‘The Infiltrator’: Drugs, Money and an ’80s Banking Scandal

To write “The Infiltrator,” a memoir about his five years as an undercover U.S. Customs agent who took down a money-laundering ring, Robert Mazur relied on recordings of 1,200 conversations. The trained accountant, played by Bryan Cranston, was so meticulous with detail that his book’s glossary contains 194 names.

That is hardly the usual blueprint for a taut Hollywood crime thriller. So when director Brad Furman and screenwriter Ellen Brown Furman (his mom) souped up the source material, Mr. Mazur understood.

“It’s not a documentary, as I’ve heard one million times,” he says. “Believe me, if you’d been my partner at times, there’d be days you were so bored your eyes were rolling backward.”

The film, like the book, shows Mazur pretending to be “Bob Musella,” a mustachioed money launderer who uses his family-owned jewelry company as a front to convert suitcases full of drug money into more than $32 million in bank transactions.

Cinematographer Joshua Reis and director Brad Furman on the set of ‘The Infiltrator’
Cinematographer Joshua Reis and director Brad Furman on the set of ‘The Infiltrator’ PHOTO: BROAD GREEN PICTURES
The makers of “The Infiltrator” had to dramatize what first sparked a huge but complicated business story in the late 1980s: the collapse of Bank of Credit and Commerce International, known as BCCI. Absent from the film is any explanation of how the bank converted millions of dollars of drug money into European CDs used for loan collateral. Instead, there’s a montage of people writing numerous checks to illustrate the process of cleaning dirty money.

From the Archives: Rogue Bank: BCCI Took Deposits From Drugs, Noriega, And Now Is in the Red (May 3, 1990)
In converting the book into a screenplay, Ms. Furman expanded a sequence involving a lap dance into an explanation as to why Mr. Mazur needed a fake fiancée, provided by Customs, to allay the suspicions of Colombian drug lords. Mr. Furman cut references to how former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford were pulled into the scandal over ties to the bank, a section of the book emphasized in an early script.

‘The Infiltrator’: Drugs, Money and an ’80s Banking Scandal

Mr. Furman initially assumed he needed an experienced screenwriter to marshal this material. Nevertheless, he asked his mother, Ellen Brown Furman, to audition. A Temple University-trained lawyer who’d practiced for decades in Philadelphia, she had worked on civil trials involving medical malpractice and personal injury. Ms. Furman had written nearly a dozen scripts with her son, none of which turned into a film. She bonded with producer Miriam Segal, who worked with her on the first draft of the script.

“That was a controversial decision from the beginning,” the director says. “Who hires their mom?” She saw immediately the story was about money, not drugs, despite the shadowy presence of ’80s traffickers such as Pablo Escobar and Panama’s Manuel Noriega, and despite the temptation to use the drug lords to amp up the life-or-death nature of the drama.

As Mr. Cranston’s Mazur says while jogging in the film: “I think we’ve been doing this backward. We’ve been following the drugs to get to the bad guys. What if we chased the money?”

One way Mr. Furman livened up Cranston’s Walter-White-like world-weary character was to cast John Leguizamo, who has worked with the director before (in “The Lincoln Lawyer,” for one). He plays Mazur’s daredevil undercover partner Emir Abreu. Mr. Leguizamo is known for his manic performances, which suited Abreu, whom Mr. Cranston describes as “a jovial, joking, loose, spontaneity-driven kind of guy.”

Mr. Cranston said this contrast with his own character’s methodical nature helped him in playing his role.

Early on, Mr. Mazur had set up a U.S. Customs office meeting with Messrs. Cranston and Furman in Tampa. As they walked to the building, a wild-eyed homeless man jumped out at them and began to scream and rant. It was Mr. Abreu himself.

“Whoa!” Mr. Cranston recalls. “Who is this and what is he doing?”