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The amazing world of “Breaking Bad” en Español

Behind the scenes of <em>Metástasis</em>, the Spanish-language remake of <em>Breaking Bad</em>, which is going to considerable lengths to be a different kind of show.

Diego Trujillo as “Walter Blanco”

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

First there are the airborne khaki pants, floating across a clear sky. Then a giant vehicle comes careening into view, a man in tighty-whities and a gas mask at the wheel. He stumbles out into the open air and sticks a pistol in the waistband of his briefs. For viewers of Breaking Bad, it’s uncannily familiar. But the few differences are hard to ignore. Instead of an RV, there’s a rickety school bus. And instead of the severe orange mesas of the New Mexican desert, there are the green dips and swells of the Andes mountains. The man picks up a handheld camera as the screen closes in on his panicked face. “Mi nombre,” he says, “es Walter Blanco”.

This is the opening scene of Metástasis, the Spanish-language remake of Breaking Bad that will premiere later this year on networks across Latin America and on the Univision offshoot UniMás in the United States. Hank has become “Henry,” now a member of the national police force rather than a DEA agent. Jesse is Jose Miguel Rosas, strapping and square-jawed, looking less like an addict than a Hollister ad. Skyler is Cielo, “Sky” in Spanish. And then there’s Colombian telenovela star Diego Trujillo, the series’s intrepid Walter Blanco. On the surface, Metástasis is microscopically faithful to the original, down to the costumes and the camera angles. In the words of Univision president of programming and content Alberto Ciurana, it’s Breaking Bad with a “Latin flavour”.

But adapting an American TV show is far trickier than doling out culturally appropriate character names. Trujillo has seen firsthand how fraught the process can be. As soon as Metástasis was announced, he found himself bombarded with tweets from fellow Latin Americans outraged that a Breaking Bad remake was even being attempted. “Damn Colombian television for daring to do this. It’s an insult to the work of art that is Breaking Bad, ” wrote @aaronjose97. “There’s a lot of cultural shame,” Trujillo said, “about the fact that most adaptations we have done of American series are just not the same quality.” These, historically, have been the hallmarks of many such efforts: low production value, cheesy dialogue, ham-fisted translation that doesn’t quite manage to bridge the gap between its source material and its audience.

Metástasis is going to considerable lengths to be a different kind of show. According to Angelica Guerra, managing director of production for Latin America at Sony Pictures Television, the series, which has a “huge budget and the greatest actors of the region,” is an attempt to merge the very different sensibilities of prestige cable drama and Latin American television. Vince Gilligan himself consulted, offering input on casting and plot tweaks along the way.

There was, for one, the problem of the RV. Motor homes are very rare in Colombia, hence the old school bus that serves as Walter and Jose’s roving meth lab. And Colombian lawyers don’t market their services with over-the-top TV ads. So, rather than trolling for clients with the tagline “BETTER CALL SAUL,” Saúl Bueno hosts a late-night talk show – “Cuéntele a Saúl” – on which he dishes out legal advice. The neo-Nazis became a far-right Colombian paramilitary group. Also unfamiliar to Colombians are exterminators who cover entire residences in elaborate tarps in order to fumigate them. But Bogotá, with one of the highest urbanisation rates of any Latin American city, does have many vacant houses waiting to be torn down in order to make way for new high-rises. So Metástasis scraps the pest-control ruse of the final season of Breaking Bad and has Walter and Jose cook in soon-to-be demolished homes.

The hardest part of the show to translate, though, may be the defining trait of Breaking Bad: its moral complexity, the way it leaves your sympathies constantly seesawing between Walt and his victims. In this, it could hardly be more different from that staple of Latin American programming, the telenovela, with its frothy mix of dashing heroes and dashing rogues. Even the popular Colombian series “El Capo,” whose protagonist happens to be a family man who moonlights as a drug kingpin, features steamy romances and a reliably suave star. (Trujillo played a defense minister bent on capturing the crime lord.) Most previous Spanish-language remakes have been of American shows that were already telenovelas in spirit: take “A Corazón Abierto,” a version of “Grey’s Anatomy,” or the “Desperate Housewives” redo “Amas de Casa Desesperadas,” in which Trujillo – the man keeps busy – starred as a caddish husband. It’s easy to see why these shows seemed like easy adaptations. Their stories more or less take place in a vacuum, within the confines of a hospital or a household or a single upper-class neighbourhood, with little broader context. And yet those remakes still missed the mark. When a wealthy female character on “Amas de Casa Desesperadas” bedded her gardener, many viewers were more confused than titillated: In a society with such rigid class demarcations, that scenario, Trujillo explained, is simply hard to believe.

The features of Breaking Bad that gave the show its particular power – the subtlety of the performances; the slow, expansive landscape shots; the long stretches of silence – can be tough sells for a Latin American audience. So Metástasis makes some concessions to tradition. Perhaps the biggest is a swooning soundtrack that erupts at unexpected moments: when Walter is diagnosed with cancer or when he sits by the pool at night pondering his fate. “Because of our telenovela background, we put music in everything,” said Guerra. “It’s a rule you don’t break.”

The acting, too, has been slightly amped up. Trujillo had never seen Breaking Bad when he was called in to audition for Metástasis. So he sat down and watched the whole series on Netflix, marveling at the way Bryan Cranston slowly morphs from meek schoolteacher into homicidal monster. “I was used to working on soap operas, where the characters are so two-dimensional – black or white, good or bad. And they stay the same from beginning to end of a series,” Trujillo said. “But Walter White transforms.” “For the first time,” he added, “I had no idea how to play the part.”

Spanish-speaking audiences expect more vocal expressiveness, he explained, more hand gestures. And so as Walter records the video message for his family in the opening scene, Trujillo breaks down for a moment in wrenching sobs. “I’d never want to be looked at as someone who was just copying Cranston,” he said. Roberto Urbina, who plays Jose (Jesse) had only done a few acting gigs before Metástasis and was a Breaking Bad fan long before his audition; Jesse was his favourite character. But he was determined to push Aaron Paul out of his mind. To prepare for the role, he imagined a whole new backstory for his Jose: for instance, that he’d been adopted, instead of simply estranged from his parents. On-screen, the differences are plain. Where Jesse sulks, Jose broods. His vibe is more lapsed prom king than scrappy drug-dealing punk. The catchphrase “Yeah, bitch” doesn’t translate into Spanish, after all.

To its credit, Metástasis is fully aware of the trickiness of adaptation, of just how much cultural baggage is involved. In the pilot episode, there is a scene in which Walter is at home celebrating his birthday with family and friends. A mariachi band serenades them cheerfully. The guests gather around the television, watching a news interview that Henry recorded after a meth bust. Meth isn’t a particularly well-known drug in Colombia; the industry there is still fledgling because cocaine is so much easier to procure. So the script has to weave in a few lines of explanatory dialogue.

“What’s methamphetamine?” Cielo asks.

It’s a new drug, Henry tells her, that originated in the States.

“So why is it here?” she wonders.

Her sister, Maria, chimes in. “Here,” she says with the faintest eye-roll, “we love to copy what the gringos do.”

Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com