Brad Furman is a competitor. The director of films like the unexpected smash hit “The Lincoln Lawyer” (and, later, the Ben Affleck- and Justin Timberlake-starring disappointment “Runner Runner”) can’t quite pinpoint the source of that motivation — but it’s what’s driven his career since he made his first film, “The Take,” for less than a million dollars way back in 2007.
“I personally feel when somebody tells me I can’t do something, or I’m afraid of something, that’s typically when I dive in,” Furman recently told IndieWire.
The challenges that have pushed Furman haven’t exactly been unique – he’s one of any number of rising directors, mostly male, propelled to big studio features on the strength of one or two smash indie hits – but they have inspired him to do something pretty bold: Return to his indie roots to get films done the way he wants them to be done.
Furman’s latest, the Bryan Cranston-starring “The Infiltrator,” is opening in wide release this week care of indie outfit Broad Green, but the film was mostly financed internationally and made outside the studio system. It’s the same system that nearly broke Furman’s heart – and could have potentially ruined his career – just three years ago.
Coming off the strength of his “Lincoln Lawyer” – a film that was produced by Lakeshore Entertainment, and thus one that Furman classifies as independent – he was hired by 20th Century Fox to direct the fact-based action vehicle “Runner Runner.” The film, starring Affleck and Timberlake as a pair of big-time online gamblers, was widely derided by critics, though it did make over $60 million when it hit screens in October of 2013.
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Furman, however, didn’t care about box office. In fact, if he had his way, he wouldn’t even be the director credited on the final product.
“There was a lot of trepidation for me in the process,” he said. “It was my first studio movie. It’s not that I was afraid, it was that I saw things politically aligning, and things happening within the infrastructure of the studio and the producers, and how it affected the actors.”
It didn’t take long for him to see the direction things were going. “It appeared very early on to be a Titanic,” Furman said.
He contemplated abandoning the project, but it took a lot of effort to reach that conclusion. “In my gut, I really wanted to walk off of it,” he said. “I parted ways amicably, or not, with the studio. I didn’t finish the movie. I never considered it my movie, and I wanted to take my name off of it. I didn’t.”
For the brash filmmaker, it was “a deeply painful experience” and one he was not eager to replicate again. But it’s hardly the only heartbreaker on Furman’s resume.
After the success of 2011’s “The Lincoln Lawyer,” Furman got a bite from then-thriving indie production outfit Relativity, who were eager for him to take a stab at the long-gestating Pablo Escobar film, “King of Cocaine.” It was the kind of challenge that seemed tailor-made for a guy like Furman. If nothing else, he’d be able to tackle a subject that other, more established Hollywood directors — from Oliver Stone to Joe Carnahan — had been unable to pull off.
“Everyone in Hollywood has wanted to tell this story, and no one could successfully bring it to the big screen,” Furman said. His approach was to move away from treating the film like some kind of action-driven blockbuster and instead play up the more intimate emotions of the drama.
“It seemed like there was a way to potentially do that,” he said. “It would be financed independently, from script to screen.”
But he had a few more stipulations, and chief among them was a script penned by Matt Aldrich, who had worked on the high-concept thriller “Valet,” which Furman was briefly attached to direct back in 2008.
After Aldrich’s first pass on “King of Cocaine” — which Furman classified as a “strong take” on thorny material — Furman took the script to his an aspiring screenwriter he knew well: His own mother. It was Ellen Sue Brown’s first attempt at a screenplay, but it wouldn’t end up being her last. (She’s the only screenwriter credited on “The Infiltrator.”)
Furman had one other big ask: He wanted his best friend and “Take” star John Leguizamo to play the notorious drug lord. The pair had recently traveled to the actor’s native Colombia to film a series of videos paid for by the Colombian government to encourage the entertainment industry to film there, and Furman had found an unexpectedly hospitable location that was eager to host new film projects. But that demand led to a whole new series of problems.
