Hail to the thief
Lupin star Omar Sy, writer George Kay and producer Isabelle Degeorges discuss Netflix’s French mystery thriller about a gentleman thief stalking the streets of Paris, based on the adventures of fictional character Arsène Lupin.
For more than 100 years, the character of Arsène Lupin has appeared across France in books, films, TV shows and stage plays that follow his adventures as a gentleman thief and master of disguise. But more recently, the character created by Maurice Leblanc in 1905 has inspired a Netflix drama that became a word-of-mouth sensation when it debuted earlier this year.
Released in two parts, the Paris-set series follows professional thief Assane Diop (played by Omar Sy). The only son of a Senegalese immigrant who had come to France to seek a better life for his child, Assane’s life is turned upside down when his father dies after being accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Now, 25 years later, Assane uses Arsène Lupin as inspiration to avenge his father.
Lupin: Part One landed in January with the release of the first five episodes, attracting 70 million viewers worldwide, according to a Tweet by Sy. Part Two, with another five episodes, was released last month, while a third season is reportedly in the works.
As part of a Q&A session hosted by Bafta, Sy, producer Isabelle Degeorges and writer and co-creator George Kay discussed events in the story and outlined why the show will always remain quintessentially French.
The series wasn’t originally planned to be released in two parts.
Kay: Part One and Part Two are the same story, the story of the Queen’s necklace Assane robs in episode one in the Louvre Museum, but it’s also the beginning of a story to avenge the death of Babakar (Assane’s father) and to get revenge on [business tycoon] Hubert Pellegrini, who is the great antagonist of Part One and Part Two. Part Two answers a lot of the questions we pose in Part One and they should be seen as one origin story of Assane Diop.
We did create it and write it as a 10-parter but, as we were in production, Netflix was beginning to get this idea that maybe we should drop them in two chunks of five. As that conversation was happening, we were able to write into that and create the cliffhanger you get at the end of Part One.
We also knew it wouldn’t be too long before we were back, so we could drop quite a hard cliffhanger. If we’d done that cliffhanger at the end of Part One and not reappeared for 18 months, it would have been quite frustrating, but we knew we were coming back soon. It was conceived as we were making the show, and Covid meant we had a little bit of a break, which confirmed that was the way we were going to do it.
While Part One is lighter in tone, Part Two has a heavy emotional undercurrent as Assane searches for his kidnapped son Raoul.
Sy: That was really interesting because that’s exactly what we wanted to have. In the first part, Assane is the master of the game, the mastermind who is always a step ahead in everything. In the second part, he’s more under his emotions. Assane is playing with his mind in the first part and with his heart in the second part. It’s very interesting to see the two levels of the character because it’s another side of him. He’s more reactive. He can be more violent in the second part because he’s more reacting than acting. He’s not planning everything, which is more interesting and makes him more like us, which we love.
One of the things the writers worked on early in the show’s development was to set each episode within a different genre.
Kay: In the first part, you have a heist and a prison episode, and we try to mix emotions across the show anyway. You might have quite a fun story of the week where there’s a self-contained adventure that’s going to further Assane on his arc, but then we’re always counteracting that with stuff from his youth. The whole show is a mixture of genres. At the very end of Part One, when Raoul is taken, we actually took out the more fun tone in episode six and seven because we agreed that, at this point, Assane would put aside his witty, structural planning and go on his gut a lot more.
At the end of the day, he’s a father who hasn’t got his kid. Homages between Assane and [the character] Lupin can wait while he tries to get his kid back. It’s heart governing head, and all those cute plans you see in Part One fall to the wayside for a period because we want Assane Diop to be a brilliant superhero who can rob the Louvre without breaking sweat, but he’s a real dad with a real care for his kid and, like anyone else, he would be suddenly thrown. It became darker, more primal and more relatable because Raoul was missing. That determined the tone, really.
Beneath the surface, Lupin also tackles themes of racism, class and police corruption.
Kay: The whole plan is to smuggle in these things and make these social points as we go, but never to pronounce it. Fun is the main ingredient, hopefully. When we’re storylining for Lupin, we’re looking at the natural barriers in life, and sometimes natural barriers come in the form of prejudice and so on, in class, in age, in race or whatever the issue may be. Where there are those cultural blindspots gives both young Assane [played by Mamadou Haidara] and Assane opportunities to circumvent, break in or get round things. So we can make these little points but also use them as a tool for our story to create an adventure.
Lead director Louis Leterrier helped to set the style and look of the show, which showcases the glamour of Paris.
Degeorges: In France, Arsène Lupin is very well known, but it is an older character. We wanted to have a very modern character but we had to reinvent everything, because what is Lupin in France in the 21st century? We wanted to show a very nice Paris. We live in Paris so we don’t see how beautiful Paris is. In [French] series, we don’t usually film it like a very nice city. Louis, who lives in LA, knows Paris is an exceptional city so he wanted to film Paris to show it all over the world.
The opening heist is set inside world-famous art museum the Louvre, where the production team’s every need was accommodated. Sy even had the chance to spend some time with a very famous lady.
Sy: You expect to have a lot of restrictions shooting there, but actually they were very helpful. We had access everywhere and to everything. We were so excited to shoot there.
