Stepping up

Stepping up

By Gonzalo Larrea
August 3, 2023

The Director’s Chair

With projects underway with Apple TV+, AMC, Gaumont and Bad Robot, Lucía Puenzo is one of the most sought-after creators in the Latin American TV industry. The Argentinian tells DQ why the region is about to take a big international leap with its drama content.

Lucía Puenzo does not define herself as a director, scriptwriter or a writer. She is all three things at once. “Luckily I no longer have to choose,” says the Argentine creator. With six novels published and more than 11 films released under her credits as director or screenwriter, she is recognised in all three disciplines.

And that’s without counting her experience in the world of television, a medium in which she began her career at the age of 19 with Sebastián Borensztein in Tiempo Final (Telefe, 2000) and which has positioned her today as one of the great creatives from Latin America, together with a select handful of names such as ‘Chaschas’ Valenzuela, Leonardo Padrón and Manolo Caro.

Lucía Puenzo

It is thanks to productions such as crime series La Jauría (The Pack, Amazon Prime Video) and beauty pageant drama Señorita 89 (Lionsgate+) that Puenzo has become one of the most in-demand writers and directors in the region, and beyond, today – so much so that she has projects underway with companies such as Exile, Gaumont, AMC, Apple and Bad Robot, in both English and Spanish.

With US producer Bad Robot, led by JJ Abrams, she is working on an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy novel The Road, which was previously made into a 2009 feature film starring Viggo Mortensen.

Over at Apple TV+, Puenzo is adapting the novel Ballerina, which will be filmed at the Paris Opera. And with AMC, she is working on a series called Land with producer Mark Johnson (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul), which is about the loss of sovereignty in the lands of Patagonia, an idea co-created with her brother Nico Puenzo.

“Almost all of them are projects in English, written in English and to be filmed in English,” Puenzo notes.

More locally, in addition to the second season of Señorita 89, which will premiere on Lionsgate+ in November, the Argentinian is developing Nahual together with Exile and German production company Komplizen Film. The series follows a group of activists who decide to steal pre-Hispanic art from European museums to return it to Latin America.

With Gaumont, meanwhile, Puenzo is working on two projects: a Latin American series about Italian photographer Tina Modotti and AI-focused drama Futuro desierto, to be filmed in Mexico.

Of the latter, she says: “We started writing it together with Leonel D’Agostino and César Sodero about four years ago, when everyone told us that AI was of no interest to anyone. But we said, ‘It’s coming! It’s the subject to mess with!’ Today, when everyone is talking about this, I would like to be premiering it, not filming it,” she says.

Originally intended to be set in Patagonia, the series will explore the relationship between machines and humans. “Without a doubt, this is going to happen very soon and it will bring consequences. But it is not a series within the subgenre of humans vs androids, which is the most common. Instead it explores what happens to us with that ‘other,’ who in the past was an immigrant or a sexual minority but now is a machine. It has more to do with humans than with machines.”

Puenzo’s Chilean crime drama La Jauria (The Pack) was made for Prime Video

As if all that were not enough, these projects are joined by one with US production company Media Res (The Morning Show) and Mexican screenwriter María Rene Prudencio, telling the story of Mexican media company Televisa’s founder Emilio ‘El Tigre’ Azcárraga, with a script based on a news item that emerged months ago.

And this is all while Puenzo finishes editing Los Impactados, her latest film produced by Mark Johnson, and the second season of Señorita 89.

Here, DQ catches up with Puenzo to talk about her career so far and the current state of the Latin American drama industry.

Your father, director Luis Puenzo, won the Oscar for La historia oficial (The Official Story).
In my house we grew up accompanying my dad and my mum, who was his location manager, to shoots. We lived in Mexico and in several cities, always accompanying their productions. So we always had the cinema, literally, in our house. My father filmed The Official Story in our childhood home and his film technicians, who were also his friends, were our ‘uncles.’ From the age of 11 or 12, they gave us tasks in their teams. I have three siblings and we all make movies. That speaks to what it was like growing up in this family. Cinema is really involved in our lives, much more than the weight of our last name.

