'Narcos' Death Has TV Scouts Questioning Risky Assignments
Should location scout Carlos Munoz Portal have been sent to a high-crime area of Mexico? Says one expert, "That's insane to me."
The tragic death of a Mexican location scout on the hit Netflix show Narcos has led to soul-searching in the scout community, even as questions remain about the circumstances of the shooting.
Carlos Munoz Portal, 37, likely was a victim of a random act of violence, according to a production source on Narcos apprised of the ongoing local investigation. "The show has never received a threat from any narco-traffickers in four years, and that includes currently," the insider tells The Hollywood Reporter.
The scout was found in his car Sept. 11 on a remote stretch of road near Temascalapa, about 40 miles northeast of Mexico City. According to local reports, his body and car were riddled with bullets. The area is one of Mexico's most dangerous, with cartels and criminal gangs vying for turf and the spoils of an ongoing drug war. (Narcos filmed in Colombia for three years without incident, according to a source on the show.)
Portal apparently had been to the area around Temascalapa before and even had used the location in a previous production without incident. At the time of his death, he was working at Redrum, one of Mexico's largest production companies. Portal had a reputation as a skilled and innovative scout, with credits on the James Bond film Spectre and the drug war thriller Sicario, both of which featured dramatic locations in different regions of Mexico.
"We are aware of the passing of Carlos Munoz Portal, a well-respected scout, and send our condolences to his family. The facts surrounding his death are still unknown as authorities continue to investigate," Netflix responded after news of Portal's death first appeared.
Portal was scouting for the fourth season of Narcos, which moves the drug cartel series from Colombia to Mexico. The third season finale set Narcos up to track the next "real" threat of the war on drugs in Mexico, though it's unconfirmed that the season will center on the Juarez Cartel. "Past a certain point, and I think we've just reached that point in our show, Mexico became the kings of the cocaine game," showrunner Eric Newman told THR about the show's timeline. "There is definitely a natural passing of the torch to Mexico, who at the time were already very successful as heroine and marijuana smugglers. It makes perfect sense that you would employ what they call the Mexican Trampoline to bounce cocaine into the States."
Nearly immediately after Portal's death, Pablo Escobar's elder brother Roberto De Jesus Escobar Gaviria, 71, went after Netflix in a public spat, alleging that the streaming company owed him and his company, Escobar LLC, $1 billion for the rights to the term "narco," which it claimed to have trademarked.
State and local authorities in Mexico are reportedly investigating Portal's death but so far haven't released any findings or comments. Netflix has not said whether it is participating.
The news of Portal's death was the second such high-visibility murder of a location scout in less than three months. In July, commercial location scout Ed French, 71, was killed in the early morning hours in a robbery while taking pictures at the Twin Peaks observation area in San Francisco.
Both deaths are the subject of uneasy conversations among Hollywood's scouting community.
"The producers on Narcos, if they're the ones who sent him out there to scout and go there, that was reckless on their part," says Eric Hooge, a scout who has worked on the Fast & Furious franchise and Superman Returns. "And it was reckless for him to agree to it. Why shoot a TV show in some of the worst areas of Mexico? That's insane to me."
Hooge says that while the deaths of Portal and French generated a lot of bad publicity, scouts log countless thousands of hours all over the world, largely without incident.
There are other considerations as well. "Usually you don't scout dangerous places, not for your safety, but you wouldn't want to take a crew into those places," says Bill Bowling, a longtime scout who has made a career of specializing in exotic foreign locales on huge productions like Batman v. Superman.
Netflix has a reputation among scouts as one of the safer companies in Hollywood, one that pays special attention to making sure the cast and crew feel secure. The work is not without risk, Bowling adds. "If you completely eliminate risk, you may not find the best locations," he says, "You can't just go to the safest places, or you won't have the most interesting, stimulating locations."
But danger can come from anywhere. Location manager Doug Dresser, who worked in Mexico on Kill Bill, says, "In some of those areas, just having a camera and taking pics of a public street makes people nervous."
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.