The creative team behind Spanish drama Matadero, a thriller tinged with dark humour, tell DQ about why they wanted to make a series that shows the true character of small-town Spain.
For a long time, Jordi Frades had wanted to make a show set deep in the Spanish countryside and focusing on the people who live there. A meeting with Antena 3 then presented itself as the perfect opportunity for the director to pitch “Fargo in Spain,” and the broadcaster, understandably, was keen to develop the idea further.
Frades then reunited with writer Daniel Martín Saez de Parayuel, with whom he had worked on royal period drama Isabel, to create Matadero, a 10-part series that mixes thriller elements with dark humour. “I gave him a very short story: it’s a thriller in the middle of nowhere,” the director recalls. From that briefest of outlines, de Parayuel went on to build a story around an ensemble of characters living in a small town.
The plot unfolds in Torrecillas, a village in the central Spanish region of Castilla, which is characterised by cereal fields that extend as far as the eye can see. It’s here that lead character Francisco runs a slaughterhouse – or matadero in Spanish – processing cheap, imported meat for sale. He works alongside his brother-in-law Alfonso, a vet by trade.
Blackmailed by Francisco over a secret he has kept from his wife, Alfonso turns a blind eye to the dubious condition of the animals they import and other illicit activites. But what Francisco doesn’t know is Alfonso is secretly a drug dealer – and an unexpected situation will disrupt the quiet life of these anodyne characters.
Produced by Endemol Shine Group’s Diagonal TV and distributed by Atresmedia, Matadero stars Pepe Viyuela, Lucia Quintana, Ginés García Millán, Carmen Ruiz, Antonio Garrido, Tito Valverde and Miguel de Lira. It is due to debut this autumn.
“I’m lucky to live in the countryside near Madrid, and I know the countryside,” says de Parayuel. “The challenge for me was to make a story that had all the ingredients of Fargo but with our characters and our background, and this was more difficult. But the characters are always pushing the drama.”
While de Parayuel progressed with the scripts, Frades was shooting another Antena 3 series, period drama La Catedral del Mar (Cathedral of the Sea), though he found no reason to interfere with the writing process. “What Daniel writes is what is on the screen. He gets the story and the characters perfectly, and makes it true,” Frades notes. “The characters get crazier and that’s fantastic. I had very few things to say, except ‘How are we going to make it?’ because we had very little time and very little money. It’s difficult.”
The process was made more complicated by the style the creators were aiming for, with a preference for an “ugly” series that portrays what real life is like for many people in Spain. “Usually in television in Spain, characters live in very nice flats, even though they couldn’t afford a flat like that in reality,” Frades explains. “We wanted them to have a horrible kitchen. The other thing I wanted to do was make a tribute to Spanish cinema and Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz and Pedro Almodóvar, who make films about Spanish-specific characters. We wanted to show that kind of series because all thrillers in Spain pretend to be American thrillers and we didn’t want that. We wanted to make a very Spanish show.”
It wasn’t just the costumes and set decorations that were dialled down. Even Frades’ directing style was simplified as he adopted an “old-fashioned” approach, preferring flat shots to 300mm lenses and highly stylised camera movements. “Everybody asks me, ‘Do you want that shot to be so ugly?’ Yes, I want it to be ugly,” he jokes. “When the DOP saw the kitchen of the house, he said, ‘It’s impossible to shoot here. It’s two metres by two metres, it’s impossible with the cameras.’ But I said, ‘That’s why I like it, it’s real.’ I didn’t want a kitchen bigger than my house.”
That the series is also free of Spain’s popular period dressing is also a relief to Diagonal TV producer Montse García. “It’s really fantastic because Cathedral of the Sea is period and this is very different for us,” she says of the thriller, which will air worldwide on Amazon Prime Video.
Frades concludes: “We were a little stuck in period shows and we wanted something lighter that you could have a good time with. Sometimes this is the more difficult show, but we needed some fresh air after so many kings and queens and battles.”