You started your career in independent film and have now become one of the most active creators on TV. Which do you prefer?
With cinema, I am making a lot of effort to make a space for it in my life within this maelstrom and marathon that are series. Five years ago the Larraín brothers called me to start working together with Fabula on The Pack, and from that came this unstoppable thing that has happened with series in Latin America.

Latin American series are very similar to our movies. I write them, I edit them and I have a lot of control over the story. But they are two-year marathons that leave no room for anything else. That’s why I talked to the producers so they could help me make room for cinema, and in the last two years I was able to film La Caída (Dive) and Los Impactados (The Impacted). This year I have another project, but only because I have made space for it. Otherwise it naturally wouldn’t happen.

Puenzo directed 2022 feature film La Caída, about competitive diving

What are your views regarding the release of films directly onto streaming platforms?
There’s a permanent transformation that’s going on, and I think we’re all trying to understand where it’s going and what it’s going to be like now. I filmed XXY in 2006 and at that time we were still mostly coproducing with Europe. Then we began to coproduce with Latin America and, in the last four or five years, coproduction has been with platforms, which brings with it exhibition issues such as having zero or very short film windows.

All of us directors, who are often our own producers, are trying to understand what the model is like, what lives we want for our films and what possibilities there are for those lives to stretch out a bit before being seen on platforms, with all the good that comes with the number of people who can find them there.

In the case of Los Impactados, I wanted to return to a model of not having the platform on board until the film was released and had passed through theatres.

It’s not common to see the name of a show’s creator being used to promote Latin American series. Your name is one of the few to have reached that level. Should we give more value to creators?
I think it’s something that is happening little by little – it’s like giving signals to the viewer about what they are going to see. In that sense, I take great care. I don’t get involved in a project if I know I won’t be able to hold the reins until the end. Because I do believe that a value we have to take care of is our name, what we do and with which projects we are associated. If I feel that I will not be able to have that security, I prefer to reject a project. It’s good that in Latin America some names are beginning to have that weight.

Although fiction in Latin America has been growing, there has not yet been a ‘La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) moment.’ What is missing?
I think it’s a matter of time. But you have to understand that today we compete equally with series from all over the world, but with a much smaller budget. The Pack, for example, is a US$300,000 series with four days of filming per episode and a serialised structure. And when it premiered, it faced international tanks that shoot an episode in 25 days. But we are not afraid.

The motto of my film school was ‘lo atamos con alambre’ – patch it up. That’s how we made our first movies. Our base is a poor cinema, and I say it with pride. But what has happened with Latin American series in recent years is highly commendable. They travel more and more, our language is accepted. That is a conquest. And now we are learning to manage bigger teams, have better conditions. I think it’s step by step, but I don’t even think we have to worry, that’s a matter for the market.

Beauty pageant drama Señorita 89 focuses on women vying to become Miss Mexico

As an industry what needs to improve?
In each series we learn a lot, at all levels, and this method is expanding. Series in Latin America will be six or seven years old at this level. That’s nothing. Methods are being perfected and each team will find the one that works best for them.

A drop in the number of commissioned series is already being seen in exchange for more ambitious projects. As a creator, how do you view this situation?
The market experiences fluctuations that go from project excesses to ferocious clean-ups that stop the industry and then reactivate again. I think it will produce less for a year or so, but many series will continue to be made in Latin America.

Something very similar happened with our film industry. I doubt all this will hit the very independent series; like very independent films, those will continue to be made. And the very large ones will also continue to be made. Probably the hardest hit, as happened with our film industry, will be that middle range of series. There is going to be a brake on a certain medium budget for series, but they are going to continue making large series and many indie series, which are very valuable and which is where new voices appear, the disruptors.

I believe we have raised the quality of our series and our stories in just a few years, and that Latin America is already connected by an increasingly oiled creative fabric and its ties to Spain. It is something that has already happened in literature and in film, and that is now happening in our series. There is a lot of mobility, and that’s something to celebrate.

One concern of mine, as an Argentinian, is that I want to bring series to Argentina. For me, it is not insignificant to have written five versions of an excellent series in Patagonia and to have to film it in Mexico. I get it – I understand the reasons, but I still want Argentina to be a place where series and movies come. It doesn’t seem insignificant to me that I have to film in Mexico.

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