Tag Archives: Alex Pina

Right on the Money

La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) is a certified phenomenon after Netflix revealed it was the streamer’s biggest non-English-language series ever. DQ hears from creator Alex Pina and writer Esther Martinez Lobato about making the Spanish heist drama.

When Netflix published its earnings statement for the first quarter of 2018, there were plenty of headline figures. Revenue growth of 43% year-on-year, the fastest in its streaming history; more than seven million new subscribers worldwide; and confirmation of a US$8bn content budget for the year ahead that would be spent on a dizzying array of series, films, unscripted series, documentaries and comedy specials.

The same period also saw the launch of new series including The End of the F****** World and Altered Carbon, plus the return of shows such as Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Santa Clarita Diet and A Series of Unfortunate Events.

And while Netflix continues to expand its production line of international originals, among them Brazil’s O Mecanismo (The Mechanism) from Narcos creator José Padilha, the report also noted, with little fanfare, that Spanish drama El Casa de Papel (Money Heist) had become the most watched non-English-language series on Netflix. Quite a feat when you consider Narcos, Babylon Berlin, Fauda, Suburra, Generation War and Rita are among the slew of international shows available on the streaming platform.

The series, one story split across two seasons (or ‘parts’), first aired on Spain’s Antena 3 in May 2017. It tells the story of the mysterious Professor, played by Álvaro Morte, who assembles a crack team of criminals with one goal – to break into the Royal Mint of Spain in Madrid and print €2.4bn (US$2.8bn).

Alex Pina

Creator Alex Pina says he was keen to bring the heist genre, a constant in the big-screen world, to television but admits getting the project off the ground was a bumpy road.

“The TV channel wasn’t convinced,” he says. “And we were producing so many chapters with only one heist, which takes place in the 15th minute of the first chapter. There were 1,000 minutes of fiction, 137 hours of action, and we wanted to make it very fluid, so the only solution was to use flashbacks.

“With all these flashbacks, we wanted to tell the story and make it authentic, with lots of action and events one after the other, twists and turns. This is something that made it unique and such an addictive TV show.”

Another problem was that the heist genre is largely aimed at male cinema-goers – so how did the writers look to draw female viewers to the series? The answer lay in telling the story largely from a female perspective.

“Last year we saw an explosion of female narratives,” says Esther Martinez Lobato, screenwriter and executive producer. “More TV shows are having female main characters. The most difficult decision we had to make was to find the perfect protagonist, which we found in Tokyo [played by Úrsula Corberó]. She’s a very important character. She’s a loser at the beginning and had nothing to lose, and then she meets the Professor. That’s how we wanted to approach the male presence. But the female characters go beyond Tokyo.”

The other most notable female characters are Raquel (Itziar Ituño), the police officer who leads the investigation into the heist and unwittingly becomes close to the Professor; and Monica, an employee at the Royal Mint who is initially held among the hostages but becomes involved with one of her captors, Denver (Jaime Lorente).

Álvaro Morte as the Professor, mastermind of the heist at the centre of the show

“We have the perfect heist, that’s the motive of the series, but it’s something very masculine so we wanted to provide feminine perspective,” Pina says. “Raquel’s story is very powerful, very romantic. She controls the heist from the police point of view and she deals with gender violence in her life [following an abusive relationship with her ex-husband]. On the other hand, we have Tokyo. We also have Monica. She has a lot of male-related problems and all of this takes place within the perfect heist. There are four main female characters [including fellow gang member Nairobi] and it works very well. We also intended to enhance the genre with some hybrids. One of most powerful romantic stories could happen between the Professor and the inspector, the mastermind of the police operation. It was something we wanted to exploit and it has worked.”

Those who struggle to put pen to paper should take heart when Lobato admits it took a month to write the first five lines of the series. The writer, who was already working with Pina on Spanish prison drama Vis a Vis (Locked Up), says El Casa de Papel was “a leap into the unknown.”

“We didn’t know what we were embarking on,” she says. “We started to work on a small thing, we ended it, the actors went home. All the sets were destroyed. Then Netflix picked up the series and, starting from a very small TV show, we saw how it was growing exponentially. Everything we did, we did with love. We were just trying to make something entertaining and good to watch.”

