For director Ted Demme, Blow's combination of an intimate portrait of human yearning with an epic story of American crime and culture over the last three decades was an incendiary mix. "This is an amazingly tragic story, yet it's also exciting and sexy and fun because the backdrop is always sex and drugs and rock n' roll," observes Demme. "It's about a period of time in America that was all about transformation, from innocence to cynicism, from pot to cocaine. But it's also a very personal story to me because so many friends of mine have been touched by the effects of the drug trade and what happened during those flush days for George Jung."
When Demme read Bruce Porter's book Blow he was stunned not only by the story of how powder cocaine became America's biggest drug problem but by the extraordinary life of George Jung, who seemed to embody the freedom-seeking, money-hungry, hard-playing spirit of his times - and the price paid for it all.
At first, George seemed to be the least likely person on earth to become an international criminal and drug smuggler. But Porter wrote about how Jung made the decision never to work as hard as his dad or worry about money as much as his mother, no matter what it took. Starting out his adult life as a happy-go-lucky California hippie, George eventually followed a path that led him to become a snow-blind, adrenaline-addicted drug trafficker hunted by the FBI. Seduced by what he described to Porter as a world of "money, Lear jets, fast cars, wild women, houses with maids," George Jung could not get out without going down in flames.
"The story of George Jung was, well, mind-blowing to me," admits Demme. "It's the story of the American Dream gone terribly wrong, about a small-town boy who poured all his talent and dreams into trafficking cocaine in huge quantities. He was a guy who wanted to control his own destiny, who wanted to live by his own rules, like many Americans do, and he found a way to do it and get rich. A lot of people can relate to what George wanted, which was basically never to be told by anyone - not his parents or politicians or the law -- what he could and couldn't do."
Yet Demme also sees George Jung as a movingly tragic figure, a man who finally comes to see the devastating price of his underground lifestyle as he loses the only things in his life that ever meant something to him. "I like that the story isn't just about the drug smuggler's world. To me, it is ultimately a love story between a father and a daughter that is heartbreaking. It's about what happens when someone who can't afford to care about anyone finally discovers love," says Demme.
George Jung himself sees the story of his life as a cautionary tale. He recently told the PBS documentary series "Frontline": "I was a guy who had a lot of money and unlimited access to cocaine and even if I looked like Bela Lugosi I still had the most beautiful women on the planet because everybody at that time, especially women, was in love with cocaine and of course in love with money. But . . . I had lost myself to a certain degree . . . I began to wonder what the hell it was all about."
Jung also wonders something else about his story - about the future of the war on drugs. As he says in the "Frontline" interview: "There is no possible way to stop the importation of drugs into this country. But then, you know, we have to come to the pool of self-reflection and therein lies the monster of reason and we ask ourselves: was it the fact that I had the courage to be bad or why did millions of Americans not have the courage to be good?"
In Blow, George Jung is not just a drug trafficker, one of the first to see the profit-making potential in turning cocaine into a major recreational pastime, but a man of his times. Like America itself, he journeys from the innocence of the 60s to the decadence of the 70s to the retribution and redemption of the 80s and beyond. To play such a shifting role, Ted Demme wanted an actor with a reputation for originality and the ability to delve into the darkest spaces of human experience. He chose Johnny Depp.
"Johnny is a very unique actor," notes Demme, "and no matter what, he never gives a dishonest take. From day one, he became George Jung and the nuances he brought to the part never ceased to amaze me. His instincts are impeccable, not just as an actor but as a person."
Adds producer Joel Stillerman: "We knew the key to the success of the role of George Jung would lie in the subtlety and intelligence an actor could bring to it. Somebody had to make him much more than a drug dealer - and that's exactly what Johnny did. He brings a cerebral quality to his roles that takes them in unexpected directions."
Depp went to prison to meet several times with the real George Jung - who will be serving time on drug charges until the year 2014 -- to absorb the man's vast insider knowledge about the temptations and tribulations of the drug smuggler's unpredictable existence. Along the way he became fascinated not so much by Jung's experience as by his attitude.
"He really saw himself as a modern-day pirate," comments Depp. "He didn't believe in the system or politics or rules or bosses. He just wanted to go out there and really live. He didn't want to end up in a cookie-cutter job like everybody else. He had a real vision of freedom. He just wanted to do it and go out there and live in a very intense way. But it swooped him up, and he lost everything, including the people he loved."
Depp felt he could relate to Jung's dizzying rise to fame and fortune. "It reminded me of when I started acting because I didn't want to be this at all when I first started out. But I started making money like I'd never seen before in my life. And one thing led to another and suddenly I was on the rise and there was no stopping it," Depp relates. "And I think that's what happened to George. He was just going into business, the way he saw it. It was like Coca-Cola or McDonald's to him at first, just marketing a new product. And it was even being supported by the government, by very high-level politicians. I know that George sees now that he did some very bad things, but he was just following what looked at first like a promising future."
