‘Sicario’ Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan on the ‘Answerless Problem’ of the Drug War

What to do in the face of such an impenetrably bleak outlook?

'Sicario' Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan on the Drug War
Courtesy of Lionsgate

Taylor Sheridan has made his way in the industry as an actor, but with Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” and the upcoming “Comancheria,” he has said he’s interested in exploring the American frontier 150 years later. What’s changed? What hasn’t?

“Sicario” in particular was an opportunity for him to look at the consumer appetite of the country through the bleak spectrum of the seemingly un-winnable drug war. He spoke to Variety recently about being attracted to the inherent drama of that backdrop, what it has to say about the increased military footprint of foreign policy and what, if anything, might be the best solution — in lieu of a good one, anyway.


So, to say the least, this is a heady and dark subject matter to dive into. What kind of research did you put into the project?

It’s a pretty easy thing to research if you want to, as far as an understanding of the calamity that was taking place at the time I wrote the screenplay. You can put in any number of searches into Google and come up with a host of articles. There’s a tremendous amount of various blogs and writers in Mexico who have written some very poignant and tragic things about it. I went there, but there’s a certain amount of how I did some research that I’m not sharing with anyone. There’s a real sensitivity, obviously. And people who are in Mexico who I spoke with, for clear reasons, I’m just leaving all that out.

Here’s the thing about the film that’s worth noting: The landscape is cartels and the drug war. But that’s not really what the movie’s about. It’s really a broader philosophical question of what is the rule of law? Who adheres to it and do the ends justify the means? What is the consequence of a consumer nation and that appetite? Those are the things that I was really exploring, and this, coincidentally, provides the perfect landscape to explore all of them. So there was a contractor with a defense intelligence agency that I spent quite a bit of time talking to, as I understood how one could manipulate law to allow certain things to take place. Now obviously it’s an imagined circumstance. I’m not insinuating that our government is sending out SEAL teams to strike at people in northern New Mexico, but if they were doing that, this is how it would be done.

That having been said, what did you think specifically needed to be explored in the drug war that hadn’t been touched upon yet?

It was the totality of violence as a means of doing business. It was literally, to me, the most shocking thing about the architects of the drug trade, their willful use of violence as a method of doing business. And it’s literally that impersonal to them. Effective ways of using violence to control a populace — that’s what they do. And it isn’t just killing. It’s killing and mutilating, displaying — it’s terrorism, essentially, except it’s not to achieve a political goal, it’s to make money. It’s a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry. There are guys on the Forbes 400 list because of their involvement in the drug trade. More than one. And that’s just what we know. So it was worthy of exploring in a way that showed its effect on law enforcement and on the effect of, “When does law enforcement become military intervention?” Obviously it’s a very relevant subject as we’ve done it in two places now and we’ll probably start it in a third in Syria, where we went from soldiers with an operation and a goal to policing in that same location, policing the people we were fighting a war with. It’s an odd, fascinating contradiction, and by the way, not the intention of the military. So I imagined a logical progression of that. What if we applied that same theory right here?

On the notion of terrorism, I can’t even wrap my head around the concept of stuffing bodies into the walls of a house. Beyond just being an effective means of hiding them. It’s so arbitrary and bizarre.

I don’t understand it either. But there’s so much of what’s done that I don’t understand. And I don’t try to understand it. I just show it. I heard a story about someone who literally cut the face off of this man and sewed it on a soccer ball and kicked it down the street. How do you — there is no understanding that. But ignoring it isn’t going to help.

What did you make of the pressure to change your leading character to a male?

I think there was some pressure on Denis, or it might have been a conversation that they had. The pressure on me was prior to Thunder Road, etc., getting involved. Very early on I took a meeting with a producer who asked if I would change the role to male so a specific actor could play it. I used a couple of strong adjectives in my reply and haven’t spoken to him since.

Why did you feel so strongly?

I didn’t want it to be just this do-gooder guy. I wanted it to be someone that had sacrificed a tremendous amount to achieve her position of respect and authority, and I wanted to see the consequences on her face. I didn’t want it to be, you know, Ronda Rousey. I didn’t want it to be this physically superior being. I wanted it to be somebody that was mentally strong and emotionally strong and had willed herself to be respected and good at her job, and it took a tremendous toll on her personal life, and to me, that was indicative of her dedication. That’s the kind of person you would believe would fight for the rule of law, somebody that had given so much to it, that had paid such a price to protect it. I thought it was extremely important that we be able to witness that and understand it instantly just by looking at that character. So to change that in any way would minimize the impact of that. And then we would just start questioning: “Well, why doesn’t this person just go along with it? Why is this person so resistant? Maybe you should try this. Nothing else is working.” But if you can really feel how much she has committed to this, then you never question her morality.

Kate’s based on an actual person. When I met the person, I was so taken by that essence in her. And interestingly enough, the person I based Kate on, in the real world, has [Josh Brolin’s character] Matt’s job and is someone who had been deployed overseas and operated around Pakistan and had been in Iraq and worked in all these places, and yet, she’s 5-foot-4. She’s a buck-oh-five. And she is extremely intelligent and extremely capable, and you could tell she worked at it, and you could see the toll. I thought that was fascinating.

