Don Ferrarone: The Ex-D.E.A. Badass Who Finds Stories for Hollywood
In the credits he's usually listed as associate producer. What it really means is that he's the guy who finds stories. Don Ferrarone, ex-Drug Enforcement Administration agent, finds the real-life people -- the bodyguards, serial killers, narcs, dealers, soldiers, assassins, snipers, henchmen, spies and spooks -- on whom movie characters are based.
It is no mean feat getting these people's stories, but 28 years with the DEA have served Ferrarone well in Hollywood. He is a man with a certain set of skills.
"Someone's always bringing me to someone," he says, in his calm, steady voice, while breakfasting on an egg-white omelet at the Fairmont Hotel in Santa Monica.
Ferrarone, who is based in Houston, is doing research for a Top Gun sequel, which means plumbing the world of navy fighter pilots for the details that might make good moments on-screen. "I know an enormous amount of folks who are doing things quietly, who can get me to people," he says.
They say it's not what you know but who, and Ferrarone knows incredible people. His law enforcement experiences have been nothing short of extraordinary. In the 1970s, he ran the conspiracy group for the DEA's Manhattan division, which he likens to taking a drink from a fire hose. He was chief inspector in the case of federal agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena, who was kidnapped, tortured and killed by Mexican drug smugglers. Ferrarone's unit snatched the guy who did the torturing.
|Ferrarone worked on Man on Fire with Denzel Washington|
From New York he went to Marseilles, then Hong Kong, Burma and Bolivia in the mid-'80s ("That was out of control"), then Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. He ran the operation to find the remains of Josef Mengele in 1985, and when the United States invaded Panama in 1989, Ferrarone was there. He finally took over as special agent-in-charge of DEA's Houston division.
He first came into contact with Hollywood after the Camarena case, when his bosses ordered him to consult for director Michael Mann, who was turning the case into a TV miniseries. "You spend a lifetime keeping secrets," he says. "Yeah, I was reluctant at the beginning to say anything."
On the job, he was notorious for frenetic note keeping. Starting a drug investigation can be like wandering in the wilderness, and he developed the habit of picking up everything. "We're constantly shuffling through things that could be important," Ferrarone says. "We're constantly in the dark. You shove something in a desk drawer and you don't know if it will come in handy later."
In his new capacity, he goes to people's homes, meets them on the job or catches them on the run. "You can't just expect people to sit there and say, 'Here's what I'm doing.' People are wary. You have to build trust."
What they don't tell you is just as important as what they do. "Your average cop has a Ph.D. in body language," he says. Eventually, inevitably, the floodgates open.
He is, he admits, "a freaking gold mine" to directors. He brings them main characters, supporting characters, potential story arcs and subplots; dialogue transcribed, bullet-pointed and cross-indexed. "I find someone, then I don't stop until I get the character."
Ferrarone specializes in films with a crime angle: Heat, Déjà Vu, Spy Game, Bad Boys II, National Treasure, Texas Killing Fields. He found the hostage negotiators and bodyguards who inspired the characters in Man on Fire, including the protagonist played by Denzel Washington. In the real-life incident he'd researched, Ferrarone discovered, the cops in Mexico stole the ransom money they were supposed to deliver; the director stuck that juicy bit in the movie, too.
For The Taking of Pelham 123, he found two Albanian bad guys fresh out of prison to coach the actors playing bad guys on how to act menacing. Instead, the director cast the actual bad guys. "They were hard to handle on set," Ferrarone recalls.
|John Travolta in The Taking of Pelham 123|
Fleshing out the traits that make for a three-dimensional movie character is much the same as debriefing a criminal informant. "You get your hands on a hugely important insider, then you flip him," Ferrarone explains. "Then you debrief him for weeks or months."
At some point during the research, a lightbulb goes off as he realizes, "This is absolutely the story."
Those moments can come quickly, "or they can come the hard way," he says. "Just hours and hours of digging." He has conducted 80 interviews so far for the Top Gun sequel. He's still not done.
At an age when other men are retiring, Ferrarone, 64, is full throttle into a second career. "There are nights when I can't sleep because I'm running through two or three stories in my head," he confesses.
It happened to him today. He woke up at 4 a.m. thinking about a Mafia guy he'd interviewed, who was sitting in the hospital holding his wife's hand while she's in labor. The big bosses come in and order him to go kill someone. He does. But he makes it back just in time for the baby. That scene will be in Ferrarone's next film project, Mafia Cops.
One story leads to another, and another, in an endless stream. "I'm compulsive about it," he says. "Maybe it means I need to get a life, or something."Follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.