It’s a busy time to be Roberto Orci. It was announced last month that the longtime screenwriter and producer would be making his directorial debut with the third film in the rebooted Star Trek franchise. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which he co-wrote, was released in May, and Sleepy Hollow–the unexpected hit he co-created for Fox–will return in the fall.
There are even more pressing matters when he enters the Four Seasons in Austin, though. The World Cup semifinal between Argentina and the Netherlands is in extra time, and his evening includes dinner at Robert Rodriguez’s house with President Obama, for whom the maverick Texas filmmaker agreed to host a fundraiser. And both of those things, ultimately, tie directly into the project that’s taken much of Orci’s time at the moment: His new action/drama series, Matador, which debuts July 15th on the El Rey Network.
El Rey is Rodriguez’s cable network, and Matador–which stars newcomer Gabriel Luna in the title role–is its second scripted series, after Rodriguez’s own From Dusk Till Dawn. The series centers around a “Latino James Bond” who’s undercover as the fictional L.A. Riot’s rookie sensation soccer star while secretly serving as a CIA agent.
Given that it’ll be premiering two days after the championship game in the most-watched World Cup in U.S. history, Matador is extremely well-timed. In fact, “well-timed” doesn’t even really cover it: The production schedule for Matador is unique, and–as Orci explained while Argentina advanced to the final via penalty kicks–revolutionary even for a TV vet like himself. So how do you get a show on the air with an unprecedented production cycle?
Orci’s been around the block as a writer/producer for television. He debuted with writing partner Alex Kurtzman in the late 90’s with Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, and worked on shows including Alias and Fringe in the years that followed. But the process of developing Matador with Rodriguez and El Rey was a unique one.
“Literally, it was the fastest pitch process I’ve ever had,” Orci recalls. “They said, ‘We have this network El Rey, it’s a new network and we’re really excited about it,’ and I thought it sounded so exciting. I said, ‘What about an idea where there’s a soccer player who’s a spy by night?’ And they said, ‘Done. 13 episodes, on the air as soon as you can have them.’ Never had that experience before!”
Normally, when a creator works with a network, the show starts with a pilot script; if the network approves the script, the creators shoot the pilot, and then several months later, they learn if the show will make it to series. That’s a far cry from the approach at El Rey.
“[That meeting] was in Austin and it was probably six months ago,” Orci says. “It was faster than you’ve ever seen any network work ever. I’ve never had that happen.”
If the production cycle of Matador has been unprecedented, the promotional cycle has been similarly groundbreaking. The show was officially announced in March, and Luna and the rest of the cast were introduced in April. The first footage hit the Internet in May, and the extended trailer was released in June. Now, in July, the series begins its weekly run on El Rey–right after the World Cup.
“We knew that we had to get the show together as fast as we could, and then when we realized that we could get it together in time for the World Cup, we were like, ‘Oh, please, let’s try to release it right at that time,’” Orci recalls. “We knew that soccer was coming up in the world, and that this country was finally catching up to what the rest of the world knows.”
Getting a show to network in six months after the initial meeting about the concept is rare, but there is one format that’s able to be more responsive to trends and current events than your typical scripted series: Namely, reality shows.
Drawing some inspiration from the responsiveness of reality television is something that Orci and the Matador team were willing to do–despite the stigma about reality TV that most TV writers have.
“A lot of us feared that reality television was somehow going to replace scripted television, but it’s not the case,” he says. “And the pace [of Matador] gives you a taste of reality, because it’s so immediate. El Rey makes us competitive–the idea that our show is premiering after the World Cup is a result of our ability to be immediate. The fact that we don’t have to go through the bureaucracy of some other kinds of situations makes it so that we can compete with reality TV–and also really just compete with reality. Forget reality TV. We’re premiering after the World Cup. It makes us look like we’re the smartest people in the world.”
Orci and Rodriguez are two of the higher-profile Latino creators working in Hollywood, but their styles have little in common. Orci was trained and built his career through the major studios, while Rodriguez’s entire career is built around being an independent spirit.
What that means for Matador is significant, both in terms of how it made its way to air and what the creative possibilities are. For Orci, there’s at least one significant difference between working with El Rey, as compared to a traditional network–the intermingling of the creative and the executive sides of the process.
“The director we’re working with is actually the network and the studio all at once,” Orci says of Rodriguez, who helmed the premiere episode of Matador himself. “It’s one-stop-shopping.”
What that means creatively is that Matador is very much a show that revels in the combined sensibilities of two creators who have complementary ideas and divergent backgrounds. That means that, whether Matador–which, five days before the show’s debut, was picked up for a second season–is a hit or a flop, it’s going to succeed or fail based on the fact that the people making the show are telling the exact story that they want to tell, the way they want to tell it. That’s rare for television.
“It translates into a show where you can kiss your mother in one scene, and then you can get an axe to the head in the next,” Orci laughs. “It’s a mix between a 9 o’clock family show with a very gritty punk rock sensibility. If he and I agree on something, that’s what it is–and there’s no one else to have to run it by. That’s unique.”