How the Creators of HBO's 'Los Espookys' Made the Weirdest Comedy on TV
Ten o'clock on a Monday morning is an early time to be in a bar. It's even earlier to be at the Alamo Drafthouse's House of Wax. The bar in the downtown Brooklyn outpost of the trendy movie theater chain is full of life-size figurines of dissected bodies and other oddities. The already dark and strange atmosphere is even more heightened on this particular morning because there's a fog machine going, which happens to make it a great spot for an interview and photoshoot with the co-creators and stars of the dark, strange, and very funny HBO comedy Los Espookys. In fact, one of those creators, Saturday Night Live alum Fred Armisen, tells Thrillist that his own house is basically going for the same aesthetic.
Armisen is one of the minds behind the series, along with current SNL writer Julio Torres, who wrote the perfect "Wells for Boys" sketch, and the hilarious comedian Ana Fabrega. (Please, just watch Fabrega say "Hola, Mike Pence" on Twitter. You'll get it.)
Los Espookys is arguably the most bizarre and delightfully perplexing thing you'll see on TV this year. Primarily in Spanish, it's about a group of friends in an unnamed Latin American city who form a horror group. What exactly is a horror group? Well, they create fantastical, spooky scenarios. In the premiere, they help a priest win back the love of his parishioners by staging an exorcism. In another episode, they create a sea monster to boost tourism for a town whose former mascot was an owl with a wig. (The owl lost its wig, creating the need for another attraction.)
Los Espookys are led largely by goths Renaldo (Mexican actor Bernardo Velasco) and Úrsula (Cassandra Ciangherotti), but Torres and Fabrega round out the group as Renaldo's best friend Andrés and Úrsula's sister Tati. Andrés is the blue-haired heir to a chocolate fortune, wrestling with a mysterious past and a literal inner demon. Tati is more inexplicable: She wears a page boy cap, perpetually has a new job, and falls in love multiple times with a cartoon prince online. Is she dreadfully naive? Or not of this world? Hard to tell. Armisen, meanwhile, plays Renaldo's Uncle Tico, who lives in Los Angeles and considers it his life's calling to park cars.
Together, Armisen, Torres, and Fabrega sat down with Thrillist at the House of Wax, smoke filling the room, to get down to the spooky details. The conversation is punctuated by frequent laughter.
Thrillist: So, Julio and Fred, you met when [Armisen] hosted SNL?
Julio Torres: I think we met before.
Fred Armisen: I think we're both iffy on that. It's blurry to me.
Torres: On the record, that's an easy date to claim. But we had definitely been in the same room together before.
Armisen: Yes. You know what? I remember meeting you as soon as you got hired at SNL. I wasn't hosting.
Torres: But you're not talking about the meeting for this.
Armisen: No, just meeting you. I remember we were joking around and you were a stranger. I knew who you were. I think I was on the show but not hosting.
Torres: You stopped by and did a bit or something. You did like a small character or something.
Armisen: Or a big character.
Torres: Actually like a giant beautiful role. You were the lead. I didn't mean to belittle you by saying you were a little character.
Armisen: The host was openly like, "Oh my god, he's stealing my thunder."
Torres: Chris Pine was like going nuts.
How did you all connect and start brainstorming this idea?
Armisen: Oh, I feel bad because we were having a real conversation about where we first met. I'm so sorry.
Torres: You were genuinely, on the record, wasting her time. I need a date and I still don't have a date or time.
Armisen: She's like, was it September? Or December? It doesn't matter. How did it all happen?
Torres: Well, you knew Ana.
Armisen: We'd worked together before we'd done some videos. And I just wanted to do a show in Spanish. And I'm a fan of both of their work. So we just got together and started coming up with ideas for something that could exist in Latin America.
Why did you want to do a show in Spanish?
Armisen: I don't know. There was no reason behind it. It was like an obsession in a way and it just kept coming up internally, "How about something in Spanish?" My mom's Venezuelan. To me it just made sense. There are songs that are on the radio that are in different languages, and I feel like, there just wasn't enough of it. I didn't see it enough on like regular TV.
What was your relationship to horror, all three of you?
Armisen: For me I've always loved horror. I really wanted my life to look like a horror movie. My house that I live in now -- which, by the way, is tremendous, I don't know if I told you this --
Torres: It's huge.
Armisen: There are rooms I haven't seen yet.
Torres: A movie theater.
Armisen: With a projectionist. The way that this room looks is what I'm going for in my house. I want it to look spooky and I've loved Hammer films and the original Universal horror movies. Since I was a kid, I've been in love with all things Dracula.
Julio and Ana, did you have a relationship to horror going into this?
