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Univision brings the 'El Chapo' story to TV. Will viewers root for him?

When Camila Jimenez Villa and Silvana Aguirre, the women behind Univision’s scripted series about Mexico’s infamous drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, told their respective friends and families about the project, the response came swiftly.

“They were like, ‘Can you do a romantic comedy instead?’” Villa recalled recently at her office in Culver City.

She understood their concerns.“I would be lying if I said, ‘Oh, I feel so comfortable.’ I’m very conscious of what we’re getting into, not only because of the drug side, but we’re also tackling corruption in the government.”

Aguirre added: “You sort of have to throw all that out of your head, otherwise you’re paralyzed by it.”

Villa, 33, oversees Univision’s L.A.-based content and development unit, Story House Entertainment, that is behind “El Chapo.” Aguirre created the series and serves as its showrunner.

The Spanish-language series is one of several planned projects about the fabled drug lord. Others include Fox’s “The Cartel,” from director Ridley Scott, and Sony Pictures’ “Hunting El Chapo,” with Michael Bay (“Transformers”) in talks to direct. And last year, the History channel announced it was developing a drama series about Guzman called “#Cartel.”

Univision’s “El Chapo,” starring Mexican actor Marco de la O (“Tanto amor”) as Guzman, tracks the rise and fall of Mexico’s best-known drug kingpin, who escaped twice from maximum security prisons before being recaptured and extradited to the U.S. this year. (Guzman’s next scheduled court appearance is May 5).

The drama is a collaboration between Univision’s investigative journalism unit and Story House, a production unit launched last year as part of the Fusion Media Group (owned by Univision Communications). “El Chapo” marks the first scripted series under the unit, which has previously focused on documentaries. The series also serves as Univision’s first co-production with Netflix.

In addition to consulting books on the drug lord, the writers on the series — a team of six that included Mexicans, Peruvians and Colombians — tapped Univision’s team of investigative journalists to increase authenticity. .

The series premieres Sunday on Univision and will be available on Netflix after its run on Univision. The second season is in production with a third season pending — for a total of 34 episodes.

We spoke to Villa and Aguirre about bringing the story of the infamous drug lord to the small screen.

Why tell Guzman’s story?

Villa: We always knew that El Chapo was an iconic figure . He is a dark character. And we know very little about him, really, at the end of the day. There is a complete fascination or interest from our audience every time we put something on about him. We could see how the ratings [went up] every single time there was something linked to him from a news perspective.

Aguirre: For me, the main thing was, he's a character whose professional life spans 25 to 30 years. And it's intertwined and embedded in Mexican history. He’s a character who gives a wider view of the drug trade. We wanted to look at all aspects that a lot of people in Mexico talk about — corruption in the government, even the involvement of the DEA, and look at how complex the world is.

When filming started, Guzman was still in Mexico, so production shifted to Colombia. Talk about what precautions you had to take to get this off the ground and how people responded to the idea of doing it.

Villa: Univision wasn’t in any way nervous about it doing this project. In fact, our CEO Randy Falco was a very big supporter from the beginning. But, yes, a show like this is complex. Even the way Mexican crews felt about working on this was revealing. There are many layers. We saw with the crew and with the writers that they almost had to cross some sort of barrier in their hearts and their minds before joining the project, understanding that it was really telling a piece of a story from Mexico. It was a charged project, for sure.

There were several considerations about the Mexico aspect. Security was definitely one of them. But Colombia has really good technical talent and we also knew that our dollars would travel a little further in Columbia than in Mexico just because of the cost of things and exchange rates. Colombia also offered a closer resemblance to the Mexico of the time period we were covering. But, yes, security in Mexico was a concern. When we went to Colombia, we told extras we were shooting a telenovela called "Dolores de Amor" (The Pains of Love). We wanted to keep it under wraps so very few people knew what we were working on.

Guzman’s lawyers tried to stop it, right? Did you worry that this series might not ever get made?

Aguirre: If Univision was not as supportive as they were, it probably would have been tougher for us. But we had the company fully behind us. We had the journalists fully behind us. We knew that ultimately what we were telling is something that's newsworthy. We're using materials that are in public domain. We never really felt like we were doing something wrong. Did we like that his lawyers came after us? No. Did we all talk about it and really thought deep about potential implications? For sure. We had multiple conversations about it.

What had you found most interesting or fascinating about him and how did that evolve as you worked on the show?

Aguirre: It was more about asking myself what drives a person for so many years with so many losses? He was born in a very poor area, almost forgotten area of a Spanish-speaking country. He could have lived his life anonymously. That would have been the natural path. He turned that destiny around. It takes some drive to do that. And that ambiguity of the character. You always hear that with his family, he's very loving, but with other people that come in, not so much. That balance for character is interesting.

Villa: That drive that you speak of, it's the core of the series. If you were to boil down what the series is about, it's about ambition. That's a super universal theme.

What were the discussions like about fleshing him out as a character? At least in the first episode, we see some humanity in him in relation to his father, but in another scene, he’s ordering the killing of people.

Aguirre: What I think we were doing mainly was trying to organize the elements to try and, as much as we can, show both sides of his character. He is a son and, sure, maybe a loving father, but he's also the CEO of this huge murderous corporation.

Are we supposed to root for him? How do you toe that line?

Aguirre: I always talk about Frank Underwood from “House of Cards.” Sometimes I find myself wanting him to succeed. Then, the next second I'm saying like, “Why? He's so cruel. Why am I rooting for him?’ I like that thing that happens to me as an audience with that kind of series. I question myself, like, why are you rooting ...?

The way you feel about Marco throughout that journey will evolve as we get to Season 3. How you feel about him as a character will too and how much you're able to empathize with him will change. In the first season, you have to establish a rise, a story of a guy who's an underdog and reaching a high point.

But Frank Underwood is not a real person who has caused the kind of real destruction that Guzman has —

Villa: That’s why Silvana was very careful to pepper in and drop in events like the [killing order] from the first episode. Like, “Back to reality guys. Let's not forget. this guy's a criminal. He was an assassin. He's a selfish, ruthless drug lord at the end of the day.” That's the story we're telling. It's kind of like punching the audience. It happened to me with that first script. It's like, you're rooting on and then you're like, I feel really weird about rooting for this, but it happened. There are moments that bring you back to reality. It’s like a cold shower.

Will there eventually be a Kate del Castillo character? [Del Castillo, one of Mexico’s best-known actors, was wanted by authorities for having met with Guzman while he was on the run in 2015.]

Villa: Spoilers!

Aguirre: The third season is the closest to present time. The thing is, it's inevitable because it's part of his story.

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yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

Twitter: @villarrealy

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