Jordi Frades, director of Spanish period drama La Catedral del Mar (Cathedral of the Sea), tells DQ about filming the epic series and why he wanted to stay true to its source material.
Four months after its debut on Spain’s Antena 3, period drama La Catedral del Mar (Cathedral of the Sea) is now available worldwide on Netflix.
Set in Barcelona during the 14th century, the series uses the construction of the real-life church of Santa María del Mar as its backdrop. It focuses on a servant who, after escaping his father’s abuse, harbours ambitions to secure wealth and freedom – much to the disdain of the noble class and the suspicion of the Inquisition.
The large ensemble cast is led by Aitor Luna (Arnau) and Daniel Grao (Bernat), who share the screen with 2,500 extras. It is based on the book of the same name by Spanish author Ildefonso Falcones.
The eight-part drama is produced by Diagonal TV and distributed by Endemol Shine International.
Here, director Jordi Frades tells DQ about the origins of the series, the challenges of production, filming epic battle scenes and why its intimate style means it shouldn’t be labelled Spain’s Game of Thrones.
How would you describe the story of La Catedral del Mar?
It is the story of how a child becomes a man and how a servant becomes a free man while Santa María del Mar is built in Barcelona during the 14th century. It is a story of pain, love and guilt – guilt as heavy as the stones that Arnau carries for the construction of the cathedral.
What was the origin of the series and how did you become involved?
When the novel was published in 2006, my father told me about it, saying there was a great movie or series in it. I read it and it impassioned me. But I found it impossible to produce for the screen because of the high budget that would be needed.
At that time, there was no tradition of period drama series in Spain. Years passed and I began to direct some period series: La Bella Otero, La Señora and República… Suddenly, the production company I was working for, Diagonal TV, told me to make a first document about the possible adaptation of La Catedral del Mar, to license the rights. So I made that document and they gave us the rights.
At that moment, the script process began. Rodolf Sirera, Antonio Onetti and Sergio Barrejón were going to be the writers who would adapt the novel. Meanwhile, I directed the three seasons of historical series Isabel and a film called The Broken Crown. Then the long process of pre-production for La Catedral del Mar began.
What was the appeal of directing this series?
I was passionate about recreating something that had touched me so much – a truly powerful story with great characters and emotional moments. I wanted to have the chance to show what life was like in Barcelona during those times, and at the same time it was the biggest production I had ever faced. It would have been a great challenge for any director.
How did you work with the writers during the script stage?
We had a great relationship because we agreed on almost everything. They made the great decisions on how to take the novel to script. They wrote a first draft with absolute freedom, and from there we worked together. I believed the adaptation should be totally faithful to the novel so the readers wouldn’t be disappointed. We incorporated some parts that had disappeared and that I wished to keep. We also changed the number of episodes from six to eight to find the right pace for the story.
The writers worked with humility, respecting the original author’s work. As we were having difficulties fully financing the series, shooting was delayed. That inconvenience, paradoxically, gave us the opportunity to improve the script in new versions.
How was the series developed with Antena 3?
We had the chance to work creatively with total freedom. As is often the case, they gave us some notes on the first versions of the script. At no time did I have the feeling that they intruded; they supported us completely and made the series better. In fact, I have always been lucky enough to work with total freedom.
Are there many parallels to contemporary Spain or does this series serve only as a historical story?
Class struggle is something timeless and universal. The same goes for feelings: love, pain, guilt…
How much did you use the original novel by Ildefonso Falcones as a guide to creating the show’s visual style?
I tried to shoot the scenes the way I imagined them when I read the novel. I went back to the novel to remember the feelings I had when I read it for the first time. I also delved into the atmospheric descriptions in the novel. Many of them gave me the right pacing and breakdown I was looking for.
Tell us about production – how did you approach filming this series?
