Chris Brancato knows that there is more to life than creating TV entertainment, and his family never fails to remind him of that either. As a family man who loves to travel, he recognizes that in the busy world of Hollywood it’s nice to take some time for yourself and enjoy the simpler things in life. However, that hasn’t stopped him from working on some of the biggest shows to hit network television, like Hannibal and Law & Order, and now he can add the Netflix Original NARCOS to his resume.
The Daily Quirk had the opportunity to talk with Chris about what it’s like to be the co-creator and executive producers for NARCOS, some of his upcoming projects and what it was like to travel to Colombia. You can read the full interview below…
The Daily Quirk: We know that you are currently the co-creator and executive producer of NARCOS on Netflix, so can you tell us a little bit about the show?
Chris Brancato: I am the co-creator and the show runner of the show, which means that I was in charge of the writing and the physical production of the show along with the other executive producers, Jose Padilha and Eric Newman. This was a project that had originally started when Eric was interested in doing the story of Pablo Escobar as a feature film. The problem was that Pablo’s career was so long, so expansive, had so many incredible incidents that it couldn’t be told in a two hour form. So what he did is he went to Netflix and set it up as a project that would span many hours, and I was brought aboard to write the show and figure out how to tell the story of Pablo Escobar and the DEA and the Colombian law enforcement efforts that brought him down. And one of the great things about Netflix as a medium is that you get the chance to tell the story in the appropriate amount of time that it takes to tell.
So, myself, Eric and Jose went to Colombia in April 2014 and started to do interviews with nearly everybody that had a major role in the Escobar story, with the exception of Escobar himself because he’s dead; the former president of Colombia, we spoke to law enforcement, people who ran the search block which was the unit formed to go after Escobar, we interviewed military generals who were also on the search, we talked to journalists, we talked to narcos, we talked to lawyers of narcos and what we were trying to do is build a story that looked at the situation from a lot of different perspectives. So what I then did was try to create in terms of writing was trying to create characters that would represent the various institutions that were at play – the Colombia law enforcement, the US DEA, the US government, the Colombian government and of course the narcos themselves. It was an incredible experience.
For instance, I was flying a plane from Bogota to Medellín, and the guy sitting next to me noticed that I was scribbling notes about the narcos and he said, “My mother’s brother was killed by Escobar. We hate this man, he was a terror, he almost destroyed our country.” Then when I landed the driver that was driving us around to different locations turned around and said to us through a translator, “I love Pablo Escobar, I was a waiter at his estate. He gave great tips and he treated us like people.” So within a span of a half hour I heard two radically different opinions about this guy that inspired great deal of loyalty and love from the poor and a great deal of hatred from the cops, the politicians and citizens outside of Medellín because of the terror he caused.
This was a story worth telling because I think a lot of people have heard the name Pablo Escobar, they just think oh wasn’t he involved with cocaine. But I think that very few people in the United States, nor the rest of the world, really know how outrageous this story was. This was a guy who was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the American appetite of cocaine, found himself a billionaire without having to work that hard – other than getting the coke into the country. And because of his desire of political power and political approval he ended up not only running for congress as an alternate and winning but once he was booted out he declared a war on Colombia that involved the United States. So this is the first gangster in the history of the world that single handedly tried to fight a war against to different countries at once and for quite a long period of time he was kind of on the winning side. So, finally he was defeated and I think that the US spent somewhere between 450-750 million dollars to catch him alone, which was until we went after Osama Bin Laden, the most money spent to ever pursue a criminal in history the world.
So it’s a fascinating story, the ins and outs of it are incredible. Escobar, in some ways, comes off a psychopath and a horrific human being with no remorse who should have been snuffed out as he was, but in other perspectives come out as a guy who was misunderstood and did a lot of things to help the people, at least in his vicinity, build schools, hospitals and a soccer field. I think one of the reasons that this story cuts a chord with people is that it’s a story that replays over and over and over again. You see it right now with El Chapo in Mexico where the government doesn’t do a good job providing basic services to people. The only people with money to build schools and to give away turkeys at Christmas are the narcos, so the narcos gain a lot of local popular support. Then the government comes after them and the people can’t figure out why the narcos are being singled out for this kind of treatment when all their doing is providing this white powder that the gringos like to snort across the border. Escobar is the most heinous original story of this paradigm that keeps replaying itself in different locations across the world.
TDQ: What was it like being on the ground in Colombia?
