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For ‘Savages’, in cinemas on July 6, Oliver Stone assembled a unique trio to inform the characters of Spin and Dennis: Ralph Echemendia, the production’s hacker expert; Patrick Fourmy, the cannibis consultant; and Eddie Follis, a recently retired DEA agent. None would have been voluntarily in the same room as the other had it not been for their involvement in this film.
The longtime documentarian felt there was an element of verisimilitude to this material, especially “having to do with local pot growers, the influence and impact of the Mexican Cartel.” Stone explains: “We were dealing with the raw edge of the marijuana trade, and frankly, you get a lot of false information and media hype. On ‘Scarface’, I was a stickler for detail. I wanted to know what the poundage of cocaine was, what was being shipped, who was behind it, etc. For this, I tried to know the same thing about marijuana, but it’s harder to find some of those facts.
“That’s where Eddie came in,” the director continues. “He gave me some good facts, and of course, Don Winslow has been around it for some time. As has Patrick, who’s been in the marijuana business for years, as well as the music industry. A generous man and amazing intellect, he was a kind of Svengali to many of us on the set. Through them and my own research, I became familiar with the quirkiness of the independent marijuana movement. It’s not a cartel, so everybody grows in their own eccentric fashion. Ralph helped us to ensure that the pivotal scenes in which Ben and Chon get off the grid and then dabble in their own cyberespionage were accurate…and up-to-date. We tried to add as much of that into the film as we could.”
Echemendia’s input took the film’s showcasing of money laundering, electronic and computer surveillance and cybertheft into the 21st century. “I’m what they call an ‘ethical hacker,’” the advisor says. “I specialize in cybersecurity, mainly in offensive security—meaning actually breaking into a computer system. Oliver wanted to make sure the hacking scenes were realistic. He was interested in the layers and making sure we had real things in the movie. For instance, nowadays, information can be stored on what looks like little credit cards, not just flash drives, so we added that in—as well as real logos and the energy drinks that we like when we pull all-nighters.”
Follis’ expertise in the world of the DEA has taken him from Southeast Asia and South America to the Middle East and Los Angeles, where he worked as the assistant special agent in charge of wire room operations, gang operations and general enforcement against cartel figures. As he puts it, “I was essentially Dennis, without the corruption.”
Follis worked closely with Stone and John Travolta to make sure that the shady DEA operative would be a credible one. The former special agent recounts the experience: “I met with Mr. Travolta in Dallas for four nights. First of all, he was the consummate gentleman. Secondly, he had super absorption on every single topic—even how to move, how to control a room with merely his body language. He wanted to know everything. He asked all the pointed questions that would prepare him for shifting universes that Dennis deals in. It’s a very duplicitous, murky world, and he dove right in.”
“I grilled him,” Travolta adds. “Eddie is a version of Dennis. I wanted to know what it was like to get to know someone so well that you’re going to have to betray them within months or years. He said it was tough on him because he grew attached to the people he was getting to know, with the knowledge that they would never realize that he did them in, the covertness is so severe and acute. That was fascinating: How far as an actor do you have to go to fool everyone? As it turns out, you have to go very far indeed because your life is at stake. The government’s at stake. Everything’s at stake.”
Follis also managed to organize an elaborate rogues’ gallery so that the actors could engage in conversations with real ex-cartel members. Johnson, whose character becomes perhaps the most well-versed in all aspects of the marijuana industry, from the humane and altruistic to the cutthroat and brutal, got an eye-opening education. The English actor received a crash course in the culture and politics of the American marijuana industry.
“We had a great team from preproduction and on set to help us through,” Johnson explains. “We sat down right at the beginning with Eddie, who introduced us to people who were in the cartel and in the Colombian mafia. It was great and a little terrifying to hear their stories. Oliver wanted us to indulge in the most preparation we could so it would seem natural, so we would really know our stuff.”
Image Courtesy of Savages