Director Jorge Dorado, executive producer Ran Tellem and the cast of The Head open up about filming the Spanish-made thriller, which is set at a remote scientific laboratory in Antarctica.
For viewers emerging from the lockdowns imposed around the world amid the coronavirus pandemic, there could not be a more timely moment for a series that explores themes of isolation, loneliness and claustrophobia in one of the most remote places in the world.
But that is only half the story of The Head, a Spanish-made survival thriller that blends horror, mystery and crime in a story set at a scientific research station in Antarctica. When the summer crew departs Polaris VI, 10 people are left to continue working through the long, dark winter. But six months later, the summer crew returns to find seven dead bodies, two people missing and just one survivor – who may be a murderer.
Produced and distributed by The Mediapro Studios in association with Hulu Japan and HBO Asia, the international series is written by brothers David and Álex Pastor (The Occupant), who created the show. Directed by Jorge Dorado (The Pier), it features actors from six countries and a storyline that plays out in the English, Danish and Spanish languages.
“It’s a thriller but, at the same time, it’s a ‘whodunnit’ because the story unfolds in two timelines. In one of them, you follow the struggle of these 10 people trying to survive the winter and stay alive,” explains Ran Tellem, executive producer and head of international development at Mediapro. “Then, in the other timeline, it’s about a person desperately looking for his wife, hoping that she’s still alive. In order to do that, he needs to understand what has happened and who has done it – who killed all these people and why.”
Johan Berg, played by Alexander Willaume (Below the Surface), is the audience’s guide through the story. Arriving at the Polaris to take command of the summer crew, he finds most of the winter crew dead and his wife, Annika (Laura Bach, Sprinter Galore), missing. If he wants to find her alive, Johan will have to trust Maggie (Katharine O’Donnelly, Mary Queen of Scots), the young doctor who is profoundly shaken and apparently the sole survivor.
When he is told police won’t arrive for several days, Johan begins his own investigation into what happened, as Maggie’s story takes him back to the final weeks of the winter where the discovery of a headless body in the snow kickstarts a bloody chain of events.
“The really cool thing about it is before you reach the last five minutes of the show, you are not going to know anything,” Tellem tells DQ. “You think you might know but we believe you have to watch it until the end to really understand the story, the logic behind it and why it was done that way.
“Unlike other shows, here you have the score of the game after 10 minutes. Johan says, ‘I have seven dead bodies. I have two missing people.’ You know what has happened. So how interesting can it be to tell you what you already know?
“What the writers have done beautifully, and what the actors and Jorge have made so powerfully, is that even if you know what happened, there are so many things to find out about each character that it becomes a thriller. The more you advance with the episodes, you feel like a blanket is closing in on you, and you want to know the truth and you want to know the answer. And the pressure mounts.”
Dorado admits he was initially worried about helming the high-concept series, not wanting it to become a formulaic thriller. That’s why he was determined to keep The Head grounded in reality, with the scripts avoiding any supernatural or sci-fi resolution to what unfolds through the six episodes.
“My goal was to work really hard to make the audience feel this is real – [to feel like] this is something that really happened in Antarctica,” he says. “I want the audience to suffer with the characters. That’s what I tried to do from the very beginning. It’s a broken story where you have to put all the pieces together like a puzzle, so I worked with Ran and the writers to work out who the characters are and the different faces they have.”
The initial idea came from former Mediapro exec David Troncoso, who had spent time in the South Pole and wanted to create a series about a group of scientists left alone in Antarctica who suddenly find a severed head belonging to one of the group and don’t know what to do next.
The series was pitched at French television event Series Mania three years ago, while the creators and co-writer Isaac Sastre spent a week in Barcelona working over the initial story, researching life in Antarctica and speaking to a Spanish scientist who had been a research station commander at the South Pole for two winters.
“When David and Alex submit a draft script, it already looks like the show,” Tellem says. “The rhythm is very precise. The descriptions are very good. You can actually see the show. When we had six of the eight episodes, luck struck me and I found my beloved Jorge. He had a very clear vision of how he wanted to shoot the show and how it should look. He wanted to build the whole base. He handled everything from the final polish of the script to the casting, the design, the directing and the editing.”
Though the series is Spanish made, its outlook was global from the outset, reflecting the real make-up of an international research station that employs people from all over the world. First aboard the Polaris was Bach, closely followed by her on-screen husband Willaume. The cast also includes O’Donnelly, John Lynch, Tomohisa Yamashita, Richard Sammel, Chris Reilly, Sandra Andreis, Amelia Hoy, Tom Lawrence and La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) star Álvaro Morte.
Dorado wrote outlines for each character for the actors, and also outlined their relationships to the other characters, who have all worked together before and each carry their own secrets and burdens. Then, to bring the actors closer to their characters during rehearsals, he compared each one to a specific animal.
