Narcos has told the stories of Pablo Escobar, the infamous head of the Medellín drug cartel and narco-terrorist, and the rival Cali cartel. The upcoming season will explore the origins of the drug trade in Mexico. Regardless of country or the methods used by drug lords, the show’s protagonist has always been cocaine. The series, now under the stewardship of showrunner Eric Newman, is rooted in fact and has made ample use of consultants from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). It has gone beyond simplistic depictions of good guys and criminals by showing the human side of the traffickers and the not-always-noble motivations of law enforcement.
TV DRAMA: How did the subject matter come to your attention, and how much research went into the prep phase?
NEWMAN: I read a story about the drug war in 1996, so there were some 15 years or more of prep and research and thinking and reading, first alone but, along the way, I talked people into joining the team. We became a unit that was dedicated to making this show work. We recruited the DEA guys to whom the story happened. We interviewed journalists, politicians, ex-police, ex-military, and after a long while we had put together a pretty comprehensive, exhaustive recounting of events.
TV DRAMA: How did you balance the facts and the chronology of the events against the dramatizations that were necessary to bring the story to life?
NEWMAN: Someone, somewhere wrote about us—and I’m very proud of this description—they called us “Pulp Nonfiction.” I like that, because I do feel that, while we will take some liberties with time and composites of people involved in the story who might have a problem with how they are depicted, we’ve been pretty conservative about the degree to which we will change the story. They are the story; the events happened. Sometimes events will happen in a compressed period of time, but for the most part, we will try to remain very true to the facts, because authenticity is such an important part of our show.
TV DRAMA: When you portray someone who lived in real life, do you need their approval?
NEWMAN: No, you do not. If it’s been reported in any of the major publications, and obviously all of these characters have been reported on extensively, you are free to depict them. There are fair-use laws that protect them and they are very important laws. There was recently a trial where Olivia de Havilland sued Fox and the makers of [the FX series] Feud: Bette and Joan to try to protect her reputation, because she felt that things they had said damaged her, and it was a subjective conclusion to be drawn. She didn’t like what the show said, so she sued. Had she won, it would have meant problems not just for us, but for everyone. But thankfully, once you are a public figure and have achieved a certain level of notoriety, provided we’re not inventing things that make you seem worse than you were, we have a license to depict them fairly honestly. [At press time, de Havilland is filing a writ to take the case to the Supreme Court.]
TV DRAMA: How much input did the DEA agents have in crafting their characters and the story?
NEWMAN: We relied on the DEA and a lot on [the agents] Javier Peña and Steve Murphy. They offered an insight into the story that had not been widely reported in the kind of detail that we were looking for. They were very involved, just as in season three, Chris Feistl, who was the DEA agent in charge of the Cali operation, was very involved. This season we have new DEA agents, because we have moved to Mexico, and they are very involved. In fact, we’ve tried to build in a visit each season for the DEA guys to come to the set and walk around the office that we have built for them and live in the story that we are telling. It’s a remarkable thing to witness, because it brings back a lot of memories for them.
TV DRAMA: Have there been security issues or dangers in the locations in Colombia and Mexico?
NEWMAN: No, I’ve never felt in any danger. We had a tragedy [a crew member was found dead in Mexico] at the beginning of the season this year that had nothing to do with the show. It was a random crime that this poor man stumbled into. We’ve never had a threat against the show. We’ve never attracted any undue or unwanted attention. I feel our depiction of the traffickers and the men and women who are pursuing the traffickers is pretty balanced. I don’t think that we’re taking one side or the other. Obviously, we believe that drug trafficking is wrong, but so are many of the methods and means by which drug dealers and drug users are chased and prosecuted. We tend to be pretty balanced.
TV DRAMA: A word about the cast—where did you get such talented actors?