Throughout its 15 chapters (re-edited into 22 on Netflix), the series is notable for its fast-paced twists and turns as it juggles competing – and rising – tensions inside and outside the Royal Mint, where the robbers and the police both face a race against time to achieve their aims. Pina says his ambition was to create a “frantic” TV show, noting: “We didn’t want it to get boring, so we wanted to give reasons for the audience to stay with us and keep watching the show. That’s why every five or 10 minutes, lots of powerful things happen. We wanted to open up the series and the plot, even though it was developing in a closed space.”

Úrsula Corberó as Tokyo, one of several prominent female characters

More important than the plot, however, is the band of morally ambiguous characters – all given city codenames, like Tokyo – at the centre of the story. While on the surface this appears to be a story of good versus evil, pitting the police against a group of career criminals, characters on both sides of the fence are not as you initially perceive them to be.

“All the characters, they are anti-heroes, antagonists. And as the plot develops, the audience realises they are very relatable,” says Pina. “That’s how the audience becomes addicted to the characters, because of the way they are developed. There’s no good or bad; it’s up to the audience to decide. Taking the audience from one side of the moral spectrum to another also marks the success of the series.”

It is arguably Berlin (Pedro Alonso), in particular, who changes the most, shifting from the crazed ringleader inside the Royal Mint and the Professor’s right-hand man to become one of the series’ most loved characters.

“People ask me how can you create a character who is so likeable but who started being so oppressing,” Lobato says, noting the character’s initial treatment of the hostages. “The audience can understand depth of character because it develops over a number of episodes. We’re trying to cover the whole moral spectrum and turn good people evil and vice versa. Tokyo starts as an anti-hero and becomes a lovely girl. Monica starts as a secretary and by the end she has a gun in her hand. That’s what makes the series so entertaining.”

The drama was originally ordered by Spain’s Antena 3

It’s an approach that is employed for every character in the series, with shades of light and dark applied to each so they are both relatable and immoral at various moments of the series, from the scheming yet charismatic Professor and the strong yet vulnerable Raquel to each member of the gang holed up inside the Royal Mint.

“We spent a lot of time to find how Nairobi [Alba Flores] speaks and Berlin walks – all those details that construct the identity and DNA of the show,” Pina says. “They’re multi-dimensional characters, they’re always changing and are complementary to one another. That’s what makes the audience stay with the characters and why we present them in another light. We provide a poetic dimension to allow them to develop throughout the plot. If we have a violent character, we want to add some tenderness.”

Lobato picks up: “One of the things we kept in mind when we started work every day was the audience. They are smart and are consuming more fiction. They are becoming experts. Before, we were asking ourselves if the audience was watching TV, but now the question has changed. They choose what to see, so that has affected our choices as well.”

The show’s two-part structure was born out of financial necessity, Pina reveals, admitting “we didn’t have a lot of money.” Production was split between shooting scenes featuring the Professor and the police with one unit and events inside the Royal Mint with another.

The show’s third season will air next year

“That’s how it was viable,” Pina says. “It was created in five months. We started writing and each week we delivered the script. Production was a race against the clock.”

While seasons one and two make up one complete story – earning a Golden Nymph award for best drama TV series at the Monte Carlo Television Festival earlier this month – with a solid resolution to the events that have taken place during the series, Netflix has ordered a third season that will see the Professor develop new heists. It is set to air in 2019.

And when it comes to potential spin-offs, Pina says that’s for the streamer to discuss. “They’re very happy with it and believe it has lots of possibilities,” he says. “They believe that either Berlin or Tokyo can have their own universe, but I don’t have any more information. It could possibly work back in time; it could be a prequel.

“Berlin is going to appear in the third season,” Pina adds. “Berlin will have a big universe before the heist because he was already a professional robber. La Casa de Papel is the end of his story but we have lots to tell about him.”

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Drama behind bars

As Prison Break returns to television after an eight-year absence to bolster the line-up of jail-set dramas on air, DQ explores why viewers love to lock themselves up with convicts.

Television drama has the power to transport viewers to exotic new worlds, turn the clock back to visit the past or fast-forward to futuristic fantasies.

But there’s one location in particular that can be a hotbed of action, thrills, drama and romance, despite being a less-than-salubrious setting.

