EXCLUSIVE: Stephen Gaghan has set up his next two directing projects, one covering the smuggling of cocaine from Mexico, the other human cargo from China. Gaghan, who last directed Syriana, has made a deal with Warner Bros for an untitled Cartel Project; and he has made a deal with Flashlight Pictures to direct an independent drama based on the book The Snakehead: An Epic Tale Of The Chinatown Underworld And The American Dream.
The latter is the title of a book by New Yorker writer Patrick Keefe; it will be Keefe who writes the script for the Cartel project at Warner Bros. Gaghan’s Unsupervised Shingle is producing the Cartel project along with Kevin McCormick’s Langley Park. The Warner Bros film will be partly based on Richard Marosi’s four-part series published in the Los Angeles Times this summer, about how an extensive DEA wiretap operation cracked a variety of smuggling rings transporting tons of cocaine from Sinaloa, Mexico, into Los Angeles and then across the country. Those methods included loading cocaine into everything from cars with elaborate hidden compartments to small airplanes and tractor trailers covered by pallets of frozen chicken. The wiretaps elicited highly personal information on smugglers, including one who would not make a move without the advice of a psychic. It’s the second project McCormick has set up from journalistic sources; Warner Bros is in production with the Ruben Fleischer-directed Gangster Squad with Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin and Emma Stone.
The studio sees this as a star-driven crime drama that is The Departed meets an updated Traffic. Gaghan won an Academy Award for scripting the latter Steven Soderbergh-directed 2000 film, which illustrated the futility of America’s war on drugs in the 1990s. Marosi’s reporting indicated not a lot has changed. The wiretap operation led to arrests and the seizure of thousands of pounds of cocaine but barely dented a secret economy worth over $50 billion annually. Keefe, who scripted Marauders for Jerry Bruckheimer, spent the last year attached to the Assistant Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon focused on drug enforcement and security issues.
“Illegal drugs have fallen behind the war on terror, but that just means the enormous business of addiction is quieter,” Gaghan told me. “Law enforcement has made great strides infiltrating the cartels, but when you are generating $50 billion in untaxed income, you are able to buy a lot of sources and the cartels are just as busy infiltrating the interdiction side. There are networks all over the country like a pulmonary system for illegal drugs that you can get in any town in America. Any time a system of demand is so deeply penetrated into the heart of a country, it becomes a war with human nature. After Traffic I felt there was too much money spent on interdiction and not enough on treatment, and I still feel that you have to change the consumption engine in human behavior.”
In Snakehead, Gaghan will focus on the unlikely kingpin in an entirely different but profitable smuggling network. Sister Ping, a grandmother who operated a small noodle shop on Hester Street, spearheaded a multimillion-dollar operation in which she smuggled illegal immigrants from China. They would disappear in the underground Chinatown economy, working endless hours to pay off $18,000 transport fees for a piece of the American dream. Sister Ping made over $100 million in the 1980s and was a Don Corleone in the closed community of Chinatown, until authorities became wise to her empire in 1993 when a ship loaded with 300 undocumented immigrants ran aground off a beach in Queens. An FBI task force known as the “Jade Squad” spent the next decade untangling the network and chasing its elusive leader, who got a 35-year prison sentence. The film will be scripted by Nic Pizzolatto, who wrote the novel Galveston and two episodes of AMC’s The Killing. Gaghan is producing with Richard Brown. Development will be financed by Flashlight Pictures, whose principals Allyn Stewart and Kipp Nelson will also produce.
Gaghan said that Snakehead will focus on the intersection of Sister Ping’s empire with young Chinatown gangsters who wanted in when they realized how lucrative her smuggling business was. Gaghan doesn’t look at Sister Ping as a villain, noting that the grandchildren of some of those illegal immigrants realized their parents’ dreams and became doctors. There are statues of her in China. “The story is relevant today,” he said. “Humans are tribal but we migrate, and the forces driving that are hunger and opportunity, and now many of us are the ones migrating for jobs.”
Gaghan’s intention is to make the Cartel project first.