This summer, we’ve been treated to the usual rush of Marvel comic movies, the controversial reboot of the classic Ghostbusters with an all-female cast, along with the standard sprinkling of sequels chronicling the lives of extinct animals or pets. In this mix is an unusual war-on-drugs movie, The Infiltrator, set in Miami, and starring the inimitable Bryan Cranston. With this film, director Brad Furman (The Take, The Lincoln Lawyer) decided to take a chance on a first-time screenwriter — his mother, Ellen Brown Furman — a former Philadelphia lawyer, award-winning short story writer and my long-time friend.
Based on a true story, the film follows the exploits of U.S. Customs agent Bob Mazur (Bryan Cranston) who infiltrates Pablo Escobar’s violent world of drug trafficking in 1985 by posing as a slick money launderer named Bob Musella. Mazur teams with street-smart agent Emir Ebreu (John Leguizamo) and first-time undercover agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger). Navigating a world of illicit drugs, crooked bankers and vicious drug kingpins, Mazur builds a case that ultimately leads to the indictments of 85 drug lords and bankers, as well as the collapse of the seventh largest private bank in the world.
Here is an excerpt of my interview with Ellen Brown Furman:
Garnet News: What attracted you to Bob Mazur’s story?
EBF: When I read about Bob’s infiltration of the Medellin Cartel as he helped them to launder their dirty money at the risk of his life and that of his wife and two young children, I asked myself, who would ever do this? That question made me want to write the movie. It was a challenge to try to understand what motivates a person to risk death at every turn, to lie constantly, to become someone who he is not. Isn’t a desk job enough? At least you get to go home for dinner. But for some, danger is a drug. Becoming a criminal when you’re really a law-abiding citizen working for the government is as fascinating a subject as I could find.
Garnet News: Tell us about your writing method, the switch between writing a short story and screenplay.
EBF: I love the short story form and wish more people would read them. They are precious nuggets of tight story. I am fascinated by the way people interact, what they say and what they don’t. Screenplays combine the two, tight story and dialogue. I think the short story is the perfect length, with the right amount of characterization and plot, to springboard into a film. Several of the scripts I’ve written have been developed from my short stories.
Garnet News: How did you develop the female characters, Ev and Kathy in the movie, as well as Tischler? Did you meet them prior to writing the screenplay?
EBF: The female characters in The Infiltrator were delicious to write. Bob Mazur goes undercover, and because he doesn’t want to cheat on his wife, he tells the Cartel members he has a fiancée. Enter Kathy Ertz. She was a young, pretty agent volunteering for her first assignment. A typical Hollywood rendering of a character like hers might have her screw up first and then grow into the job. But that’s not how I saw Kathy.
Ironically, I didn’t meet Kathy before writing her role. I felt like I knew her. I felt she was born to be undercover, to make up stories about her past and win the hearts of the bad guys. Why couldn’t she be as amazing as some of the women I knew? So I did that. It turns out the real Kathy was exactly like I imagined her!
Ev Mazur, Bob’s wife, was a little harder to write. I wanted to avoid the stereotype of the woman who waits home for her man. Ev is a strong woman. Her children came first. But she was never wallpaper or window dressing.
Bob Mazur’s boss was Bonni Tischler. She was no-nonsense, a woman who carried a gun. She was tough talking and fun to write. I admire strong women, and her gutter language was so refreshing. “Move it piss ant” has turned out to be one of the funniest lines in the film.
Garnet News: How was the writing process, since this was developed from a memoir?
EBF: Actually, it’s like reading an article as a starting point and then fleshing it out and creating a believable world, most of which I gleaned from meeting Bob. I had to learn what made Bob Mazur tick. It took time to earn his trust, to learn that he loved being his alter ego, Robert Musella. He loved it… risking it all for a higher goal.
I specifically didn’t want to meet the real women because I had already built up an image of each female and made them believable and real in my mind
Garnet News: How was Bryan Cranston to work with? How did you develop this character?
EBF: Bryan is a brilliant actor. He took character texture and embellished it. Playing an everyman can be boring, mundane, but watching Bryan make the subtle switch from family man to money launderer for the Mob is like watching an artist paint. Until the painting is finished, you can’t take your eyes off the canvas, that’s Bryan.
Garnet News: It’s hard to believe it, but the common wisdom in Hollywood still says women can’t write these types of movies. What was your experience?
EBF: I was tired of the usual testosterone-fueled action films and wanted to see relationships between men and women that felt real even though they were living fake lives while undercover. I also wanted to explore the strain these real relationships suffered under this constant stress.
Funny story about the female roles. Bob Mazur had an uncle with Mob connections, and I originally wrote Uncle Vic as someone Bob could present to the Medellin Cartel as a wealthy man with access to ways to launder their drug money. But my son had the idea to turn stereotypes on their head—suggesting we make Uncle Vic, Aunt Vicky. What a great idea! We exchanged “him” for “her” in a London hotel room a few weeks before shooting. It was a kick.
Then, I took Aunt Vicky over the top, making her a rich widowed Mob boss who had taken over her dead husband’s illegal enterprises. At a critical juncture, she urges, Mazur to be “Bobby Somebody.”
Who else could play her, I thought, other than Academy Award-winner Olympia Dukakis (Moonstruck)? She’s absolutely superb in her two scenes. I love her.
We actually shot the scene in which Mazur brings his aunt to meet the largest cocaine distributor (played by a positively suave Benjamin Bratt) to Central Park in a small London park. It had rained all morning but the scene needed to be shot. The moment it cleared, filming started. Olympia is a pro and her rendition of Aunt Vicky is outrageous fun, despite the weather, the location (my son is a stickler for authenticity) and the dull London sun. I laugh every time I see Olympia.
I know that my son has learned from me that women can do whatever men can. In this case, even better.
Garnet News: This is the first time, I know, that a mother and son have worked on a mainstream film as screenwriter and director. Tell us about that.
EBF: It was like parenting. Only sometimes Brad was the parent, and I was the child. As director, my son carried the weight of the film on his shoulders. I felt the pressure he was under and wanted to deliver a script that was of use to him, that could tell the full story.
He took a risk using me as the writer. It could have gone very wrong, and he would have suffered the criticism of nepotism, Mama’s boy, and all that. The producer, Miriam Segal, of Good Films, also took a chance on me. What if she had to fire the writer? After all, the director was his mother! But the collaboration worked out well, didn’t it?
My son and I work best together when we are in a quiet room — I prefer morning but he likes late night — and we work on my laptop, talk, write, then rewrite. He doesn’t hesitate to tell me when my dialogue is ‘corny,’ and I stop him when he’s off on a tangent with a scene. We have to trust each other. And we usually do. With other producers, it’s more about “Give me what I want.” Working with my son is the closest I will get to having an impact on the filmmaking process, when the story goes from script to screen.
Garnet News: What next?
EBF: I’m working on a screenplay, “Can I Be Honest,” about women, friendship and honesty.
The Infiltrator, starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Kruger, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt and Amy Ryan is currently playing in theaters worldwide.
Madhushree Ghosh works in cancer diagnostics in San Diego, California. Her writing has been published Origins Literary Journal, Le Sirenuse Journal, Del Sol Review, D&O magazine and others. She was also a finalist in Zoetrope and Glimmer Train writing contests. An Oakley Hall scholar, Madhushree’s award-winning plays have been performed at San Diego Actors Alliance festivals. She is currently working on an essay collection, “Chittaranjan Park Tales” and her memoir, “214 Days of Silence.”