From Australia’s Prisoner: Cell Block H and Bad Girls in the UK to German soap Hinter Gittern –Der Frauenknast and French Canada’s Unité 9, prison dramas can send audiences to a place full of intrigue, yet one most people hope never to visit in real life.

The return of US drama Prison Break to Fox early in 2017, eight years after the last season concluded in 2009, bolsters a trend that suggests viewers can’t get enough of life behind bars and the diverse cast of characters who are forced to eat and sleep together in decidedly close confines.

One of the biggest prison dramas of recent years has been Orange is the New Black, the Netflix original series that debuted in 2013 and now comprises four seasons. Created by Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, the show is set in the all-female Litchfield Penitentiary and has proven such a hit for the streaming service that, in February this year, it placed a three-season order taking the show through to 2019.

Disclosure of viewing figures has never been Netflix’s strong point, but that massive commitment points to Orange is the New Black being among the platform’s biggest hits. Similarly, Penny Win, head of drama at Australian pay TV broadcaster Foxtel, described the network’s own prison drama Wentworth as a “ratings blockbuster” when she confirmed it would be back for a fifth season in 2017. Wentworth also airs in 141 countries around the world and has spawned remakes in Belgium (Gent-West), Germany (Block B – Unter Arrest) and the Netherlands (Celblok H).

Aussie 'blockbuster' Wentworth will be back for a fifth season in 2017
Aussie ‘blockbuster’ Wentworth will be back for a fifth season in 2017

Also set in a women’s prison, Wentworth was conceived as a contemporary re-imagining of Prisoner, which ran on Network Ten down under between 1979 and 1986. The new series, which debuted in 2013 on Foxtel’s SoHo channel, focuses on Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) as she is forced to learn how to survive in the eponymous prison.

“A prison is a hothouse for drama because it’s such a concentration of story,” says Jo Porter, FremantleMedia Australia director of drama and Wentworth executive producer. “People have broken the rules and why they break the rules is often interesting. They’re having to face the consequences of their choices and they cannot escape them.

“In Wentworth, you enter another world through Bea Smith. You cannot help but think, ‘How would I cope if life had dealt me a different hand?’ We take the audience by the hand with these different women. There are archetypal big characters – they are recognisable and that’s why as an audience we care for them.”

Wentworth writer Marcia Gardner continues: “A prison drama is a safe way of delving into an unknown, dangerous world. It’s also a microcosm of any society – but within a confined space, everything’s heightened. It has the potential to be a powder keg of emotion. That’s why it has the potential for drama.”

Like the prisoners, writers on these shows also find themselves locked up within the confines of the prison grounds, unable to escape into the world that surrounds them in terms of story. But the revolving prison door serves as a perfect way to say goodbye to some characters while also introducing new ones.

“We don’t have the outside world, we’re in a confined space, but one of the virtues of Wentworth is the cast can come and go and we can bring in guests,” Gardner notes of the series, which is distributed by FremantleMedia International. “People get released; people get convicted and come in. There’s a means to refresh and bring interesting people in. We have quite a large core cast compared with most shows – there’s up to 74 main cast members, so there’s always something going on because we have got to make sure everyone has a character arc or story.”

fangar_prisoners
Iceland’s Fangar (Prisoners) follows a woman convicted of the attempted murder of her father

If Litchfield’s orange or Wentworth’s blue jumpsuits don’t appeal, how about yellow? Inmates featured in Spain’s Vis a Vis (aka Locked Up, pictured top) must don the brightly coloured outfits when they join the population of Cruz del Sur prison.

 

The show follows Macarena (Maggie Civantos), a young woman who commits tax fraud and must quickly navigate the emotional shock of being in prison and the complicated relationships among the inmates. It is produced by Globomedia for Antena 3 and distributed by Imagina International Sales.

With Breaking Bad among his inspirations, co-creator Alex Pina says a prison is the perfect setting for a television thriller: “A prison is supposed to be too rough a place for many other things but it is perfect for a thriller. No character can ever be certain they are safe from every other character.

“And creating those characters is a richer process when they are in prison. They are not normal people going to buy bread or walking to work. They are criminals, murderers and thieves. They speak and behave very differently from an ordinary citizen and this is very interesting from the perspective of writing – and it’s also very entertaining.”