Throughout playing the role, Depp remained cognizant of the fact that he was playing a living human being who actually went through what he was dramatizing. "I feel a deep responsibility to George Jung because, bless him, he's in a prison cell without the possibility of parole for a long time," explains Depp. "I didn't get to spend that much time with him, but one day I just felt the character click into place. It's an exciting moment when you feel yourself thinking and moving and talking like another person. That's the most exciting thing to me."
Executive Producer Georgia Kacandes says that everyone involved with Blow watched in awe as Depp transformed himself into Jung. "He really got his body language, he even started to look like him in a weird way," she recalls. "There was a whole subtle shift in Johnny between the time George is in his prime to when he is actively deteriorating under the stress and doing too much coke.His body just collapses into itself and it's amazing. He physicalizes the role without makeup or wardrobe. It's all in his psyche."
Depp also dug deeper into Jung's incredible story of dodging not only the FBI but the deadly Colombian cartels. "I wondered how he could have done it all," admits Depp, "but I think it came down to the adrenaline. He needed the rush. The excitement and the danger became the high for him - the drugs were just incidental. He just liked being a pirate, doing things his way. He never thought of himself as a bad guy. He was just making money on his own terms, giving the people what they wanted."
Depp also feels strongly that George Jung has served enough time. "I hope that people see that he's just a human being who got caught up in something bad. Right now, he won't get out of prison until he's 72. Other people involved in the same bust got two to three years. I think he's paid his debt. One thing is for sure: he'll never go back, he'll never go back to this crazy life."
Joining Johnny Depp in Blow is an accomplished cast playing an assortment of colorful and unconventional characters who surround him on his journey to becoming a cocaine king. Director Ted Demme drew from a rich assortment of international actors, many of whom have rarely been seen in the U.S., to add a richness and excitement to the roles.
Playing George Jung's ravishing, demanding, high-living wife is Penélope Cruz, whom Demme was drawn to for her simmering screen presence. A major star in her native Spain, Cruz has been coming to the fore in Hollywood with recent roles in All The Pretty Horses (2000) and Woman on Top (1999), among others. "She has such a unique look and a way of acting that it goes beyond language," says Demme. "She really brought a lot of enthusiasm and positive energy to the film."
Says Depp of Cruz: "She plays Mirtha as this beautiful wild horse who George wants to grab the reins of, even though he knows that he can't. I was deeply impressed by her as an actress."
Cruz herself was intrigued by the challenge of playing "a woman who goes through so many changes and is so extreme." She sees Mirtha as someone "who for a while lived in a fantasy world that took her far from the pain of reality. She created a world of money and power and drugs and fashion and when she lost it all, she thought she lost everything. But she actually grows from that, and I thought that was very interesting."
In addition to learning about the drug-smuggling lifestyle, Cruz had to hone her accent from her native Castilian Spanish to the very different sounding Spanish of Colombia. "I spent a lot of time with Colombian women," she explains, "which was very helpful because I think they are much more feminine than other women and everything is kind of bigger. I also researched cocaine addiction and met with some addicts to understand what Mirtha was going through."
Cruz was especially drawn to the opportunity to work so closely with Johnny Depp. "Johnny is one of the most special people I've ever met," she says. "He has that magic charisma and he doesn't have to force it and I don't know if someone's born with that quality or if you have to work at it, but it's very rare."
Playing Johnny Depp's parents is a task that fell to Ray Liotta and Academy Award-nominee Rachel Griffiths, who portray Fred and Ermine Jung, an argumentative, working-class New England couple who thought they were raising a nice, small-town boy. It is Fred Jung who first tells George "sometimes you're flush and sometimes you're bust," a lesson it takes George a tumultuous lifetime to learn.
"It was a fun challenge to play Johnny Depp's dad," laughs Liotta. "But actually Fred Jung was a big influence on George. He was a hard-working guy who played by the rules and never amounted to much. George sees his father struggling and knows he doesn't ever want to live like that. Johnny plays it that George really loved his dad but he just couldn't stand to see him so brow-beaten by life."
Another pivotal character from George Jung's early life is his first love Barbara, played by German film star Franka Potente, making her American movie debut. Potente, like her character, was immediately attracted to George Jung after reading the script. "I just liked that he's this kind of goofy kid from a small town who comes to California when the whole culture is changing," says Potente. "I just fell for him. And I also liked that the script doesn't judge him or any of the characters. Everyone is portrayed as very human and that makes it real."
As for Barbara, Potente thinks she has a major impact on George's thinking. "She introduces George to his first drug connection, but it's more than that. They meet during the 60s and they have this dream together of living an open-minded lifestyle that's filled with enjoyment. He wants that dream but after Barbara gets sick, he never really falls in love again. He begins to learn that life isn't always fair."
That message is further hammered home to George when he winds up in prison. It is there he meets Diego Delgado, who claims to be an insider in Colombia's rising new drug trade. Delgado is played by Spanish film star Jordi Molla (also making his American film debut), who found a kinship in the film's sharp humor.
