Eric Newman: "The war on drugs is never really near an end"

by Gabriel Lerman February 14, 2020
Showrunner Eric Newman

rachel murray/getty images

He was one of the madmen who pitched Narcos to Netflix, a show about Pablo Escobar with a Brazilian actor playing him, mostly on Spanish but with an American point of view. As we all know, it was a huge success, nominated in its first season for a Golden Globe as Best Television Drama and one as Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Drama for Wagner Moura. The show was also a launching pad for Pedro Pascal and Boyd Holbrook to become movie stars and continued for four more seasons, moving from Colombia to Mexico after the third, when Diego Luna and Michael Peña became the main characters. In the fifth season of the show now named Narcos Mexico, Diego Luna is still the main figure, while up and coming Scoot McNairy is the DEA agent who arrives in Mexico to seek revenge for the killing of Kiki Camarena (Peña). We sat down with Eric Newman, Narco’s showrunner from the second season on and producer of films like Children of Men, Robocop and Dawn of the Dead, to talk about his incredible journey through Latin America in search of the truth about the war on drugs.

Now that you have finished the fifth season of Narcos, how surprised are you about what you have achieved through these five seasons? 

I am surprised certainly, but I am also horrified that this drug war has gone on for so long. It has created so many villains and victims and I suppose the thing that I always come back to, which is very much in the theme of the show, is that we are getting nowhere.  It’s a very good question and I think it really speaks to the circular nature of this endeavor that we call the war on drugs, it never really nears an end, it just continues.  And I think that is something that I always find shocking when I contemplate it and yet it also makes perfect sense when I look at how we are waging this war.

Do you think that some kid that is maybe on the wrong path will change his mind after watching the show? 

I think so, I hope so.  (laughter)

Because as you say, everything ends badly.

Everything ends badly.  I think that in the early days, people wondered if we were glorifying drug dealers and I think it’s actually impossible.  If you are paying attention to the show, I think it’s impossible to say that.  And this season more than any other, I don’t think there’s anybody with aspirations about being Felix Gallardo anymore.  I don’t think anyone would want to be Felix Gallardo, in the same way, that I don’t think anyone would want to be Pablo Escobar in Season Two of Narcos.  The ending is always the same, it just depends on how bloody it is.  But it ends in defeat.

It seems that for the past five years, your life was Latin America.  Can you tell me why you were fascinated by this subject and how has your life changed since you started the show? 

That’s a great question.  I was always interested in Latin America. I grew up in California. I had a very casual relationship with Mexico, given its proximity.  I knew very little about Colombia, except I have always been fascinated by and very critical of American foreign policy, particularly in Latin America.  I think that we have done some horrible things in that part of the world and we’ve elevated people who don’t deserve to be elevated. We have done these things under misguided campaigns against communism or whatever else we choose to identify as a threat of us.  So I approach Latin America through the lens of a critic of American foreign policy.  And eventually what happened in my research, is that it leads you to this intersection of drugs, money, politics, military intervention, and America.  Given that we are doing the majority of the meddling in that part of the world, we also, and we tend to forget this, we are the largest market for illegal drugs in the world.  And it’s uniquely American to fail to take responsibility for something and to look at a military or law enforcement solution to something that is, in America, a healthcare crisis which is pretty consistent with how we view the world.  And I think that where that intersection is, and for me, the damage that it does to Colombia and Mexico continues to do in Mexico, is a problem born of our making.  I have been very fortunate to live and work for 3 years in Bogota and Colombia and now in Mexico, to be able to spend the time that I spent and to get to know the people.  There’s a lot of talk about globalization generally as an economic happening.  Usually, when they talk about globalization, they are talking about sort of the trade agreements.  And as you know NAFTA is a big part of this season.  But what I really experienced in the making of this show, is a globalization of ideas and getting to know people and what they really think about their Government and our Government.  And I have got to say in a world where there seems to be so much polarization, particularly in the media on both sides, to know that people still have the same wants, needs, cares, it’s actually been inspiring and very hopeful. 

Something that is very interesting about your show is that it’s like the non-official history of Latin America in a way.  There is a lot of work to find this history that is not in the official books.   Can you talk about finding out what happened in telling this different history?

