The Money Heist gang: (from left) Hovik Keuchkerian (Bogota), Alba Flores (Nairobi), Esther Acebo (Stockholm), Jaime Lorente (Denver), Úrsula Corberó (Helsinki), Luka Peros (Marseille) and Rodrigo de la Serna (Palermo).

Tamara Arranz /Netflix

During a conflict among the gang at the Bank of Spain, Jaime Lorente as Denver grabs the blindfolded Rodrigo de la Serna as Palermo, while the hostages watch fearfully.

Tamara Arranz /Netflix

Alba Flores as Nairobi swims past bars of gold in the vault at the Royal Mint, which automatically floods upon unauthorized entry.

Tamara Arranz /Netflix

Creator–showrunner Álex Pina and director–executive producer Jesús Colmenar on set.

Tamara Arranz /Netflix
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September 23, 2021
Features

Miracle in Madrid

When Netflix dropped the first season of Money Heist, execs at the streamer couldn’t have dreamed of its global success.

Malcolm Macdonald

Úrsula Corberó remembers the day her life changed forever. It was New Year's Eve, 2017.

The Spanish actress, who was not widely known outside her home country, was in Uruguay, at her boyfriend's parents' home.

"I remember we went to a disco party on the beach," Corberó says. "There were lots of people there. Money Heist [which had wrapped for Spain's Antena 3 eight months earlier] had started airing on Netflix two or three days before, but at this party people were coming up to me saying, 'You're a goddess, Tokyo' and 'Tokyo forever.' And I said to myself, how weird is it that the four people who've seen the series here are all at this disco tonight?"

The next day, Corberó checked her Instagram and was stunned. "I remember that I'd had about a million followers, but now I had two. It had doubled. I thought, well, obviously something's up with Instagram. How can I have two million followers? But a week after that I had three million, and a week after that four." Corberó called some of her castmates and found out they were seeing the same thing.

"This is weird, we all said. But then word came down to us from Netflix that something really big was happening," she says. "And that's when the real adventure started."

Today, Corberó has more than 21 million Instagram followers, and Money Heist is one of the most-watched non-English-language series ever to air on Netflix.

From the very beginning Money Heist was going to crash more than a few television norms. For one thing, the heist genre was almost unknown in Spanish production.

"Up until then, this was a genre that had been done very well in the U.S., the U.K. and a few other European countries," says Álex Pina, creator-showrunner of Money Heist (the Spanish title is La casa de papel). But not in Spain.

"We wanted to create a hybrid with that genre, but give a lot more weight to emotional developments, to relationships, to make these as important as the heist."

Jesús Colmenar, director–executive producer on the series — who has been with Pina since their days at the Spanish production company Globomedia and joined him in his new production venture, Vancouver Media — recalls: "We wanted to turn things upside down on what is really a cinematic genre, to tell, in serialized form, the story of a single heist over many episodes, and at the same time to take a deep dive into the dramatic transformation of the characters within the tension of the heist itself.

"I remember that the decision to make Money Heist, to make something on this scale, felt like throwing ourselves into an abyss," he adds. "We didn't know if we'd be able to pull it off."

Seasons one and two tell the story of a band of eight social misfits, summoned to a villa by the unassuming but brilliant Professor to train for a heist on the Spanish Royal Mint. Their goal is to hold the hostages — who must remain safe and unhurt, the Professor insists — until they've had time to print some two billion euros and make their escape.

The members of the band take on monikers — a city name of their choosing — by which they'll be known to their heist mates. To confound any rescue attempts by authorities, they all don identical red jumpsuits and Salvador Dalí masks and force their 67 hostages to dress the same way, so the police can't distinguish between captors and hostages. Naturally, a number of things go wrong.

Pina and Colmenar agreed early that, to create a real hunger for the series among viewers, they had to get right to the action, and in fact the heist gets under way within the first eight minutes of episode one. But that introduced a problem, because the characters would have no backstories going in. So, in what has become something of a trademark, they created two timelines.

