‘The Last Narc’ Director on Taking Risks and Being Scared — and Not Just of the Cartel

     July 31, 2020

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Amazon’s four-part docuseries The Last Narc is now available on the streaming service, for which director Tiller Russell took great risks in telling the story of the most notorious murder in the history of the DEA — the 1985 kidnapping and murder of DEA Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena.

The Last Narc follows Hector Berrellez, a highly decorated special agent who was assigned to lead the DEA’s investigation of Camarena’s murder. With the help of several corrupt cops who once served as bodyguards to Mexico’s legendary drug lords, Hector digs deep to uncover the frightening truth about a conspiracy involving top cartel leaders and the CIA.

I watched The Last Narc in a single evening, so it’s an easy binge-watch, but the entire time I was wondering what the cartel will say when they see this series. In the below interview with Collider, Russell admitted it’s something that keeps him up at night, as his primary subjects all risked their lives to help him tell this gripping story.

Russell may look like a movie star himself, but he started out as an ink-stained wretch — a newspaper crime reporter who was prompted to become a documentarian by none other than Errol Morris. He has long been drawn to the inherent risk in telling crime stories, which generally speaking, are stories that someone somewhere doesn’t want told. In fact, he once smuggled $10,000 in cash into a Panamanian prison in order to talk to a Russian gangster for his 2018 documentary Operation Odessa.

I was a big fan of Russell’s 2014 cops and robbers documentary The Seven Five, which has long been slated for a feature adaptation, and I can’t wait to see his upcoming Jason ClarkeNick Robinson feature Silk Road, which he expects will be released early next year. Russell is a fascinating character, and he did a great job presenting an entertaining murder mystery while honoring Camarena’s memory. Enjoy our interview with him below, and make sure to add The Last Narc to your watch list.

Collider: How did you get your start as a documentarian, and what’s behind your personal pursuit of the truth?

TILLER RUSSELL: I was a crime reporter for the newspaper before I got into filmmaking. I always loved Hollywood, but I was a kid in Dallas, Texas with no access to it. I didn’t know anybody and didn’t have any money or whatever, but when I became a crime reporter, I started writing about movies, and I ended up doing a profile of Errol Morris when he had a film that was out.

He took me to dinner and said, “How about a steak and a bottle of wine instead of the interview?” which was the greatest moment of my life at that point, and we had a wonderful evening together. And at the end of the evening, he put his hand on my shoulder and he said, “You’re either going to spend the rest of your life writing about people like me, or you’re going to try your hand at this.” And I literally quit my job the next day.

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Image via Amazon Prime Video

I know how to develop sources like agents and managers, but how do you go about developing a source like a DEA agent?

RUSSELL: It’s exactly the same enterprise in some fundamental way, where it’s a lot of hanging out, drinking in bars, and you know, one person leads to another. The cardinal rule that I have is, “there will never be any bullshit.” If I tell you something, it’s going to happen, and if you tell me something, either to do or never to say, that rule is inviolate, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Russian gangster or a DEA agent — your word is your currency. So it starts with that.

And then one good source leads into a network of other sources, and these people become not only your sources, but your friends, and in some sense, your collaborators. To this day, I’m in touch with not only the crooks from The Seven Five, but also the cops, who will be like, “hey, man, this is an amazing story, you’ve got to look into this.” So it’s a network that becomes a spiderweb where one strand connects to the next — as long as you’re straight with people.

When you’re putting together a docuseries like The Last Narc, do you have what I like to call “the binge factor” in mind?

RUSSELL: Absolutely, because at this length, the way people are consuming content today has fundamentally changed from how it ever was before. What people want is, “I want to see it at home, and I want to be able to click into the next one if I dig it,” and so it becomes a really important construct. You’ve got to hook ’em from the beginning so they’re willing to take the ride, and then the end of every episode needs to have what I call a “bounce” to the next episode, where you’re like, “dude, I can’t wait to see what happens next.”

So building that kind of architecture with a hook, a centerpiece, and a bounce to the next episode is the structure that you’re building to, and you’re constantly revising it and re-breaking it. “Maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that, maybe we pull this one into here.” So that’s kind of the architecture and structural enterprise, particularly in the edit.

Of “The Five Cops,” who was your favorite to interview, and who was the most challenging?

RUSSELL: Well, they were all fascinating in their own way, and all challenging in their own way. Hector is such a fascinating character because he is this kind of quintessential tough guy gunslinger who went from being the ultimate true blue drug war believer to somebody who was abandoned and flushed and set aside by the very thing that he dedicated his life to. So my heart is with Hector. But each one of those guys, in their own way, has their own kind of specific trauma and fascination.

When the interview began with Jorge Godoy, literally, I asked one question and he jumped up from the table, knocked the table back, started pacing around the room like somebody who was literally possessed and haunted, and the cinematographer looked at me with his eyes wide, wondering if the gun on his hip was loaded. I thought, ‘this is going to be a wild one!’

What’s the key to dealing with an interview subject like Jorge, who has a volatile personality? How do you keep them focused on the topic at hand?