It was very complex, because although the money needed to shoot the series had been collected, it was a very tight budget. That forced us to cut some scenes, which was very painful. I worked hand-in-hand with the production manager and assistant director to adjust the shooting days, locations, CGI and so on according to the budget. But I was sure that I wanted to tell the story in an intimate way and not try to emulate series like Game of Thrones or do things we did not have enough budget for.
Most of the series is shot on location – where did you film and how do you authentically recreate 14th century Spain in the modern day?
We shot in many parts of Spain: Cáceres, Madrid, Segovia, Sos del Rey Católico and Barcelona. The sum of all those locations was going to give us the feeling of period that we needed. We also had a lot of sets on a soundstage.
What was the biggest challenge during filming?
The most important thing was that the audience recognised the novel in the series and did not feel frustrated. So all decisions were made with this in mind. Regarding the production, the castle assault and the sea battle were the most difficult scenes. We were short of money, time and extras, and the CGI budget was also tight. In addition, I didn’t have much experience with those kinds of scenes. The stunt crew saved my life.
The construction of the cathedral was a great challenge as well. Marcelo Pacheco, the production designer, did great work by building the exterior cathedral set over a real cathedral in Cáceres.
What scene stands out as being particularly difficult with the number of extras, and how did you film this?
Without any doubt, the castle assault was the most difficult. We had to make 200 extras seem like more than a thousand people. The three armies involved in the battle were played by the same extras. First we shot one army, then we changed clothes and we shot the other army and so on. It was complex because we only had two days to shoot the entire battle.
Why does Spain continue to be fascinated by period dramas? Will this trend continue?
The historical genre exploded in Spain because of the success of Isabel. So far we have had a lot of period dramas, but not historical. I think period works so well because the audience is moved away from reality in all senses. The music, performances, costume and sets are far from our daily life. It gives the story a unique and poetic point of view.
Of course, it is also a matter of trends. Our market is now in a new cycle where everything is a thriller, but there is always a period series in development or production.
Is your role as a director changing?
I have always worked in the same way; there is nothing I do now that I did not do before. What has changed is technique. Before, almost every series was shot with multiple cameras on a set. Now they are shot in real locations with one or two cameras, like movies.
Is there a second season planned? What are you working on next?
La Catedral del Mar has a second part written: Heirs of the Earth, and we already have an adaptation proposal, but I guess it is still early days given the series is still airing on TV Cataluña and has just launched on Netflix. Now we are about to premiere Matadero, a very Spanish black comedy thriller, for Antena 3 and Amazon Prime Video.
Without much noise or fanfare, Spain has been steadily building a reputation as one of the hottest producers of scripted drama, with homegrown series finding fans around the world. DQ takes an in-depth look at the wave of new series coming out of the country.
Spanish drama may not attract as much attention as Nordic noir or the ‘Korean wave,’ but there’s no question the country’s scripted series are now enjoying decent levels of profile around the world. And with significant increases in content investment from free-to-air (FTA) channels, pay TV and SVoD platforms, Spain’s storytellers are poised to deliver a new wave of diverse and ambitious shows to the international market.
One of the first firms to identify the potential of Spanish drama was German distributor Beta Film, which was responsible for the international roll-outs of Gran Hotel and Velvet, two exquisite period pieces produced by Bambú Producciones for FTA network Antena 3.
According to Beta Film executive VP for acquisitions and sales Christian Gockel, the success of the Bambú/Antena 3 partnership convinced his company to board two new productions from the same stable: Morocco – Love in Times of War and Farinia – Snow on the Atlantic. “They have raised the bar yet again by taking the unique blend of romance and drama we know so well from Velvet,” he says.
Morocco, says Gockel, is set in war-torn Spanish Morocco in the 1920s, where a group of nurses look after troops. Farinia, meanwhile, “centres on a fisherman who becomes a wealthy smuggler by providing South American cartels a gateway to Europe.”