"We created one in the present to maintain the constant sense of tension and suspense of an action movie," Colmenar says. "But we needed a timeline in the past, too, where we could develop the characters more calmly and plumb their emotional depths." Pina adds, "The idea was to be able to constantly change up scenes, emotions and mood."

They went through 52 versions of the script for episode one before they felt it was right. One big issue was that they couldn't settle on which character would narrate the series. First they tried the Professor (played by Álvaro Morte), but Colmenar says they were worried his academic tone might come across as pedantic. They briefly considered the older, more reserved Moscow (Paco Tous), before settling on Tokyo (Corberó), who seemed to strike just the right note of fierceness, cynicism and bravery.

"Almost all of the characters, including the Professor, have some element of mystery," Pina explains. "We tried to give them all a double dimension, so that each exhibits both a good and a bad side. Tokyo is capable of great heroism, but she's willful and reckless. Denver can be explosively violent, but he can also be tender and loving. When you give characters that many hats to wear, they're going to surprise you."

Casting, of course, was key. "It's one of the pillars of any series, almost as important to us as the script," Colmenar says. "We were looking for the best actors, regardless of their fame or previous work, to bring our characters to life. Somehow the planets just aligned for us."

Of all the characters who populate Money Heist — and there are quite a few, between the band, the hostages and the investigators who camp out around the Mint — Pina admits that it was probably Berlin (Pedro Alonso) he most enjoyed writing, because of the complexity of the character and the room for dark humor.

"Berlin is a psychopath, seemingly unperturbed by the nervousness and tension that afflict all of those around him. Still, he has his principles, his own moral values. Viewers are fascinated by that kind of duality," Pina says.

Alonso adds: "Berlin is one of these personalities who stops time. He has an acute sense of the present, taking all of the time he needs to identify the conventions that order this world and then systematically destroy them. He is a man without taboos, a wild horse. But everybody wants to ride that horse, even if just a little while, because the experience would be unforgettable."

Money Heist was originally planned as a two-part, 15-episode limited series. The nine-episode first season on Antena 3 did very well, but ratings waned in the six-episode second season, possibly due to scheduling changes. Netflix, which had had an early interest in the series , wanted some changes before adding it to the platform, according to Diego Avalos, vice-president, original content, Spain.

"Spain had a tradition of doing 70-minute episodes," Avalos says, "which don't tend to work well internationally." So, Netflix execs asked Pina and Colmenar for "more compact episodes that would better resonate with global audiences and serve the action-packed story. The original version was also edited for commercial breaks," Avalos explains, "which got in the way of the story."

The result was 22 shorter episodes, which Netflix presented — with no particular expectations — as the show's first season on December 20, 2017. In fact, the streamer didn't put any marketing or publicity behind the launch, according to Avalos, other than key art and trailers. The platform's practice was to let subscribers discover content market by market. "Obviously, we didn't know what it was going to become," Avalos says.

Indeed. Just as Úrsula Corberó was noticing her Instagram numbers climbing, Netflix began to see growing viewership in the series, first in Italy and Brazil, then within weeks in France, Germany, Argentina and Colombia. Other indicators, like streaming rates and visits to the show's social media pages, also pointed to something going on.

Avalos attributes all this to word of mouth and believes viewer interest was entirely organic. People were finding the show and talking about it. By season two, which premiered in April 2018, Netflix had substantial marketing muscle behind the title, and later that month it renewed Money Heist for additional seasons. In November 2018, that decision was bolstered by the show's win as Best Drama Series at the International Emmy Awards.

Seasons three (released July 2019) and four (April 2020) find the Professor and his band reunited once again in their iconic red jumpsuits and Dalí masks, now set on freeing one of their own from captivity. Naturally, this involves stealing the gold from the underground vault in the Bank of Spain.

Several new characters make their debuts, and an expanded budget from Netflix enabled location shooting in Thailand, Panama, Italy and the U.K. The fifth and final season (it arrives in two volumes: the first five episodes dropped September 3, the remaining five will drop December 3) also includes locations in Portugal and Denmark.

