By Iain Blair
Much like the drugs that form the dark heart of Narcos: Mexico, the hit Netflix crime drama is full of danger, chills and thrills — and is highly addictive. It explores the origins of the modern, ultra-violent drug war by going back to its roots, beginning at a time when the Mexican trafficking world was a loose and disorganized confederation of independent growers and dealers. But that all changed with the rise of the Guadalajara Cartel in the 1980s as Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna) — the real-life former Sinaloan police-officer-turned-drug lord — takes the helm, unifying traffickers in order to build an empire.
The show also follows DEA agent Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), who moves his wife and young son from California to Guadalajara to take on a new post. He quickly learns that his assignment will be more challenging than he ever could have imagined. As Kiki garners intelligence on Félix and becomes more entangled in his mission, a tragic chain of events unfold, affecting the drug trade and the war against it for years to come.
Narcos showrunner, writer and executive producer Eric Newman is a film and television veteran whose resume includes the Academy Award-nominated Children of Men, as well as The Dawn of the Dead, The Last Exorcism and Bright. After over 20 years in the movie industry, Newman transitioned into television as an executive producer on Hemlock Grove for Netflix. It was his curiosity about the international drug trade that led him to develop and executive produce his passion project Narcos, and Newman assumed showrunning responsibilities at the end of its first season. Narcos: Mexico initially started out as the fourth season of Narcos before Netflix decided to make it a stand-alone series.
I recently spoke with Newman about making the show, his involvement in post and another war that’s grabbed a lot of headlines — the one between streaming platforms and traditional cinema.
Do you like being a showrunner?
Yeah! There are aspects of it I really love. I began toward the end of the first season and there was this brief period where I tried not to be the showrunner, even though it was my show. I wasn’t really a writer — I wasn’t in the WGA — so I had a lot of collaborators, but I still felt alone in the driver’s seat. It’s a huge amount of work, from the writing to the shoot and then post, and it never really ends. It’s exhausting but incredibly rewarding.
What are the big challenges of running this show?
If I’d known more about TV at the time, I might have been far more frightened than I was (laughs).The big one is dealing with all the people and personalities involved. We have anywhere between 200 and 400 people working on the show at any given time, so it’s tricky. But I love working with actors, I think I’m a good listener, and any major problems are usually human-oriented. And then there’s all the logistics and moving parts. We began the series shooting in Colombia and then moved the whole thing to Mexico, so that was a big challenge. But the cast and crew are so great, we’re like a big family at this point, and it runs pretty smoothly now.
How far along are you with the second season of Narcos: Mexico?
We’re well into it, and while it’s called Season Two, the reality for us is that it’s the fifth season of a long, hard slog.
This show obviously deals with a lot of locations. How difficult is it when you shoot in Mexico?
It can be hard and grueling. We’re shooting entirely in Mexico — nothing in the States. We shot in Colombia for three years and we went to Panama once, and now we’re all over Mexico — from Mexico City to Jalisco, Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara, Durango and so on.
It’s also very dangerous subject matter, and one of your location scouts was murdered. Do you worry about your safety?
That was a terrible incident, and I’m not sure whoever shot him even knew he was a location scout on our show. The reality is that a number of incredibly brave journalists, who had nowhere near the protection we have, had already shared these stories — and many were killed for it. So in many ways we’re late to the party.
Of course, you have to be careful anywhere you go, but that’s true of every city. You can find trouble in LA or New York if you are in the wrong place. I don’t worry about the traffickers we depict, as they’re mainly all dead now or in jail, and they seem OK with the way they’re depicted… that it’s pretty truthful. I worry a little bit more about the police and politicians.
Where do you post and do you like the post process?
I absolutely love post, and I think it’s a deeply underrated and under-appreciated aspect of the show. We’ve pulled off far more miracles in post than in any of the writing and shooting. We do all the post at Lantana in LA with the same great team that we’ve had from the start, including post producer Tim King and associate post producer Tanner King.
When we began the series in Colombia, we were told that Netflix didn’t feel comfortable having the footage down there for editing because of piracy issues, and that worked for me. I like coming back to edit and then going back down to Mexico to shoot. We shoot two episodes at a time and cut two at a time. I’m in the middle of doing fixes on Episode 2 and we’re about to lock Episode 3.
Talk about editing. You have several editors, I assume because of the time factor. How does that work?
We have four full-time editors — Iain Erskine, Garret Donnelly, Monty DeGraff and Jon Otazua — who each take separate episodes, plus we have one editor dedicated to the archival package, which is a big part of the show. We’ve also promoted two assistant editors, which I’m very proud of. That’s a nice part of being on a show that’s run for five years; you can watch people grow and move them up the ladder.
You have a huge cast and a lot of moving pieces in each episode. What are the big editing challenges?
We have a fair amount of coverage to sort through, and it’s always about telling the story and the pacing — finding the right rhythm for each scene.
This show has a great score and great sound design. Where do you mix, and can you talk about the importance of sound and music?
We do all the mixing at Technicolor, and we have a great team that includes supervising sound editor Randle Akerson and supervising ADR editor Thomas Whiting. (The team also includes sound effects editors Dino R. DiMuro and Troy Prehmus, dialogue editor David Padilla, music editor Chris Tergesen, re-recording mixers Pete Elia and Kevin Roache and ADR mixer Judah Getz.)
It’s all so crucial. All you have to do is look at a rough edit without any sound of music and it’s just so depressing. I come from a family of composers, so I really appreciate this part of post, and composer Gustavo Santaolalla has done a fantastic job, and the music’s changed a bit since we moved to Mexico. I’m fairly involved with all of it. I get a final playback and maybe I’ll have a few notes, but generally the team has got it right.
In 2017, you formed Screen Arcade with producer Bryan Unkeless, a production company based at Netflix with deals for features and television. I heard you have a new movie you’re producing for Netflix, PWR with Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt?
It’s all shot, and we’re just headed into the Director’s Cut. We’re posting in New York and have our editorial offices there. Netflix is so great to partner with. They care as much about the quality of image and sound as any studio I’ve ever worked with — and I’ve worked with everyone. In terms of the whole process and deliverables, there’s no difference.
It’s interesting because there’s been a lot of pushback against Netflix and other streaming platforms from the studios, purists and directors like Steven Spielberg. Where do you see the war for cinema’s future going?
I think it’ll be driven entirely by audience viewing habits, as it should be. Some of my all-time favorite movies — The Bridge on the River Kwai, Taxi Driver, Sunset Boulevard, Barry Lyndon — weren’t viewed in a movie house.
Cinema exhibition is a business. They want Black Panther and Star Wars, so it’s a commerce argument not a creative one. With all due respect to Spielberg, no one can dictate viewing habits, and maybe for now they can deny Netflix and streaming platforms Academy awards, but not forever.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.