MADRID — On Nov 1 Netflix will drop its fifth Spanish original series, 1960’s-set drug smuggling drama “Hache,” produced by Madrid’s Weekend Studio for the platform.
Created by Verónica Fernández and directed by Jorge Torregrossa (“La vida inesperada,” “Cocaine Coast,” “Velvet Collection”), “Hache” tells the story of Helena (Adriana Ugarte), a prostitute who ends up the favorite of powerful organized crime head Malpica (Javier Rey), a violent man with a bad leg and a morphine addiction to numb the pain.
Ambitious, headstrong and uncompromising, Helena – frequently called Hache, the Spanish pronunciation of the letter H – quickly rises to the very top of the vicious organization which oversees the Barcelona ports for heroin smuggling routes between Africa to the U.S.
Variety was given early access to the series’ first two episodes, and conducted a spoiler-free interview with Fernández and Torregrossa in Barcelona.
The series is said to be based on real events. Can you talk about the historical influences of the series?
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Fernández: I first had the idea when I was reading a newspaper that talked about how Luchano organized the heroin route from Asia to America. The story said that Luchano had used the ports of the Mediterranean, among them was the port of Barcelona. In doing more research I found how the Italian drug dealers moved the heroin and another story that said the Barcelona authorities had found dolls stuffed with heroin washed up on the shore. Combining these elements, because there is not much else in the historical record, we have created the story of our series.
And how did you construct the show’s aesthetic?
Torregona: We watched so many Spanish films from the time, almost all of them unknown today. We made a conscious effort in avoiding recognizable models. I wanted to focus on the characters. We didn’t make the series with a specific genre in mind. I wanted form to follow the function of the adventures of this wild woman who has no limits. Then, of course, when you start seeing cops in trench coats, era appropriate cars and those guns and people smoking inside, of course the look is noir. That breathes through all the pores of the series. But we did make a conscious separation from many of those traditions and tried to do something new.
You’ve both got impressive traditional TV resumes. I wonder how you found the experience of making a series, from the very beginning, for a platform? In this case Netflix.
Fernández: It was great. We both worked on “Velvet” and had worked with Movistar, but “Velvet” came from free-to-air television, so it’s not the same. This is our first time on Netflix, but I can also say it’s the first time I’ve had all the creative responsibility to completely lead a series. Jorge and I have been able to design the series from every angle, as we wanted. Netflix bet on the vision that I created, then added Jorge who has contributed so much. This wasn’t something typically done on free-to-air TV, to bet on a creator and a concept that doesn’t have such a broad audience.
Unlike a lot of Spanish series, the characters in “Hache” speak the languages of their countries rather than all speaking Spanish. Is that a result of creating for a platform?
Torregona: It’s an absolute necessity of the story. Our characters interact with and part of the plot is solidly grounded in international relations. We have an Italian American mobster, Americans working in the consulate of Barcelona, and the series actually starts in the streets of Barcelona with American sailors soliciting prostitutes, hinting at the international nature of the series. It was essential to Veronica and me that the American characters speak English, and the Italians in Italian. I’ve done lots of other jobs where there was almost a rule that the characters had to speak in Spanish because networks didn’t want subtitles. They were afraid people would detach. With “Hache” it was necessary we use the real languages, not only because Netflix allows it.
Fernández: We don’t see the series as being made for Netflix. I started to write because I wanted to tell this story. We had no idea where it was going to be made. It’s a story born of the need to tell it.
The police in the show start off almost clueless as to what is going on in the ports of Barcelona. They don’t even have facilities to test the suspicious white powder that washes up on the Barcelona beaches.
Fernández: In Spain, at the time, these were not crimes that were being investigated. Drugs were everywhere and there was always a new kind of drug available. Spanish police at the time were more worried about political issues affecting the country than this kind of organized crime. One of the things that encouraged me most in making this story is that heroin trafficking was so well hidden.
In the first two episodes there aren’t many good guys. Most of the characters seems to be doing whatever they must just to keep their heads above water. How do you create empathy in such flawed characters?
Fernández: Well we always say it’s a story of survivors. We believe life is hard, and Hache proves it. I will say behind their hard facades, there are redeeming qualities in everyone. For example, the strength that Hache has to keep moving forward and the unconditional love she has for her daughter and her partner, who is in jail. We’ve created complex characters of light and shadow. If there were only shadows it wouldn’t be very interesting. Early on we see Hache suffer, we see Malpica suffer. Some of the characters do seem pretty bad in the first two episodes, but we’ll see why they act that way later!
Torregona: Even the cops seem to have skeletons in the closet. They’re running away from some demons which leads them to behave sometimes very erratically. They too can be capable of terrible things and have moments of weakness. I think throughout the series we demonstrate a duality in all our characters. When I first read the script, it was one of the things that I liked the most about this story. There were no good guys or bad guys.