Produced with U.S. streamer Pantaya and top European production house The Mediapro Studio, “Express,” Starzplay’s first Spanish-language original, is rounding the final bend of production, shooting last week at the Casa Huarte in a leafy luxury suburb of northern Madrid.

Reuniting  “Locked Up” creator Ivan Escobar with its star, Maggie Civantos, “Express” refers to the phenomenon of short-lived abductions, lasting a few hours, where the victim or relatives are forced by assailants to max out their credit cards or rapidly pay off assailants. Abductions sometimes end in murder.

Created by Escobar, the series’ showrunner and writer, “Express” is shaping up as one of the banner Spanish-language productions of 2021. It also points an alternative – and often complementary – way forward for top producers which do not want to work just as producers for hire for the world’s biggest studio streamers. Seven takes on the eight-part series:

Grasping the Holy Grail 

During a Mediapro dinner at last September’s San Sebastian Festival, Laura Fernández Espeso, now The Mediapro Studio CEO, spent much of the evening talking up “The Head,” an Antarctic survival thriller made with Hulu Japan and HBO Asia.

“We retained IP and are now rolling the series out via our distribution operation territory-by-territory,” she said. Eight months later, “The Head” is now breaking Mediapro sales records. Distances apart, “Express” is another case in point. It has two anchor co-producers, with Starzplay keeping SVOD rights in Spain and Latin America, Pantaya in the U.S. Elsewhere, The Mediapro Studio Distribution will handle world sales. Retaining IP, attacking the open market, The Mediapro Studio, in business terms, has grasped a current Holy Grail.

What’s “Express” About?

For Escobar, interviewed by Variety on the set of “Express,” answering that is a declaration of principles. In “Express,” Civantos plays a criminal psychologist, Bárbara, who leads a team which works for an insurance company that specializes in investigating and resolving express kidnappings. Some hostages –  if brief excerpts seen at a May 31 press conference were anything to go by – may meet grisly ends, one dead body, wrapped in plastic and sticker tape being dumped on a rubbish heap.

So “Express” could be a pumped-up U.S -style procedural with each episode punching a cathartic action-thriller climax. For Escobar, however, “Barbara isn’t a criminal psychologist who investigates express kidnappings. She’s a criminal psychologist who’s been an express abduction hostage herself, is [emotionally] wounded and will stop at nothing to discover who kidnapped her and why.” The ripple effects of that focus play out throughout “Express” and say much about Spanish drama series in general.

Bringing Spain’s DNA to the Table:

“It’s very important not to copy American series, four-lane car races, whatever. We just don’t have the capacity and they’ve been making these kinds of series for a long time,” Escobar argues. Instead, “Express” plays to Spain’s strength, and its DNA: a portrait of often confused or personal human emotion in professional crisis situations, yielding thrillers with a large dose of melodrama.“Bárbara’s highly ambitious. She wants to be the best in her job. But she juggles her work, her trauma and the brunt of bringing up her children, and she tries to use her work to solve her own trauma,” says Civantos. “But she finally realizes she can’t go on that way.” Placing Bárbara stage center “allows us to appeal to what is recognizably ours, emotions,” adds Antonio Sánchez, who wrote “Express” with Escobar and Martín Suárez (“Rabia”).

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The Upside of Keeping it Personal 

The large focus on Barbara is also the source of “Express’” originality, Civantos argued: “Express’ is a thriller, there’s a lot of action, but it’s also highly personal and intimate.” It can also, if it proves convincing, bring a sense of authenticity to a show, Peter Tortorici, Starzplay Spain, argued at the “Express” press conference. “No country has a monopoly on great storytelling, every country has unique stories to tell about themselves, their experience and their people. But the one thing every audience responds to no matter what place or language, is authenticity. If a character’s journey is believable to me, then I can invest in it. And that’s what we look for.”

Iván Escobar, Auteur

European series don’t just bring their national culture to the table, they also often add, in many of the best, the vision of an “auteur” and a social conscience. On his biggest three series to date – 2011-13’s “The Boat,” 2015-2019’s “Locked Up,” both created with Alex Pina, and now “Express” – Escobar pictures enclosed groups – a training ship Estrella Polar, a penitentiary, Barbara’s hostage rescue team – which, however artificial, allow protagonists a sense of community and reconnection with their own humanity. That need to connect may relate to Escobar’s vision of modern-day life. “‘Express’ talks about the velocity of life, where everything is fast, relations, sex, where we run around like headless chickens,” Escobar argues.

….and Anticipating Post-Covid Europe

“Express” also anticipates, in a building trend, a Europe which could emerge from COVID-19. Researching the series, Escobar recalls, “We talked to police officers who said that social inequality had skyrocketed with the pandemic. Nobody has a shotgun to enter and rob a bank, but everybody has the boot of a car. In a world where the biggest business isn’t a company quoted on a stock exchange but fear, express abductions ‘democratize’ fear.”

Making ‘Express’ Different

“Spanish cinema has changed, diversified in genres. What hasn’t changed is the small amount of incentives that it receives,” says “Express” co-star Kiti Mánver (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”). So film directors, such as Gabe Ibáñez, who caught attention for the visuals of 2014 Antonio Banderas starrer “Automata,” are moving into series with the mandate of bringing something “different” to them in the case of “Express,” Ibanez said on set. One difference in “Express” is its use of Casa Huarte as Maggie’s house. Built over 1965-66, it combines the geometric precision of modern movements – a large leaning cantilever roof, parallel wings – with a sense of bucolic bliss. Its  staircases. corridors and ivy-draped walls also give a sense of being cocooned, which is what Barbara needs after the near-death trauma of a four -hour abduction. But this is not enough. In one scene, which Escobar recounted at the “Express” press conference, Bárbara tucks her children up, kisses them goodnight, and then goes out and sleeps in the boot of her car.

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Express ©Julio Vergne