On Sept. 13, the cast and crew of The Mediapro Studio’s upcoming dramatic thriller “The Head” gathered at a swanky Santa Cruz de Tenerife hotel to kick off promotional duties for this English-language series, which will wrap shooting later this month.
It was day 50 of production, and the cast had been working late, rushing to get every last shot before heading off to Iceland for one last week. Having only wrapped the previous night’s shoot less than 10 hours prior, all were in high spirits for that morning’s round of junkets with the Spanish, Japanese and English-language press, and for the set visit that then followed.
Variety was on-hand for the day’s events, and can offer the following take-aways from the visit.
Limited Series Appeal
The six-episode limited series took shape when Ran Tellem, creator of the Israeli drama “Prisoners of War” and executive producer of its American remake “Homeland,” came onboard as The Mediapro Studio’s director of international content development in 2016.
Together with The Mediapro Studio content director Javier Mendez, the executives came up with an evocative premise – which opens on a group of scientists returning to a remote Antarctic research station after a long winter break only to find all their colleagues dead, and then flashes back to the moment the doomed colleagues discovered the first dead body amongst them – then brought it to the 2017 Series Mania pitch forum.
Tellem and crew made a compelling case at Series Mania, and the Agatha Christie-like thriller quickly took off from there. It soon brought in co-production partners like Hulu Japan and HBO Asia, who will broadcast the series in Asian territories, and a creative team that includes genre experts like show-writers Alex and David Pastor (“Carriers,” and the upcoming Netflix original “Hogar”), and director Jorge Dorado (“The Pier,” “Mindscape”). Mediapro is handling all other international sales for the series, which is due in 2020.
For a creative like David Pastor, much of the appeal of this project was linked to its limited nature. “My brother and I created a show in the States that got cancelled after one season,” he notes. “That’s life – or at least, that’s TV – but we always felt it a pity to not tell a complete story.”
“What we liked about this was the ability to tell something in full,” Pastor continues. “There’s only one season, and that’s fine, it stands on its own. It could have a season two, but it doesn’t need to – and that storytelling freedom appealed to us.”
Tellem agrees. “We have a deal with viewers: They’re not going to watch the series and be left hanging. We guarantee that we’re giving them the full story,” says the executive.
Still, he leaves the door open for more. “I don’t think this says we can’t have a second season. We’ve built something really interesting, and it can be a home for a completely new story for subsequent seasons,” adds Tellem.
To fill out this snow-swept whodunit, the show-runners put together a diverse cast featuring British, Danish, American, Irish, Japanese and Spanish performers, hoping to emphasize the series’ international dimension.
Part of that was due to certain narrative considerations, as actor Richard Sammel (“The Strain”) puts it. “The Antarctic itself, and the research community who populate it, is already very international, and the show is reflective of that,” the German actor explains.
Of course, this is also tied to some larger movements in the global TV business. The continued success of foreign titles on the major streaming platforms has exponentially increased the worldwide market for premium content, while allowing performers to develop international renown working in their native tongues.
With that in mind, it only makes sense to have the show’s Scandinavian characters interact with each other as they normally would.
“It’s really wonderful that they haven’t done the version where we speak English amongst ourselves,” says Danish actress Laura Bach (“Those Who Kill”), who plays one half of a fractured couple at the center of this series. “That’s so weird. We actually get to speak our native languages if it makes sense. It makes you come more alive, like you would in the real world.”
Actor Alexandre Willaume (“Below the Surface”), who plays the other half of the couple, agrees. “The audience is cleverer than we give them credit for. If it’s interesting, it doesn’t matter if its Japanese or French, you will buy into the energy of what’s in the frame.”
Indeed, Willaume has seen the shift within his very career. “When I started going abroad for projects, it was always to do the generic Russian or Eastern European accent. Which has changed,” he notes. “[Back then,] they wanted you to be this specific character with this specific accent, and now they kind of don’t care. You bring the accent that you have, because we’re in a multi-cultural world where everyone moves around.”
“It’s not about taking on an accent and affect,” he continues. “It’s about your own talent and what you bring to the scene.”
When Hulu Japan joined the project, they sought to incorporate a major local draw into this international mix, and wished for one name in particular.
“From the beginning, Tomohisa Yamashita was at the top of their list,” says Tellem. “They had people they wanted, and one guy they dreamed of.” And so, “The Head” will mark the English-series debut of actor, singer and TV host Yamashita, who has been one of the most widely popular Japanese celebrities for well over a decade.
For Hulu Japan, whose 2 million paying subscribers tend to favor local content, bringing it Yamashita made perfect sense, while the actor saw the role as a chance to expand his international profile.
Yamashita tells Variety that he’s recently signed a contract with Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment and hopes to increase his worldwide footprint. The Japanese star cites Smith as a career role model and hopes to develop his career in Smith’s image.
The star, who engages with million of fans on social media and topped the Japanese box office in 2018, then reflects on the relative anonymity he found working in the Canary Islands these past few months. “I’ve enjoyed it,” says Yamashita.
“It’s more natural, in a way. Since I’ve been here, I’ve felt very at ease. [Working like this has given me] a very nostalgic feeling; it’s taken me back to the beginning of my career, to when I was just starting out. I almost feel like it’s my first time again.”
“The Head” will also mark the English-language debut of “La Casa de Papel” (“Money Heist”) star Alvaro Morte.
Though he has been more than busy after skyrocketing to fame in 2017, Morte took on a supporting role in this upcoming series in part thanks to his relationship with “The Head” director Jorge Dorado (with whom he has collaborated with on “The Pier”), and in part due to the nature of the role.
“It wouldn’t be intelligent to be the main character in my first production in English,” says Morte. “I’m getting offers from the States and the U.K., but for me, it was perfect to make my English debut working with Jorge and not playing the lead. That was perfect, because I could test myself.”
Of course, the production still had to wait on Morte densely packed schedule. The actor could only join the crew in Tenerife a month into production, as he was fully booked shooting “Money Heist” season 4.
“Season 4 stopped shooting on Aug. 13th and by the 15th I was here,” laughs Morte. “I came in on a Thursday, and my first day of work was supposed to be the following Monday. But the day I arrived, Jorge said me, ‘tomorrow you’re going to be in a scene!’”
Night For Day
Though the cast and crew will now head to Iceland to shoot one week of exteriors, for two months the production took place in a 2,000 square-meter onetime Mercedes warehouse on a hilltop in Tenerife. There, the crew built a scale model of the Antarctic research station where the grisly action unfurls.
Mediapro looked to Tenerife specifically for this makeshift soundstage, which is certainly the biggest of its kind in the Canary Islands, and possibly one of the biggest in Spain.
Of course, recreating a dark Antarctic winter in the heat of Spanish summer did require a few sacrifices from the cast, who were banned from the beaches, forbidden to tan, and strapped with ice packs under the parkas.
“We had these ice vests, which had four blocks of ice in them. They lasted 45 minutes before they completely melted,” recalls actor Chris Reilly (“The Last Post”).
“It gave you a baked feeling, you felt like you were being baked like a loaf of bread… It’s amazing how it looks the same on camera. Being really hot looks the same as being really cold,” he quips.
The production took other steps as well. To recreate the chilly Antarctic feeling on a volcanic island just off the coast of the Sahara, the crew would often shoot at night and VFX editors will later add digital breaths in post-production.
And naturally, sometimes they just had to outsource to locate props. “The hardest thing to find were the vehicles,” recalls Tellem. “We brought in the first ever snowmobile to Tenerife!”