Relativity was uninterested in casting Leguizamo. Furman, in typical fashion, decided he didn’t really like their answer. “I decided that we weren’t going to take no for an answer, which is very me,” he said with a laugh.
Determined to prove that Leguizamo could play Escobar, the pair hired a prosthetics professional and dressed up Furman’s Los Angeles apartment to show that they could recreate ’70s-era Colombian fashion and set dressing. Using a rare video interview of the kingpin for comparison, Leguizamo aped Escobar word for word, mannerism for mannerism, and the final product delivered to the studio included a split screen video that showed off just how deeply Leguizamo could embody Escobar.
“We showed it first to the producers of the movie that didn’t want John. He didn’t even know it was John,” Furman said. “We dropped it off at the studio and they had the same reaction. Everybody felt we found Pablo Escobar, which was something I took a lot of pride in.”
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But despite having so many big pieces in place – director, writers, star, producers – other legal issues kept “King of Cocaine” from being made. Furman is still hurt by the loss of the film, but he did find a silver lining: After “King of Cocaine” fell apart, a friend gave the director the autobiography of federal agent Robert Mazur, who went undercover to crack open Escobar’s cocaine cartel in 1986 Florida. It was called “The Infiltrator,” and Furman knew he had found his next project.
“The Infiltrator,” which essentially focuses on a law-abiding everyman who gets pulled into situations way beyond his control, provided the kind of emotional center that he struggled to unearth with his Escobar. Mazur also made himself extremely available to Furman – he was often on set during filming – a major boon that also pushed Furman to really honor his story.
“There’s a lot of responsibility to just the fact that it’s a true story, and I think Hollywood is notorious, for the most part, for raping and pillaging when it comes to people’s life stories,” Furman said. “They take full rights of these people. People don’t really have any rights to anything, once it’s sold for a minimal amount.”
Although the hardships of “King of Cocaine” and “Runner Runner” sharpened Furman’s focus on the new film, he did face a number of challenges in getting the film made, including the old standby of seeing his first choice star rejected by producers.
Furman had long imagined Bryan Cranston, who had a small role in “The Lincoln Lawyer,” as his star, but had to wait until the Emmy-winning actor was considered a more bankable name. Two years after first cooking up the project, Cranston was suddenly a viable star for the people holding the purse strings.
“I just knew in my heart that Bryan embodied the type of man, because of his own character, both morally and ethically, that would resonate,” Furman said. And finally, after years of disappointments, he got his star.
Although Cranston is older than Mazur was when the action of the film takes place, Furman was unmoved by those objections. “Bryan loved the project, the script and the role, but I think these things are hard to articulate,” Furman said. “I don’t want to say it’s like you can’t teach taste, which I don’t believe you can. People either have it or they don’t. A lot of what I do is just from my gut.”
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Another gut-level casting? Leguizamo, who stars alongside Cranston as his real-life partner, Emir Abreu.
“My process is you have this dream of having certain people, and when you are either writing or reading a script that you plan on making, you earmark these roles for people,” Furman explained. “From the jump, Emir Abreu was completely developed and waiting for John.”
It’s another silver lining, and one that could only come out of Furman’s resistance to being told what to do. Unsurprisingly, Furman remains trepidatious about the studio system. “I don’t really know what that system is, to be honest,” he said. “I don’t think they know what they are today.”
No matter what Furman thinks about the studios and the way they make their movies, he hasn’t exactly made it easy for them to work with him. Furman’s competitive drive and admitted need to get things done his way (and, oftentimes, with his own cherry-picked people in place, from his own mother to his best friend) are hardly traits that studios seek out in their filmmakers. It’s entirely possible that Furman is his own worst enemy. But it’s the only way he knows how to work.
Nevertheless, Furman has nothing but disdain for the commercial machine. “If a movie performs successfully, then studios are going to go, ‘Well, we need to make movies like this.’ That’s how this works,” he said. “That’s why I think movies like this have a significance. If you want to see these type of films, then you’ve got to back them.” And so he has.
“The Infiltrator” opens this Wednesday, July 13.
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