Documentary-making can be dangerous, particularly when you’re producing a multi-part series on the real-life stories of drug cartels.
Mike Welsh, Vice President, TV Production and Development at UK firm ITN Productions, who exec produced the series, which launches on Netflix Friday January 19, tells Deadline that he pitched the SVOD service the idea following the success of Pablo Escobar-inspired drama Narcos. “We pitched about a dozen drug lords; lots of people know the Latin stories, but we also found drug lords from the Netherlands, Jamaica and Australia,” he said.
Welsh, a former exec at National Geographic, added that he wanted to take a “Rashamon approach” to the “shocking and compelling” stories with a range of men and women directly involved in the cases including the cops, crooks, and closest associates on either side of the law.
The first four episodes feature Pablo Esobar, the Cali Cartel, both of which feature in Gaumont’s drama Narcos, Frank Lucas, the Harlem-based dealer who was the inspiration for Denzel Washington’s American Gangster and the notorious Pettingill Clan, who dealt heroin from Melbourne, Australia, and were depicted in Australian film Animal Kingdom, which later became the Ellen Barkin-fronted series for TNT.
The latter was run by matriarch Kath Pettingill, who was known as “Granny Evil”, in the 1980s and showed that drug dealing was not exclusively run by men.
The second tranche of episodes, which are expected to air later this year, include El Chapo, LA crack queenpin Jemeker Thompson, Jamaican drug lord Christopher Coke, who ran the Shower Posse, and Dutch dealer Klaas Bruinsma.
Welsh says that in a number of cases they were able to interview the kingpins themselves, having served their time and reformed including Lucas and Thompson, who went on to found an evangelical ministry.
“The Latin stories are a little trickier; these cartels still exist so we need to be mindful,” he adds. He also says that the likes of Escobar and El Chapo brought other challenges, namely having been covered widely. “What are we going to say about Pablo Escobar that hasn’t already been said on Narcos? We really embraced that challenge and asked who are the voices that we can get in to tell the definitive story.”
The series is a boon for ITN Productions, the company behind Oscar-nominated short documentary Watani: My Homeland, as one of the first UK firms to secure a non-scripted commission for the SVOD service. Welsh says that if successful he hopes the series, which was produced over a year with a team including exec producer Jim Lindsay, series producer Chris Boulding and head of production Elaine Morris, can run for more seasons and he is already scoping out stories about more recent drug phenomena including ecstasy, molly and how Bitcoin is used to pay for drugs. “You can’t make this stuff up,” he adds.