While some prison dramas are entirely confined behind bars, others – including Orange is the New Black, Vis a Vis and HBO’s recent hit miniseries The Night Of – give viewers considerable time on day release. The same is true of Icelandic series Fangar (aka Prisoners), in which a woman is convicted of the attempted murder of her father. She is sent to a women’s prison, where she harbours a dark secret that could tear apart her family – including her politician sister – and set her free.

“Originally it was just a prison series but as it developed, it became more of a family drama,” director Ragnar Bragason says of the show. “The women’s prison is not a standard prison – it’s the only women’s prison in Iceland and only holds 10 or 12 inmates at once. There are no uniforms and they make their own meals and watch TV together. It’s more like a dysfunctional family than a prison but it has the same hierarchies and violence.

“I wasn’t interested in doing a strict prison drama. What was interesting was to go into the world of politics, society and power and to mix that with the other aspect of the prison and criminal justice system. The dynamic of the series is the friction between the two.”

Alex Pina
Alex Pina

Work on the show, which is produced by Mystery Productions for RUV and distributed by Global Screen, included 30 days filming at the prison, which presented its own challenges.

 

“We expected it to be nice and easy but it was so small,” admits producer Davíd Óskar Ólafsson. “We had so many crew members – by the end, everyone was pleased to be released. But we were extremely lucky to use it. The prison had been closed down because they’re building a new mixed prison. We remodelled it a little bit and kept it close to what it was. It made a huge difference that we didn’t have to build it or make another location look like a prison.”

However, Wentworth producer FremantleMedia Australia had to build that show’s set from the ground up, not once but twice, as production moved to a new location at the end of season three. “It’s quite claustrophobic when you get in there,” reveals production designer Kate Saunders. “The cells are quite small because they are in reality. We’ve had to be quite inventive with the camera ports and walls that float. There are lots of bits of the set that float [to allow cameras in]. We certainly learnt as we went along.

“There’s not a lot of things we can dress on the walls to make it interesting so we used lots of textures with brick and concrete render. It’s not like you can hang up a picture or add wallpaper. We used strong colours – dark greens, greys and blues – to suggest different areas. We don’t have a lot of outside light so everything is very enclosed. The prisoners cannot see outside, except if they look up at the sky, and we cannot see inside.”

Much like in period dramas, props in prison series must be extremely specific, as Saunders found out when she first tried to dress the Wentworth sets. “Everything they have inside a prison is up to certain standards – like the phones, they’re much more solid – and everything is anti-ligature so prisoners can’t hang themselves,” she explains. “It was difficult when we first started because the people who make those items wouldn’t talk to us until we got the greenlight from [government department] Corrections Victoria.

“They also have special cigarette lighters that don’t have an open flame and specific speaker grills and intercom points. It’s a whole new world of stuff you didn’t know existed. But once we got in, most people were so lovely – it’s been fantastic. Once you open up that world it’s amazing, but you have to find it.”

You’ve probably noticed that this feature has overwhelmingly discussed dramas set in women’s prisons as opposed to men’s. So why is it that, with the exception of Prison Break, The Night Of and HBO’s groundbreaking drama Oz [see below], prison dramas tend to focus on female incarceration? The reason, it seems, is universal.

“When we were doing research, the prison guards we spoke to who had worked in both male and female prisons said that, physically, male prisons are stronger and there’s violence,” Ólafsson says. “But, mentally, female prisons are much rougher. They said it’s more difficult to work with women who have lost their kids – and in Iceland the prison was actually next to a kindergarten.”

Similarly, Wentworth’s Porter explains that why male battles are physical, women use psychological games to gain the upper hand: “They’re hard to control and manage and are more unpredictable. The truth of that is what’s so fascinating. Many of these women have been given a tough hand from their circumstances so they have to choose how they’re going to defend themselves and it’s a real defining time in their lives. It’s great fodder for high-stakes drama.”

With Orange is the New Black and Wentworth set to run and run, it seems viewers can look forward to a lengthy stay inside, whichever show they prefer.

Vis a Vis’s Pina sums up the popularity of prison dramas when he adds: “At the end of the day, evil bastards, uncertainty and tension, combined with everyday stories of girls with a sharp tongue and constant use of black humour, always seems to work in fiction.”

Prison box-2

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