Torres: I don't, but I gravitate more towards things that are eerie and like magical, for lack of a better term. I feel like I approached horror through that route, through like the eeriness, through like the incantation angle.
Fabrega: I liked a lot of horror movies when I was a kid, but I wouldn't consider myself a big horror fan. I think the kind of stuff that I'm drawn to is more surreal than it is scary.
How did you think about blending your three comedic styles for this project?
Torres: It just matches.
Armisen: You know, I think we just gravitated towards each other.
Torres: It was nice, it never felt like we were like…
Fabrega: Oh, we gotta make room for Fred now.
Torres: Or you were like, Jesus, what is this person saying? Because it could happen…
Armisen: And it does happen. But the same goes the other way around. When they wrote something I didn't even need it explained to me. Because it's surreal, but as soon as they'd say something that there's these sea monsters or whatever a million things, every joke, I was like, I get it I get it. This is perfect.
Julio, do you feel like you wrote specifically for Andrés, and Ana, you wrote specifically for Tati?
Torres: I feel like we came up with our individual characters, but contributing to each other's characters is a lot of fun. Coming up with Tati jobs is one of my favorite activities. Being a full on staff writer for Tati is a dream.
How were you thinking about the aesthetics of the show? It sort of recreates the days before the advent of CGI, but then also there's this surreal beauty and the possibility of real magic. How were you thinking about blending those all together?
Torres: I think we had decided that aesthetically the quote-unquote fake horror that the group of Los Espookys makes was going to be very practical, which is why we see those ropes and those pullies and you see them apply the makeup. We wanted it to feel very tactile even though they make things happen that are like, how did you do that? We wanted it to feel like there's actual math that goes behind it and it's a little rough.
Armisen: When I picture scary sometimes it's England.
Armisen: And something about where we shot in Chile there's a different kind of true mystery and scariness that I was glad to see.
Torres: But, like what you were saying, we did think a lot about making a distinction between like the alien costumes are like you can see the rubber you can see the zippers you can see the makeup. But then like the character of Water Shadow that is the creature that lives inside Andrés that is meant to be real. So I think the art department did an incredible job at training the viewer's eye to be like "this is artifice in their world, and this is real."
Julio, I did have a specific question for you related to the Water Shadow, which is, how do you feel about The King's Speech? [The Water Shadow is desperate to see the Best Picture winner.]
Torres: Well, OK, so this is Ana: based on a really funny bit that Ana did.
Fabrega: I've had The King's Speech just in my head.
Torres: I have not seen it, and I don't think you've seen it.
Fabrega: I have not seen it.
Torres [to Armisen]: Have you seen it?
Armisen: I haven't seen it.
Torres: No disrespect to the movie. I'm a giant Helena Bonham Carter fan and I know that she's in it. Dream to get to meet her one day. I think that what we were getting at that with that joke subconsciously is just how funny [it is] that some media is just presented to the public as [having] universal appeal. And it's like you, wherever you are, can relate to this white king's struggle for public speaking. The fact that the most niche creature on Earth, a water demon that lives inside of a young man is like, oh, that movie would speak to me is more a testament to that movie's marketing. The joke is on what is relatable to whom rather than the merit of the film, I think.
I just wanted to know if you had any feelings…
Torres: No, no feelings.
Fabrega: Completely neutral.
Torres: I'm sure it deserved everything it got.
Armisen: And it got a lot.
Torres: I should IMDb who produced it, what bridges I am burning. [Ed note: One of the producers was... Harvey Weinstein.] It was a tribute. Actually, Lorne [Michaels] produced it.
At one point the show was titled, Mexico City: Only Good Things Happen. Is it still technically Mexico City?
Armisen: No, it was just too difficult in the script to keep reminding whoever the viewer is that it was Mexico City. First of all, because we didn't shoot it there, and also because our accents are all different.
Fabrega: Cassandra [Ciangherotti] and Bernardo [Velasco] are Mexican and so is José Pablo [Minor] who plays Juan Carlos, and then you're Venezuelan, you're from El Salvador, we shot in Santiago, my family's from Panama, and we're like, let's just embrace this and make it Country X in Central America maybe.
Torres: It became this sort of Latin American Tower of Babel situation instead of like creating a faithful depiction of a country that we like but we're not super connected to necessarily. Once we took away those limits and embraced the fact that it could be anywhere then I feel like we started having a lot of fun. Because then it's like, well then the embassy could look like anything, well then the street could look like anything, then this building could look -- not like anything because it's still in the parameters of Latin America there are very specific things about the day to day life in Latin America, but it felt fun and part of a long tradition of movies that take place in places you don't know.
Was that where the joke about your accent came from, Ana? In the show, Tati explains that she spent two weeks Minnesota and didn't learn English but came back with an accent.
