Director Brad Furman accomplished something virtually unheard of in the cutthroat annals of Hollywood.
He persuaded the studio to pay his mother to write his latest movie.
“When you’re hiring your mom for a professional job under tremendous duress and pressure, it’s not easy,” says Furman, director of “The Infiltrator.” “But we made it through.”
Calling from Miami, where he is braving press interviews in anticipation of the film’s Tuesday night release, Furman remembers the process was equally stressful for his mom, Ellen Brown Furman.
Was she upset her words got altered during production?
“One thousand percent,” he says, laughing.
“It was very hard for her as an award-winning short story writer to see stuff change. I kept trying to articulate to her a screenplay is a road map to the final film. … It’s crucial that we’re malleable and open-minded as the process evolves. There’s really no world where you write something and you shoot it.”
Adapted from Robert Mazur’s 2009 memoir of the same name, “The Infiltrator” stars Bryan Cranston as Mazur, an undercover U.S. Customs agent who penetrates the inner circle of the Medellín cartel.
Furman describes the tale as “an embarrassment of wealth and riches.” With so many thorny moral, legal, financial and political aspects to this war on drugs account, he decided to focus primarily on the “depth of character and emotion” of the individuals confronting such circumstances.
The Philadelphia native is best known for the Matthew McConaughey vehicle “The Lincoln Lawyer” and the Ben Affleck/Justin Timberlake thriller “Runner Runner” — a picture he has since disowned, dubbing it “an absolute abomination.”
In the fruitless interim between trying to get “The Infiltrator” made years ago with Cranston as his lead (whom he cast in 2011’s “The Lincoln Lawyer”) and the 2013 release of the flop “Runner Runner,” the situation changed radically.
“Bryan was always my first choice for the movie,” he says. “But he really wasn’t a bankable star. He didn’t have the international value. We couldn’t finance the movie on his back.”
Then “Breaking Bad” went on an Emmy-winning binge, including four lead actor statues for Cranston. All of a sudden, he was plenty bankable at the box-office.
With the actor locked in, Furman drew from his earliest feature experience to help him figure out the proper approach to agent Mazur’s saga.
Upon graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, the aspiring filmmaker earned his first Hollywood credit as Julia Roberts’ assistant on the 2000 biopic “Erin Brockovich.”
“(Director) Steven Soderbergh did a wonderful job of adapting her life story. Julia did a wonderful job embodying that character. That was a very good road map for me,” he says.
The tenets of what he wanted to accomplish with “The Infiltrator” were shaped by his front-row seat watching the assembly of that Oscar-winning effort.
He says, “I knew if I’m making a true life story, I’m doing it hand-in-hand, partnered up, at the hip with the person whose story it is. For multiple reasons: One, because it’s the honorable, right thing to do. Two, because I want that person to be happy with the movie. Three, because my life experience was in athletics and education as a filmmaker; it was not in any way being an undercover agent. I don’t know how I respectfully honor this story if I don’t do it partnered with Bob Mazur.”
When informed this writer is calling from Lawrence, the hometown of the real Brockovich, Furman chuckles.
“It’s kismet,” he says. “I’ve done a million interviews and I’ve never brought that up. Kismet that I did.”
But kismet often works in circuitous fashion.
Take Justin Bieber, for instance. Please.
Furman directed the dynamic video for Bieber’s 2015 hit “What Do You Mean?” (The narrative-style venture also features “Infiltrator” co-star John Leguizamo.)
The video currently boasts more than a billion views (yes, billion) on YouTube.
Furman calls the shoot “a life-altering experience” — yet life-altering in an unexpected way.
“When I got on the set to make the Bieber video, I just had fun,” he recalls. “What it reminded me of, and what I needed personally and professionally, is it got me back to being that kid who studied ‘El Mariachi’ and ‘The French Connection’ and ‘Dog Day Afternoon.’ I remembered why I became a filmmaker.”
Surprisingly, the project didn’t lead to any new filmmaking opportunities for the Los Angeles-based Furman.
“You would think if you create a video that a billion people see, your phone would be ringing more. Unfortunately, Hollywood works in funny ways. Right now I need critical and commercial success for ‘The Infiltrator,’ ” he says.
“But if a billion people see ‘The Infiltrator,’ I’m on a rocket ship out of here!”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicia