Inside Amazon’s ‘El Cid,’ Headlining ‘Money Heist’ Star Jaime Llorente: True History, Big IP and a Rebel With a Cause

El Cid
Courtesy: Amazon Studios

Starring “Money Heist” and “Elite” star Jaime Llorente, Amazon’s “El Cid” hit the streaming platform worldwide on Dec. 18, weighing in as Spain’s first scripted Amazon Original and one of its biggest swings to date in continental Europe.

While Charlton Heston’s El Cid in the eponymous 1961 film was a product of the Cold War, an agent of Christendom battling invading aliens, Llorente’s Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, alias El Cid, is less glorious, more grounded and far truer to its age while interpreting events with modern-day political and gender sensibility. This is a medieval epic, but with attitude, and Spain setting the record straight.

Here are six takes on the five-part season 1, and a brief Q&A with co-creator José Velasco and producer Sara Fernandez-Velasco. (Warning: may contain spoilers)

The Dawn of Democracy

Driving to the heart of its drama, in an early episode one flash-forward, Llorente’s 20-year-old El Cid, a page to Leon’s Prince Sancho, walks past weary soldiers after 1063’s Battle of Graus. Rodrigo has just saved Sancho’s life, rallied his troops and slaughtered the enemy’s outsized champion knight. Sancho’s troops kneel as his passes. How does Rodrigo take such early glory? With a look of surly rebellion. “Nobody will remember my name when I fall in battle,” Rodrigo says in voiceover.

Rodrigo del Vivar was first made famous by “El Cantar de Mio Cid,” a Middle Ages’ epic poem. These mostly feature aristocrats. Roland, the hero of France’s most famous example, is nephew to Charlemagne. Llorente’s El Cid, in contrast, is a minor noble, born in a hovel, who believes that merit will earn him promotion. Even in season one, he proves sadly disappointed. He will end up creating his own fiefdom in Valencia. Coursing through the first season and marking El Cid apart is the same questioning of autocratic monarchy which would course through England, leading to the signing of the Magna Carta just over a century later.

Spain Scales Up

Political coming of age drama “El Cid” also weighs in as a high-end actioner shot with 300 technicians, 750 FX and 1,100 horses, filmed before dazzling extant medieval castles with chill-out scenes in sumptuous Moorish palaces. Brought to the court of Ferdinand I of Leon, El Cid fights with pit-bull ferocity to kill in single combat a knight of enemy Ramiro I of Aragon. Orchestrated by “Game of Thrones” horse wranglers, and using 3,400 extras, the Battle of Graus has Sancho and Ramiro’s heavy cavalry charging each other head on. Neither veers: the sequence crescendoes in a train crash of horses, knights and lances of breathtaking, brutal beauty.

Leveraging Spain’s Contained Costs

“El Cid” ranks as Spain’s biggest-budget series ever, says Fernandez-Velasco. Spain can afford it. “Certain markets are becoming prohibitively expensive to produce in, which would include the U.S. and to a lesser extent the U.K.,” says Ampere Analysis’ Guy Bisson. “International productions makes a lot of sense. You can make high-quality drama for much, much lower budgets,” he adds. Recreating 1580 Seville, Movistar Plus’ “The Plague” cost just €1.5 million ($1.85 million) per episode. Key Spanish tech talent has also been schooled by decades of big U.S. shoots. The series’ art director, Benjamín Fernández, worked at age 16 on 1961’s “El Cid.” Leveraging those cost differentials and national talent pool now reps an alluring business model for platforms and local producers alike.

Catnip for the Historically Minded

Long on exposition, as it launches a life story and fratricidal family melodrama that could stretch to five seasons, season one is leavened by shards of knowing historical reference that prove catnip for the historically-minded. The series shows correctly the mix of Christian and Moorish forces fighting other Christian troops which was the tonic of the day, and admiration for Normand jousting techniques and Moorish scientific prowess, seen in the astrolabe carried by Rodrigo’s mentor, Abu Bakr. This would allow El Cid to become one of the first Christian military leaders in history to carry out night attacks. For viewers tired of the preposterous inaccuracies of most historical series, “El Cid” is a delight.

The Age of IP

The series comes as producers are looking ever more to IP to cut through the crunch of so much high-end drama series production. One option appears to be national heroes. Germany’s “Barbarians,” one of Netflix’s most-watched non-English language titles this year, features Arminius, the Germanic chieftain who halted Roman Empire expansion beyond the Rhine. In Brazil, Netflix is preparing “Senna”; Meanwhile, Amazon has just unveiled first images of “Maradona: Sueño Bendito.”

Urraca: Facing the Medieval Glass Ceiling

Complex as he may become, in season 1, Rodrigo is on a learning curve, and as such, the ‘most compelling character’ honors go to Princess Urraca (Alicia Sanz). Beautiful, brazen and the eldest child of Ferdinand I, Urraca is seething at medieval male primogeniture. “Women by nature are weak, they’ll submit, not fight. Monarchs need to shed the blood of their dearest. That’s why I reign,” Ferdinand lectures Urraca in episode 5. It proves his death sentence as Urraca takes his realpolitik to heart. The patricide may come back to haunt Urraca, one senses, to the end of her days.

Variety talked to Jose Velasco, “El Cid” co-creator with lead writer Luis Arranz, and Sara Fernández-Velasco, its producer, at Madrid’s Zebra Producciones, part of Europe’s iZen group, which includes the U.K.’s Chalkboard TV (“Cold Call”), the Elephant Group in France and Italy and Imagic TV in the Middle East.

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El Cid Courtesy: Amazon Studios

There’s a climactic scene in late Season One where El Mestre explains to Rodrigo that they can laugh, fight and die with Leon aristocrats but will never be one of them. In “El Cid,” you sense the first inklings of a democratic rebellion against unaccountable autocracy.

Velasco: There’s a change in power dynamics. Kings still have power, but authority rests with a democratic leader who wasn’t named by God nor the Church but earned his authority on the battlefield. When El Cid says, ‘We’re off,’ everybody goes with him, leaving the king behind. That’s democracy.

What has Amazon brought to the table?

Fernández-Velasco: We hadn’t dared present the project to other platforms since we thought it needed this scale. Amazon has given it the size that it merits.

El Cid never lost a battle. One explanation is his capacity of assimilation, seen here in his friendship with Moorish physician Abu Bakr, who becomes a mentor for Rodrigo, and El Cid’s recognition of the superiority at the time, in so many ways, of Spain’s Moorish civilization.

Velasco: It was the Silicon Valley of those times, in commerce, science and medicine. Islam was science; Christianity — faith and darkness. Learning from the Moors, El Cid uses an astrolabe for orientation, learns about charges stratagems in Ancient Greek manuals. His large capacity to learn from other cultures makes him one of the most important military figures in history.

What were the series’ main production challenges?

Fernández-Velasco: Shooting with two units and two directors: one in Soria, Burgos and Zaragoza and another in Madrid, so as to assign more money to other parts of the budget.

Can you characterize how much “El Cid” cost?

Fernández-Velasco: Half of what it would have cost if we’d made it in the U.K, and a quarter of a U.S. [budget].

In the U.K., where Chalkboard TV has just won best small indie at the 2020 Edinburgh TV Awards, iZen’s just launched Clapperboard, a scripted series producer. One logic would be to produce English-language series in Spain.

Velasco: We’re studying that. Spain has high-quality talent, great climate and locations, a good tax model, and it’s trending as a drama series production center. Zebra’s discovered an English story which we’re now co-developing with English and Spanish screenwriters. It’s a marvelous combination.