national debate and was a hugely watched movie because black criminals had not been depicted very often in films down there. Hoodlum was a favorite of a lot of people who found it to be this refreshing, non-white slant on a criminal operation. The movie's great success in Brazil was news to me.

When you worked on Hannibal, you wrote about one of the most terrifying fictional characters in modern popular culture. Do you feel like the reality of Pablo Escobar makes the fantasy of Hannibal less frightening? Does the character of Hannibal still have the same power for you after living with Escobar for so long?

[Laughing] That’s a great question. Hannibal was something very, very different for me. First of all, Bryan Fuller created the vision for Hannibal before I got involved with the show. More importantly, Thomas Harris, who wrote the novels, had originally created the character, and that character had been fleshed out in the three movies. There is something about Hannibal that is delightfully unreal. In other words, it’s fascinating and creepy and ludicrous and Grand Guignol horror. Hannibal is an aesthete; the preparation of the entrails of his victims into these complex, delectable dishes is truly out there. I never viewed it as anything more than this amusing, yet inspired television show. It worked incredibly well for what it was trying to achieve.

Personally, as a writer, I am more drawn to the historical and journalistic fact fiction that you see in Narcos, which was my co-creation. In Hannibal, I was working to service Bryan’s vision. But I never really put the two things into the same category. The Hannibal stuff is great fun, but it doesn’t have much reality to it beyond the psychological reality of the relationships that Bryan created.

The original DEA agents on the case, Steve Murphy and Javier Peña, play a big part in the story. Before you began shooting, they came back to Bogotá and spent a week telling your team stories while advising on actual details. What was their reaction to Narcos when they saw the finished product?

That’s really funny that you ask that question because the answer is a bit unexpected. Since we had the life rights to both of those characters, I interviewed those guys and talked to them about what I was doing with the show. I initially wanted to have Murphy as the window character that took us into Latin America and showed us that world through his point of view. I had this perspective because, quite honestly, I’m a North American, and I wanted to make the show successful with North Americans. We easily could have given the show a 100% Latin American perspective, but we had the life rights to these guys. I wanted to have these characters usher me and the audience into the world of Pablo Escobar. 

Steve and Javier were In Colombia during Escobar’s time and took part in the pursuit of the drug cartels, but the DEA was very, very limited and restricted in terms of what they could actually do. I told those guys that I have to create drama here so I need to have dramatic license to involve you in certain things that you might actually not have been involved in. I have to flesh out the stories you tell me and make sure that they have a dramatic edge to them. I have to reveal the moral depravity that the situation threw you guys into in a very personal way. I need to have your permission to do that or I’m going to give you fictitious names on the show. I have to be able to do what I want as a writer. I told them to take some time and think about it because I don’t want the show to come out and have you guys talking to friends or former colleagues and contradicting it. 

They took some time, then they came back to me and said that we could use their real names. The only caveat was that Steve Murphy, who was married at the time and his wife is a major character on the show, said to me, “Just do me one favor. Please don’t have my character screwing around on my wife.” Since I never had any intention of doing that, I agreed to that point, but also told them that they couldn’t give me any other ground rules because I need to be able to do whatever I want to tell the story well. They both said, “Great. No problem.”

In any case, they’re just tickled with the success of the show. When the show finished and all the publicity started to come out, I called them a few days before the big rush began and said, “Hey, you know life is going to be different for you guys a week or two from now if this thing is going to be successful. I don’t know if it’s going to be successful, but if it is, you guys are going to be famous.” They laughed, but sure enough, the show has been widely viewed and considered a success.

Before the show, these guys did speaking engagements on Escobar from time-to-time, but now that little business that they had in retirement is on a whole other level. Once in a while, back in the day, they would talk at universities or police seminars, but now they are jammed with requests for speaking engagements. It looks like they’re going to get a book deal so it’s worked out really well. It makes me happy because they were really dedicated law enforcement officers who deserve this recognition.

You have said that the Colombian people “…could use another Escobar show like they could use a hole in the head, and the Ministry of Culture in Colombia actually came out strongly against us shooting there.” Although President Santos allowed you to shoot in the country, did you find any resistance on the ground while shooting? Even though it was a U.S./Latin American collaboration, was there any negativity about American gringos coming down and taking advantage of a nightmare the Colombians wish to forget?

First off, we didn’t have any real problems on the ground. The Colombian people are truly wonderful. They are kind and very proud of their country. In addition, the country is safe. I never felt one moment of fear there. You walk through the streets at night, and you feel completely secure. Quite honestly, they don’t seem to think about the United States gringos as much as we would like to think they think about us. [Laughing] They really don’t give a shit. 

