How Do you say Desperate in Spanish?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Aug 13 22:21:02 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, August 13, 2006

How Do You Say Desperate in Spanish?

FROM the moment Desperate Housewives began playing on Latin American cable
channels last year, it was a success. Here, where telenovelas, the regions
melodramatic, often campy answer to the soap opera, dominate prime-time
programming, the antics on Wisteria Lane resonated with viewers who like
their plots full of elaborate machinations. Now the makers of this hit ABC
series have taken the process a step further. In a novel gambit they are
franchising Spanish- and Portuguese-language versions of the shows first
season for broadcast by networks around the region, using star-studded
local casts to re-enact the original scripts.

Barriers are breaking down, Fernando Barbosa said in a phone interview
from Miami. He is senior vice president for Latin America at Buena Vista
International Television, a branch of the Walt Disney Company, which
produces the program.  Desperate Housewives shares certain characteristics
with the telenovela, but it is based more on real life and is not as
dramatized. Latin American audiences want alternatives in their
programming, and we are responding to that by offering them a menu of
choices. Three versions of the series are under way, each tailored to a
different area of Latin America. And three additional productions are a
possibility, said Mr. Barbosa and executives here, depending on the
outcome of discussions with networks in Mexico, Venezuela and Chile. First
off the ground is the Argentine version, which will also be shown in
neighboring countries including Uruguay and Paraguay and is scheduled to
go on the air in six months or so. After that comes a production in
Portuguese for Brazil and a second Spanish-language version made for
Colombia and Ecuador.

For Desperate Housewives to succeed in Latin America, though, it must win
over viewers like Maria Jose Garcias, a 29-year-old receptionist at a
downtown hotel here. She faithfully watches the English-language show,
broadcast each week on cable on the Sony Channel with Spanish subtitles,
and afterward often discusses it with her friends. Ill watch this
Argentine version, but I don't know if I'm going to like it, she said in
Spanish. They are all great actresses in the cast, and thats definitely an
attraction. But the United States and Argentina are two totally different
societies, each with their own customs and idiosyncracies, and I wonder if
they are going to be able to translate that.

Those cultural differences are very much on the minds of the people
writing and filming Amas de Casa Desesperadas, as the series is called in
Spanish. They have had to walk a tightrope in order to retain the flavor
of the original while also accommodating Latin Americas own values and
customs. One of the conditions that Buena Vista imposed on the Argentine
producers of the series was that they adhere to the original American
version.  Bilingual Disney executives in the United States approve the
scripts, a Disney representative periodically visits the set and film
sequences are sent north for review.

Mickey Mouse is watching us, joked Marcos Carnevale, who adapted the
script and directs the Argentine version of the series. But certain
details in the original script simply don't make sense when transferred to
a Latin American setting and have had to be altered. A plumber in Latin
America, for example, would never make enough money to live in a plush
upper-middle-class neighborhood like Wisteria Lane. So for the sake of
credibility the shows hunky plumber has been transformed into the more
prosperous owner of a plumbing supply company.

In addition Latin American funeral rites differ from those in the United
States, so some scenes involving burials or wakes had to be modified. The
death penalty? It has been outlawed here. Thanksgiving? Make that Easter
dinner. Comparable challenges emerged in translating the backgrounds of
the main characters. For example a hyper-WASP type like Bree Van de Kamp
(played by Marcia Cross), doesn't exist here, which meant that Mr.
Carnevale had to find some kind of Argentine equivalent whose personality
could plausibly seem just as pinched.

What he came up with was Vera, daughter of a military officer and a
fervent Catholic with leanings toward the Opus Dei movement. Similarly, in
the Colombian version of the series, the nouveau riche couple Carlos and
Gabrielle Solis will be Ecuadoreans. They are the ethnic couple on the
block, the equivalent of Hispanics in that society, Mr.  Barbosa said. By
shooting different versions of Desperate Housewives, producers can also
take into account cultural and linguistic differences within Latin
America. Argentine Spanish, for instance, is heavily influenced by Italian
and has many usages and phrases that would sound odd in Mexico or

Theres not going to be any che, vos or mate in the non-Argentine versions,
said Fernando Blanco, president of Pol-Ka, Buena Vistas Argentine partner
in the series, referring to a pair of typically Argentine locutions and
the bitter, tealike beverage that is the national drink here. We are
trying to adapt the original script to the customs of each country.
Casting proved to be another thorny issue for the producers. Should they
seek actresses who look like their counterparts in the American show, or
ignore that factor entirely?

While Eva Longoria has become a star and a sex symbol playing Gabrielle
Solis as a bantam Latin spitfire type, that cultural cliche would make no
sense in a Latin American society. Instead, producers here cast Araceli
Gonzalez, leggy and coltish, with chestnut hair and sparkling, pixieish
eyes, for the Gabriela character. When the Buena Vista executives were
here, they were surprised to see how tall I am, Ms. Gonzalez, a former
model, said. And I tend to be warmer too, so the director had to squeeze
me a bit to play up Gabriela's cynical, bitchy side more.

