Behind the mask

Behind the mask

January 5, 2024


As Zorro returns to the screen after nearly two decades, DQ dives into the making of this swashbuckling Spanish-language adventure, which sees Élite’s Miguel Bernardeau don the famous mask and cape of the iconic vigilante.

It’s a story that’s more than 100 years old. In 1919, swashbuckling vigilante Diego de la Vega first began fighting injustice in Spanish California as his masked alter ego, Zorro.

The creation of writer Johnston McCulley, he originally appeared in novel The Curse of Capistrano, and later made his screen debut in Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 silent film The Mark of Zorro. The character has since appeared in numerous TV series and films, including 1998’s The Mask of Zorro and 2005’s The Legend of Zorro, both starring Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Now, almost two decades after his last screen outing, Zorro is returning for a new generation. Ten-part Spanish-language series Zorro is set in 1834 Los Angeles and stars Miguel Bernardeau (Élite) as landowner Diego – and when in disguise, the masked hero of the people.

Miguel Bernardeau takes the lead as Diego/Zorro

The series also features rising Mexican star Renata Notni (El Dragón: Return of a Warrior) as Lolita Marquez, the love of Diego’s youth, plus Dalia Xiuhcoatl, Paco Tous, Emiliano Zurita and Joel Bosqued.

Produced by Secuoya Studios and distributed by Mediawan Rights, the drama is set to launch on Prime Video in the US, Latin America, Spain, Portugal and Andorra this year. It is written by Carlos Portela (Hierro) and directed by Javier Quintas (Money Heist), Jose Luis Alegría (Toy Boy) and Jorge Saavedra (Mr Smith and Mrs Wesson).

Here, creator and writer Portela, executive producer and Secuoya Studios president of commercial and distribution Sergio Pizzolante and Mediawan Rights MD Valerie Vleeschhouwer tell DQ about their journey to bring Zorro back to the screen, the drama’s comic-book aesthetic and why the character has endured the test of time.

Introduce us to the story of Zorro.
Portela: Zorro is the story of a heroic vigilante. The story appeals to the need the working classes have for justice to be served. The legendary character of Zorro embodies this – a man born into privilege, but who must react to an oppressive environment during the dawn of the modern era. Our story follows the journey of Diego de la Vega, who returns home to California to find out who killed his father, and what he discovers is the corruption of the society to which he once belonged. Along the way, he must give up many of his own goals to ultimately find a unique family and a new purpose.

The production team recreated 1830s Los Angeles on the island of Gran Canaria

Almost two decades have passed since the last live-action adaptation of Zorro. Why is now the right time to return to the source material?
Pizzolante: Back in 2018, I was in a meeting with some industry colleagues and we began wondering why no one had tried to make a premium, global adaptation of Zorro in Spanish. Apart from a telenovela produced back in the 2000s, there seemed to be nothing on a premium scale done, ever. This was particularly perplexing since Diego de la Vega is Spanish, and the story takes place in Spanish California. So we set out to change that. Our first step was to secure the rights, and ZorroProductions founder John Gertz immediately understood our vision and passion to create something big.
To our surprise, when we approached Hollywood agents, producers and commissioners, they were sceptical that we could triangulate three key factors successfully – a high-end budget, global appeal and the Spanish language – so we hit a wall. I went to Spain, where I met Secuoya Studios’ David Martinez. Not only did he share our vision, but his passion was even greater than ours. He immediately accepted the challenge and got to work, and brought in Carlos Portela, who came up with this modern and remarkable take. We took it to market and received multiple offers, but from the beginning, Prime Video felt like the perfect fit. Our partners at Amazon Studios and Prime Video Lat Am, Javiera Balmaceda, Pablo Iacoviello and Francisco Morales, were crucial to bringing the project to fruition.

The story is set in the past yet it’s described as a modern adaptation. How did you find that balance?
Portela: Our concept for Zorro aims to update Johnston McCulley’s narrative from the early 20th century to a contemporary sensibility where justice has different interpretations. We have incorporated the perspective of Native Americans to assert that the history of America cannot be told solely from one perspective. A sense of justice existed in California before the arrival of Diego, and this will challenge our protagonist and help him learn to free himself from his own prejudice, and understand and love his roots and culture.
I’ve always believed recreating the past only makes sense if you speak to today’s audience, and that requires generating a dialogue with the contemporary. The characters have deliberately modern profiles while respecting historical patterns that lend authenticity, but with motivations and conflicts relevant to today.

