High drama

High drama

March 18, 2024


Showrunner Chris Brancato and director Guillermo Navarro invite DQ to stay at Hotel Cocaine, a crime drama set in 1970s Miami at the time of a huge explosion in the drug’s use and where a hotel manager is pitted in a war between federal agents and his drug-lord brother.

By the time the US actors’ strike began in July last year, the cast and crew behind period crime drama Hotel Cocaine had reached the halfway stage in their production run, filming four out of the show’s eight episodes.

Then when the walkout ended in November, showrunner Chris Brancato and lead director Guillermo Navarro had just a few weeks to get the series back into pre-production ahead of resuming the filming schedule at the start of this year.

That Hotel Cocaine would return to complete shooting was never in doubt, Brancato tells DQ from New York, where he is prepping the show before heading to the Dominican Republic, which doubles for 1970s Miami in the series.

“We had finished the scripts prior to shooting and prior to the writers’ strike [that ran from May to September], so we were able to go shoot,” he says. “Then of course, when the actors struck, we had to stop. And I must say, probably in retrospect, that while it was frustrating to be in the middle and have to take a pause, once the writers’ strike ended, it allowed us to go back and reread the last four scripts and make improvements.

“So in retrospect, it will have turned out to be a good thing in terms of the show quality because we’ve improved the last couple of scripts. But yes, it’s been strange.”

Chris Brancato

Finishing all eight scripts before production began put the team in a strong position ahead of the widely expected writers’ strike. “But we couldn’t have anticipated the actors striking as well,” Brancato continues. “So as that was getting closer, we knew then we were headed for a shutdown. In particular, the gains made by the guilds with regard to artificial intelligence were what necessitated the strikes. So now it’s over with, and now it’s time for everybody to get back to business.”

During the shutdown, several stages were left standing at Pinewood Dominican Republic Studios, which is home to the production. “But my main concern during the break was the fact the crew, which was a couple of hundred people, were out of work, or at least out of work on our production. Obviously the strikes had ramifications far beyond just actors and writers. So I’m happy everybody’s back to work, making money,” Brancato says.

Commissioned by US streamer MGM+, the series focuses on Roman Compte, a Cuban exile and general manager of the Mutiny Hotel, the glamorous epicentre of the Miami cocaine scene in the late 1970s and early 80s.

Described as ‘Casablanca on cocaine,’ the glitzy nightclub, restaurant and hotel complex sees Florida businessmen and politicians rub shoulders with international narcos, CIA and FBI agents, models, sports stars and musicians.

And at its centre is Compte (Danny Pino), who is doing his best to keep the party going while trying to fulfil his own American dream. That dream is put under threat, however, when DEA agent Zulio (Michael Chiklis) vows to make life difficult for him unless he infiltrates the compound of his estranged brother Nestor Cabal (Yul Vazquez), one of the city’s biggest coke dealers.

With the story largely told from Roman’s perspective, viewers will also get an insight into the Cuban-American experience, which Brancato identifies as very different from other immigrant experiences in the US.

The series centres on Roman Compte (Danny Pino), manager of the Mutiny Hotel

“Most immigrant groups came to escape from poverty in their homeland or were forcibly brought to the US. In this case, Cuban Americans were welcomed because they were leaving a communist regime, and so their immigrant experience is very different from the one that has befallen other cultural and racial groups,” he observes. “We explore that and we also set the stage for a second season where Roman’s journey is further affected by his past. You always want to be using the past to create drama in the present.”

Brancato is no stranger to this kind of subject matter, having previously created Netflix’s Narcos and Narcos: Mexico. It was while filming Narcos that he first heard about the real-life basis for Hotel Cocaine, when actor Maurice Compte mentioned that his father had been the manager of the Mutiny Club.

The showrunner was immediately intrigued by the idea of a series that could be pitched as Casablanca against the backdrop of Miami’s war on drugs, but at that time his focus was on Narcos. Five years later, Compte sent Brancato some notes on his father’s life.

“I realised that his father’s true experience needed to have some fictional creations in order to create drama, i.e. an older brother who was a drug dealer, which Maurice’s father did not have, and a DEA agent pursuing him,” Brancato says. “So with the fictional construct and using his father as inspiration, I mentioned it to Michael Wright, the president of MGM+. I just said, ‘This is Casablanca on cocaine’ and he said, ‘OK, I’ll buy it.’”

By then, Brancato was overseeing another MGM series, Godfather of Harlem, so he put it on the backburner. A first draft of the script also proved to be a little too comedic. Across several more drafts, he leaned more into the “muscularity” of the concept to create a dramatic historical fiction series that is rooted in authenticity, even if it doesn’t fully reflect the full reality of life during that period.

While Compte is based on a real person, Michael Chiklis’s Agent Zulio is a fictional character

“I tried to stay true to the spirit of what Roman was doing then, which was managing a big club and being surrounded by drugs, which was true,” he says. “I created the fictional constructs of the DEA agent, and the task of spying on his drug-dealing older brother at the potential cost of losing custody of his child, and then tried to operate within the spirit of the times and obviously to create the drama that is necessary for good television.”

