In "The Infiltrator," Bryan Cranston plays Robert Mazur, an undercover agent for U.S. Customs who infiltrates a money laundering network run by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
The investigation requires Mazur to befriend some powerful and dangerous people, whose trust he has to betray. The film co-stars Amy Ryan, Diane Kruger and John Leguizamo.
"The Infiltrator" is directed by Brad Furman and the screenplay was written by his mother, Ellen Brown Furman, based on Mazur’s book.
Ellen worked for years as a trial lawyer until she changed careers and became a fiction writer. She perviously dabbled in screenwriting, but nothing ever made it into production. Until now.
Mother-and-son came to The Frame studio to chat with host John Horn.
Ellen, how did you get the job as the screenwriter for "The Infiltrator"?
Ellen: Brad called me and said, You know, this is a book about a very complicated money laundering thing. I have a law background so basically what happened was, he said, Come up and pitch for this movie. You're not going to get it, but it'll be really good experience for you. So I went up and pitched for it. It was a very fun and friendly pitch and then the producer, Miriam Segal, took me out to lunch and later I think she read some of my work. It was a crazy process, but I got the job.
Brad, why did you think your mom, even if she wasn't in your mind likely to get the job, was still a good candidate?
Brad: Don Sikorski, who I went to college and played basketball with at New York University, brought me the book. When we were on the hunt for writers, we had read 50 to 100 scripts. None really met the bar. When we narrowed it to a handful of filmmakers, Don said to me, I think we should hire your mom. My response was, You're crazy and we'll never be able to get her the job. She's never been hired professionally and she's a great literary writer, but that's never happening. I probably tried to soften the blow, saying it's a long shot or you're probably not going to get it, but she was the best writer and she was the one who after years of education and years of life experience, her law background — all of those elements I think brought a different point of view to the material. It was not about mother and son ultimately, it was about really what's best for the movie. The tricky part is, as I've tried to explain to people, my mom can't turn off the mom button. She's always my mom.
No moms can!
Brad: So when I would say to her, You're not my mom, you're the screenwriter, you have to understand that, she would look at me half-sideways. But, in truth, that distinction was a very challenging climb for us because I needed a screenwriter. I didn't need my mom.
I assume, Ellen [would say,] You're not the director you're my son?
Brad: I did get that response a few times.
Any movie set, the relationship between the director and the screenwriter is going to have a lot of spirited conversations and arguments about scenes that should come in and scenes that should go out. How does the dynamic of being mother and son change that conversation?
Ellen: I think it's good and it has its drawbacks. It's really good because we can say anything to each other and express ourselves in a way that won't interfere with working hard to get the best product. So there's an honesty there between the two of us. It's the role reversal. He's the boss and at times I have to understand that's where I have to shut my mouth, but lots of times I have problems with that. So it's more of an issue with me than it is with Brad.
Brad: That is ultimately what was a problem at times because it is a director's medium. That doesn't mean I'm undermining the screenwriter and it doesn't mean that the screenwriting isn't important. From this vantage point, my mother never had the experience of translating script to screen.
You've been writing but never had anything produced.
Ellen: No, I never had that.
Brad: I actually believe that the education that comes along with watching the material be adapted is invaluable. A lot of my arguments from time-to-time were, You're writing great things, but this won't translate. Or, You're writing great things but it's going to evolve or change over time. I think she really struggled with that because as a literary writer, it's an autonomous world that she lives in. She writes, it's done and that's it. I think that's very difficult. Did it put strains on our lives at times? Sure. Did it put stresses and strains on my father, who felt stuck in the middle at times? A thousand percent. He was like collateral damage, the innocent bystander. But the pride that I have is a lot of people feel like the movie has a different slant to it. It has a different entry point. It has some things that feel, hopefully, original. I do believe that really started with my mom. The perspective and the point of view that she took to breaking the material — it was just different. That's because she's not doing this every day.
When you're looking at this material and the story of Robert Mazur, who is played by Bryan Cranston, do you find that there are certain parts of his life and what he went through that you are able to understand and write about? I'm thinking about his domestic life in particular and how the strains of his job affected his home life.
Ellen: Ironically, I find that I understand both sides of it because of my upbringing. I really feel that being a parent and being a full-time career person, I had a lot of stress in going to work all day. And I had a son. I wanted to bring that to the screen. I also think I understood the criminal element too because I grew up in a family where my dad was involved in owning a bar and he had bookie [experience] and worked at the race track. My whole life as a child, I grew up knowing people who were maybe a little bit below the law. So I think that maybe helped me a little bit too.
You worked as a lawyer and you practiced law, then you decided to become a short story writer and then you became a screenwriter. How did you go about abandoning your first career to become one that is a little tough?
Ellen: Honestly, I'm on my third act because I was a teacher before Brad was born. I became an attorney and because my husband took up a job, I ended up having to give up my career. I always wanted to do writing, but never had any time, so that gave me the time to do it. Brad was the one who gave me the idea that I should try screenwriting. He's offered me an opportunity that I feel really blessed to have because I really enjoy screenwriting.
When this movie comes together and you are hired as a screenwriter, you didn't have any produced screenplays at the time. Did you ever have to fend off charges or insinuations that this was nepotism, that your son brought you in and you didn't really have the chops to pull it off? If people said that, what was your response?
Ellen: As a woman doing what I did, going into trial work back in the late '70s, I feel like there's nothing I can't accomplish if I really put my mind to it and I work hard. That's sort of what Brad's saying. I didn't feel any obstacles. No one said to me, You can't do this. Brad was extremely supportive of me. Obviously, I wouldn't have had the interview with Miriam Segal if it weren't for Brad. I think, in a way, Miriam was taking a big risk to even hire me. The fact that she took that risk and was willing to hire me speaks really well for her, and I thank her for that opportunity and Brad and everyone included on this project. Because how do you get your first start? It's hard. I appreciated everyone's support all throughout the process.
What would you say was the biggest creative dispute in making "The Infiltrator"?
Brad: Oh, I know that. Barry Seal.
Ellen: Oh, big creative dispute.
Brad: (laughs) In all of my research about Escobar, what fascinated me the most was Barry Seal. He was the one white guy that had the relationship with Pablo as far as distributing the drugs and transporting them. Unbeknownst to people at the time, he was tied to Bush and tied to the government and at a certain point became an informant. There was all of this stuff regarding him that was fascinating to me. I thought on the Escobar story, that was the way in. I felt very strongly that we were telling Bob's true story, we were taking things out of the book, we were being spot and straight on. I wanted to really examine all the pieces to this puzzle.
So you had to speculate a little bit?
And Ellen, you thought that was too big a leap?
Ellen: From the writing perspective, I didn't think it was necessary. Ironically, it moves to a different medium in film and makes a different impression. Obviously, Brad was right. I mean, I hate to admit that Brad was right. ... Not really.
I guess what he's saying is that the movie was right. What wins is what's best for the movie.
Brad: That was my theory. If I had to do it all over again, there are things with regard to that storyline and character and their interactions that I would do differently. But you make choices and we hopefully did the best that we could.
As you sit here, would you work together one more time?
Brad: I would. I think we've learned a lot. I think we've grown a lot. I'm very deeply proud of my mom and she's a real talent. She's probably the best writer that I've ever worked with, hands down. I think that she's great at this and I hope ageism doesn't get in the way with regards to Hollywood.
Ellen, would you work with Brad again?
Ellen: Just the fact that he would even send me for a job interview, knowing that this is important for his career, makes me feel valued and makes me feel that he respects me. Of course I would do it again, but we'll have to see if the opportunity happens.