Featuring among key cast Alvaro Morte, “La Casa de Papel’s” Professor, and Japanese pop idol Tomohisa Yamashita, written by Alex and David Pastor (“Hogar,” “Carriers”) and directed by Jorge Dorado (“The Department of Time,” “The Pier”), the six-part South Pole survival thriller kicks off with a sustained aerial shot swooping over cruelly barren Antarctic expanses, then down to a small but raucous crowd partying outside the Polaris VI Scientific Research Station.
Still the same apparent shot, it shimmies past Morte – who plays the Station’s belligerent cook and is gamely serving hamburgers – then morphs seamlessly into the subjective POV of Johan (Alexandre Willaume), the Station’s second-in-command, as he nonchalantly grabs a bottle of wine and fair sprints into the Station.
Heading to his bedroom to make love to his wife, Annika (Laura Bach), he passes Arthur (John Lynch), the Station’s head of research, who’s giving a speech to researchers, wine glass in hand, some guff about “enduring the winter darkness to bring the light of knowledge to the world.”
The shot looks to last over two minutes. It encapsulates, in a nutshell, “The Head,” a survival thriller of daunting scale – in its industry significance, production, setting – which sheds light not on scientific advance but the intimate desires, facades, lies and inhumanity of modern man, “the most simple survivalist human emotions,” as Ran Tellem, TMS international content development head, puts it.
In industry terms, “The Head” is one of the biggest drama series productions at Mediapro, one of the biggest independent TV-film groups in Europe with 2019 sales of over €1.8 billion ($2.0 billion), one way to go for the company, says, a Tellem, a former top Keshet executive and executive producer on “Homeland.”
Produced by The Mediapro Studio with Hulu Japan and HBO Asia, it’s also Spain’s first Orange TV Original, as the French telecom plows into original content production, opening up a new source of finance in Spain, a fast-consolidating European production hub.
Canal Plus has just acquired first-run rights for France, Laura Fernandez Espeso, The Mediapro Studio corporate director announced Thursday. It joins Nent, which has rights For Scandinavia and Globoplay,which has taken Brazil.
Dorado drills down below on some details of production, shot – extraordinary but true – on a 2,000 sq. meter (21,500 sq. foot) set on the tropical Canary Island of Tenerife.
In story-telling terms, however, “The Head” looks to deal in the intimate, and it does so with bold breaks with drama series tradition, often compared to the 19th century novel, which takes it into narrative modernism.
Tellem, Dorado and the Pastor brothers talked to Variety as “The Head” was presented online on Thursday in a mass industry/press event featuring TMS executive producers Laura Fernandez Espeso, Javier Méndez and Tellem, Hulu Japan executive producer Kazufumi Nagasaw, Dorado and David Pastor.
Also present was a full cast of Lynch, Katharine O’Donnelly, Willaume, Bach, Yamashita, Richard Sammel, Chris Reilly, Sandra Andreis, Amelia Hoy, Tom Lawrence and Morte.
Like several modern series, although still firmly in the minority, “The Head” features an unreliable narrator. That is, we don’t know how much of what is being shown is true.
Álex Pastor: In this kind of murder mystery, paranoid thriller, the subject of how much you can know a person is key. And it’s not just a part of the genre but something we face every day in the most mundane situations. There is only so much we can know about what goes on in other people’s minds, no matter how well we think we know them.
David Pastor: I think it’s the heart of this story. Telling it this way allows us to get to know the characters, their motivations and who they are when nobody is looking. But it’s also about the characters learning things about one another, even those who have close relationships.
Tellem: The nature of the show requires it. 10 minutes in and all the cards are on the table. You have dead bodies and a survivor, so how do you make that thrilling? There is a real art in how the characters are revealed. Everyone is hiding something, and it’s dangerous to jump to conclusions because until the very end we have theories, but we don’t know the truth.
Can you talk a bit about the series’ aesthetic? It’s a unique mix of old and new in a modern, scientific habitat full of old books, art and furniture.
Dorado: For a lot of it we used a floating oil rig near Tenerife. There we found a kitchen, a living room, the hallways, and it was something real. It’s an amazing set and you feel you’re in an isolated place like Antarctica. So we used that as well as the studio, then went to Iceland to shoot the scenes in the snow. As for the look, we needed the habitat to be another character. This place is lived in and tells us so much about the people there. And when studying real habitats we saw this mix of old and new, so we created a concept we called the “ugly nice style.”
Tellem: Jorge shot the entire series start to finish, and on weekends he would come and sit on the set alone and design the coming week’s days of shooting. And, although this is a completely international show, for me that gave it a Spanish feel in the look, feel and the camera movements.
And of course with such an international cast, you have to write international characters. How do you go about representing these characters from other countries.?
David Pastor: We are obviously more connected with Spain, the U.S. and the U.K., but we have Norwegian and Swedish friends from school that we ended up basing a lot of the characters on. A lot of the jokes are homages to our real life friends… who we end up brutally murdering in the series. We wrote the whole script in English, and someone had to translate the Danish parts, which allowed for adaptation and the actors to take the dialogue and make it their own.
Dorado: We wanted the actors to feel comfortable with and to explore their characters. That’s something I tried to do in rehearsals. Let them play, talk about the characters and face one other not trying to understand the whole script, but things beyond the story.
The Mediapro Studio has one of the largest TV production pipelines in Europe, and I wonder how this series fits in with the work being done there?
Tellem: I joined Mediapro four years ago, leaving a successful company [Keshet] in Israel producing successful international shows. I’ve never done something this big. And not just in size, but number of main characters, nationalities, building sets, shooting in different countries, and through all of it we had a tremendous sense of autonomy. I think that autonomy allowed these guys to express themselves and do what they know how to do. Now that’s a huge bet from Mediapro, a huge studio but still a bet to produce a show that they will go on to sell to the world. It stands out as a mark of The Mediapro Studio’s ambitions, and my hope is that their faith in us was well placed and returns good results from audiences and critics, and that we can do many more projects like this.
(Pictured, top: Katharine O’Donnelly takes directions from Jorge Dorado durIng the shoot of “The Head.”)