Well you know I was very inspired when I was a kid by two books that offered sort of a new approach to American history, one is The People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, which talked about, there’s history and there’s the truth and they are not often the same thing.  In fact, if you are a believer as I am that history is written by the victors, there is always a friendly narrative towards the guys who won, the guys who conquered, it’s always that way.  And then there was a book by Alan Moore called Brought to Light, Alan Moore of Watchmen and Swamp Thing. He’s spectacular, I suppose he is a graphic novelist.  He did a two-volume book called Brought to Light, about the CIA and drug smuggling and arms deals in Latin America,. This was in the late 80s that I read this book or maybe early 90s.  And so I have always sought out, to the best of my ability, in any history, the truth.  And I think that me and the team, all of whom have been with me since the beginning, what we do is we seek out, okay here’s what this guy is saying, here’s what this person is saying, but here’s what we believe the truth to be.  And sometimes we have to dig deeper than other times, sometimes it becomes immediately apparent, and other times it takes a while to dig it up.  But that’s what’s been so fun about this job. It’s an incredibly hard job being a showrunner because it is brutal, it is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week under harsh delivery deadlines and just the management of all the personalities. But the thing that allows me to do it is the thing that you are talking about, which is this, being able to search for some truth. I love that part of it.  I love the research, I love being able to examine things that we take for granted and we come to believe are true and then learn they are not true.  And I love that about our show and I’m glad that that comes across.

Sometimes is the other way around.  When I saw the scene of the Salinas de Gortari brothers as children I thought you guys went mad and then I found out it turned out to be absolutely true. 

It happened.  I call it the Wikipedia factor on our show, where you see something, you hit pause, hopefully, you wait until the episode is over, but say you don’t, you hit pause, you go to your computer, you go to Wikipedia, and you can’t believe that the Salinas Brothers killed their housekeeper or that Pablo Escobar blew up an airplane. For the most part, the events are all true and real and they all happened.  And sometimes we take some liberties with where the timeline, but we are pretty much spot on when it comes to stuff like that.  So I mean they are sort of amazing things like the Salinas Brothers accident, truly amazing.  Another thing that was great about this season was, while we were doing it, we watched 1994, the amazing documentary about the Colosio campaign and his assassination.  So it kind of lent this, oh yeah this stuff is all real, this is all happening and here we are 30 years later and people are just getting to the bottom of it.  It’s spectacular sort of phenomenal tricks these guys pulled that they are only now, outside of Mexico being exposed for what they were.

When the show first started, you guys were in the hot seat about hiring Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar, but you proved critics wrong.  You are also giving a lot of opportunities to amazing actors that the world audience has never seen them work so much as they do in your show.   And you went out of your way, hiring actors like Ernesto Alterio from Spain or Matias Varela from Sweden.

I am a fan of movies and television.  And to have seen Gueros and to be able to say there’s this guy Tenoch Huerta, who I would love to put in the show or to have Joaquin Cossio in the show or Diego Luna who I have been a fan of for a long time and he’s a more well-known guy, but there are so many people for us as a fan of the film of all cultures, of all countries, I was making something in the Middle East, I would love to be able to go cast some of these amazing actors from the region.  I love global cinema and global television and so that is another part of the show that is so fun, to be able to go and do this.

How complicated is it to film in Colombia first and Mexico now?

It is a complicated proposition of course, but in execution, it was quite easy.  We had the right people, the Colombian crews and the Mexican crews are spectacular, I would say the fear and the anticipation of problems far outweighed the actual problems we had, it continues, Colombia was an amazing place to work and Mexico continues to be an amazing place to work.

How far do you think the show can go? 

Unfortunately, the drug war is going to continue for a long time, with no sign of stopping, so there’s no shortage of material.  We are looking, we are always thinking ahead, where does this story go, the Chapo story is an exciting one.  But again, like everything else we’ve learned, the story that we are told is in my opinion, not the actual story.  There’s a lot more to the Chapo story than I think anyone knows. 

Do you see yourself being in Latin America for a while?

Yes, I would very much like that and I do see myself continuing to swim in this pond, as long as they will let me.