“Johan is an elephant, because he’s strong and big but goes really slow. Or you’re an eagle because you observe everything,” the director explains. “It’s a technique they use in drama school, so they liked that and understood what it means. That was a really fun part of the process. I also wanted them to feel free to introduce their countries and their cultures, so they were free to change small things in the script. I remember John Lynch was meant to say, ‘I don’t give a shit.’ He said, ‘Can I say ‘I don’t give a monkey’s’ because it’s more British?’ so he changed that.”
The actors also all took part in psychological evaluations, giving answers as their characters might in an attempt to completely understand their parts – a process that was further enhanced when they walked onto the fully realised, 2,000 square-metre set of the Polaris inside a giant warehouse on the Spanish island of Tenerife.
Working with production designer Alain Bainée, Dorado wanted the station to be not just the setting of the story but also a character, much like the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining.
“There is something about a place that has been built for 100 people when there’s only 10 people living there,” he says. “It’s tiny, with small corridors and small rooms but you go to the dining room and you feel the loneliness in that huge space.”
Shooting also took place aboard an oil rig, which doubled for the Polaris’s kitchen, mess hall and some corridors. Towards the end of the 12-week shoot last summer, the cast and crew moved to Iceland, where they filmed the Antarctic exteriors.
“The big advantage being in Tenerife is it’s a small place and we were all staying in the same hotel,” Tellem says. “So the feeling of community and being together was very, very strong. The hardest order the cast was given was ‘do not tan,’ because this was classic Tenerife weather. Every day, the sun was shining. The beaches are perfect but these guys are from the South Pole. You need to keep your pale skin tone. So I think the hardest thing for them was not to get a glimpse of sun. It’s the only thing they missed from Tenerife, enjoying the sun while they were in lockdown a bit earlier than the rest of us.”
Speaking about his role as Johan, who is desperately seeking answers over his wife’s disappearance, Willaume says The Head “is a very big story confined in a very little area – and I fucking love it!
“These are not police officers trying to figure things out,” he continues. “These are real people connected to the place and trying to solve a problem. Every corner he turns, there’s a new possibility, truth or lie that keeps you interested. You keep on being fed all this information about what might have happened. He has to connect the dots and, on a personal level, find his wife and his friends. There are no aliens, nothing comes in to solve it in a weird way. This is all down to the magnificent way of telling a story and keeping the audience interested. It’s a constant mindfuck.”
Annika’s dilemma at the start of the series is being in a male-dominated field where Lynch’s character Arthur has taken credit for their previous work together. “The interesting part is the extent to which one will go to reach justice,” Bach says of her character.
“When Johan comes to find her, he’s not only finding his wife but unravelling a truth. That’s what makes this so well written and so interesting, and very different from normal crime thrillers. Everyone has got some secrets they are trying to hide. You peel back the layers and you have no idea what to expect. This is about what we do for the people we love, injustice and what we do not to reveal everything to other people. There’s so much in there for the audience.”
Lynch’s Arthur, meanwhile, is seen as the superstar of the Polaris’ winter crew. “He’s a lauded, honoured biologist,” the actor says. “He’s a fast-disappearing white male. He’s ego-driven, seedy and has tremendous intellect and charisma. There are rumours about him and younger lab assistants, but his behaviour is swept under the carpet because he keeps making discoveries.
“We find everybody is linked. It’s not the first mission they have been on together. They are all linked by past events. It’s interesting when the past is the enemy. Each character is carrying a burden from an event deep in the past, and the script delivered complexity in spades.”
Lynch, who has also appeared in The Fall and Tin Star, says the cast knew the whole story from the beginning, “which actually helped us. We knew everything about everybody.” The advantage of knowing everything about everyone, he says, is that the cast found themselves less restricted on set.
“As long as we were clear about the timeline emotionally and otherwise, we could play a little bit with it,” he adds. “We came up with moments on set that were spontaneous and added to the deeper history of my character. That’s testament to Jorge.”
Bach says the cast fed off the director’s energy. “It’s contagious,” she says. “This is a team effort, and everybody’s giving their very best in the moment. The timelines, so many characters, it all comes together. It’s so beautiful. This is storytelling at its finest and then some.”
The Head promises to complete its story before the final credits, and with most of the characters discovered dead in the first episode, there isn’t much hope for a second season. The series debuts on June 12 on OrangeTV in Spain, Hulu Japan and in 26 countries via HBO Asia. It will also air on France’s Canal+, NENT Group platforms across Scandinavia and Globoplay in Brazil.
“I would love to do a second season, which has to be a different story and can take place in the same place with the same rules, but we will need to think of a different cast and a different storyline,” Telem adds.
“The good thing about The Head, and something we insisted on when we developed the show, is viewers watching from episode one to six will not be left hanging in the air. You get all the answers to all the questions. It’s a fulfilling experience to watch to the end.”