'Narcos' Creator Chris Brancato On Making Amoral Characters Likable, Criticism, And Hollywood Turning Woke

"During the research for Narcos, we found out stuff that couldn't be possibly recreated on TV"

Narcos, the Netflix show that chronicled the rise and eventual fall of narcoterrorist Pablo Escobar, is arguably one of the most compelling shows to be produced by the streaming studio.

Unfurling with the gritty realism associated largely with true-crime documentary films, Narcos earned several nominations at the Golden Globes, the Emmy, and the BAFTA awards with its charismatic lead, Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, winning acclaim for depicting a terrifyingly accurate portrait of the dreaded drug-lord.

While the show, now in its 3rd season, has outlived Escobar and has moved on to chronicle stories of different cartels, its claim to internet fame remains rooted in the seemingly unimaginable crimes of the Colombian kingpin.

One of Narcos' creators (Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro are the others), Chris Brancato, flew down to Mumbai to give a crash course in penning television screenplay to a bunch of writers who are working on original programming for Jio's (a network operator owned by Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani) streaming platform.

Former Disney India CEO, Siddharth Roy Kapoor's production house, Roy Kapoor films, which has partnered with Jio to produce original content, enabled Brancato's visit where he mentored in-house writers as they foray into digital TV, a concept still in the nascent stage in India.

Brancato, a TV veteran, has previously written shows such as the wildly popular Beverly Hills 90210, The X-Files, Hannibal and now Narcos.

He sat down with HuffPost India to talk about the current state of television and Hollywood.

Excerpts from the interview:

In your career, you've covered the entire spectrum of TV - from network television to helming shows for streaming giants. What are some of the core differences between legacy TV and, well, millennial TV that's consumed largely online?

None. The fundamental idea remains the same -- to tell a great story in the best way possible, a story that builds to a climax and makes you want to watch. However, there are quite a few differences if you go into the nitty-gritty. For example, you can't use cuss words on network TV. While you can show a character shooting somebody's head off, you can't show the side of a woman's breast. And then the biggest challenge of all -- commercial breaks. So in a way, it was extremely freeing to do a show like Narcos, where we could go the whole hog and where our storytelling wasn't interrupted by ads.

You had the liberty to generously use Spanish dialogue in Narcos, something that'd be unimaginable on network/cable TV.

Oh yeah. But to give you context, I would write all the dialogue in English and then give it to a translator, who'd then translate the lines in Spanish. I was very cautious in ensuring that the translation didn't lose cultural nuance as that'd defeat the purpose. So when a character says 'F**k you,' in Spanish, it translated to 'Go s**k a rooster,' which is the relevant abuse there.

Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in Netflix's 'Narcos'
Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in Netflix's 'Narcos'

What I feel the streaming giants/millennial TV has also enabled is the mainstreaming of morally-ambiguous characters. For the longest time, American TV was just obsessed with telling stories of morally-upright characters such as lawyers, doctors, cops, who'd ultimately go and do the 'right' thing despite being in a tough spot...

...And you know why that was? Because that gave them the stories which could span, say, 22 episodes per season. If you wanted to show flawed characters on TV, you had to give them jobs that helped them redeem themselves, which is where, like you said, the doctors, lawyers, cops came in -- people who were literally saving lives.

What happened then was that the character remained the same, but it allowed writers to come up with several subplots to play with. It helped build a franchise. And people love that -- who wants to come home and watch a show that is all dark? Ultimately, there has to be some aspirational value to your show, something that helps the viewer escape their reality. The darker the show, the smaller its viewership.

A still from 'Mindhunter'
A still from 'Mindhunter'

But does that still hold anymore? If that were a paradigm, it's definitely shifting. I am currently binging on Mindhunter, a show that makes me very uncomfortable... one of the best shows of 2017 - Big Little Lies - wasn't an easy show to watch. So I think people do respond to themes that are darker, edgier as it allows them to viscerally experience a complex situation.

Well, Mindhunter is also a show by someone like David Fincher, who commands a huge following...

...and Narcos itself. As a writer, how do you go about approaching a character like Pablo Escobar? A few episodes down, I found myself drawn towards him, almost rooting for him. And that thought made me deeply uncomfortable. That has to be a function of writing as you're creating a primarily corrupt character and humanizing him.