"I liked that it was a tragedy with a sense of humor," says Molla. "The whole movie is perfumed by the lifestyles of the 70s, by the styles and the women and the parties and the huge amounts of money. But of course this is only the perfume - inside is a very rich story."
As for Diego Delgado, Molla says: "He introduced George into the cocaine business because he was scared to do it himself. He could have had all the money but it goes back to an emotional thing. He wanted a companion and George was someone who had loyalty."
One of Blow's funniest roles is that of George's "California Connection," Derek Foreal, played by Paul Reubens, once better known as Pee Wee Herman. Ted Demme chose Reubens to give the pivotal character - who transforms from a Manhattan Beach hairdresser dabbling in pot to a major distributor of Colombian cocaine -- a distinctive and exciting personality. "Paul did exactly what I knew he would do: he just came in and created this amazing, unforgettable character," recalls Demme. "Derek became everybody's favorite because he's just so much fun to be around."
Adds Johnny Depp: "Paul's an amazing character actor who plays Derek as very flamboyant and yet at the same time shows you his faults and quirks and
deep insecurities. You really care about the character and then when he betrays George it becomes even more interesting."
Finally, Cliff Curtis gets a chance to play one of contemporary history's most feared and reviled criminals: Pablo Escobar, head of the Colombian drug cartels during their formative years, a man once personally worth $40 billion dollars (Escobar was gunned down by the Colombian Police in the 1990s). Observes Curtis: "I play one of the most complex and extraordinarily large personas in the world. It was a challenge to take a person considered so evil and find the humanity in him, to show him as a man, with real feelings and a real family."
Curtis delved into what little is known about Escobar's life and was continually fascinated by what he found. "He was a very dangerous man but I learned all sorts of extraordinary things about him, like he used to compose children's stories to read to his kids at night. He also built schools and hospitals and gave out bonuses to teachers because he believed in education. He even published an environmental newspaper. And yet this same guy is said to be responsible for 500 deaths. He was always a contradiction and there are so many stories it's hard to know what to believe."
Ultimately, Curtis decided to play Escobar as a man with two very different, compartmentalized sides. "I like to blur the lines," says Curtis, "and I came to see Escobar as a guy who never saw himself as the worst evil in the world. He saw that his country was in trouble and that the poor had no future and he found a way to make all the money in the world and to help people that way. And if it meant trading in cocaine, and maybe some extortion and some killing, well that's business."
With this remarkable cast assembled, Ted Demme felt the movie coming alive. "I really like ensemble pieces," he comments, "because I like to see all the pieces of the puzzle coming together. I really feel that every tiny little part in a movie can be really important. And this cast has so many characters, I decided to put together the coolest and best people I could find."
Like the cast of Blow, the film's production team was made up of many new and exciting faces including director of photography Ellen Kuras, a veteran documentary filmmaker who has worked with Spike Lee; production designer Michael Hanan, who impressed Ted Demme with his work on Michael Mann's acclaimed TV series "The Drug Wars"; and costume designer Mark Bridges, known for his work on Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999).
Demme brought them together with a unifying mandate: "I wanted this to be a really unique-looking film," he states. "I wanted it to be shot differently, to be designed differently, to be cut differently. I wanted it to be very fresh and yet also convey a sense of the different times. I wanted it to have attitude, because George Jung certainly did."
The team faced the epic challenge of designing distinctive looks for several different periods in U.S. history and culture - from the 50s lifestyles of George's parents through the 90s. Clothes shift from the paisley and madras, bikinis and blondes of the 60s to the wide lapels and wider pant legs of the 70s to the track suits and rocker haircuts of the 80s.
Explains producer Joel Stillerman: "Each of these periods embodied a very different sense and sensibility and we wanted to capture that. Because the movie's not so much about cocaine but about a man and his choices, the environment had to be incredibly authentic."
The film was shot on locations in both Southern California and Mexico. Innovative production design by Michael Hanan allowed for the re-creation of dozens of locations in several different decades, including the states of Massachusetts, Florida, California, New York and Illinois as well as the countries of Mexico and Colombia. In Mexico, the production filmed in the state of Morelos and in Acalpulco, where the film showcases some spectacular ocean-view homes.
Throughout it all, Ted Demme maintained a fun-loving spirit that kept the cast and crew motivated. "There was nobody better suited to tell this story than Ted because he really understands the idea of wanting to have the time of your life," says producer Joel Stillerman. "I mean Ted obviously lives his life on the right side of the law, but he understands that part of George. They both have this incredibly engaging personality and ability to be successful that carries them through. He created a very tension-free set where people were free to do phenomenal work."
For Stillerman and Demme, all the details of the production had to add up to rich, believable characters right out of the most extreme side of real life. "This isn't a drug movie in the sense that it's about the bad effects of drugs because that's been done very well before," summarizes Stillerman. "This is a movie that gets inside the head and the life of a guy from a background many of us come from, a guy from a small town and a hard-working family who made choices many people are curious about - a guy who chose a path that was adventurous, exciting, extremely profitable and ultimately devastating."