NEWMAN: They are the greatest! We’ve been a great combination of good and lucky. We always—as I always have in my career—would take a great actor over someone who looks the part. We were very fortunate to introduce Wagner Moura hopefully to a wider audience. He’s a giant star in Brazil, but outside of Brazil he was known in certain circles, but he’s just a spectacular actor. Spanish was not his first language. Early on we received some criticism for that, but once people watched the show and fell in love with the character he created, that ended. Pedro Pascal, Boyd Holbrook, the characters in season two [were part of an] amazing multinational [cast]. We’ve had Chileans, Argentineans, Colombians, Mexicans, Spaniards, and that has been fun. In season three, because the Cali godfathers were a foursome, we had Alberto Ammann, Damián Alcázar, Pêpê Rapazote and Francisco Denis as this amazing foursome who were all great. Yeah, our cast is pretty spectacular!
TV DRAMA: It’s wonderful how the show reinvented itself for season three, and I imagine it will again for season four.
NEWMAN: It’s really hard, because we always have to restart. I envy those shows where everybody comes back and they do roughly the same thing they did last year. I have to come up with not only a new storyline and a new set of characters, but a different tone and sensibility. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I love it!
TV DRAMA: Season four will go back in time?
NEWMAN: Yes, it goes back in time and takes place in Mexico [and traces the roots] of how the drug war started, so the common ground is cocaine.
TV DRAMA: That’s the star of the show, right?
NEWMAN: Yes, cocaine is the star of the show, and that was always the intention. It was never about one guy.
TV DRAMA: Did the DEA agents have a problem with showing the human side of Escobar?
NEWMAN: To be honest, I think they missed the human side of it. Law-enforcement members, for the most part, are short on subtlety. They view the world—because they have to—in black and white. There are bad guys and good guys. One of the things that works very well on Narcos is that you can watch the show and root for the good guys and be happy when Escobar ends up dead on a rooftop at the end of season two. Or you can be happy when all the Cali guys go to jail. Or you can watch it and find the Pyrrhic victory in it and the tragedy, which is how I choose to look at it.
TV DRAMA: How did you decide on the voice-over narration, and how does it help you?
NEWMAN: It came about for a number of reasons. In the very beginning, we worried about there being too much Spanish and [we wanted] to have a little bit of English here and there that we could throw in because, to be honest, I never thought it would work so well in the Spanish-speaking world. We knew it would work in the English-speaking world, and we knew it would work in the Portuguese-speaking world in Brazil because of Wagner. So we were surprised not only that it has performed so well in Latin American countries but also that people are willing to disengage from their phones long enough to read subtitles, which was always a concern. So it started off as a preemptive countermeasure against people who would say, Ah, it’s too much Spanish; I don’t want to watch it. What it offered us as we went along was an unvarnished inner monologue of the American fairly primitive psyche of the war on drugs, the simplicity of it. If these brown people in Latin America are sending us cocaine, let’s go get them; let’s go fix them. That was the attitude of Boyd Holbrook’s character, Steve Murphy. By season three, it had shifted to the point of view of Javier Peña [played by Pedro Pascal], who knew a lot more but not as much as he thought, because similarly, he believed that there are good guys and bad guys, and even though it’s more complicated, I’m still a good guy—and yet, he discovers, not. It was an interesting way not only to get inside the head of the character and help the story, but to also get inside the very uniquely American point of view that has led us here, which is, frankly, born of ignorance and racism and something that we are encountering more now than ever, which is willful ignorance, where it is OK not to know anything.
TV DRAMA: What has this experience meant for you personally and professionally?
NEWMAN: I was a movie producer for a long time. It’s been a very strange left turn for me, but it’s been the most rewarding and enjoyable professional experience of my life, because I work with people that I love in two places that I have come to love, doing something that I am fascinated by. It’s sort of the perfect job for me.
TV DRAMA: And television allows you to explore characters in ways film doesn’t.
NEWMAN: In ten hours. And in the case of Pablo Escobar, you can take a character that you should hate and find reasons to love him. In two hours [in a movie], you’ve got a guy who blows up an airplane and kills a bunch of innocent people and he’s only a bad guy. I love James Bond, but the James Bond villain is just a villain, it’s not, Oh, I understand that he’s driven by [this or that]. No, you can’t do that in a two-hour movie. But in 20, 30, 40 hours, you can come to understand these people and find human qualities to them.