You know what, when I met Wagner Moura (the actor who plays Escobar), I found him so immensely likable. He didn't have the moustache so he didn't look like Escobar but there was this charm about him. And I immediately began thinking -- people are going to like him. And we did add scenes that humanised him, like the part where he's ordering killings on the phone, but also playing with his child at the same time. But a lot has to do with what Wagner is able to create -- it's all him. And maybe a little bit of the writing (Smiles).

How do you prevent yourself from romanticizing a character that is essentially deplorable?

See, we need to have the freedom of expression to tell a story the way we deem right. Having said that, you can see that we don't necessarily glamorize the cartel or its operations. As you have seen, none of this ends well for any of those guys.

In fact, we met with the Colombian President before filming the show. His Minister of Culture hated the idea that we were coming to their country and making a show about drugs. She was like, "Oh, no, not again," as they feared that the show would perpetuate an existing stereotype about that part of the world.

The President only said one thing to us, that the show recognize the fact that Colombia has gone clean and all the cartels have either gone bust, are dead, or in jail. And I think the show reflected that.

The show was criticized for excessive use of voice-over, something that's considered a convenient narrative device. Was it the criticism that made the makers use it less and less in the third season?

When I was doing those (the VO), I did feel the same way. I even looked up online for different ways of doing it. And then I stumbled upon a Goodfellas blog, which justified the use of voice-over. So, I felt, if the source material is strong enough, people won't mind it. It'll instead help the narrative and engage the audience. Our source-material is almost journalistic, so it becomes an effective tool of story-telling. In fact, there were things we ended up discovering while researching for the show which we couldn't even use in voice-overs.

The location-scout of Narcos, Carlos Muñoz Portal, was shot dead near San Bartolo Actopan area in Central Mexico. Escobar's brother, in the past, has threatened to sue Netflix for $1 billion if Escobar Inc. isn't paid for the rights of his brother's life. He also said that the crew should use hitmen as security. How serious are all these threats?

Firstly, I believe Portal's murder was unconnected. He had gone off to an area notorious for crime. In that specific place, there are a lot of criminals who steal gas from the pipeline. Portal was taking pictures and they mistook him for a journalist or something. It was deeply unfortunate. But I don't think it's got anything to do with him scouting locations for Narcos. We continue to shoot in Mexico City. Secondly, I do not think Escobar's brother has really got a case to come after us.

Pedro Pascal in a still from the Season 3 of 'Narcos'
Pedro Pascal in a still from the Season 3 of 'Narcos'

There's a reckoning in Hollywood as more and more women come forward to share stories of sexual abuse and men are finally facing the consequences they should have a long time back. Personally, as show-runner, how do you ensure the safety of women on your set?

You know, when the Weinstein broke, I was quite shocked. And subsequently, it made me think about the severity of it as I hadn't seen it happen around me. I hadn't seen it at all. I had heard stories about the existence of casting couch, done by random people on the fringe, but not this. It didn't sound like the Hollywood I knew. It's disturbing and it is cutting across all cultures and businesses. It'll hit Bollywood. Not now, but eventually it will. The stories that we are hearing in the US are about men who are seriously f***d up. It is beyond casting couch. It's a power trip. It's anger. It's a whole lot of other issues rooted in misogyny. It's almost asexual. Personally, on my set, I haven't had any complaints. I am not policing it myself but at all points, somebody surely is.

Do you recall any stories where you did feel something was amiss?

Early in my career, I was an assistant to Warren Beatty on a movie called Ishtar, a notorious failure of a movie. Around the time, I would see James Toback (another filmmaker who as many as 38 women have accused of sexually harassing them) who would go on the streets, talk to pretty girls, and show off his pay-stub from Fox, that said he was the director of The Pick-Up Artist, a film featuring Robert Downey Jr.

We would think, what a loser, who even does that? But what he was doing was actually asking them to come over to his hotel room by using his position as director. We didn't know that then. We just thought Jimmy is just being Jimmy. But it's only now the true extent of that has come out. And that's great. I

It's an interesting time for Hollywood as it'll lead to a closer examination of all our heroes.

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