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Series Mania: ‘Hierro’ as ‘Southern Noir’ and an Industry Groundbreaker

LILLE, France —  Banijay Rights-sold “Hierro” begins with sea, land, air and fire: Shots of the stunning volcanic isle of El Hierro, the most westerly point of Spain’s Canary Islands, with its black basalt rock, brown iron-rich gravel, white waves pummeling the coast, trees trunks twisted by wind and lava, a juniper bent double by wind.

But as much as it features extraordinary nature, and starts with a murder victim in a kind of southern isle Noir, “Hierro” turns, above all, on human nature, how it clings to and is forged by custom, and the complex, contradictory, comparable and contrasting characters of Candela, an intolerably upright Spanish judge, exiled for her rectitude to El Hierro, and Diaz, a arrogant narco kingpin who’s done time for homicide. The main suspect in the murder case of the man who was about to marry his daughter, Díaz is released by Candela, going by the letter of the law. Both begin a race to track down the murderer, in what “Hierro’s” synopsis describes as a journey to hell.

Remarkable in landscape, “Hierro” is ground-breaking in its industrial model, the first co-production of Telefonica-owned Movistar +, to date a 100% financier of its original series, and part of French-German broadcaster Arte’s drive into international co-production, also seen at “Series Mania” with “Eden.”

Developed by Spain’s Portocabo, and a Berlinale Drama Series Days Co-pro Series winner, “Hierro” attracted France’s Atlantique Productions, part of the Lagardère Group, and French-German broadcaster Arte. When Telefonica pay TV unit Movistar + also boarded, in its first international co-production, “Hierro” could move into production. All four partners shared IP.

Movistar + will release “Hierro” on June 7, with all eight episodes of the season made available the same day. Variety interviewed producer Alfonso Blanco, writer Pepe Coira, director Jorge Coira and Tim Mutimer, head of Banijay Rights, before the series world premieres at Series Mania on March 26.

”Hierro” features extraordinary nature, but it’s real mystery is the complex, contradictory, comparable and contrasting characters of Candela and Díaz and what they say about human nature. Would you agree? 

Alfonso Blanco, Pepe Coira: Thanks for that. It’s funny how very different people have a lot of things in common, or how one can arrive at the same place coming from very distant origins and for so opposite reasons. These two characters, Candela and Díaz, are the heart of the story. They are searchers, looking for a killer. Thriller and crime are a wonderful ground to talk about how we are, as human beings.

That said, the extraordinary landscapes of “Hierro,” an Atlantic volcano island, are a huge attraction. Was this a case of: the more local, the more international a series’ appeal? 

Blanco, Coira: Absolutely, for a long, long time Spanish fiction was located in an indeterminate big city, or an indeterminate village, with characters talking in an indeterminate accent, so most of the audience would connect to them and not consider it alien. But most of the stories feel better when they happen somewhere that is real, in a scenario with character. When we placed our story in El Hierro we felt it was at home. We showed the first teaser of the project in the Berlinale and Series Mania, back in 2015, and it was very well received. We are quite sure it had all to do with that great stage, that wonderful sounding board which El Hierro is.

”Hierro’s” credit roll takes in the four elements, earth, water, air and fire: Waves, hard basalt rocks, Candela breathing in the island’s fresh air. These shots take on the force of metaphors, but metaphors for what?

Jorge Coira: One of the key ideas in “Hierro” was to connect the island -with all the power of its extreme nature-, to the deep content of the plot. The story talks about the roots of violence, about how our needs, our fears, our desires can lead us to dark places of our souls; and how this violence can be hidden under a quiet and calm exterior aspect. We felt that the landscape of El Hierro had an emotional link to that kind of feeling. And we focused mainly on three visual areas: the sea –which can be beautiful, blue and peaceful, or tough and violent-; the mountain –green and pleasant, or dark and mysterious- and, of course, the sabinas: these peculiar trees that grow twisted by the extreme wind on mountain tops. It’s not a simple and direct metaphor but, in a way, these trees provide a visual connection to that deep feeling of mystery and sorrow that flows thoughout the series.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Banijay Rights

Candela is a judge who goes by the letter of the law, which makes her a maverick, and disliked, in “Hierro.” Díaz rides roughshod over local custom and the law. The people of Hierro, in contrast, observe centuries old rites, customs. The series appears to question the limits of individualism, and the price, in a conservative context. Could you comment? 

