Michigan native and "Narcos" co-creator Doug Miro talks about the art of screenwriting
When I talked to him on the phone recently, Michigan native Doug Miro was driving around Bogotá, Colombia, looking for a good coffee shop. He was shooting a few episodes for season three of the Netflix show Narcos, which he and collaborator Carlo Bernard created along with their partner and showrunner Eric Newman. Miro and Bernard, along with a team of writers, pen the scripts, and the two take turns filming episodes in Colombia and California.
Miro and Bernard have worked together for years now, writing screenplays for Steven Spielberg, Harvey Weinstein, and Jerry Bruckheimer, scripting films such as Prince of Persia (which starred Jake Gyllenhaal), The Wall (starring Matt Damon), Tintin, The Uninvited, and the television series Narcos, which Miro describes as more of a “20-hour movie."
Miro will give a free talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) on Wednesday, April 19, at 7 pm. The event is co-presented by the MOCAD and the University of Michigan's Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series.
Q: What will you talk about at MOCAD here in Detroit?
A: I'm focusing on the process of how Narcos first came about and what the process is like, episode to episode. A little bit behind the scenes of the scripting, producing, and editing process. Hopefully I can give people an insight -- a little glimpse behind the curtain.
With Narcos, back when we started, had the director, José Padilha, not insisted that it be made in Colombia, I don't think there would be a third season. The director is Brazilian, and he insisted it all be shot in Colombia for authenticity, and he was absolutely right. That's one of a thousand decisions that we made, but it was essential.
We also get a lot of Latin American directors, and I think it's better for them to be in Colombia. The crew is from here -- some from Mexico and Brazil -- and all that gives it authenticity. There's a lot of people who know the story, who live the story. Those things all help.
Q: You've written a variety of things, like action, horror, and a video game adaptation. Can you describe the approaches that you took to writing those and the complex storyline that you're writing for Narcos?
A: Usually the big distinction with television is that it's not closed-ended -- it's this endless, ongoing story. What allowed us to do Narcos is we pitched it as a 20-hour movie. We always approach a season of Narcos as one long movie.
In a film, there's such a relentless need for building tension. You have a captive audience that's there for two hours; you don't want them looking at their watches or wanting to leave. And that's a totally different structure than an audience that's choosing to pick up the remote, pick Narcos, and watch it. That's more of a novel versus a short story, almost.
We feel like we can approach any character-driven genre based on making sure that it feels like a fulfilling and tense ride for the main characters. It's just about putting characters in a predicament --
whether it's a horror, crime, or western predicament -- they’re all stories about a character in a predicament.
Q: You seem attached to stories, not to genre. What inspires you about them?
A: I think why I'm so open to stories is because it's a real journey for me. I’m attracted to the types of stories that take me somewhere, on an adventure to a place where I haven't been before. It might not be very far from where I’ve been. For instance, the first script that Carlo and I wrote was about Detroit in the 1950s, and I think that what inspired me was that I'd heard my parents talk a lot about the city in the '50s and what a dynamic place it was. I wanted to imagine that.
I did a lot of research -- I really wanted to be in that city when it was different from what I grew up in. So it wasn’t far, but it was still different.
I’m a lover of classic, mythic storytelling. Stories that move me in big ways. You can easily fall into the conventions of that approach to storytelling. Sometimes those stories can feel broad because they’re big and ambitious. They’re standing on the shoulders of what preceded them. There’s pressure to be better than those movies. People are so inundated with material and stories, you have to be fresh in some way, or bring some new assault to their senses, or else they're just not going to be interested. They'll go off and do something else, where they're in charge of it and can control the ending.
I never thought it would feel old-fashioned to sit in a movie theater for two hours. It always felt like such a precious and exciting experience to me. But I think for some people it does, and that's kind of frightening for those of us who love that experience and want to make sure that it's great. It puts a lot of pressure on movies to be special and different every time someone goes in the theater.
What we're trying to do, especially in a feature film, is keep an audience captive for two hours. I think about the exercise of that. I mean, everyone has a certain willingness when they go in the theater, right? They're happy to be there, and they want to be taken away for two hours. To do that, you have to be conscious about the audience, keeping their attention, their interest, and their emotions engaged. It's very much about that basic form of entertainment.