On the second day, you just come to shoot and you are focused on what you have to do. You focus on your lines, you focus on your acting. And it was [a scene] for the first episode so we were very focused. After a take, you go back to your chair and you’re just waiting for the team to call you. I was on my phone and I realised I was alone in the room where the Mona Lisa is. I spent almost 15 minutes alone with her. I don’t know if a lot of people can say that. It was amazing. I will never forget that.
Kay had originally written the scenes for the Louvre not expecting the team would actually be able to film there. Then when the museum said yes, he looked to use more of Paris’s major landmarks as the backdrop for the show.
Kay: Once we set the bar at the Louvre, then it was like, ‘Well, let’s keep using Paris.’ I was in Paris a lot and writing and working full time, so I would just go on a bicycle and ride. We would talk about cool places to visit in Paris that we could use – like the Théâtre du Châtelet, which is in the finale, or the Musée d’Orsay and the catacombs. It was great. By pushing Assane to those places, you see them from a fresh angle. We’re going to continue to try to use Paris as our playground.
The catacombs – an underground labyrinth of tunnels – proved to be one of the most challenging filming locations because of the confined surroundings.
Degeorges: It’s very small and it was very hard to have all of the team there. Shooting in the museums, it’s very difficult to have the access and authorisations. But once you are in the museum, you have all the museum to yourself; if you’re careful, you can do what you want. With the catacombs, it’s very rare to have the authorisation to shoot there, and shooting there is very hard. It was the most challenging.
Sy: That was the most difficult set for us, more for the crew than us [actors] because you have to bring all the equipment down and it’s like going 15 floors down. It was very difficult for them. But for us, it was also difficult because the air, it’s kind of weird – there’s a lot of humidity. The way you breathe is kind of weird. We had two actors with claustrophobia, so it’s not a good place for that. It’s not a normal set. When you are on set, you can forget where you are, but that’s something that would never happen in the catacombs. Every minute, you know where you are and you cannot forget it.
Creating the series with François Uzan, Kay was inspired by the family shows that aired on network television during the 1980s and 1990s.
Kay: We set out really early to make a show for the whole family. That has felt quite a rare thing of late. I was remembering shows I grew up watching and I’ve got kids and I just think, ‘What would they like to watch that we would put up with watching?’ I was looking at family TV shows like Quantum Leap, The X Files or The A-Team – teatime TV, basically – and creating these self-contained genre stories for each week. But then a whole range of other stuff like Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, with a twisting plot, repeating scenes, showing different POVs and flashbacks. It’s really a big melting pot of different genres and styles, all in the same family tone.
Sy believes characters like Assane and Lupin are the best roles actors can have, as they are constantly moulding themselves into different characters by changing their appearance or being in disguise.
Sy: Just wearing a pair of glasses gives you a disguise because it comes with an attitude – the way you talk, the way you walk, the way you fill the room, so that was interesting for me to play with. When I talk with George about a new character, which is going to be just a slight physical change, all the rest would be the acting because those characters – Lupin, Assane – are actors. They create other people with their voice and body language, because body language is almost 70 or 80% of the way we communicate. It’s really interesting for me to work as Assane in that way.
Each time we have a character, we’ll see what the look is going to be. And with the look, you find the voice, you find the way to move, the way to work and everything, which is a perfect laboratory for me. I love to create something like that. That’s why with Assane, he’s a never-ending creation.
Lupin is the latest non-English language series from writer Kay, who previously worked on Netflix’s interrogation series Criminal, which was filmed in the UK, France, Spain and Germany.
Kay: What I found is it’s just like working on any production, whether it’s the UK or France. We did a Criminal in Spain. There are just loads of talented producers and performers all around the continent and it’s been a great experience. Thankfully, everyone’s English is really good so it’s helped me and it’s been great fun. Criminal France gave me a first taste of working in Paris, which was cool.
The series entered development after producer Gaumont and Sy spoke to Netflix about creating a series inspired by Arsène Lupin.
Kay: They came to me. Omar had been talking to Netflix and Gaumont and they wanted to do a show featuring Omar based on the character. Because I was working on another Netflix series at the time, my name came up as a writer. Isabelle came to London and we had a first cup of coffee, and then I came to Paris for lunch with Omar. I was getting to know Omar and Gaumont at the same time as Arsène Lupin.
Degeorges: It was Omar’s idea to have a show inspired by Lupin and not about Lupin. With that, we are totally free. We can tell the stories we want to tell. It was a very good idea.
Sy: In France, we have a lot of shows about Lupin. We have a lot of books, a lot of movies. We have to have something special to do one more, so we decided to do a show maybe not playing Lupin, but maybe having a character inspired by that. That triggered everything.
There were a lot of conversations between Gaumont, Netflix and me. Then Louis came and then George – and when George came, everything went very fast. We were on set right away. When George came, he really brought something very interesting because he didn’t know who Lupin was. It helped us to desacralise the character because, for us, it was something really big. George came with a new eye and helped us a lot to make it very new and fresh.
With a third season of Lupin in development, there are no plans to take Assane out of Paris.
Sy: The more international we are [in terms of the show’s audience], the more French we have to stay because we don’t want to lose our DNA. George will bring a more English taste, but we’re going to stay French.
Kay: The thing that’s so obvious when you go to Paris is how great Paris is. You want to tell stories there, even though they have universal themes. The Frenchness is a treat and we love it. People like that Frenchness and that’s what gives it international appeal.
Degeorges: Lupin is a very French character. He’s a French lover, he’s smart, he’s very well dressed and he’s fun. We won’t lose that.