Brad Furman is here to save the summer. In a sea of overstuffed yet somehow empty CG exercises, the director of “The Lincoln Lawyer” has once again brought that missing ingredient of fun to multiplexes in “The Infiltrator,” delivering yet another livewire thriller where the spectacle emerges from allowing great actors to do their thing while staging scene after memorable scene with the same stickiness that’s in the air of its Florida setting that ensures heavy rotation on streaming devices 20 years from now because of how absorbing it is.
While this may come as a surprise to some since Furman’s unpretentious style hasn’t lent itself to making him a household name, it isn’t to those who have followed his career, with his ability to inject life into sturdy genre exercises is likely a result of living so much of it himself in his relatively short time on this earth. A guy who grew up playing basketball in the streets of Philly with future NBA all-stars Rasheed Wallace and Richard Hamilton, and would later serve as Julia Roberts’ personal assistant while biding his time to get his first directing gig, he naturally became a keen observer of the power of personality. This no doubt drew him to the story of Robert Mazur, a federal agent who went undercover to embed himself in the activities of the Medellin Cartel at the height of the 1980s drug trade and earned the trust of Pablo Escobar on down under the alias of Robert Musella, a businessman from Tampa Bay.
Furman, enlisting his mother Ellen Brown Furman, who had practiced law for years in Philadelphia, to work on the screenplay, enlivens Mazur’s meticulous five-year investigation with panache that may outflank even the decadent figures Mazur aims to bring to justice. Taking in the lush surroundings, whether it’s the harsh neon of a seedy strip club or the jungle environs of a voodoo priest assigned to vet Musella spiritually before meeting with drug lords, the filmmaker often gives the same sense of being in too deep as his lead character experiences, offering up a compelling study of a man struggling to balance his dual identity while providing the space for a formidable cast that includes Bryan Cranston as Mazur, John Leguizamo as Mazur’s wild card partner Emir Abreu, Amy Ryan as his boss Bonni Tischler, Diane Kruger as the agent Kathy Ertz who goes undercover as his wife, Yul Vasquez as the flamboyant Escobar lieutenant Javier Ospina and Benjamin Bratt as the charming cocaine dealer Roberto Alcaino, to make the tete-a-tetes fiery well before the gunfights start.
On the eve of the film hitting theaters, Furman spoke about all the care and craft he puts into his work to make it worthwhile for audiences, how he got interested in Robert Mazur’s exploits and the challenges of making the kinds of high-quality, middle-class movies that studios are currently shying away from.
How did you get interested in Robert Mazur?
What makes it interesting is this is a story I didn’t know and had not been told. My friend Don Sikorski from college found the book and brought it to me, and I really felt that it worthy of being made a movie. I read it and was really moved and inspired, but what really closed the deal for me was the time that I spent talking with Bob Mazur, that was really inspiring. He had been burned in his experiences before [trying to make a movie], so I just tried to operate from a place of integrity and honesty, as I always do and I led with my heart to gain his trust.
And you ended up enlisting your mom to write it. How did that happen?
We had been interviewing so many writers and trying to figure it out, and actually Don ultimately really felt that my mom would be the right person. I didn’t disagree with him — the experience of being a mother and a lawyer and trying cases as a lawyer were invaluable to this movie — and we just had to figure out the politics of how to get her hired. Miriam Segal, the producer, was very, very supportive of the project and that was really amazing to [consider] my mom would be the best writer for this job. With her life experience and the female perspective on [primarily] male material and her education and legal background, it really led to a unique perspective in developing the movie.
Was it difficult to find the line where you were respecting the reality, but at the same time, making the film entertaining? There’s a great scene involving a cake when Mazur’s cover is about to be blown, which it seemed like you might need to give yourself permission to stretch things.
It’s constantly a fine line, because with the world of social media today, with Instagram and SnapChat and Twitter, and so many movies in the cinema, we’re constantly distracted and pulled in so many directions. There’s a pressure that you have to deliver a movie that’s at a certain level that warrants being in a theater, but keeping Bob close to me, I tried to find my way in by keeping the authenticity through the truth.
You can actually feel the Florida sweat through the texture of the film. How did you go about getting the look of this?
I’m really not a massive fan of digital cinema, and I wanted it feel and look like film, so we worked very hard to do that. We used these old Hawk [V Lite Anamorphic] lenses and it started with our wonderful cinematographer, Joshua Reis, who’s absolutely brilliant. We worked hand-in-hand to create different color palette looks and imagery is that where defining of the movie we were trying to make. I just felt the underbelly of the story, and the dirt and grit of the story were so significant, and I wanted to evoke and capture that in a way that you would feel the slick grittiness of it, because it is that.
I’ve also heard how important music is to you. Do you actually develop a playlist before shooting?
Anything I’ve ever done, I developed an elaborate playlist for. For “Lincoln Lawyer” I had about 60 tracks. I had about 50 tracks for “The Take.” For this movie, I had [some] trouble finding my way into the music on this one, and I went a little bit backwards in how I did my process. I worked diligently with Brian Waters [the music consultant] and Seth Harris [the music supervisor] on this movie, and they were deeply inspiring in shaping the soundtrack. Then Chris Hajian was really wonderful in shaping the score as a composer. It was very different for me, but I still felt in my gut that we ended up in a great place.
There’s a great, unexpected moment introducing Yul Vasquez’s Javier Ospina that uses Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.” How did that come into the mix?
I love Leonard Cohen. When I was a young boy, I watched “Pump Up the Volume” when that song was used and I try to not use songs that are used in movies ever before, but I just felt deep in my heart that it was such a perfect introduction for that character, so even though it was used once before, I wanted to really bring it back to the masses and use it again.
You do, however, continue to work with some of the same actors again and again like Bryan Cranston, who was in “Lincoln Lawyer,” and John Leguizamo, who was in that film and your first, “The Take.” Beyond obviously liking to work with them, do you actually get something from continuing that work from one film to the next?
Yeah, because in getting the performances, trust is everything. An actor is basically naked in front of a camera emotionally, so they have to completely trust the situation and completely comfortable. If you have that friendship and that bond, they know they’re safer than they’ve ever been before and I think it helps them open up and emote in a way that allows both of you — director and actor — to achieve the best result.
It does seem like you’re someone who really fights for good actors, even in the smallest of roles. Is that a challenge now that studios are making less of these kinds of middle-class movies?
It’s a tremendous challenge, but at the end of the day, I just have to follow what I believe is ultimately the right way to accomplish making these movies, and that’s the fight. Every decision in the movie is crucial, from the smallest one line through the sound design. I always say that you have to understand that at its core, I work for the movie. The driving force in the decisions of what I’m doing is based off the fact the movie is my boss.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
Every day. This movie was the hardest from a production standpoint, [with] the fiscal challenges of being an independent movie, but a very big movie. Every day was an absolute challenge, but I’m very proud that we stuck together and we fought through the challenges together, and when we ran into problem areas, we were decisive, and we found happy accidents, so we made things work. The chocolate cake scene that you like was born very much out of the kismet of filmmaking. The cake that came on the day was way too big, and Bryan [Cranston] was not happy about it, and I wasn’t happy about it, but as you saw in the scene, we made it work, so it’s something I’m really proud of.