RUSSELL: To me, there’s a fundamental enterprise. Docs need stars just like movies need stars, and it’s all about the performance at the end of the day. So in docs, it’s often about the social engineering that takes place ahead of time, so that by the time you’re there with a camera and a crew on a set, this person trusts you with their life and their deepest secrets and most terrible traumas.

And then it’s about being totally open to receiving and listening. What people want is to be heard, so I kind of let them go where it wants to take them, and often the most fascinating things happen when I stop asking questions, and people let it rip. With Jorge, I literally, probably, asked one question, and two hours went by.

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Image via Amazon Prime Video

Who do you think took the biggest risk in all of this?

RUSSELL: Everybody but me, although I’m still scared, to be honest. All of these people literally risked their lives, and in Kiki’s case, gave it up. Hector risked his life, and Jorge, Ramon, and Rene literally risked their lives coming forward, and the unnamed informant at the end is literally risking his life, so the stakes could not be any greater. And I was very sensitive to and attentive to [that], and did my best to honor that.

Do you think that you’re attracted to stories that require some kind of risk-taking element on your behalf?

RUSSELL: Clearly, I’m magnetized toward the underworld and the extremes, and I think the reason why is the world of crime and law enforcement is as close as you get to war, in a civilian society, where every time you’re stepping out the door, you could literally get killed doing your job. And whether you’re a narco or whether you’re a narc, you are risking your life every time you suit up and walk out the door with a gun at your side.

Are you afraid the cartel will watch this series and come after you or the guys in it? Are you thinking of beefing up your own security?

RUSSELL: You know, it’s definitely something that keeps me awake at night. It’s a very serious story and it’s a very scary story, and it involves very powerful interests. It’s not just the cartel, it’s also the collusion of the governments and everybody else, and I take it very, very seriously. Honestly, I’m very careful, but I’m scared. It’s a heavy one.

Hector gave a recent interview in which he said that the delay of this series — it was originally slated to debut in May — was because the CIA asked Amazon to make some changes. Can you speak to that claim or the delay in general?

RUSSELL: We were finalizing the last episode of the series, and as you work on something like this for years at a time, and last-minute things end up coming to light, or people end up coming to light, you have to be willing to pivot at any point to include whatever the latest, most salient, most relevant information is, and I always stay open to a story wherever it goes. And so what we had to do was stick the landing of it, and that’s what the delay was caused by.

So the CIA didn’t have any input?

RUSSELL: The CIA has nothing to do with Amazon and the delay, that was on us.

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Image via Amazon Prime Video

What do you hope to accomplish with this project, and what do you hope Kiki’s sons will take away from it?

RUSSELL: I never know what anybody is going to take away from it, and it’s always disconcerting to go into it. Like I said, it’s an incredibly personal story and it’s an incredibly devastating story, so I just try to treat it with the ultimate respect, and at the end of the day, everybody has to draw their own conclusions about what really happened and why. This is as close as I could get to the truth, so I hope that justice is done and Kiki’s memory is honored.

In some ways, Errol Morris’ journey as a filmmaker was to lead to The Thin Blue Line and the reversal of the case, and the conviction of Randall Dale Adams. In some ways, this is the inverse of that, where Kiki is crying out for justice from the grave, and we’re just trying to contribute however we can.

What’s the current status of Silk Road? Does it have distribution or a release date yet?

RUSSELL: A distribution deal is being closed now, and it will likely debut Q1 of next year after my Netflix series premieres in January. Then the movie will be right after that. I can’t divulge the details because the deal is still being closed.

Any update on The Seven Five movie? Last we heard, Yann Demange was directing for Sony, but I’m curious if Mike De Luca managed to bring it over to MGM…

RUSSELL: It is being worked on, but again, I can’t really disclose the details of it. But it’s not dead, it’s still kicking, and it’d be amazing to see it come into the world. You never know. These things are always a journey, to get from an idea to the screen at the end of the day, but my fingers are crossed and my hopes are high.

Is there anybody you’d like to see cast in that movie?

RUSSELL: My experience with life, and certainly with the strange world of filmmaking, is that the right person reveals themselves at the right time. That’s how the casting went on Silk Road. There were 10 different versions of it that could’ve been made, and then Jason Clarke and Nick Robinson came along, and I can’t imagine any other version of the movie — because they’re both brilliant.

You were an associate producer on Richard Linklater’s Bernie, and you’ve said that The Last Narc is a story you’ve been trying to tell for 14 years, so I’m curious; what do you make of Linklater’s plan to shoot a movie over the next 20 years?

RUSSELL: Linklater is a stone genius as far as I’m concerned, and he’s one of those guys who, I’ll buy the ticket and take the ride anytime he makes a movie. He’s earned my loyalty forever.

You write for Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D., so do you like having a foot in that world, or would you prefer to be making documentaries year-round?

RUSSELL: I like to go back and forth. What I do is mine the criminal underworld and the world of law enforcement for amazing stories, so whether that’s a docuseries about Hector, or a movie about the Silk Road, it’s kind of all keyed to the same compass. My compass doesn’t point to north — it points to crime, I guess.

The Last Narc is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Click here to watch the trailer.

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