Stephen Gaghan hasn’t directed a theatrical feature since 2006’s Syriana but now he’s finally gearing up for not one but two new films. Gaghan will direct an untitled Cartel project for Warner Bros., and he’s setting up an independent feature based off Patrick Keefe’s book The Snakehead: An Epic Tale Of The Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream. Hit the jump for extensive details on both projects.
Gaghan will direct the cartel project first, which returns him to the drug world he covered in his Oscar-winning screenplay for Traffic. The Warner Bros. film will be based on LA Times journalist Richard Marosi’s four-part series “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.” Methods included cars, hidden compartments, small airplanes, and my personal favorite, “tractor trailers covered by pallets of frozen chicken.” The wiretaps also picked up the quirks of the smugglers, like one who wouldn’t make a movie without first speaking to his psychic.
Warner Bros. reportedly sees it as a star-driven crime drama that’s a cross between The Departed and an updated version of Traffic, which centered on the war on drugs in the 1990s. However, while the wiretaps led to arrests and seizures of thousands of pounds of cocaine, it was a drop in the bucket against an untaxed product that sells itself and brings in $50 billion annually.
Gaghan tells Deadline that the $50 billion goes a long way towards implementing counter-measures against the DEA:
“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.”
For his other project, Gaghan will turn his attention to the smuggling of illegal immigrants from China with his adaptation of Snakehead. The story centers on “Sister Ping”, a grandmother who ran a gigantic human-smuggling operation that would bring in illegal Chinese immigrants, stick them into indentured servitude to pay the $18,000 transport fees, and then she made over $100 million of their labor in the 1980s. Sister Ping 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.” Eventually, she was brought down by an FBI task force code-named “Jade Squad” who spent the next decade untangling her criminal empire and eventually delivering a 35-year prison sentence to the kingpin (queenpin?). Nic Pizzolatto (AMC’s The Killing) will write the screenplay.
Gaghan doesn’t believe Sister Ping’s story is so black-and-white. Gaghan says 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.'”
Between the two films, I’m far more interested in Snakehead. It’s got a great central character and we haven’t seen this story before, whereas the Cartel movie doesn’t seem to offer anything new.