The Strange, Ongoing Saga of Sean Penn, El Chapo and Who Was (and Wasn’t) Making a Movie

Sean Penn and El Chapo shaking hands - H 2016
Courtesy of ABC News

Despite claims made in a new Reelz documentary, the actor signed an agreement making clear that he had no rights to the film project, sources tell THR.

There is no truth to recent allegations that Sean Penn’s clandestine meeting with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was designed for him to obtain film rights to the Mexican drug lord’s story, sources close to Penn insisted to The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday.

However, the sources confirmed that two established film producers, Fernando Sulichin and Jose Ibanez, did indeed accompany the actor on his much-publicized trip to Mexico last year. It is unclear whether they were working with actress Kate del Castillo to develop a movie about the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, who made headlines across the world when he escaped from a high-security Mexican prison in July. (He was recaptured in January.)

Penn signed an agreement with Sulichin, Ibanez and del Castillo making clear that the actor had no rights to the film project, according to two sources. The producers and del Castillo were then able to secure the rights to an El Chapo project, one source said, but this could not be confirmed.

Sulichin and Ibanez’s names are disclosed in El Chapo & Sean Penn: Bungle in the Jungle, a Reelz documentary scheduled to premiere Thursday at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT, whose central allegations were widely disseminated online on Wednesday. 

According to the hour-long documentary, Penn and the producers were working in tandem with director Oliver Stone, who reportedly was willing to pay $6 million for the movie rights. Stone and Penn previously collaborated on 1997’s U Turn, a box office disappointment that earned $6.7 million domestically.

Stone did not respond to an email requesting comment. But a production source close to him said: “Stone is not at all involved. Zero."

The $6 million number is massive by Hollywood standards — it’s three times the amount Sony Pictures paid for the rights to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, for instance. At a time when Stone has been vocal about the difficulty of financing his more controversial subjects, that dollar figure seems unlikely. Stone acknowledged recently that getting money for any serious film was difficult, including his upcoming Snowden, about government whistleblower Edward Snowden."

During an audience Q&A that took place Sunday in Sun Valley, Idaho, moderated by this reporter, the Oscar-winning helmer of Platoon and Wall Street said that, even with his involvement and that of stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley, “No studio would support [Snowden]. It was extremely difficult to finance, extremely difficult to cast. We were doing another one of these numbers I had done before, where pre-production is paid for by essentially the producer and myself, where you’re living on a credit card.” Financing came from France and Germany. “The contracts were signed, like eight days before we started.”

A source close to Penn pointed out that the actor has repeatedly said he has no interest in making a movie about El Chapo. He reiterated that during a recent interview on PBS’ Charlie Rose.

Sulichin has had a long and close association with Stone. In addition to Snowden, he executive produced the filmmaker’s Savages and co-executive produced Alexander. His other credits include Spring Breakers. "Contractually I cannot speak about anything until Snowden comes out — media, film, anything,” Sulichin told THRSnowden, which he produced, opens Sept. 16.

Ibanez is the executive producer of Snowden and, along with Sulichin, was a producer on Stone’s documentary series The Untold History of the United States.

Penn’s interview with Guzman was published in Rolling Stone in January. In the interview, he did not name the two men who accompanied him, but used the pseudonyms Espinoza (whom he called “my brother in arms … the owl who flies among falcons”) and El Alto Garcia. Penn was not available for comment.

The Reelz documentary is the work of four producers, three of whom have a long history of writing for tabloid newspapers and television. Australian reporter-producer Peter Brennan shares executive producer credit with his wife, Lisa Lew, and Burt Kearns, who has worked for such television shows as Hard Copy and is the author of the 1996 tell-all memoir Tabloid Baby.

Brennan spent many years within the Rupert Murdoch fold, first with The Sydney Morning Herald and then as executive producer of the defunct tabloid TV show A Current Affair, where he worked with Kearns, as he later did at Hard Copy.

Josey Crews, an Atlanta-based media consultant, served as a consulting producer, he confirmed to THR. He did not respond to requests for further comment.

Reached Wednesday morning, Brennan said he did not name the sources in his documentary. “We say, ‘On the boulevard, the word is ….’ ” he noted. “We have sources. They won’t be named, but they are people who worked with Oliver Stone and his people. In that circle there is a source that brought up the $6 million figure. I can’t tell you 100 percent that the source is correct.”

He said he and his colleagues reached out to Stone, Penn, Sulichin and Ibanez, none of whom responded. “We made the calls and nobody was available.”

The documentary was put together quickly. “It was an idea that jointly came up between me and the Reelz people,” said Brennan. “They are looking for reality shows that have a Hollywood base to them. This was a perfect mainstream story that really interwove Hollywood with a national-international crime story. It was a pretty quick turnaround. We started maybe a month ago, five weeks ago.”

He added that lawyers had vetted his documentary. “There is nothing slanderous in it, nothing illegal that went on.” Those lawyers were not connected to Reelz, however.

“We operate with outside production companies, and Peter vetted it with his lawyer,” said Steve Cheskin, senior vp programming for Reelz. “We have total confidence in Peter and his experience.”