Farinia is a good indicator of how Antena 3 – the dominant force in FTA drama – has diversified its slate in recent times. The channel also launched Vis a Vis (pictured above), a female-prison drama produced by Mediapro drama label Globomedia. Distributed by Mediapro sales arm Imagina under the title Locked Up, that show broke into the English-speaking market, airing on Channel 4 in the UK and on foreign-language SVoD service Walter Presents.
Walter Presents also picked up fellow Antena 3/Globomedia drama Pulsaciones (Lifeline). The psychological thriller is about a surgeon who unravels a medical scandal after suffering a heart attack and having strange nightmares when he receives a donor heart. “Last year, Locked Up exploded onto the international scene, heralding a renaissance in Spanish scripted excellence,” says Walter Presents curator Walter Iuzzolino. “This year they’ve done it again. Lifeline is a thriller with shock narrative twists and epic cliffhanger endings.”
The growing appeal of Antena 3-commissioned drama to the global market is further underlined by a deal that will see Netflix air miniseries The Cathedral of the Sea around the world. Based on Ildefonso Falcones’ bestselling novel and produced by leading Spanish prodco Diagonal, the story takes place in 14th century Barcelona during the Inquisition.
Explaining his remit, Antena 3 senior VP for drama Nacho Manubens says: “Although we produce sporadically for our other channels [laSexta, Neox], we mainly focus on Antena 3. We commission more than 600 hours of TV per year, with 120 primetime hours and 500 daytime hours. We have a range of genres, since our audiences demand variety and innovation. In thrillers we have had hits with Bajo Sospecha, Mar De Plastico and Vis a Vis. In period dramas we have had El Tiempo Entre Costuras and Velvet. These are both lines we will continue exploring.”
Antena 3 has developed a reputation for edgy shows – something Manubens wants to maintain. “We cannot take risks in every show we produce, but we try to keep making shows that push the envelope like we did with Casa De Papel [aka The Money Heist, the latest show from Via a Vis creator Alex Pina].”
Public broadcaster RTVE and Mediaset Espana, owner of commercial networks TeleCinco and Cuatro, have also upped their scripted game. For RTVE, key titles have been El Ministerio del Tiempo (The Ministry of Time) and Isabel, produced by Onza Partners/Cliffhanger and Diagonal respectively. Isabel, one of several royal-themed shows on the market, ran for three seasons and travelled well internationally. Buoyed by its success, RTVE also made a foray into English-language drama with Reinas (Queens), about the rivalry between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I.
Mediaset España, meanwhile, had a hit with Sé Quién Eres (I Know Who You Are), a Filmax production about a charismatic university lecturer’s possible involvement in his niece’s murder. The show was bought by several networks, including the influential BBC4 – its first Spanish acquisition – with head of BBC programme acquisitions Sue Deeks calling it “the dramatic equivalent of a page-turning thriller.” Mediaset España’s increased investment in event series has also seen it back Forgive Me God, an eight-part miniseries about a nun battling delinquency and the drug trade.
Alongside the increased ambition among FTA channels, there are also new opportunities in the pay TV and SVoD arenas, according to Pilar Blasco, MD of Endemol Shine Iberia, a division that includes Diagonal. “Spain has always been a strong market for local original scripted programming and this has enabled us to build an industry of creative writers, showrunners and directors,” she says. “The big game-changer, however, has been increased commissioning of Spanish productions from the likes of Movistar+, Netflix, HBO and Amazon. As a result, the Spanish drama industry is flourishing with higher budgets that tell more daring stories from a broader range of genres.”
The most high-profile example of Blasco’s point is Telefónica’s decision to invest €70m (US$84m) a year in scripted series for its pay TV platform Movistar+. According to Domingo Corral, head of original programming at Movistar+, the plan is to launch 11 original series a year, initially for SVoD customers. The emphasis will be on “Spanish-language series dealing with Spanish stories created by Spanish talent,” he says.
