Award-winning triple-threat Benjamin Lobato uses his skills as a producer, director, and writer to create USA’s Queen of the South.
The series is based on Teresa Mendoza, a woman who is forced to run and seek refuge in America after her drug-dealing boyfriend is unexpectedly murdered in Mexico.The Knockturnal spoke with Mexican- American co-showrunner Benjamin Lobato about the fifth and final season of the USA series.
The Knockturnal: How did your education from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and degrees in Media Arts and Creative Writing from University of Arizona help you as a writer, director, and producer?
Benjamin Lobato: For me, college was a time of learning, preparation, and experimentation. You study the masters and attempt to emulate their work, and over time, if you’re lucky, you begin to develop your own unique style and voice. That voice becomes your calling card as you make your way into the business. But finding that voice is often the most challenging part. It’s like mining for gold. You have to sift through the mud to find what sparkles. This process begins in college and continues all throughout the artist’s journey.
The Knockturnal: Alice Braga stars as Teresa Mendoza, a woman who goes from the streets to the throne of the world’s biggest drug empire after her boyfriend is murdered. What does Queen of the South say about women in power?
Benjamin Lobato: Women can succeed on their own terms. Even in a brutal cutthroat business like drug trafficking. Teresa defies the familiar tropes of women in these positions, who are often depicted as being more brutal than their male counterparts. Teresa doesn’t subscribe to any of this. Her success comes from staying true to herself and maintaining her own moral code.
The Knockturnal: What was it like working with Espinosa Paz on the ballad Leon de Culiacan?
Benjamin Lobato: Espinoza is an amazingly talented artist, and it was an honor to collaborate with him. The ballad Leon de Culiacan told the origin story of Epifanio Vargas, played by Joaquim de Almeida. Because the song detailed the character’s backstory it had to be written by a writer on the show. That’s how our collaboration began. I wrote the lyrics and sent them to Espinoza, who at the time was on tour. He took the lyrics and put them to music, recorded a version and sent me the tracks. I sent him notes on the music, and he sent me notes on the lyrics, and little by little we dialed it in. He was extremely gracious throughout the entire process, and the end result was a song, that in my opinion is not only a great example of the narco-corrido genre, but a super catchy and danceable track.
The Knockturnal: Over time, What has kept Queen of the South so popular for five seasons and ranking USA’s #1 original series?
Benjamin Lobato: Like any successful show, it comes down to the characters. People are invested in Teresa and her family’s success. That’s not necessarily connected to the business of building a drug empire, as much as it is Teresa’s desire to build this business as a means to protect her family. That universal goal is something everyone can relate to. And of course, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if not for the performances of our amazing cast, lead by the indomitable Alice Braga, who deftly navigates the grey area that exists between her heart and her ambition.
The Knockturnal: As a mexican-american writer, director, and producer, How important is story-telling especially for the series Queen of the south?
Benjamin Lobato: This show is about a Mexican drug dealer. But as a Mexican-American storyteller, I’ve never approached it from that angle. Perhaps, that’s because I understand the deeper issues surrounding this world, as well as the people who inhabit it. As a result, we spend as much time focusing on our characters’ motivations, as we do on their actions. This allows the audience to view our characters from a less judgmental and more human perspective, while relating to their wants and desires, which are universal.
The Knockturnal: Can you take us step by step of how Queen of the South was written/produced?
Benjamin Lobato: It all begins with the theme we want to explore each season. For example, in season four we were working with the Shakespearian quote: “Heavy is the head that wears the crown…” Everyone wants to be the leader, but no one understands the cost of leading until they are in that position. In season four, Teresa was finally in a place of strength, so her biggest challenges didn’t come from rival cartels, they came from the weight of leading her people. Once we’ve settled on a theme, we spend weeks brainstorming storylines that explore the idea, and ultimately lead to the most dramatic conclusion. For Teresa, that meant going against her own moral code and handing Javier over to the judge. This was a terrible decision and perfectly demonstrated our theme. Once we know our ending, we begin to map out the entire season, get approval from our studio and network partners, and then assign each episode to a writer, who drafts an outline. That outline goes through several drafts and another approval process. Once complete, they write a script and we start the approval and rewrite process all over again. Then it’s off to production, where the writer acts as on-set producer. They help the director, answer questions that come up during the shoot, make any necessary script adjustments, and ensure the episode maintains the vision of the show.