Fabrega: I grew up speaking Spanish at home when I was a kid. Then all my schooling was in English because I was born in the States and I spoke less and less Spanish. When I speak in Spanish you can hear I have an accent, so we were like let's address that. Just so that if native speakers were like, wait, I hear a little something. Yeah, I know we took care of it, we pointed it out before they did.
Julio, you mentioned the embassy. You're playing with American xenophobia even within this universe. What were you thinking about when you were creating this ambassador character?
Torres: Just the idea of an American ambassador was funny.
Fabrega: It was also around the time that what's her name, I don't remember her name, but she used to be the ambassador that Trump appointed who was like, wait, why are you the ambassador? You're just a pretty girl.
Torres: You mean not Hope Hicks but someone like Hope Hicks? Of course it's somewhat connected to like the Trumpian hiring people for their looks. We love the idea that Melanie Gibbons [Greta Titelman] was like a party girl, and then she was appointed ambassador and she like has to do it and is like angry that she's in a place where no one speaks English even though she tries really hard to get them to speak English. That was just funny. And also when we were thinking arc-wise about the obstacles that Los Espookys could face, coming hanging out with Uncle Tico in LA it felt natural and real in a funny way that visas would be an issue. Because even though they are so grand and strange, I've said this before, but like my character is so grand and yet he can't come to the States unless he has a visa.
What was the idea of having Uncle Tico based in LA?
Armisen: Oddly, I don't know if we even talked about this, but I just wanted to be a valet driver with the red jacket and the tie. I think, correct me if I'm wrong, but that world of parking cars like that seems to exist more in Los Angeles than any other place I've ever known?
Torres: I would agree.
Armisen: So it seems like we would be forcing it too much if he was there. I'm sure they have --
Fabrega: A great valet culture down there.
Armisen: It seems very LA though. And then it just helped the story. That just fell into place on its own.
Torres: It did and --
Armisen: It works with the accent too.
Torres: And it allows us to show different shades, inherently it's different shades of the Latin American experience, because Tico's daughter couldn't be more dissimilar than Úrsula.
Fabrega: I think it's so common to have an uncle or an aunt that lives in the States.
Was it always the idea to have English subtitled in Spanish?
Armisen: Ideally, it would be no subtitles. Just that would be so cool. But subtitles help. No, it wasn't the original idea.
Fabrega: Once we were writing and it was clear that most of the show's going to be in Spanish, since they're in Latin America they'll be speaking Spanish, and since you're in LA you'll be speaking English. And then it was like well if we're going to subtitle the Spanish let's subtitle the English so that everyone can see it.
I have two costume questions. Ana, I want to ask about Tati's hats. And Julio I wanted to ask about Andrés general look, the blue hair.
Torres: Our wardrobe designer, Muriel Parra, is so fun and so funny and incredible and I feel like she was so funny to outfit everyone, but so bewildered by Tati. So put upon. She was like, "Wait, so you want her to look shitty?"
Fabrega: I was like, "Yes." The first wardrobe fitting was like, "No, this is too cool. She's not supposed to look cool." She was like, "Why do you want to look bad?" It's supposed to look bad. Once she got it, she really got it. She's like, "I have to go to the worst thrift stores to find your clothes."
Torres: I have to go to places I never thought I would go to to find your clothes. Similar to you, [Fred], wanting to be a valet, I wanted to have blue hair. And then just be like vampy and stilted and robotic but mysterious. The clothes, it was really fun to outfit like a vampy prince.
Fabrega: I always wanted to play someone dressed like Tati.
Torres: Ugh, the worst capris…
Fabrega: She always has a little bag and a hat and it's really plain. You feel kind of bad when you look at her, like, aw, you're still figuring it out.
Torres: It's just like clothes that she finds.
Fabrega: It fits, so I'm going to wear it.
How did you go about planning the different horror moments?
Torres: I think early on we started thinking about all the different gigs they would take and the people that would hire them for those gigs, which I think are as fun as the actual gigs: Like, the mayor and the scientist. We made a long list.
Fabrega: They got more abstract as we went on: Exorcism, haunted mansion, and then sea monster to bring tourism to a city.
Armisen: Like the Loch Ness monster.
What was the most abstract you got? Did you get beyond what you could actually do in the show?
Torres: The gig in the sixth episode is I think the most abstract: the person who can't fall asleep so they make a fake dream around them.
Fabrega: There was one early draft of a script where we had them completely veering off anything like that and they got hired to get rid of a floor in a hotel room…
Torres: A 13th floor. And Úrsula was like: We can do that no problem, but are we losing track of what our mission is?
Fabrega: But now it's not scary.