Brancato wrote the pilot before overseeing a small writing team that included Michael Panes, Alfredo Barrios Jr and Kyle Hamilton, who worked together to shape the show’s eight-episode arc. Then it was a race against time to finish the scripts before the impending writers’ strike.

“We weren’t sure whether there was going to be a strike, but we moved very quickly,” he notes. “And then of course, we went to shoot what we had written. Once the strike finally ended, we were able to go back and work on the last four, which were written a little hastily.”

The other key element to developing Hotel Cocaine was bringing on board director Guillermo Navarro, as Brancato recognised that a story about Cuban Americans needed to be heavily influenced by Latin American creatives. Mexican filmmaker Navarro has spent many years working as a DOP on Guillermo del Toro’s movies – he won an Oscar for Pan’s Labyrinth – and worked with Brancato on Hannibal, Narcos and Godfather of Harlem. Brancato sought him out again for Hotel Cocaine and offered him the chance to take a lead on many of the decisions that would normally be the reserve of the showrunner.

“I said, ‘Guillermo, I want you to direct this pilot, and because we’re likely going to hire crew in a Latin country, I’m going to cede to you a lot of the decisions about who we hire, costuming and production design, because many of those people will either speak English as a second language or won’t speak English at all.’ What I did was something that I would very rarely do unless it was a very trusted colleague,” Brancato says. “Guillermo has a 40-year filmmaking career all over the world, so he was able to pull people on to the team who are really the very best in whatever department they lead. We had a spectacular crew.”

The production design used a vibrant colour palette to recreate 1970s Miami

As an executive producer, Navarro has an overview of the whole series. But directing the first and last pair of episodes, he wanted to create a world that leans into the nostalgia of the time in which the show is set, rather than shooting the reality of the period. “We’re definitely creating an atmosphere of our own,” Navarro says. “It’s today’s interpretation of what it would have been like then, with the resources we have now. I’m not trying to imitate what was shot in the 70s. If you see Scarface, you’re surprised how different it is from your memories. Here we’re using a colour palette that is very rich in wardrobe and production assignments, helping tremendously to make you feel at home in the 70s. It’s very well accomplished.

“This is a very strong drama between brothers but it’s also about how a load of cocaine from Colombia changed the city, going behind the curtain of what’s happening in Miami. It’s very exciting to reproduce a period of time in history and have a perception and a reflection on that.”

Leaning on his cinematography background, Navarro also used lighting and production design to create a film language that helped to build the narrative of the story. “I like the camera to tell most of the story, so it’s a camera that moves and is flowing with the story,” he says. “It’s not documenting, it’s building scenes and building that narrative. If I cannot create a film language, there’s no point in doing it. The camera is what makes this possible.”

When it came to recreating the past, the Dominican Republic was chosen because it best represented Miami during the 70s and 80s – more so now than Miami itself. “Because Miami’s been built up, you couldn’t possibly shoot in Miami and replicate the 70s without incurring enormous expense,” Brancato says, adding that the show’s version of the Mutiny is also grander than its real-life inspiration.

But despite the show’s title – and the large quantities of cocaine taken by characters in the series – Brancato was clear that he didn’t want the show to become an advertisement for drug use. Instead, he sought to show the juxtaposition of people using cocaine for pleasure without any regard to the violence and brutality behind it.

Hotel Cocaine ‘has all the glitter of the 70s, the colour and the music and that aesthetic,’ according to Guillermo Navarro

“The tagline of Hotel Cocaine is ‘Pleasure has a price.’ The goal here is, number one, to create something very entertaining for the viewer and, number two, to allow the show to explore themes about legality and the immigrant experience in America,” he says. “Further to that, it is to understand that for every line of cocaine that’s done in a pleasure setting, there’s actually a trail of dead bodies that leads all the way back to South America. Nobody considers that when they’re sitting there at a table in a club using cocaine, and maybe they should. Maybe if they did consider that, they’d be less likely to use it. I always think about the ramifications of presenting drug use.”

Brancato says the show’s club setting also serves to highlight how “harmless” many people viewed cocaine in the 1970s as use of the drug exploded in the US without knowing its true cost. But more than just a ‘drug show,’ Hotel Cocaine – distributed by Amazon MGM Studios – is also a family series and a dark, comedic show that skewers the 1970s. Following its premiere at Series Mania, it is set to debut this year.

“I believe the show is a little bit of a unicorn in this sense,” he says. “We do the standard stuff you would do in a drug show, where people are fighting for dominance and there’s violence and tension. We also have the owner of the hotel [Mark Feuerstein’s Burton Greenberg], who exemplifies the ‘me decade,’ this relentless self-absorption, and that adds a comedic element to the show. And then through Roman, there’s a familial element. I hope those different tones work together in the same hour, because you don’t often see that blend of tones attempted.”

Navarro adds: “Get ready for a ride. It’s a fantastic story and a very engaging drama. It has all the glitter of the 70s, the colour and the music and that aesthetic. There’s a lot to look forward to.”

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