Titles include La Zona, a story set in northern Spain four years after a nuclear accident. Also coming soon is La Peste, set in 16th century Sevilla against the backdrop of a plague. Movistar+ has also done a deal with Bambú for a spin-off from Madrid fashion-store series Velvet, which ended on Antena 3 after four seasons. The new series, Velvet Collection, will take the story forward to the 1960s and relocate to Barcelona.
At first sight, Corral’s insistence on super-charged Spanish series seems like it will limit their international appeal. But he takes the view that “great storytelling and characters have universal appeal.” Besides, he adds, Movistar+ series will have 50-minute episodes, rather than the 70 minutes typical to Spain. This will make them a better fit for the global market. Also, Movistar+ has spared no expense on talent, pulling in writers and directors from the country’s admired cinema scene.
Beta Film is continuing its relationship with the Velvet franchise and is also distributing La Zona, says Gockel. “We believe La Zona is one of the most exciting shows coming from Spain this year. It’s an innovative eco-crime thriller with a high budget that will catch viewers around the globe.”
About Premium Content has picked up rights to eight-part mob thriller Gigantes, while Sky Vision has secured global rights to La Peste, which is budgeted at €10m for six episodes. Sky Vision MD Jane Millichip gives an upbeat assessment of Movistar+’s shows: “With La Peste, they have assembled an incredible team with a proven track record. The partnership of Alberto Rodriguez and Rafael Cobos has delivered a deeply engaging story that delivers a thriller of scale, a pungent sense of the past and a modernity that will satisfy audiences.”
Movistar+’s investment in drama is especially timely given the growing competition. In April, Netflix launched Las Chicas del Cable, another sumptuous period piece from the Bambú stable that tells the story of four young women working for Spain’s national telephone company in the 1920s.
Also muscling in on the Spanish market is Fox Networks Group (FNG), which has just done a deal with Mediapro’s Globomedia that will see future series of Via a Vis air on its pay TV networks, rather than on broadcaster Antena 3. This is Fox’s first foray into original scripted series, with Vera Pereira, exec VP of FNG Iberia, saying it “will give us greater visibility and relevance in the market.”
Success in scripted formats is also contributing to Spain’s creative revival, with Star-Crossed (The CW), Red Band Society (Fox) and The Mysteries of Laura (NBC) all reimagined for the US market. Televisa USA is also teaming with Lantica Media to produce an English-language Gran Hotel, while Lionsgate has been linked to a US adaptation of Bambú’s Velvet.
The final dimension to the Spanish market’s new dynamism relates to the ambition of the producers. Bambú is part of StudioCanal and has coproduced time-travel drama Refugiados (Refugees) with BBC Worldwide. Diagonal, meanwhile, sees projects like The Cathedral of the Sea as a new phase. “It is a huge leap for the company as it moves into international coproductions,” observes Blasco. “It’s an ambitious project that would never have been commissioned without the support of Netflix.”
Another leading Spanish producer, DLO, recently became part of the Banijay network and has also picked up a commission from Movistar+ — a series based on Julia Navarro’s best-selling historical novel Dime Quien Soy. In a similar vein, Lagardère Active-owned producer Boomerang is well-known for El Tiempo Entre Costuras (The Time in Between), a 2013 hit for Antena 3 that went on to sell into 75 territories. Now the company has identified Latin America as a key expansion opportunity and is working on a brace of series for broadcasters in Chile. Bambú is also building its profile in Latin America, via a development deal with Televisa in Mexico.
Mediapro is also involved in an eclectic mix of domestic and international series. It coproduced English-language drama The Young Pope and is working on Paradise, a Finnish-Spanish copro that takes place in a Spanish village on the Costa del Sol with a large Finnish community. Other projects include The Head, a copro with Sweden’s Dramacorp in which 10 scientists, trapped in a laboratory at the South Pole, realise one is a killer. “We are also working with DirecTV Latin America on El Fútbol no es Así, a crime series set in the world of Spanish football,” says Mediapro head of content Javier Mendez.
