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
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,"
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
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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
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