When we were working for Jerry Bruckheimer -- he’s a Detroiter and comes across that way, a real Midwesterner, not pretentious -- he would just say, “You know, I go to movies because I just want to sit back, eat my popcorn, and be taken away. I think that's why everyone goes to movies, and that's why I make movies.”
Maybe that seems overly simplistic, or not ambitious, but when you try and make one of these movies at that size and scale, just nailing the basic things is so hard. To me, it's a great challenge and really fulfilling to be able to do that.
Q: Where or how did you learn to write? You attended the University of Southern California, but I wonder if part of your training was trial by fire, good mentors, the collaborative aspect, or something else.
A: I'm always still trying to learn from mentors, and from my fellow writers, and by reading. But I think if I had to break it down, you learn by mimicking what you like. If you can do that, you can then start to learn your own voice and find your own voice.
I think I started out doing two things: One was trying to learn the structure of how to tell a great story, which is essential to screenwriting because it's such a craft. It's more rigid -- not rule-bound, but there are certain parameters to it that I think are less true of writing a novel. People have certain conventions and expectations. There's a certain chair-building quality to writing a screenplay -- a part of it that's making furniture. You need to be able to sit in it, it needs to be functional, it needs to work. So those rudimentary, practical things I learned at USC.
A huge part of what screenwriters do is solve problems. It's an unseen part of our craft. A team is trying to make something, and they say, “We can't make this. How would you fix it? This doesn't make sense. How would you change it?” And you sit in a room in a meeting or on set, and you have to be able to solve that problem right away. That's not a typical writer's skill -- that's more of a specific screenwriter's skill.
And then, trying to elevate my writing and get it to where it’s at a level with professional screenwriters, I learned by reading and imitating those writers. I went and worked for Michael Mann in development, and I read every screenwriter I could find. I spent a lot of time with Carlo just saying, “Could we do what that guy does here?” We tried to pick and choose the best of them and see if we could get those skills. That process is ongoing.
I think there are straightforward things, too. Is your script good enough to get made? Is it practical? Does it have a character in it that's going to appeal to a big actor, which will get people to spend money on it? Even established screenwriters live paycheck to paycheck, or are paid based on a script rewrite. There's very little profit-sharing for us, as opposed to how actors and directors are paid -- they just have much more leverage. It's very much a service business, more than you'd expect it to be as a creator. My dad is a lawyer, and I saw what it was like for him in the service business. We share a lot in common, surprisingly.
I think the blank page and sitting in a room is a challenge for some writers. For me, it's not. I love sitting with my imagination. My favorite part is sitting alone in a room, just challenging myself, and doing the best work I can.
I love it. I thank my lucky stars every day that I get to do it. There certainly are compromises you make. You may end up writing some material that you didn't imagine you would write. But I would be pretty bad at anything else. I don’t have any other talents, really, besides my imagination.
Q: Is there any question that you don't get asked enough, that you're dying to answer?
A: It's funny: Writers don't get asked a lot of questions. We're kind of in the background. But I'm always eager to both demystify that process a little for people and help them to understand how essential the writer is. I feel that what’s put forward in the media is how important and essential directors and actors are. I think writers are in the unfortunate spot of being in the background.
And I think something that comes up a lot is people asking why Hollywood makes so many bad movies. Trust me: A movie would not have gotten made if the script wasn't great. Enough smart people have read it, and no one would have taken the risk.
But in executing that script, a sort of alchemy occurs after everyone agrees that the script is great. It could go one of 20 ways at that point, and that's why Hollywood doesn't always make great movies. The more people you throw into an equation -- with all their foibles, their ambitions, their flaws -- the more luck plays a role. All it takes is one thing to unravel it.
It's luck, management, talent. But not just one person's luck, and ability to manage, and talent. Everyone feels very lucky when it does come together. I think there's a camaraderie in that in Hollywood, of everyone knowing that we're all just trying to make good stories and hoping they work. If you're not living it, it's hard to get that -- all you see is the finished product.
Elizabeth Wason is a science writer with the University of Michigan's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.
Doug Miro will give a free talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) on Wednesday, April 19, at 7 pm. The event is co-presented by the MOCAD and the University of Michigan's Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series.