“In all my years of doing this, nothing has been as crazy and as exciting as what I went through this weekend,” begins David Broome, a veteran television producer who has been on the receiving end of an intense campaign by Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn to derail his new Netflix documentary, The Day I Met El Chapo. The critically acclaimed series released Friday chronicles Mexican telenovela star Kate del Castillo and Penn’s infamous 2015 meeting with cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, an event which may or may not helped lead to Guzman’s eventual capture. Below Broome (The Biggest Loser, Ultimate Beastmaster) gives his first full interview detailing how the project came together, his attempts to get Penn on board, tackles claims the documentary is putting the Oscar winner’s life at risk, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this project first get on your radar?
DAVID BROOME: In September of 2016 I was introduced to Kate and she had this desire to want to tell her story in a documentary form. I knew what took place on a broad-strokes level with her and Sean and the craziness of going down and seeing El Chapo, but I didn’t know a lot more than that. I went to her house and it was one of those life-imitating-art moments where your mouth drops. Her story was so unbelievable; this telenovela superstar living the life of a telenovela role. When you’re dealing with actors and doing a story on their life, they tend to be very guarded and put up emotional walls. She was giving me the details and raw emotion and the pain and the tears — and it was real. I said, “Can you give me this [on camera]? Will you talk this way? Will you be willing to bare it all in this story?” And she did. From there it was a very quick, secretive production because we knew we were going down into Mexico to shoot. We did not want to get shut down, we did not want to alert authorities, and we did not want to alert Sean Penn’s camp at that point.
How was production?
The goal was to capture Kate’s story, which is a very different story than what Sean Penn had told Rolling Stone. But there were also several other aspects I wanted to get into. How does a telenovela superstar and El Chapo cross paths? What would ever lead to someone like Kate to have the balls to do what she did? And why would someone like El Chapo ever allow someone like Kate into his life? We’re talking about the culture in Mexico, the Mexican government, the Mexican media, the machismo attitudes, sexism, the treatment towards women — all of these issues that you would never think this story would lead to.
From the outset, Sean Penn’s reaction had to be looming in your mind. How did you plan to handle that?
The second she finished telling me her story, I knew Sean is not going to want this documentary to come out. I told her I’m going to ask him to participate in this documentary, even though it’s your story and he’s had the chance to put his story out there. I want to hear from him. To Kate’s credit, she never said, “You can’t do that.” So I went to him after we shot almost everything.
And how did that go?
I’m going to give you details we haven’t told anybody. We tried several attempts to get Sean and have him participate. First, I asked Netflix to reach out to his agents. There were several calls made over several weeks. I also called his house and I spoke to his assistant and I gave all the details. I never got a single response. So let me ask you: If you’re Sean Penn and you’re so concerned about your safety and you hear I’m producing a documentary for Netflix with Kate del Castillo … are you going to not pick up the phone and call me back? We got nothing back from him. Then, when we were two weeks from launching the series, we get a call from his agents saying, “Sean must see this documentary … must.” And I said, “He can see it on Oct. 20 when it comes out.”
Because at that point the edit is locked, right?
On a TV network, I can make a change in the edit just before I go to air. On Netflix, making a change is an 8-to-12-week process. We have to re-edit the episodes, we have to remaster the episodes and then everything that has to be subtitled and dubbed for 120 countries around the world. So I said: “There’s really no reason why he should see it now, but if we’re just giving it to him out of courtesy and respect, okay, fine.” So Sean went and he watched it with his lawyer. And that’s when it all started.
The big point of contention, as I understand it, is that sources in the documentary suggest Penn alerted the Department of Justice that he was traveling to a secret location in Mexico to interview Guzman. Penn has strongly denied this through his lawyer, who called claims Penn “or anyone on his behalf alerted D.O.J. to the trip is a complete fabrication and baldfaced lie.” What do you think is true?
I don’t know what’s true. I know what’s in the doc. Nowhere do we say that Sean Penn was in cahoots, cooperating, working for, or with, the D.O.J. — or anyone else in the United States government prior to going down there. Kate’s criminal lawyer Harland Braun says in his opinion that Sean Penn would have told his attorney — who is a former federal prosecutor — that they were going down there. His attorney would have told someone at the United States government. Then the United States government would have told somebody in the Mexican government. What Harland was trying to say is: If you’re Sean Penn and you’re going to to see El Chapo in Mexico, would you just get on a plane going seven hours into the middle the jungle and not tell anyone? Not make sure that you are protected, at the very least, by journalistic immunity? That’s different than saying Sean Penn was in cahoots with the D.O.J. That was their big concern. But really what I think is Sean was concerned he was going to look like a jerk. There were things that Kate said he did that put her life in jeopardy and he comes off looking bad based on things she said about him.
Penn’s statement claims this documentary could put his life at risk — “blood will be on their hands if this film causes bodily harm.” Do you think his concern is valid?
There is nothing in this documentary that is going to be the cause of Sean being in any kind of harm’s way. If Sean Penn is in any harm’s way at all, it wouldn’t be because of this documentary.
What you’re leaving unspoken there … it sounds like you’re saying if he is in harm’s way, it’s because of his actions before the documentary came out which were already known?
That’s correct. It would be his own actions.
Penn’s a pretty powerful figure in Hollywood. People working in the industry generally avoid getting into such public disputes like this out of fear for their careers. Were you worried at all?
