One of Spanish pay TV Movistar Plus’ most ambitious pushes into original, international TV yet, the 20th Century-spanning period drama “Tell Me Who I Am,” will headline Monday evening’s Movistar Gala at the San Sebastian Film Festival, screening episodes out of competition.
Director Eduard Cortés will be joined on the red carpet by lead actors Irene Escolar and Oriel Pla, screenwriter and author of book on which the series is based Julia Navarro, producer José Luis Escolar, executive producer José Manuel Lorenzo and Movistar Plus head of original programming Domingo Corral.
Following its protagonist, a Spanish upper-class socialite turned reluctant spy after falling for a Russian agent, “Tell Me Who I Am” shot for eight months in more than 300 locations across Europe, employing more than 3,000 actors and extras and choreographing action scenes on a level rarely seen in Spanish TV, if ever. A benchmark series for the Telefonica pay TV’s international ambitions, it also represents the first time Movistar has co-produced with a U.S. company, teaming with Telemundo International Studios, which handles distribution in the States.
Lorenzo and Corral spoke with Variety about adapting a bestseller, where the series fits in Movistar’s larger plans and working with co-producers Telemundo in the States.
The novel of “Tell Me Who I Am” is a phenomenon, but it’s 1,000 pages long and reads differently than how the series unravels. What decisions did you make to be sure this story would work as a series?
Lorenzo: When we are going to adapt a book, what many writers don’t understand is that we are not making an audiobook. Domingo, his team and I have worked to find a new, unique voice for this series, while maintaining the essence of the book. The book is a page turner. It’s a thousand-page book and I read it in two days. I couldn’t stop. But the book is full of little interruptions where Amelia’s story is paused, and you go back to the modern journalist. That didn’t work for us because it took away the drive we wanted. Finding our series’ voice and shooting everything in order as Amelia lived it was a brutal challenge, but we thought it’s what the series demanded.
Obviously, this is Movistar’s most international series so far. What were some challenges in shooting in so many places and languages?
Lorenzo: When Amelia went to Poland, we wanted the people there speaking Polish, but how do you do that with Amelia? How many languages can she speak? Polish, Italian, German, English, a little Russian? It made the production very complicated, a nightmare that I was lucky to come out of alive. And thankfully, we found a way to make it work that in each country, the characters speak their language. But, I do believe that the casting and production design on this series were two of the most complicated things we’ve ever done.
Corral: But it was a brave decision because it gives so much authenticity to everything. In the end the series is 70% Spanish, and 30% languages from where the story takes place.
This feels like a very modern period series. That is, Amelia has a vision that is acceptable to TV viewers today but might not have made it onto screen when the events of the series were happening.
Corral: I think that’s exactly the case. I think those women existed at the time, although maybe a minority, but they existed. And it’s thanks to them that women today can dream like Amelia and that we can make a series like this. I think that’s a huge reason for the success of the book, and something the series picked up on well.
Lorenzo: Everything we did, the planning, shooting, art, settings, locations, we did to avoid making a stale or old series. This is a very modern series telling a period story. And as Domingo says, those types of women did exist, and they were fundamental in history. She was a woman who broke molds and did things for herself.
At the same time, it’s very much a Movistar series in its ambition and execution.
Corral: A story can only be told well if you dedicate the resources needed to tell the story well. “Tell Me Who I Am” is a project that we have worked on for almost five years. I believe this is a project not many execute. There are so many details that expand the scale of it, micro details that scale up the macro series. One example is that José demanded that the English in the series always sound authentic, never translated from Spanish by a native Spanish speaker.
Lorenzo: We were shooting a scene in the English Foreign Office and one of the characters, a Lord, had a line and when I read it I said, “No way, this guys speaks like me when I speak English, and I’m no Lord.” We were in the Foreign Office and I wanted them speaking the English of the upper class.
It also feels very Movistar because on both sides of the camera there are talented individuals with extensive histories in independent, arthouse cinema. Is that becoming a trend at Movistar?
Corral: What we look for is talented people who have a vision and share our way of understanding television. “Tell Me Who I am” is a good example. Eduard Cortés has made Goya-nominated films. He was suggested by José, and although he had made films, what I knew him from was “Merlí.” We weren’t looking for an arthouse filmmaker or a big cinema director, but I liked what I saw with “Merlí,” and believed he and José would create something great together.
Lorenzo: It was the same for the actors. We didn’t look for actors with the biggest social media followings or the audiences their films drew, we just wanted to find the right actors to play Amelia and Pierre. We didn’t make the mistake of going for big names, because we always wanted this to be a serious series.
This series is your first U.S. co-production, can you talk a bit about working with Telemundo intl. Studios on the series?
Corral: A co-production with Telemundo puts you in the American market from the start. It’s not the same as selling it in the U.S. after the series is done. So, from the beginning it was great having them on as co-producers and it really made this our most international series. Telemundo has also started producing more premium, sophisticated content, and I think “Tell Me Who I Am” fits in that framework. Our goals lined up perfectly, and in fact, we are working on two other series with them now.