While Mendez welcomes the influx of pay TV drama funding, he says a key opportunity for Mediapro is the international market – especially in light of the fact it has a distribution arm, Imagina. “Series like Narcos show it is possible to find great stories that have the ability to travel all over the world,” he explains. “Increasingly, our strategy is to back good stories regardless of where they come from, because there is a huge appetite for drama around the world.”
Matters of the heart concern more than love in Spanish psychological thriller Pulsaciones. DQ speaks to one of its creators to find out what keeps the series beating towards its conclusion.
Genre crossovers are nothing new in television. From forthcoming sci-fi western Westworld to period crime dramas Ripper Street and Peaky Blinders and comedy-horror Ash vs Evil Dead, the small screen is constantly finding ways to mash up traditional styles to create new stories.
Another example is Pulsaciones (aka Lifeline), a Spanish drama that is described as a psychological thriller with elements of romance, the supernatural and traditional medical drama, with scenes inside an operating theatre serving as the prologue for the resulting 10-episode series.
In particular, it explores the issues surrounding so-called ‘heart memory’ – when a heart transplant patient begins to relive the memories and experiences of the donor.
Pulsaciones tells the story of the dangerous investigation carried out by a neurosurgeon to solve the mysterious death of his heart donor, using only the hints that, in the shape of memories and dreams, the heart sends to its new owner. His disturbing nightmares will also cause his marriage to fracture as he is inexplicably attracted to another woman.
Produced by Globomedia for Antena 3, it stars Pablo Derqui, Leonor Watling, Ingrid Rubio, Meritxell Calvo and Juan Diego Botto.
The series, due to air later this year, was created by writers Emilio Aragón, Carmen O Carbonero and Francisco Roncal, with Aragón, David Ulloa and David Victori directing. The show is distributed internationally by Imagina International Sales.
Aragón says the creative team had been toying with developing a fantasy series for a while, “then one day we read an article about a French investigator who had been studying the memory of the heart and immediately we thought, ‘We have a story here!’”
He continues: “The appeal of the show is in the idea of the heart’s memory. But the most interesting part, from a creative point of view, was the chance to cross a thriller with something so related to human emotion, as is everything that is carved in our hearts, and the power it holds.”
Aragón says he and the rest of the creative team “read everything that fell into our hands” on the subject of heart transplants and the phenomenon of transplant recipients adopting some of the characteristics, personality traits or desires of their donors. Reports suggest some heart patients have developed a sweet tooth, specific food cravings and adopted new musical tastes following their transplants.
“We also watched a lot of documentaries and scientific programmes,” he adds. “Regarding scientific evidence, the show has just enough. The subject was so juicy that we preferred to unleash our imagination within certain parameters.”
Aragón and Carbonero initially teamed up to start writing a story around the premise of the memory of the heart, before Rocal joined the team.
“For a year-and-a-half it was a true tour de force,” Aragón says. “There were dozens of versions of the story and we were very self-critical until we found the right one. Then, once the series was conceived, other writers joined us to develop the main arc of the plot and to outline the first 10 episodes.
“The first four episodes were written by the three of us and, from there on, Carmen and Francisco took charge of writing the dialogues and co-ordinating the rest of the episodes, with the participation of other writers for certain episodes, while I was in charge of directing the series.”
Behind the camera, Aragón says he wanted the series to be as realistic as possible: “The visual narrative style was something that was debated a lot between the art director, the first assistant director and myself. Once we defined the style, I had a meeting with the other two directors that were to accompany me on this journey and I shared it with them. The collaboration has been very easy and smooth.”
The writer/director says the 10-part story format, rather than an episodic case-of-the-week structure, gives the series more strength – but he admits the production was not without its difficulties.
“The whole project has been a challenge,” he says. “I very much enjoy being involved in the creative and production process. But if I had to choose one, the blank piece of paper is what stimulates me the most.”
