Fueled by Ridley Scott’s commitment to direct, Fox won an auction for screen rights to The Cartel, the new Don Winslow drug epic that settles the score between DEA agent Art Keller and Mexican drug kingpin Adan Berrera, a battle that began with Winslow’s 2006 novel The Power of the Dog. The studio is already moving fast to capitalize on all the money it has spent, courting Leonardo DiCaprio to play the role of Keller, and this one looks promising. What other actor would be more perfect to carry a hard R-rated drama than DiCaprio, who followed The Wolf Of Wall Street with the upcoming The Revenant?
The behind the scenes on this deal is just fascinating. Fox paid money you rarely see for books anymore, with north of $1 million for The Cartel, about that much for The Power of the Dog, and a commitment of near $6 million for book rights and screenwriting fees for the two. Just as interesting here are the other alternatives that Winslow had for a book that has been drawing out and out raves since it was published.
Winslow and his partner in the deal, Story Factory’s Shane Salerno (who’ll write the script), chose Fox over several intriguing options, because of Scott. The filmmaker covered the drug terrain with the Cormac McCarthy-scripted The Counselor, and as riveting as that movie was, its bleak premise and harsh drug violence limited its gross. This one is potentially more commercial in a sprawling crime epic Godfather kind of way. DiCaprio was interested for his company Appian Way, but that never got far once Fox made this humungous offer and the deal was done. There was also the lure of an episodic commitment from HBO that would have been spearheaded by True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto, and a personal appeal by Yann Demange, the red hot director of the indie gem ’71.
Now that the dust has cleared, I’m told that Fox is already making overtures to DiCaprio (his Appian Way could still be part of the project if a deal gets made) for Keller, the DEA agent who early on befriended Berrera as he was a drug dealer on the way up–depicted in The Power of the Dog–leading to a bloody feud between them that breaks out again in The Cartel after he escapes from prison. Winslow’s two novels tell a devastating story about the futility of the drug war, but trade reports portraying this movie as somehow telling the story of Sinoloa cartel drug kingpin El Chapo are really reaching, from what I’m told.
Sony Pictures also chased this, as did Jerry Bruckheimer for Paramount. The film’s being produced by Scott Free’s Michael Schaefer, and Salerno. DiCaprio has a relationship with all the players here; he starred for Scott in Body Of Lies, and Scott almost directed The Wolf Of Wall Street. His Appian Way is working on an adaptation of Winslow’s Satori as a producing and potential star vehicle, with Winslow and Salerno.