Location shooting was not the only change Netflix brought. While Colmenar maintains that production values in the original series were very high, he concedes that some of the new elements, particularly the special effects, wouldn't have been possible earlier. Pina agrees, pointing out that, as the possibilities grew, so did the challenges.

Recreating the vault in the Bank of Spain — which, in real life, actually floods with water upon unauthorized entry — was a huge endeavor in season three. But he says the biggest challenge, which they faced in season five, was creating battle scenes like those in a big-budget war movie.

"To create these scenes inside the confines of a real building, with sets made up to look like marble structures that are then shot up or blown up, and even a roof that caves in... that was incredibly challenging. Netflix made it possible for us to not just envision these things, but to bring them to the screen."

So what is it about Money Heist that has made it such a global juggernaut? Both Colmenar and Pina believe that the marriage of a familiar genre, the heist movie, to the emotionality of Latin drama proved a winning formula.

"Viewers engaged deeply with characters they had come to really care about," Colmenar says. Pina also believes the element of time compression — the action for seasons three, four and five takes place over just six days — gave viewers the sense they were experiencing events in real time. "That's hugely addictive," he says.

Then there's the music — not just the haunting theme song ("My Life Is Going On") by Spanish singer Cecilia Krull, but of course "Bella Ciao," a song adopted by the Italian Resistance during World War II that has today become an anthem among social justice movements worldwide.

The impact of Money Heist stretches far beyond its success on the screen. In a way that perhaps no other series has ever done, it has inspired thousands of protestors around the world to take to the streets in red jumpsuits and Dalí masks. From Lebanon to Iraq, from Greece to France to Brazil and beyond, the iconic costume has been adopted by demonstrators in their quest for social justice, human rights, economic equality or climate reform.

In 2019 The Irish Times reported that a group of Syrian refugees who'd finally secured permission to land in Sicily following a dangerous sea journey broke out in a chorus of "Bella Ciao" as they set foot on Italian soil.

The salient themes of the series — social injustice, capitalism, love and seduction, feminism, loyalty, morality — created a kind of Robin Hood framework in which each character, however messily, would eventually prove himself or herself worthy of empathy, redemption and even admiration.

Pina believes that a global skepticism that set in after the financial collapse of 2008 was the catalyst for the show's mass appeal. "That skepticism is at the heart of why so many social movements around the world adopted the red jumpsuit and Dalí mask. They represent resistance and they stand for something much larger, something philosophical, like conscience."

Corberó adds: "These characters are on their last legs, just struggling to survive. There's something very powerful in the message that a group like this could deliver a crushing blow to the powerbrokers of a country."

And though the series has been lauded as a feminist clarion for its characters Tokyo, Nairobi (Alba Flores), hostage Mónica Gaztambide (Esther Acebo) and even Inspector Raquel Murillo (Itziar Ituño), Corberó cautions that it is not a feminist series. "There's a lot of testosterone," she says.

Still, there are strong moments with a clear anti-machismo message, like when Tokyo stages a coup to unseat the volatile Palermo (Rodrigo de la Serna) during the bank operation. And there's Mónica, who struggles with whether she should keep the baby she's carrying and decides — for her own reasons alone — that she will. "When a woman is the one who decides what she should do with her body, that's as it should be," Corberó says.

For Pedro Alonso, the success of Money Heist lies in what he sees as the "current of sympathy" that it engendered worldwide. "It's easy to understand how an ordinary person could have fantasies about delivering a blow to a capitalist system that so often has its boot on your neck. It's a real David and Goliath story. I think it has touched something in everyone who wants to see the little guy win."

But perhaps Netflix's Diego Avalos says it best. "Money Heist has given the world a window into Spain. It has created a moment of great pride in the country. At the core of the story, there is natural human passion and love between the characters. And as it proves, when it comes to storytelling, there are no borders."


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2021


For more on the iconograpy of Money Heist, click HERE


For more stories celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, click HERE

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