Aragón is now looking ahead to a possible second season, at a time when the Spanish TV drama sector is on the rise after the country’s recent financial troubles.
“The Spanish drama industry during the past few years has grown well,” he notes. “There is a lot of talent and very good professionals – just look at the number of formats and series being exported. The networks – in this case, Atresmedia – are also exploring new paths within this industry. Lifeline is proof of it.”
For Nacho Manubens, the senior VP of drama at Antena 3 owner Atresmedia, the appeal of Pulsaciones was its unique concept.
“This intriguing story about a man who, after receiving a heart transplant, can’t get away from the donor’s issues was a very promising beginning,” he explains, adding that this will be the latest thriller to air on Antena 3 in what has become a successful genre for the network.
“At Atresmedia we have been quite successful with our thriller slate in the last few years. We had crime hits like Bajo Sospecha and Mar de Plástico, and the prison drama Vis a Vis. In addition to having a strong thriller structure, Pulsaciones has a romantic story and a slight supernatural element that brings something fresh to our slate. New approaches to the genre are always exciting but also risky, since we can’t predict how audiences will react.”
As such, Manubens says he works closely with producers to help them reach the show’s potential, all while respecting their vision.
“We are part of every key decision but once we have a good sense of what the show we are building is, we tend to stay away from the set,” he adds.
“Our goal is to keep having a wide scope of shows, from comedy to thriller to dramas, so we are always excited about the possibility of offering such different stories to our audiences.”
The creative team behind the period drama dubbed the ‘Spanish Downton Abbey’ turn their attention to politics and corruption in The Embassy. Michael Pickard speaks to producers Ramón Campos Sáez and Teresa Fernández-Valdés.
Since Bambú Producciones launched in 2007, the Madrid-based production company has made its name with a string of hits in Spain and around the world.
The firm has played in a variety of genres, from detective series Guate Blanco (Cat Burglar), thriller Gran Reserva (Vintage) and Roman era-set historical adventure Hispania to melodrama Velvet and high-society series Seis Hermanas (Six Sisters).
But it was period drama Gran Hotel, dubbed the “Spanish Downton Abbey,” that became a worldwide success and put Bambú, led by Ramón Campos Sáez and Teresa Fernández-Valdés, on the creative map.
In their latest series, La Embajada (The Embassy), they explore politics and corruption, following the new Spanish ambassador to Thailand as he navigates the chaos and deceit of life at the embassy and the subsequent implosion of his family life while fighting to hold on to his integrity and morals.
The series, which airs on Spain’s Antena 3, has a cast headed by Belen Rueda, Abel Folk, Ursula Corbero, Tristán Ulloa, Megan Montaner and Carlos Bardem.
“We wanted to talk about corruption in Spain so we started speaking with (Antena 3 owner) Atresmedia about how to mix romance and corruption,” Campos says. “They wanted a contemporary series and we thought that if we wanted a very glamorous series with pretty costumes, we needed a special place. So we took the show to Thailand – diplomatic people can be corrupt but are also very elegant. Adding in some romance, we started to create the series.”
Fernàndez-Valdés continues: “With this series, we have the chance to speak about politics and corruption. It’s a political thriller because something happened with the last ambassador so the new ambassador starts investigating and crosses the line to find the dark world within the embassy in Thailand. In our embassy, the corruption is from the Spanish people who live in Thailand and the ambassador.”
The series opens with a convoy of Spanish police cars approaching the embassy, where officers proceed to arrest ambassador Luis Salinas (Folk) on charges including bribery and money laundering just a year after he took up his post in Bangkok.
As the court case opens against Salinas, viewers are taken back to the day his wife (Rueda) joined him in Thailand as the story plays out using a series of flashbacks to reveal the events leading to the ambassador’s arrest.
“The story starts when the judge asks how everything happened. Then we go back one year to see how it happened,” Fernàndez-Valdés says. “But sometimes in the middle of an episode, we jump back to the trial and hear from the witnesses. The ambassador was the person who was supposed to clean up the embassy, but you can see in the first episode that things didn’t go to plan. So you must discover what happened. If he came to clean things up, how did he end up in jail?”
