Amazon Studios’ Big Latino Western ‘The Head of Joaquin Murrieta,’ Broken Down by Its Creators

“The Head of Joaquín Murrieta” bowed Feb. 17, guns blazing worldwide on Prime Video, weighing in as one of the biggest bets ever from Amazon Studios in Latin America and Amazon Prime and Colombian production powerhouse Dynamo. Its success can open the door for other big swings in Latin America.

Created by Colombia’s Mauricio Leiva Cock (“Capital Roar,” “Green Frontier”) at Fidelio, one of the fastest rising writing-directing talents in Colombia, and Diego Ramírez Schrempp (“Narcos,” “Falco”) at Dynamo, which handled physical production of “Narcos” in Colombia, the ambitious Latin Western, fully locally developed, describes how Joaquin Murrieta, played by a mischievous Juan Manuel Bernal, became a legend.

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His figure emerged to offer hope for downtrodden Mexicans in the chaotic and brutal aftermath of the 1846-48 Mexican American War which ended with Mexico’s loss of over half its territory, a hero to Mexicans, villain to the U.S., a Robin Hood of sorts, in a fractured and disjointed land,  scarred by the legacy of war and soon to be decimated by the 1848-55 Gold Rush.

The show is seen as key momentum in Prime Video’s expansive plans. Murrieta’s high production values – seen in Paulo Andres Perez’ stunning cinematography – herald a new scale of projects rarely seen on the Latin American landscape.

“Amazon Studios started with indie productions whilst always providing a stamp of high quality but now we are finding the balance between the niche and the wider audiences, notes Camila Misas, Prime Video head of local originals for Latin America. “The show’s size is a testament of a huge endeavor of investigation, development and production between Dynamo, Amazon Studios and Mauricio.”

Very much like its multifaceted protagonist, the show does many things at the same time. Stylized yet blunt, never shying away from the harsh realities of the time, questioning and sometimes subverting Western tropes though often with a playful knowingness,  its pacing mixes to action packed sequences and the sharp portrayal of its ensemble cast. Set on a new Mexico-U.S. border but drawing on talent from all over Latin America, Misas notes, this is a bold new entry in the canon of Latino drama series, proving the versatility and capacity of Latin America’s industry.

La Cabeza de Joaquin Murrieta
La Cabeza de Joaquin Murrieta

Variety talked with Leiva Cock and Schrempp as the show bowed on Prime Video.

One of the interesting aspects of the Western genre is the stages in its evolution during the last century, from classic to revisionist there’s a wide range of film history to draw inspiration from. What were your references and guidelines in modernizing it? 

Mauricio Leiva Cock: At the beginning we wanted to use the Western genre but flipping its perspective. To extract it from its North American roots where it grew and marked cinema history and turn it towards Latin America. Our goal was not solely to explore a Latin American Western but also show what Latin American action and adventure can be. Latin Americans have worn the hat of villains for so much of the ‘40s, ’50’s and even down to 70’s Westerns, whether Mexicans, Latins or Indigenous communities. So we really wanted to play with those perspectives and muddy the waters. Murrieta’s life unfolds against the background of one of the most important events in Mexico-U.S. history, a story that is rarely told and yet defines a lot the relationship between the South and the North.

Diego Ramírez Schrempp: Our references were always the great American movies. Not only the  directors from the ‘60s and ‘70s but also in recent years we’ve seen the Western genre evolve and there are some incredible exponents, Tarantino must be named. We were very much into that mix and shift between genres and Murrieta has a lot of black humor. But, above all else, we wanted to give the series a very defined Latin American identity, from its music, its editing, from how it’s told, to even how it’s spoken. We conducted rigorous research aided by historians to understand the era. For example, to figure out how the language was spoken at the time. It meant a lot of tempering, to find a balance between being true to the period and to speak to modern audiences. And there are plenty of characters whose arcs have sub genres that embody that modernity.

The show is very much concerned with the idea of myths and by exploring it, it builds its own Latin American mythology. Could you expand on that? 

Leiva Cock One of the most interesting aspects of Murrieta’s story is that it morphs depending on who’s telling it. He could be seen as a villain, a hero, a bandit, or as a murderer and a thief. So our premise was not to tell the myth through one point of view but rather to show how myths are constructed. Even though there’s deep historical research we weren’t trying to base the story on reality as it is. But rather to form really strong characters and surround them in a dense historical context. So immediately you have to throw away the term “hero,” none of them really are, just like none are complete villains. There couldn’t be a revisionism just by making the northerners the villains, at the time there was xenophobia, hate and violence all around. And yet I’m very proud of the work we did on Adela Cheng – played by Becky Zhu Wu – because in a way our myth of Murrieta wouldn’t exist without her figure and that character that has never been seen as Latin American, though she’s very much Latin. So through the story, through the building of this myth she becomes part of our narration, of our identity. And that’s the whole point, even when we are so diverse, and still today we don’t fully recognize each other as Latin American, we are.

Ramírez Schrempp: That revisionist drive never set out to look for someone to blame and trying to draw clear lines between good and bad, black and white, mainly because that’s boring. It is harder to understand the context, and see how profoundly different it is to how we understand life and ethics nowadays. You have to remember, we Latins have been violent and manipulative since the times of the Aztecs and Incas. We are not victims of history and as writers we didn’t set out to attribute guilt and blame but rather understanding and empathy.

With only eight episodes the series manages to not only explore its title figure but give surprising depth to each one of its supporting characters, becoming very much an ensemble series by its season’s finale. What were the writing challenges when developing characters in such a short format? 

Leiva Cock: The screenwriting team always worked accompanied by historians from different communities of Mexico. We worked with the Chiricahua and Rarámuri communities as well, hence the clarity on depicting landscapes not solely in the astonishing location of Durango but with the characters who are as tough as the place. The baseline is always finding the drama in each character and what does that drama represent. Adela Cheng has a very particular arc, being Chinese Mexican, she’s a migrant, coming from somewhere else in a coming of age story. Carrillo on the other hand has this revenge path but he has lost his home as well, has lost his land and now he is not even considered a citizen of what was his country. All these dramas interweave around this profound longing for identity, and we drew these dramatic lines with their specific conflicts always being very clear: We wanted each one of them to be, in one way or another, a protagonist. And there I return to Myth, because myths are not built only by one person, but by many. So the concept was that every individual in this series and story becomes part of the myth of Joaquín Murrieta.

The Western comes with its own archetypes, tropes and style rules.  How did you tackle those guidelines?

Schrempp We always kept in mind that it was an adventure. In other words, we tried not being too schematic or rigid with the genre, but having the freedom to explore it. We had a lot of fun because the genre can be yoked with other genres such as adventure, action and be a little more flexible. Editing was not at all an easy process, and during it one of the main guidelines was to never sacrifice rhythm for genre. We were always very clear that this series was not only for those who love the genre but hopefully many more. I think the show could be a great entry point for anyone who doesn’t know Westerns.

Camila Misas, Mauricio Leiva Cock, Diego Ramirez Schrempp
Camila Misas, Mauricio Leiva Cock, Diego Ramirez Schrempp

John Hopewell contributed to this article.

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