Spanish showrunner Iván Escobar has reunited with Vis a Vis star Maggie Civantos for Express, a crime thriller about a psychologist who falls victim to a new form of kidnapping. He speaks to DQ about the origins of the series and the growing popularity of Spanish drama around the world.
The first Spanish-language series commissioned by international streaming platform StarzPlay, Express stars Maggie Civantos as a psychologist who is targeted by a new form of criminal enterprise.
Express kidnapping is when when a person is held for a brief period of time in return for a relatively small ransom, such as a withdrawal from an ATM. In the series, after Bárbara (Civantos) becomes the victim of such a crime, she is inspired to work as a negotiator in cases similar to her own, setting herself on a mission to understand why this happened to her and uncover the people who threatened her life and her family.
Pitched as a gripping family drama, the series comes from creator and showrunner Iván Escobar, who previously worked with Civantos on Spanish prison drama Vis a Vis (Locked Up). He writes the eight-part series with Antonio Sánchez Olivas and Martín Suárez.
The cast also includes Kiti Mánver, Vicente Romero, Loreto Mauleón, Esteban Meloni, Alba Planas, Ana Marzoa, Omar Banana, Bernardo Flores and young actors Carmen Daza and Manuela Rojas. It is produced by The Mediapro Studio for StarzPlay, on which the series debuted in Spain, Italy, France and Latin America on January 16.
Here, Escobar tells DQ about the origins of this fast-paced thriller, reuniting with Civantos and how Spanish-language series have won over global audiences.
What are the origins of Express?
One day I went to a meeting with a large streaming platform and, as I entered the meeting room, I realised there were no chairs. There was a large meeting table, but no chairs. I asked, ‘What happened to the chairs? Did somebody steal them?’ They gave a smile that didn’t quite reach their eyes and said there were no chairs in any of their meeting rooms, “so meetings are ‘express.’” Hence the first seed of Express – a world where everything happens too fast.
Why did you think express kidnappings would be a good basis for a television series?
Because an express kidnapping can happen to anyone – to you, to your wife, to your brother-in-law. The democratisation of fear terrifies me. We are all potential victims. From the audiovisual point of view, I was attracted to the fact that everything happens over three or four hours – very fast. If an express kidnapping lasts longer than four hours, then you’re no longer looking for a hostage, you’re looking for a corpse. It adds speed to a crime everyone knows the rules of. It’s a great start for a series.
What can you tell us about Bárbara?
Bárbara had been the victim of a kidnapping. The most attractive aspect of her character wasn’t the violence she suffered, nor a desire to take revenge. What attracts us most to Bárbara is that when she thought she was going to die in the car trunk in which she had been kidnapped, she remembered all the people she loved and she felt at peace. That’s why she now sleeps inside a trunk, because she has never felt that kind of peace since. This kind of contradiction is what makes us fall in love with the character.
How do we follow her through the story?
Bárbara is the medium for the story, the vision that accompanies the viewer. Why is this fun? Because her character makes mistake after mistake. At home, in kidnappings, in her married life… she’s unpredictable, and that makes her universal, far removed from the traditional heroine.
How did you work with Antonio Sánchez Olivas and Martín Suárez to develop the series?
For us, the main objective is to enjoy the journey. To write, think, feel and enjoy the process. Some screenwriters believe pain is necessary to build a story. We believe in complicity and enjoyment. Although the story takes us to some pretty dark places and situations, we strive to achieve comedy from complex origins. There can be pain and comedy in a series at the same time.
Express is described as a family thriller. How does the show blend different genres?
That’s precisely the biggest challenge and the greatest differential aspect of the series. It would be easier to propose a series with a leading character carrying severe trauma, crying themselves to sleep at night and popping off a few rounds at the shooting range to blow off steam. But that wouldn’t be a challenge, it’d be a series like hundreds of others. We chose to mix drama with comedy and with anti-heroic characters. This mixture, completely unstable and explosive, sparks a range of different and novel situations and emotions.
What was the writing process like?
My happiest moment, and the reason why I became a screenwriter, is the blank page – the moment you start thinking about a character, a setting, a family; the process where all worlds are possible, and your imagination begins narrowing and shaping them. The moment of creation of a series connects us to the gods. It’s a magical, fleeting and almost always imperfect moment. There’s nothing better.
How do you see your role as showrunner?
The meaning of the word ‘showrunner’ has evolved over time. There are even master’s degrees that promise students they will become showrunners after 200 hours of class and a €6,000 tuition fee. To me, it’s a big lie. The only value of the showrunner is to surround yourself with people who are better than you at writing, illuminating, directing, acting, staging. The showrunner is a talent aggregator. Once this team is built, you need to project a vision and lead it all the way to fruition.
How would you describe the show’s visual style?
The visual aspects are vital to any story. On the one hand, I believed Express had to have a modern visual look, featuring an industrial unit where a rapid-intervention team resolved kidnapping cases with assistance from cutting-edge technology. But on the other hand, the reality and day-to-day lives of the families affected is fundamental –breakfast time in the mornings, the office jokes before starting work, coffee breaks mid-morning. This combination of the extraordinary high-tech investigative work and day-to-day family life is what is reflected in the series.
Vis a Vis actor Maggie Civantos plays Bárbara. Why did you want to reunite with Maggie and what does she bring to the role?
Express wouldn’t have been possible to make without Maggie Civantos. She’s where the buck stops; everything begins and everything ends with her. She’s an amazing actress who has the virtue of packing content into her character’s every gesture, sentence and expression.
Where was the series filmed? Does location play an important part in the story?
Location is crucial. We shot on location in Madrid. We didn’t want to locate the series in an undefined, hazy setting just so it could travel the world and fool people. However, what happens in Express – the conflicts, the characters – is universal. People the world over can identify with the characters.
What challenges did you face in development or production?
We had lots of problems relating to Covid – infections, limitations, fears and uncertainties. But we weren’t especially heroic; the whole world was dealing with the exact same situation that we were, with work environments that we were trying to make safe and the constant fear of Covid outbreaks that would endanger people. However, both The Mediapro Studio and StarzPlay were exquisite in the care they took of the entire team, providing us with a wealth of protocols for the Express family to adhere to. Thanks to that, we were able to record the show during a global pandemic.
We had a couple of cases in the team, but we were tested on several occasion throughout each day and, in the case of both positive cases, those affected isolated in line with the protocols.
Why do you think the series stands out from other thrillers?
Good question. This is the part where the showrunner breaks into this big, long spiel and fires off a few politically correct comments, geared to attract the maximum audience. Well, I’m not going to do that. I think what differentiates Express from other thrillers is that it gives you plenty of food for thought, it takes risks and, in an age of overabundance of series and standardisation of drama, where everything looks like a cloned sheep, Express showcases a personality of its own. Or at least I hope it does.
Vis a Vis was a breakout Spanish series internationally. How have you seen Spanish television evolving as more viewers around the world enjoy Spanish-language shows?
What has evolved is the audience. This isn’t just about Spanish shows, but also English, French, Turkish, German… In the past, we were all watching American shows and a few Spanish series here in Spain. Now the world of drama has become globalised. We no longer look at the provenance of a series. We don’t care if it’s Spanish or Korean. We want it to be different and original and we want to be moved by it. Therein lies the key – moving people – and there are no borders to that.