Blanco, Coira: Candela and Diaz feel as free as only those who don’t look for the approval of the group can feel. But it doesn’t mean people of El Hierro are specially constrained by their culture, not more than anyone else – I would dare to say that it’s just the opposite! They are physically constrained by their island, but it looks like they don’t bother, they like it – as Diaz does; Candela will have to learn to enjoy it. I think the series talks about the longing for a fulfilling life, a good life –whatever it means – and how difficult it can be to achieve this. It also talks about parenthood. That’s something very important that Candela and Díaz have in common, and also many other characters.

How does “Hierro,” Tim, fit into Banijay Rights sales portfolio?  

Global viewing habits have changed. Right now buyers are looking for dramas across every theme and genre, produced in many languages and from all territories.  The most important attribute of course is a gripping narrative which is well told.

As we step into MipTV, an increasing number of our dramas on our slate are coming from diverse global locations. “Hierro” – whose location is a vital part of the story – is from Spain. Another common thread in all of Banijay Rights’ dramas at MipTV is exceptional talent – both behind and in front of the camera. “Hierro,” for instance stars well-known feature film actors, Candela Peña (“All About My Mother”, “Princesas,” “Torremolinos 73”) and Darío Grandinetti (“Wild Tales,” “Talk To Her”).

How, Jorge, did you direct Peña and Grandinetti?

Jorge Coira: That was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the shooting (and there were many, because it was a really great fun). Candela and Darío are two great actors and playing with them –and with all the rest of the cast- was a really creative, intense and fruitful experience. Of course, they are different in many ways, but both of them shared an enormous commitment to the project and were extremely generous. There are very few things more satisfying than working with actors who don’t hesitate to try different approaches on the same scene, to jump into and explore the emotional stakes of the situations. And every single day of the shooting, they kept that essential spirit of playing without fear.

The shooting style of “Hierro” is distinctive. At least in the first two episodes, you never shot a location from the same angle and rarely shoot the same location. You constantly pull back from a scene, sometimes with dramatic aerial shots, or use establishing shots which one more set characters in context. What were you seeking with such a style?

Jorge Coira: The shooting style of the series navigates between two main poles:  the sobriety of open lenses, steady compositions, soft camera movements… and the nervy, uneasy feeling of a handheld camera. And this balance evolves during the eight episodes. So, when I look at any location, I try to explore all its visual possibilities and focus on the particular needs of each sequence, of each dramatic situation, of what place it has in the evolution of the plot and the characters, and that leads to shooting from different angles, so that we always stay connected to the inner aspects of the drama rather than the most external ones.

And about the pull-back shots, I feel it is connected to this idea of respect towards the characters, their concerns and their suffering. We travel with them and witness their drama, but somehow we give them air, we give them space… it’s a way of connecting the camera movement to a moral approach to the story.

“Hierro” might be described as Atlantic Isle Noir. Beyond that, what is singular to the series?

Blanco: We think we are closer the term “Southern Noir”, a bright, warm crime drama, a character-driven series, characters with southern personalities, temperamental, expansive and passionate.

Mutimer: The producers have certainly created a very memorable and compelling ‘Noir’ drama way out in the Atlantic Ocean. Full of passionate and spirited characters, the setting  of “Hierro” on the little-visited Canary island is visually intriguing and delivers a truly unique backdrop.  El Hierro itself is a true protagonist in the storyline.

Given the pressures now on filmmakers to reach an audience, I sense that in some ways you now have more liberty for experimentation in drama series. Could you comment?  

Blanco, Coira: I’m not aware enough of the limits in film production. Fortunately, series have broadened their range after many years when most of the fiction had to fit in two or three different formulas. In a way, television –that terrific media- has recovered the sense of risk and authorship it had in the sixties or seventies. It must be because audience has now become audiences. And that’s great news. Serial fiction is a huge space, there is room for a lot of different stories and people eager to tell them as far as decision makers give us the opportunity to do so.

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