Professional screenwriter, filmmaker, script doctor, documentarian and Loyola professor.
These are just some of the nicknames associated with Steven Esteb, before he met Cookie Hood, former CBS employee in New Orleans in 2010 – an encounter that would send him in an entirely different direction in 2023, propelling him into a podcast that now seems destined for Hollywood and a streaming film series.
Having lived in New Orleans for more than 25 years, Steven Esteb, now in his sixties, very early on became obsessed with the film genre. His single mother, a ticket seller at a downtown San Francisco movie theater after Steven's father moved to Australia, used movies to entertain her 5-year-old because she couldn't afford a nursery.
Mom took jobs wherever she could find them. They moved first to San Diego, then to Houston where she worked on the NASA staff and met Steven's stepfather, an aerospace engineer who worked on everything from Apollo 11 to a cruise missile .
After college, with a degree in political science, Esteb moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a paralegal while studying theater. A chance meeting with someone who told him he had the right look for a commercial job led to five Levi's commercials, as well as many others.
But he quickly realized that what he loved most was directing. Boston University's film school gave him the means to write his first screenplay, about an AIDS hospice in Santa Barbara.
“I was signed by ICM (one of the most successful talent agencies in Hollywood) on that first draft,” Esteb recalls. “I had meetings with each studio and there were a lot of promises. But that was the same year that “Dallas Buyers Club” launched with a major actor (Matthew McConaughey) and, of course, the movie “Philadelphia” had told the story of AIDS decades earlier. Timing is everything, and this was not the timing of this film.
Chart your own path
Esteb then charted his own path and settled in Louisiana in 1996, at a time when some of his projects were receiving funding, notably in Baton Rouge.
There, he wrote and produced “Favorite Son,” followed by the cult favorite, a rapper video called “Baller Blockin',” before directing and producing “Hate Crime.”
The acclaimed “Hate Crime” won 15 film festival awards and was written by one of his Loyola screenwriting students, Jonah Tapper.
After the film finished, he finally turned his attention to the woman he had hooked up with seven years earlier.
Her name was Cookie. She was from New Orleans and told her story of being a half-Nicaraguan, half-American party girl, connected to the elite Somoza family in Managua, and who ended up being hired by CBS News as a translator and fixer. and ultimately run the office there.
This was during the years when the Sandinistas overthrew President Anastasio Somoza, only to be attacked by the contras – an army of renegade soldiers supported and, ultimately, financed by the US government, in what became revealed to be the Iran/Contra scandal, during the second term of the Reagan administration.
“It all seemed so incredible,” Esteb said. “I couldn't Google her, she had no journalism experience before taking this job at CBS, and she ended up running the bureau in Nicaragua's capital? She married into the Sinaloan drug cartel? And she's partying with Jackson Browne and Bono?
“But she presented me with a box containing receipts, press cards, photos and the names of the producers and reporters who were with her on these reports, and they confirmed her stories.”
After writing a screenplay about his adventures, it did not appear to be successful as a film, as it would have required a huge budget and a major studio as backer.
But when Jason Waggenspack, CEO of The Ranch Studios, and his partner Sean Donnelly presented it in podcast form to Ellen K, a radio host affiliated with I Heart Radio in Los Angeles, it seemed like the “Journalista” podcast had found his place, with Donnelly. production and executive production by Waggenspack.
Funded by I Heart Radio, it would become a labor of love for Esteb, who would record hundreds of hours of dinner table conversations with Cookie and intersperse them with his narrative storyline, telling the story of the Somoza family, the Sandinistas who 'toppled, and the complicated affairs of the Iran/Contra scandal that followed.
A long lost tape
While the podcast series was in production, Cookie remembered that she had a tape that was given to her by one of the CBS editors. She hadn't played it because it was in a format for which there were no longer any editing machines to view it.
Esteb had it digitized, and it turned out to be a sonic treasure that would bring the podcast to life. For example, journalist Jane Wallace conducts an interview with children whose parents were brutally murdered by the contras. You can hear Cookie translate on the tape. It's moving.
Listening to the nine episodes, it is a fascinating account of the horrors of war, presented against a backdrop of the festive atmosphere of the journalists gathered at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Managua.
There's a “you're there” feel, thanks to Stephen Tonti's sound design which infuses the story with whirring bullets and surface-to-air missiles shooting down planes, while composer Jay Weigel provides the disco beats to the parties at Studio 54 and general atmosphere of the time.
For Esteb, this is the project of which he says he is most proud. And there's some amazing journalistic “stuff” here that you've probably never heard before.
When Cookie asks Mike Wallace to interview the contra whose plane was shot down in a forest in Nicaragua, and admits to working for the CIA, it's the stuff of a movie… and it seems like with with a big-name director now attached to the project , and interest from several streaming networks, that's exactly where it's headed.
Email Leslie Cardé at firstname.lastname@example.org.