John Singleton Reveals Inspirations for His FX Cocaine Drama 'Snowfall'

The series served as the opening night at the sixth annual ATX Festival.
Michael Yarish/FX

John Singleton couldn't contain his excitement Thursday at the ATX Festival panel for his forthcoming FX drama Snowfall.

The screening, which served as the opening-night presentation of the sixth annual fest, was the first time Singleton and the rest of the team had shown the pilot on the big screen to those not involved in the project. And it seems safe to assume it went over well.

"I love you all," Singleton, who serves as a co-creator and exec producer on the series, told the crowd.

The evening was extra special for the acclaimed director, who said the idea for the '80s-set drama had "been germinating for many, many years."

Premiering July 5, the drama is set in 1983 against the infancy of the crack cocaine epidemic and its ultimate radical impact on the culture as we know it. The story follows numerous characters on a violent collision course, including: Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), a young street entrepreneur on a quest for power; Gustavo Zapata (Peris Mencheta), a Mexican wrestler caught up in a power struggle within a crime family; Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), a CIA operative running from a dark past who begins an off-book operation to fund the Nicaraguan Contras; and Luica Villanueva (Emily Rios), the self-possessed daughter of a Mexican crime lord.

Singleton particularly drew inspiration from his own life for Franklin's story. "This is kind of like my formative years," Singleton said. Like Franklin, Singleton grew up in South Central but for one year attended school in the valley, Tarzana specifically, where he studied alongside largely Jewish and Japanese classmates -- a departure from the kids he knew back home. "It changed my life," he said.

Like the series depicts, "kids from the ghetto smoked weed and my friends from junior and high school did coke," he said of the difference. "But this is before crack, so it was an interesting thing to see how the transition was where that drug was accessible to people in the 'hood."

(While the last name Saint was for "dramatic irony," Singleton admitted to naming the character Franklin after the lone African-American member of the Peanuts gang, a fact that producers asked the crowd to "keep on the DL.")

The story of Snowfall also took a long time to get to the small screen because of production issues. The pilot was originally ordered in May 2015, which Singleton directed. However, one of the main actors exited the series and a new version of the pilot was directed by Belgian duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. Additionally, Justified vet Dave Andron boarded the project as co-creator and showrunner.

Andron's work on the Timothy Olyphant series came in handy on Snowfall, particularly when it came to figuring out the latter's "inherently dark" subject matter. "After six years of Justified, we always reached for the fun and I really took that to heart," he said. "I think you want the sugar that makes the medicine go down a little bit."

"People in desperate situations find moments of humor. There are humorous moments that come out of really desperate times," added castmember Juan Javier Cardenas. "In that, you see more of the human element of it."

While the main characters operate largely in separate storylines, Andron said the common thread is they all enter the drug world because "they all want to better their lives."

Hudson shared that sentiment. "It's three separate coming-of-age stories, and I think these characters are trying to figure who am I, what do I want to be, where do I wanna go?"

All three actors in attendance discussed the extensive research involved to dive into the world of Snowfall, particularly because of the lack of material about the CIA's actual role in all of it.

"I didn’t know any of it and then when I found out I was terrified. Reading the books and watching documentaries, I'm like we should be talking about this everyday. That the CIA was illegally operating within the United States is shocking and appalling and terrifying," he said. "We don't talk about it, and it's considered almost fringe conspiracy theory at a certain point and it's crazy."

Because the true story of the CIA's involvement is not clearly documented, Singleton and the other producers based the series almost entirely on first-hand accounts. "There are people that lived this stuff, we had to bring people in the room that could speak to this," Singleton said. "We brought in consultants who were deep into each part of it."

Also helping to make story authentic were the references to the '80s woven throughout the show, particularly the music choices. "It is nostalgic in a way but not over the top," Singleton said. "It does give a muscle identification with what's happening in the moment."

However, not every trend from that era will translate to the series. "Costumes for me were a big one. How do you feel you're in the '80s without doing something distracting?" said Adron, noting with a laugh. "We ditched the shoulder pads."

Snowfall premieres July 5 on FX.

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