As Ms. Gonzalezs remarks indicated, though she and Ms. Longoria may be
very different physical types, she made an effort to display the same
manipulative, coquetteish personality in her version of the character.
Carola Reyna, who plays Vera, is a blonde, not a redhead. But as she shot
scenes in a pharmacy here with Jorge, the would-be paramour known as
George in the original version, she wore the same tight hairstyle and
facial expression as her American counterpart. Ms. Reyna has acted in
reworked American series before, having played the prissy C. C. Babcock in
an Argentine version of The Nanny. From that experience, she learned not
to let the original performance get in the way of her own interpretation.

I'm not Marcia Cross, and I shouldn't try to be, she said. I'm different, so
what I have to do is separate myself from her. I was a fan of the show
long before I knew I was going to do it, but now I'm avoiding watching the
first season. Otherwise her image will be too strong, and it will get in
the way of my own imagination and how I see my character responding to the
same situations that befall hers. As director, Mr. Carnevale didn't want
that either. So he instructed his cast not merely to imitate the original
characters and not to flee from typically Latin American body language.

The narrative line of the story remains the same, he said. But we are
Latins, and we have to communicate as Latins. We touch more, kiss more and
cry more, and our version has to reflect that. The cachet of the series is
such that top-drawer talents from across Latin America have agreed to
participate. In the Argentine version, for example, Cecilia Roth, best
known for her work in the films of Pedro Almodvar, has been cast as the
dead narrator; the role of the career-minded Lynette, here renamed Lia,
went to Mercedes Morn, who has won praise for performances in Lucretia
Martel's films The Holy Girl and La Cinaga.

I like to do television every now and then, when its challenging, and this
definitely falls in that category, Ms. Morn said in an interview here,
just after shooting a scene in which she explodes in rage and frustration
after a confrontation with her boisterous twin sons. This kind of material
lends itself to different readings. You can do it in basic form, like a
Peyton Place, or you can make it more complex and interesting, as the
writers have done here. Unlike the casting or the acting, the look of the
show is very close to that of the American version. Indoor scenes for Amas
de Casa Desesperadas are being shot at a conventional studio here. But out
on a 12-acre site in the suburbs just north of here, producers have been
building a Latin American version of Wisteria Lane, which they named
Manzanares. The set is to be used for external scenes for all three
editions of the series, with each cast coming in to film after their
predecessors are finished.

What we are trying to do is reconstruct the setting to be the same as in
Los Angeles, respecting as much as possible the way in which things were
done in the United States, Mr. Blanco of Pol-Ka said We've got 10 houses,
with a main street, lawns, gardens and driveways. Desperate Housewives
marks a new twist in Latin Americas 50-year relationship with American
television. Back in what now seems like the stone age, when television was
a luxury enjoyed only by the affluent, American series such as Bonanza
were often broadcast in English with subtitles by networks in the region,
most of which did not then have the budget to shoot local equivalents of
such shows on their own.

But as even the poor acquired television sets, Latin American networks
eventually found that homemade telenovelas, which typically run 150 to 180
episodes and are broadcast over a period of about six months, brought them
bigger audiences and thus bigger profits. Those shows came to monopolize
prime time all over the region, and with the arrival of cable television
American series tended to migrate to channels operated by the main
Hollywood studios, including Sony, Warner, Fox and Universal. With
Desperate Housewives, however, Disney is trying an end run around that
trend. The company and its partners have been encouraged by the devoted
following that Sex and the City gained on cable television in Latin
America and the soaring popularity of the Argentine cartoonist Maitena,
whose series of comic books about middle-class women and the conflicts
they face, called Altered Women, has been a huge commercial success
throughout the region.

Everybody is waiting for this and watching, not just in our company but
also all the telenovela producers and television stations in Latin
America, said Mr. Barbosa, the Buena Vista executive in Miami. And if this
project has great performances and great success in Latin America, I would
expect that some other countries in Europe and Asia will jump in too.
Pol-Ka, one of Argentinas leading producers of films, television shows and
commercials, came to Desperate Housewives already familiar with such
collaborations. The company supplied not only a studio and crew, but also
a know-how it acquired while working with HBO in 2004 on Epitafios, that
networks first series made specifically for Latin America.

Though Argentina has a long history as a film production center for Latin
America, with skilled craftsmen and numerous studios, it gradually lost
that role to Mexico. But when the economy here collapsed late in 2001, the
peso lost more than half its value against the dollar, transforming it
into one of the cheapest places in Latin America to do business. So far
only the first 23 episodes have been ordered in each new version of
Desperate Housewives. But producers and performers are already talking
about a second season if the program does well in the ratings.

Wisteria Lane is merely a metaphor, one that doesn't really exist here, or
in the United States either, Ms. Morn said. As with a book or a film, the
success of a series, no matter how localized you make it or how much you
adapt it to another setting, is that its story be universal. And that is
what they have achieved here.


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