Mexican star Renata Notni is Lolita Marquez

What was the writing process behind the show?
Portela: The truth is, this series has a peculiarity in that I have written all 10 episodes of this first season. It’s the first time I’ve taken on such a massive task, and it has been exhausting. I have had the invaluable assistance of Samara Ibrahim, a great scriptwriter, who has helped me infuse it with the Mexican spirit the series needed.

Why was Miguel Bernardeau right for the part?
Portela: Diego de la Vega is the son of a Spaniard in all versions of the story. In our series, Diego also returns after many years in Spain, so the actor had to be Spanish.
What this character required was almost impossible to find in a single name: they had to be a serious, disciplined actor who could endure seven months of filming under challenging conditions, possess excellent technical ability to maintain the character’s arc when episodes were not shot in order, and exude the presence of a young aristocrat capable of upholding his father’s dignity, the biggest landowner in California. Without a doubt, Miguel possesses all these qualities. We are immensely proud of his wonderful work.

How would you describe the show’s visual style, and how was this achieved?
Portela: We wanted to capture a comic-book aesthetic. I come from that world, and it was clear from the beginning that this would be our goal. Each department head worked hard to find the best approach to create a cohesive look. We wanted to stylise the era based on more contemporary ideas, just as we did with the character designs and the script.
Johnny Yebra’s cinematography is spectacular, as is Clara Bilbao’s costume design, and Pepe Dominguez and Itziar Sagasti’s art direction. Directors Jorge Saavedra, Javier Quintas and Jose Luis Alegria have also done a fabulous job in creating the settings and a narrative that feels like 2024.

The story is set in 1830s LA. How did you recreate the city and the era?
Portela: The art team has done a phenomenal job. We’ve allowed ourselves some aesthetic liberties to transform it into a city somewhat larger than it was in 1834, with elements that oscillate between nods to the western genre and superhero films. The series was entirely filmed on the island of Gran Canaria, where we redesigned and dressed an old film set to become the LA of our Zorro. The CGI department, through the company XReality, has also done an incredible job that complements the production design very well.

Zorro has been the subject of stories on page and screen for over a century

What kinds of stunts or standout scenes feature in Zorro?
Portela: It features many action scenes. We are creating a contemporary adaptation of Zorro, and we cannot betray viewer expectations. We have worked with one of the best teams of stunt specialists, led by Gregory Brossard, and they have done a wonderful job despite the many challenges, including a serious accident involving Gregory himself that forced us to halt production. Fortunately, he is now well, and must be very proud of the outcome.

What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
Portela: I have many TV series under my belt, but I never imagined we would have to overcome so many obstacles. Filming for such a long time with the weight of action, horses, carriages, period costumes, weapons and such a high level of demand makes shooting an adventure that isn’t always fun.
We faced a number of storms and floods that the island hadn’t seen in decades, several injures to actors and crew, all kinds of logistical problems, and even shortages. Miguel Bernardeau had a non-serious but long-lasting injury that forced us to change the shooting schedule. And with so many actors traveling from Mexico, we also had logistical challenges. It has been one of those shoots where everyone ends up feeling like they’ve returned from war, but also one that brings people closer together.

What makes Zorro such an enduring character?
Portela: He is the embodiment of a heroic vigilante; someone who, thanks to their class privileges, has access to information that allows them to develop a social conscience. He is also a man of action who does not tolerate injustice. There’s also the duality of the character: by day, he is Don Diego de la Vega, a respected landowner who follows societal norms, and by night, he is Zorro, the people’s hero, who challenges the law to restore justice.

Why might the series appeal to international viewers?
Vleeschhouwer: Zorro is a huge IP, one of the rare examples that resonates with everyone. The show is a pure entertainment series that can be watched by all the family. And what makes it particularly stand out is that the creative team was able to bring a perfect balance between keeping the DNA of Zorro while adapting it to modern expectations. Our strength is to have a show that is such a famous brand and provides a good mix of action, adventure and uplifting moments while reaching a co-viewing audience. That is exactly what international audiences are looking for, and what Zorro delivers.

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