I was surprised by how little reaction, either positive or negative, we received from people. It was more like when you mentioned it, they would roll their eyes a bit. There have been a lot of movies and documentaries and telenovelas done about Escobar, and they’re kind of over the subject. They’ve heard the stories over and over, and they’re bored by it at this point. There is nothing fresh or new about it to them. Sometimes the reaction was something like, “Really? You’re doing that again. Can’t you thing of something more original?” 

People in the government who were giving us a big tax break for shooting the first two episodes in Colombia had a big debate about whether or not they wanted to have this story told again. Their Minister of Culture scowled at me when I was introduced to her as the writer and wagged her finger. She wanted to know why we had to make such a show, and I told her that over the course of the series, not only is a victory achieved over the drug barons, but the Colombian people's tenacity in the face of this Narco terror and the resulting heroism is conveyed. She had only read the first script where Pablo’s lies were prominent so she couldn’t see the whole storyline. I told her that the rest would be shown down the line, and she asked, “What if people stop watching after the first few episodes?” All I could do was smile and say, “Well, I certainly hope they don’t.”

Eventually, the first episode was screened for President Santos and his cabinet members. I don’t know about her specific reaction and I imagine that she probably still hates it, but they thought it was a high-quality production and they thought it presented Colombia well. Being a success all over the world, I hear that it actually makes people want to go to Colombia because you see the beauty of the country truly showcased in the show.

Did your team actually shoot in Medellín where Pablo donated so much money to help the common people? Did you meet first-hand with any of the drug lords or their families when you were in Colombia? 

Yes, we shot in Medellín several times as well as in cities across the country, including Bogotá, Cartagena, Villavicencio and Santa Marta. What I don’t think many people realize is that Medellín is the second largest city in the country after Bogotá in terms of population. Our shooting in Medellín was really confined to the first couple of weeks of production. We wanted to get the particular flavor of that place, and it’s a beautiful city. 

I’m sure there are still pockets of people that venerate Escobar, but we didn’t run into any of them. Pardon the pun, but it’s kind of a dead issue. We did interview many people who were involved in fighting against the Narcos, including former Colombian President César Gaviria and generals and judges and journalists active during Escobar’s time. We didn’t interview any Narcos or their families, not because we didn’t want to present their side of the story, but because there was enough on record to present their side of the story. We had many of their Spanish books and other testimonials translated for us.

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? Fundamentally, it is a legitimate question. Why are you making our product illegal? This is just a choice that people want to make to buy our product so why are you picking on us? That basically was the perspective of the Narcos across the board. 

In your latest show, Of Kings and Prophets, you are bringing to life the Biblical power struggle between King Saul and the young shepherd destined to one day become King David. Do you see a commonality between the modern story of the rise of Pablo Escobar and the rise of King David? Although King David is a legendary hero, aren’t the rags-to-riches aspects of the stories similar?

[Laughing] Out of all of your great questions, this is the one that I thought was most genius. I took over this show after the first season of Narcos. Although I am a consulting producer on the second season, I moved over to this other show because it gave me the opportunity to do something I had never done before, and I jumped at the chance to do this Biblical story. When I went down to Colombia to oversee the shooting of the last episode of the first season, I knew I was going to take the King David job. 

During the flight down, I was reading a book about King David and learning about his evolution as this young shepherd who has to run from King Saul for years. He forms this band of outlaws in order to survive and there is a lot of violence. I remember sitting on the plane, flying down to Colombia, and thinking, “Holy shit! This guy has a lot of similarities to Escobar." King David also was a charismatic leader with a personal sense of destiny. Although far from being the psychopath that Escobar was, King David, according to the Bible, committed some incredibly violent acts as well. 

Indeed, I do think there are parallels. When men happen to find themselves in positions of power, the methods they have to use in order to reach for the top seem to make them very, very complicated, multi-faceted, problematic characters. This is the exact quality that makes David one of the most memorable of all the Biblical heroes. Rather than being a whitewashed good guy or an unvarnished bad guy, he’s truly a complex character.

We actually shoot the show in Cape Town, South Africa, because we found that the look there could better mimic Israel as the Land of Milk & Honey as opposed to the 3,000 years later version of Israel which is much more desert-like. It’s fascinating to experience David’s journey as he goes from the sticks in Bethlehem to the capital city of Jerusalem. As he learns the ways of the world, you see his evolution into power as one of the greatest kings that the world has ever known. 

I was talking to a very successful rap music producer in New York, and he was telling me about how much the urban crowd loved Narcos. He asked me what I was doing next, and I told him about Kings & Prophets. He laughed and said, “Oh man, anyone who watched Narcos will want to watch that story. It’s Old Testament, and there’s nothing like Old Testament sex and violence.” I’m not sure if that’s really the case, but I hope people watch the show and enjoy my delving deeper into historical drama.

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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.