Flashbacks aren’t a common storytelling mechanism in Spanish television but Campos, who co-created the story with Bambú development manager Gema Rodríguez Neira, says he is keen to take new risks with storytelling.
“Flashbacks aren’t very popular,” he says. “They are new to audiences but we write very simply. We know our audience; we know that if the story is too complicated, the audience will go.”
Fernàndez-Valdés adds: “It’s a little risk and in Spain we have to change fiction step by step otherwise you lose your audience. In this case, the flashbacks give the series something original. We don’t have any shows talking about corruption and politics but we are trying to do something that everyone can understand and follow, so it’s also about a family.”
Bambú used news archives as part of its research for The Embassy, though attempts to visit a real Spanish embassy were shut down. “We had a date with the London embassy but at the last minute they cancelled because the Spanish government told them nobody should collaborate with our show,” Fernàndez-Valdés reveals.
The crew and cast then spent three weeks travelling around Thailand to film exterior shots of cities and beaches, while most of the production was completed in Spain, using green-screen technology to blend sets with Thai backdrops.
“We have experience with green-screen production but this is the most we have used it,” Fernàndez-Valdés notes. “For the actors, it’s difficult to imagine they are somewhere else but we are trying new things. The tone of the series is also new – Spanish programmes always have a strong love story but here the political story is more important.”
Campos adds: “It’s a mix of The Firm and The Affair. It’s a political thriller with very provocative and complicated relationships.”
The Embassy airs at a time when the Spanish television industry, much like the country as a whole, is recovering after its recent economic woes, while broadcasters are also facing new challenges posed by Netflix, which launched in the country in October 2015.
“We feel like the industry is getting better now,” Fernàndez-Valdés says. “The broadcasters are concerned that they must produce new series because of Netflix’s arrival, but budgets came down when we had the financial crisis in Spain and now they think we (producers) can make shows with less money, so it’s very difficult to get back to bigger budgets.”
Bambú, however, has embraced the arrival of Netflix and won the opportunity to produce the streaming site’s first original Spanish series. The as-yet-untitled drama follows four women who are hired as switchboard operators at the only telephone company in 1920s Spain. The series description says they have “come from all over Spain to work at the forefront of a communication revolution in the middle of Madrid – a place that represents progress and modernity, where jealousy, envy and betrayal get mixed up with a hunger for success, with friendship and love but, above all, with dreams.”
The 16-episode first season will begin production in Madrid this year and will debut on Netflix around the world in 2017.
Gran Hotel and Velvet were already available on Netflix and had been successful enough for Eric Barmack, the streamer’s VP of international originals, to contact Bambú last Christmas in the search for ideas for original series.
“We presented them with some ideas and we thought that if they liked Velvet and Grand Hotel, maybe they wanted similar series,” Fernàndez-Valdés explains. “We also presented one in development about these four girls in 1929 who work for the first telephone exchange in Spain. It’s a series about the relationship between the girls. (Barmack) very quickly said, ‘I love it.’”
After several meetings, the Bambú team thought their pitches had come to nothing – before Barmack contacted them to ask when they could deliver the first episode.
“It came very fast,” admits Fernàndez-Valdés. “In Spain it takes months to sign the contract. It’s the fastest deal we’ve ever done. We’re going to start shooting this summer.
“Netflix is going to push the commercial channels to make more effort. We are also only working for two channels in Spain because (public broadcaster) TVE doesn’t have a strong budget, so its developments are smaller. After that we have Atresmedia and Mediaset, but only Atresmedia is pushing fiction in Spain. Now we have Netflix.
“The message from Netflix is very clear. They want to conquer Spain but we need to give to them something new, something different. We are very proud to be producing the first Spanish series, but there’s a lot of responsibility!”