CB: Well it was amazing. First thing is Colombia is a far safer place as a tourist or a worker than it was 20 years ago when Escobar was dropping bombs on street corners. So the first thing to say is that, you go, “wow we’re going to shoot in Colombia, is it safe? “That is the first question everybody asks. And most of our visions of Colombians, at least my vision of Colombians, was unfortunately created by the Colombians I saw in Scarface 20 years ago. So I had this idea of this extremely violent culture that turns out to not be the case. Of course there is a criminal element there, but the Colombians have been very successful in the last 20 years in certainly putting the king pins of cocaine in jail. There is certainly still trafficking of cocaine in Colombia it’s much more out of the public eye and does not involve the level of carnage that we see right now in Mexico. Of course that’s because the responsibilities of delivering cocaine has moved to Mexico so you have turf wars and horrific murders … It’s the same situations just a different country.
But Colombia was great, it was beautiful, the food was great, the people were nice. The people in Colombia that I spoke to about doing a series about Escobar kind of rolled their eyes like, “Really? Again? This isn’t what we want our country to be known for. We have lots of other facets tot his country that are much more interesting to us than Escobar.” To their credit, I did see a lot of other documentaries created about Escobar so to them it was nothing new but I think one of the reasons this series is well received is that people in North America, Europe and other parts of Latin America weren’t aware of how interesting and outrageous this story is.
So you’re on the ground, you’re dealing with the skepticism of the Colombians but they were extremely… our crews were great. Shooting the show in Mexico in many respects was a great idea. The Colombian president, who did not want to do a Hollywood, gringo-ization of the story where the American’s roll in and said everything right. In fact it was quite the opposite. The American’s down there were in a supportive role and had to cross some ethical, well confront some ethical and moral quandaries made because the level of brutality in trying to get Escobar extended to both sides. You know the narcos killed a lot of cops, the cops killed a lot of narcos… So one of the things that was most important to me as a writer was to be sure that we depicted the heroism and the bravery that at the end of the day, and this is second season stuff, that the Colombians were the ones who got Escobar.
TDQ: Right, and on that same line, the show does feature a lot of archived footage, so what kind of research and attention to detail went in to this process and making sure that you depicted the Colombians in the right way?
CB: Well the idea to put in archival footage in was from our director, Jose Padilha, who started off as a documentarian and liked the idea of using the archival footage to ground the show in reality and to remind the viewer that hey, this really happened and we’re not making this up. What we did is we put an editor on board months before shooting combing through thousands of hours of archival footage from the period and then selectively chose things that we found interesting or help ground you in the time period.
The creation of the show in it’s entirety was a really interesting process of getting, well first of all reading, dozens and dozens of books on the subject. We had the life rights to Steve Murphy and Javier Pena, DEA agents that are played by Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal [respectively] they gave us transcripts of wire intercepts and phones calls from the narcos that I literally had translated into English by Pablo’s voice speaking to his sicarios and I was able to try to work the flavor of the way the real talk was spoke into Wagner Moura’s (Pablo Esobar) dialogue. We had the archival footage, we had tons of research, and I had a great team of writers who would write scenes for me.
I had often compared myself into a wood chipper, where you put all the logs on top which is the research, the transcripts and the accounts of the various players in the game, interviews, fictional thoughts about how to create the narrative, everybody’s ideas… And out of the other end I would try to create an idea that flowed from one episode of another and took advantage of all these different perspectives. And then editorially, the scripts had to be translated into Spanish, the narcos parts, because we made an early decision to have the narcos to speak in their language.
Personally I hate drug movies for some crazy reason the narcos, the people from Colombia where the people speak in this accented English because none of them spoke English, at least very few of them did. So we wanted to have them speak in Spanish, and you’d have to read the subtitles but I felt like what it would do is it would create this sense that if you didn’t speak Spanish you would get privileged information, you’re getting to look into the secret code that these guys are speaking. Of course if you do speak Spanish then you get to enjoy the way show in both the English and the Spanish sections and you probably get to laugh at our actors who came from all over Latin America and the Colombian accent is very specific so sometimes we get people laughing at the different accents that the characters have. But by and large I think people really respect that we wanted to stay loyal to the reality of it and that when the narcos are speaking they are speaking Spanish. That involved me writing the whole script in English, putting it in to have so that scenes in Spanish were in blue ink and the scenes in English were in black ink, Then I sent the scripts to Colombia so that a translator could translate it. Then I would get on the phone with the translator and work out little quirks. Which, for example, if you wanted to tell somebody to, uh, “go f*** off” in Spanish that translates to “go suck a rooster.” *laughs* So we would want to work through some of the different expressions and idioms that would either work or don’t when you translate and try to put them in the right form. And then the actors and the directors, all of which who spoke Spanish and English, would work on the scene further to make sure they were conveying the intention of the scene. So it was a very complicated process but I think it works well for creating a reality that people haven’t really seen before as it’s a show that’s 60 percent in English, 40 percent in Spanish.