No disrespect to Sean Penn, but I didn’t care about his Hollywood clout. When you start being concerned about those types of things as a storyteller and producer, then it’s a pretty good indication that you’re not passionate enough about that project and probably shouldn’t be making it in the first place.
Kate del Castillo is an executive producer on the documentary and reportedly had a close relationship with Guzman. She recently claimed in an interview to have had sex with Penn. A producer of a documentary having sex with their movie’s subject isn’t exactly the journalistic norm. Did their relationship history concern you at all, particularly since Penn is claiming certain things were untrue?
Kate’s relationship — or as she said, “I had sex with him” — took place when they were working together on their visit and the return from El Chapo. Their personal relationship — forget anything romantic or sexual — they broke apart quickly before or around the time the Rolling Stone article came out. So there’s misinformation out there — Kate did not have sex with Sean while working on the documentary. They haven’t talked since that piece came out. And that’s a piece that nobody knew; it was revealed in the documentary. Everybody up to this point for the last several years thought that she and El Chapo were in some kind of a romantic relationship, but that was not the case.
Penn’s been mocked about this, but overall it sounds like he had a fair point he was trying to make that got lost amid the controversy — that a drug war targeting one kingpin at a time a failure and not the answer to reducing addiction.
I don’t know what his real reason was. Remember Kate believed that his reason was to make a movie. She secured El Chapo’s life rights. Kate’s reasons for bringing Sean was to add credibility to the film project. What made Sean want to write an article for Rolling Stone and be the guy to do this with El Chapo … I cannot fathom that idea. I want to ask you a question and I would love for you to put this into this piece: If you had an opportunity to go down and interview El Chapo under the same scenario, would you do it?
Whether to interview a fugitive criminal is one of the tougher questions in journalism, and it’s actually one I’ve been in the middle of before. At the start of my career, I got an exclusive interview with a serial arsonist in Phoenix who was being sought by the FBI for burning down luxury houses under construction; apparently he was protesting suburban sprawl. The interview caused a lot of controversy and we had to fight a subpoena to keep the source protected. It was an intensely difficult situation and ultimately I think the question comes down to: Is there a public interest served by doing this interview or not?
That’s a great question. It’s an amazing question to think about. And I don’t know what Sean was thinking or his agenda. As you know, the story from Kate is she had no idea he was going to ask El Chapo to do an interview for Rolling Stone. If she had known that in advance it would have been a very different set of circumstances. I certainly wanted to ask Sean: “What were you thinking and why?”
Why do you think he never told her? Was it because he didn’t trust her, even though they were having this relationship?
I don’t know. I don’t know if Kate might have said to him, “I’m not interested in doing an interview with him, I’m interested in doing a movie.” The story from Kate is that she did not find out about it until they were getting deep into the jungle and Sean just drops this news right on the spot. He put them all in potentially dangerous situations. I don’t know why Sean didn’t tell her in advance.
You were quoted in a leaked email worrying that Netflix might put the brakes on the project after Penn’s threats. How much were they freaking out?
They weren’t freaking out. I’m going to call it a “controlled chaos.” I am really proud of them. Were their “nerves on edge,” as I said? Yes, definitely. We wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing — not just from a legal standpoint, but morally and ethically as well. They were getting pressure from a lot of sources. We were taking what Sean was saying very seriously. The easy thing to do would have been to hit the brakes and regroup. You hear all the time how Netflix is great because they’ll let creators make what they want and they’ll stand by them. It’s one thing if they’re doing that for a scripted show, but another thing if it’s this kind of a situation and they still have your back. Ultimately I think Sean was trying to control the creative on a series he didn’t want out there.
Has there been any reaction from El Chapo’s camp?
We haven’t heard from him. But his son, Ivan tweeted over the weekend. [The tweets roughly translate as: “Things happen for a reason, of the good and the bad stuff, my father @ElChap0Guzman has no regrets … Finished watching the first season of “The Day I Met El Chapo” I think there’s a lot of stuff we still don’t know @katedelcastillo Hugs!”]
What about anything new from Penn’s camp since the documentary came out?
Not yet. The funny thing is that Sean went and hired a crisis manager, Mark Fabiani, who came out with a statement on Friday discounting everything. I’m not even sure he’d seen the documentary yet. We’ll see if they come back with anything new. We’d like to think it’s gone away. [The statement, also sent to EW in response to specific inquiries about this interview, reads: “These producers are propagating false and reckless fabrications for their profit. This is nothing but a cheap, National Enquirer-esque tale spun by a delusional person whose hunger for fame is both tawdry and transparent.”]
El Chapo originally gave his story rights to Kate for a movie. Will that project get made?
She says she still has those rights and wants to pursue that project. I think she wants to get through with this, and then she’s going to look into doing the film again.
Anything else that viewers of the documentary have been asking you?
I think that the public has been reacting to Kate. She’s in a very male-dominated world. She been very outspoken in the media in Mexico about aspects of the Mexican government, and actually filed a lawsuit against the Mexican government this past year which made some headlines for human rights issues. The timing is fortuitous for her story coming out while there’s this very tragic story with Harvey Weinstein. I’m proud to see that.
Ernest Macias contributed to this report; This interview was edited for length and clarity.