Speaking of which, I imagine you were aiming to make her a surrogate for the audience, but there’s this sort of mystified indignation about the character. She’s quite passive in some respects. That’s pretty tricky to pull off in a protagonist.

Yes. I broke a lot of conventions. Look, I spent a long time as an actor. I spent a lot of time playing pretty ordinary arcs. So with these characters, I really tried to break a lot of the rules I had been held to. Matt has no arc whatsoever. We have no backstory on anybody. We don’t know anything. Information is leaked out as little as possible. Kate is completely impotent once she gets in this machine. She has no ability to effect any change except to try and get someone to listen to her, which turns out to be almost impossible. She is the eyes of the audience and I needed her to feel in the dark to magnify the audience feeling that way, and I needed her shock and indignation to mirror ours.

My idea with this was to play with the idea of, “Who is our protagonist? Who am I rooting for here?” I really wanted to shift that perspective. So when we meet her, we see she’s capable. We see she’s good. We see her overcome obstacles. And then we meet Matt, who’s charming, who’s wildly capable, and we start to really like him. Then we wish she would shut up for a minute and let’s turn this guy loose. And then we meet this wildly sad, strange man that we don’t know anything about [Alejandro, played by Benicio Del Toro], that seems to have complete liberty to do whatever he wants, but he’s not even American. And then we start to empathize with him, and hopefully the audience roots for him to be turned loose. And then when I shift that perspective in the third act and we follow him as our hero, and you see what he does, the intention is that the audience realizes in that moment that Kate was right all along. It was very risky to do, and had it been in any capacity lesser anything, it wouldn’t have worked. It was so brilliantly handled by Denis and so flawlessly performed by Emily [Blunt] and Josh and Daniel [Kaluuya] and Benicio.

Was there ever a temptation to step back for a bigger-picture look, to delve into the political impunity that sits at the root of all of this?

When I sat down to do this, the biggest challenge, for me, was how do I solve the conflict without giving the illusion that the problem has been solved? How do I kill the antagonist without killing the antagonist? That was one of my biggest concerns. So the way to do it was, at that moment, when Fausto is killed, is to realize that Fausto isn’t the antagonist. It’s Alejandro.

Alejandro being what we could become.

Yes. The full manifestation of what we could become. And look, Alejandro’s motivation for what he does, it’s understandable. It’s palpable, all that he’s lost. He was Kate before his family was killed. He was a federal prosecutor, by the book; do everything the right way and justice will prevail. And then it didn’t, in the most gruesome of ways. And he embraced the notion that the only way to win is to kill them all until maybe someone stops buying this garbage.

I’m a big believer in, ‘”If anyone can understand my politics, I’ve failed.” If you can get a sense of which side of the fence I’m on, then I’m not doing a service. I’m preaching, and that’s not my job. And I don’t have the answer anyway. But you can certainly acknowledge that there is no such thing as a victimless crime when it comes to drugs. Doing drugs — this is how they get to you. There is blood on the hands of every drug delivered illegally. There is a price. There are very desperate people who are forced to do very bad things to get people their drugs. So it’s not victimless, and that’s the one point I wanted to make. If people want to smoke it and snort it illegally, this is how it gets to you. Is the answer to legalize it? That’s an answer, that creates a whole host of other problems, but it’s about appetite.

You just said you don’t have an answer to this but I’ll ask you anyway. What you depict here is a bleak and defeated outlook on the drug war. Strides have been made, however, with dogged police work in places like Colombia, Peru and Guatemala. But I’m curious what you think will ultimately drive results: that kind of by-the-book diligence or a breed of dirty war depicted in “Sicario”?

Well, it’s interesting, because I would like to see an example of a dirty war succeeding. Where is that? It didn’t work in Vietnam. It didn’t work in Nicaragua or Honduras. It’s not working in Afghanistan. Like, where did it work? It’s fascinating that we keep utilizing a methodology that is a 100 percent failure rate. To me, it’s a human nature problem at the end of the day. We keep trying to symptomatically treat the problem, but the problem is people want to get high, need to get high, are conditioned to the point that it’s an industry that literally supports an economy. There’s a whole host of reasons for that. You have recreational drug users. You have people who were born into poverty and desperation and who were raised around it. Could there be, you know, inherited susceptibility to it? Absolutely. So there’s all these other things beyond it.

I think the only way to eliminate this is to make them legal, fully admitting that making them legal, now we’ve just made Pfizer and Merck our drug dealers, and we’ve given them a financial incentive to sell heroin. And that’s a terrible idea. But at least it eliminates the victimization of just thousands of very desperate, very innocent people. Because that’s what people don’t realize. It’s on the backs of innocents that drugs are brought here. So it eliminates that. But do I have any real hope? I mean, look, we’ve known smoking kills for half a century, and knowing it, we’re still losing 300,000 people a year to it in this country. So to me it’s a human nature question, as opposed to some political fix. Could you send the 82nd Airborne in and two ranger teams and knock the problem out in a weekend? Yeah, and you could drop napalm where they’re growing this. You could go World War II on it and knock it down, and then it would come right back. So it’s an answerless problem at this point, which is a bleakness I tried to convey, which hopefully just makes people have the conversation. If anything changes hopefully it’s that guy who thought that whenever he bought whatever he bought, it had no consequences other than him, that it’s harmless. I’m just going, “No, it’s not, dude.”