TDQ: That’s awesome, and as you previously the show has just been signed on for a second season on Netflix. So what can viewers expect going into this next season?
CB: I am hopeful for a second season that now becomes more compressed as far as time. We covered about 10 years or so in the first season, maybe even more. So this leads to every episode having major events. The second season is more about the American and Colombian actual pursuit of Escobar in the remaining period of his life so actually perhaps this series will slow down a bit, get deeper into the characterizations, show the incredible things and parts on al sides that were part of eventually finding him and all the moral quandaries that brought up.
For example, the Colombians, for the first time in their history, allowed us to put military boots on their ground and search for him. So, you know, that’s a big part of political history when you are going to put other countries soldiers on your ground to search for a citizen of Colombia who had not set foot into America. There are all sorts of great dilemmas of Escobar’s side. He cared very much about his family’s protection as he watched his cocaine empire fracture because he was on the run, and so there is great stuff to do in the second season.
TDQ: You’ve done some work for shows on TV in the past, so what was it like moving from a network like NBC to working with Netflix?
CB: Well I did Hannibal on NBC and they gave us *laughs* a lot of room to maneuver with that show, at least in terms of the violence that is part of Hannibal. But what was great about Netflix was a bunch of different things. First off they are extremely filmmaker supportive so that Jose vision for show as the director and my vision for the show as a writer were encouraged. We did not suffer, and this is true of just the Netflix medium – we didn’t have to worry about saying curse words. We didn’t have to worry about commercial breaks. We didn’t have to worry about knowing the show was only going to be broadcast one week at a time. We knew we were going to do episodes that you would hopefully want to binge watch and watch all 10 in a very short period of time. So we were unrestrained and we were able to do what we wanted to do creatively. It was an incredible creative experience. Netflix was supportive of what we wanted to do, they would give comments and suggestions, but never stopped us from doing what we wanted to do. Because of that we are able to transport people into another world, another reality and I think that’s what makes it different.
TDQ: Well, other than NARCOS are you working on anything else? Do you have any other big projects you can tell us about?
CB: Yes actually I’m working on a project on a network for a little while. ABC is doing a show called Of Kings and Prophets and it’s the story of King David who fought a brutal battle to become the greatest king of Israel in 1000 BC. The story we’re telling is from the book of Samuel 1 in the Old Testament and I was struck when I decided to work on this show, to show run this. King David actual has some strange parallels to Pablo Escobar in that he had to raise an army of loyal men, he had to fight against the government who was run by King Saul, the first king of Israel and he had to resort to some pretty violent and outrageous efforts to eventually claim the throne. I think the networks realized that they have to do shows like Game of Thrones or like Vikings. They have to get edgier and darker and grittier, and they have to allow more adult subject matter to come to the forefront or else they are not going to be able to compete with shows like NARCOS, Game of Thrones, etc. So we are shooting that in South Africa currently while we speak and I’m very excited to be involved with that show as well.
TDQ: When you’re not working, what kind of hobbies do you have and what do you like to do to relax?
CB: Well, uh, I like to do a lot of cocaine *laughs* No, actually I like to spend a lot of time with my family. I live in Los Angeles but I also have an apartment in New York, I’m a New Yorker at heart. And I guess my hobbies involve trying to decompress from the stress of making television shows and to get as far away from the entertainment business as I possible can. Which, my wife and my kids constantly remind me that there are more important things in life than creating entertainment and in fact they are. So yeah, it’s just about living. I like to travel which is one of the great things about my job. Sometimes I get to take my family with me, and the last four years I’ve done shows in New York – I did Law & Order in New York, I did Hannibal in Toronto, I did NARCOS in Colombia, I’m doing Of Kings and Prophets in South Africa in Cape Town. I love to experience different cultures and you’ll be amazed how little they think of the United States and how little they care about Hollywood. I really like that *laughs*.