Television

The Making of Los Espookys

“We start writing in English, knowing that it is going to be performed in Spanish.”

Three photos placed together: A mustachioed man in a red jacket talking into a phone, a young woman wearing a 1920s-style dress, a fashionable young man.
Fred Armisen, Ana Fabrega, and Julio Torres in Los Espookys. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jennifer Clasen/HBO

On this week’s episode of Working, June Thomas spoke with Fred Armisen, Ana Fabrega, and Julio Torres of the HBO comedy Los Espookys. They discussed how Julio and Ana write the bilingual show, why it’s set in a fictional Latin American country, how the show uses magic, and what’s going to happen in the second season, whose filming was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

June Thomas: Los Espookys is a bilingual show. Do you write in English and Spanish? How does that process work?

Julio Torres: I can tell you how we do it, but I am not convinced it is the right way of doing it. It is the way we ended up doing it because the way making a television show works is that you need to show it to the network. That is Step 1. So we start writing in English, knowing that it is going to be performed in Spanish. We are typing in English, but in our brains, we hear it in Spanish and make decisions that we know are going to work in Spanish as we type in English!

Then the second part of that very strange exercise is translating it back to what was basically the original conceit but was never actually on the page. That becomes the shooting script. Then we have the first script, in English, which becomes the subtitles. Again, this is not a model that I would urge other shows to implement, but it is the way we do it over here at Los Espookys headquarters, which is a giant building in Midtown.

Well, speaking of Los Espookys headquarters, one of the interesting things about the show is that we don’t know where it’s set. I believe you taped in Chile, but there are aspects of Mexico. Why did you choose to set it in a “nonplace” rather than have a specific setting?

Fred Armisen: It happened little by little. The original idea was that it was going to take place in Mexico City. As the show started to develop, it turned out we were going to shoot in Chile. Then we realized that there are Chilean accents, accents from Venezuela, El Salvador, Panama, Mexico, and many different places. So it was too much to try to keep track of. Keeping it just a little more vague opened up the ability to tell the stories and have the characters just be themselves, as opposed to trying to do an accent from one particular place.

But when I think of a place where there are lots of different accents, lots of people from different places, that sounds like America. Did you ever think about setting the show in the States?

Julio Torres: No. I think the three of us are going, “Huh?”

Ana Fabrega: We could have shot it so much closer!

Julio Torres: One thing English speakers think and Spanish speakers think is, “Oh, this show is kind of weird; I bet it makes perfect sense in the other language.” And it doesn’t! It exists in this limbo that we have created. Setting it in a completely fictionalized place allowed us to expand on that. The minute you decide that it takes place in a real place, you have to adhere by the rules of that place in a way that wasn’t as exciting to us as just making up a country.

The show is basically realistic, but there are a lot of supernatural and surreal elements that are baked into the premise. Andrés, Julio’s character, can control time and space and can see what’s happening in another location through a gem that he wears, and Tati, played by Ana, can do basically anything and at the same time, nothing. I’m curious why you wanted to have that magical element to the show.

Ana Fabrega: It wasn’t something that we had thought about explicitly, like, let’s have a magical realism element. We just wanted to be able for anything to happen. Having it based in what is a more or less normal-seeming place, but allowing all these bizarre things or supernatural things to happen without anyone saying that it’s weird or it having to be explained why Andrés can see through the gem. He can see through the gem, and everyone knows that, and it’s accepted, and it’s not weird. It allowed us to do whatever we wanted without having to create a rigid set of rules. In certain sci-fi worlds, there are very precise rules. In ours, anything can happen.

Julio Torres: The “magic” in the show isn’t really magic. It feels more like a literary device. The oddities on the show go unexplained, because you’re not to dwell on them. It’s not like a comic book movie or a Harry Potter movie or something, where there are these rules that you have to learn in order to understand the world. Because as soon as you start making rules, you’re painting yourself into a corner. Here, the second we decide that it’s funny for Andrés to do this thing, he can just do it. There’s a freedom that comes with that.

To learn more about the making of Los Espookys, listen to the full episode of Working below.