Money Heist and the power of an iconic mask

Maria Lewis on the Salvador Dalí masks of Money Heist

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Hola, ¿Cómo estás? I’m Jared Richards, editor of Netflix Pause, and that’s more or less the extent of my Spanish.

This week for Scene & Heard, I’m talking to author, screenwriter, and film curator Maria Lewis about Spanish superhit Money Heist’s Salvador Dalí masks, which are adopted by the public in the show, who cheer on the heist gang from behind police barricades.

The crew aren’t just Robin Hood figures (though they do drop millions of Euros from the Madrid sky): as The Professor boasts, their masks pop up across the globe in demonstrations against corruption and for women’s rights. The mask is malleable. 

We’re jumping off a tense scene in episode four, where our gang of well-dressed criminals send out a crowd of unmasked and masked hostages onto the Bank of Spain’s rooftop mid-heist, as a distraction in a master plan.

JR:

Whenever I watch this show, I can’t help but think: ‘sure, being held hostage by the Money Heist crew would be intense, but…’. You'd have to at least pause for a second to enjoy your new sick outfit, right?

ML: Absolutely! Knowing how much I paid for the Ivy Park x Rodeo boiler suit, I would pay that again for these red numbers. It’s sick, to use your words. 

An-y-way, I picked this scene because we don’t get a whole lot of the other part of their iconic outfits, the masks, in Season 5, but we do here. 

I'll avoid spoilers, but essentially, Tokyo, Manila and Denver need to get onto the bank's roof: to confuse snipers, they send out the hostages out in single file, half with masks on, half off.

That way, they can slip through undetected - and with their weapons in a bag attached to a cord at Tokyo's feet, the snipers can't see who is armed and who isn't. It's a very clever, ballsy and stylish move: classic Money Heist and a classic heist trope (we’ve seen it with The Dark Knight and Inside Man, for instance). 

I’m a sucker for genre intelligence and the show is called Money Heist, right? And one of the staples of the heist genre is a memorable mask á la Heat, The Town, The Dark Knight, Sugar & Spice, Point Break, and Baby Driver (Mike Myers!). The Salvador Dalí masks rule, they’re just creepy enough to be unnerving and establish the show’s antihero themes, but also unique! They’re immediately iconic. 

Creator Álex Pina has been pretty reluctant to explain why they went with Dalí masks, of all things. Why do you think they did? 

Oooft, I mean Dalí was an extremely weird dude – he was the preeminent surrealist of his time, maybe all time. There could be a thousand different reasons or explanations that range from his nuclear mysticism and what that represents, to ‘he had a sick mo’. 

If you think about Point Break and what the American Presidents masks used for the heists are supposed to represent for that gang  (i.e they were anti-Capitalist adrenaline anarchists, aka “totally against the system, maaaan”), Money Heist is a Spanish show and Dalí is a Spanish icon, so it makes sense that the masks take on wider socio-political sentiment in the show.

That touches on the thing we were chatting about earlier, the genre intelligence of the show, and I think Pina really understands where Money Heist fits within the heist genre itself. 

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got when I was just starting out as an author was from thriller novelist Matthew Reilly. He said the biggest superpower you can have as a writer is an intimate love of the genre your work exists within. If you understand the rules and conventions of the medium, you can subvert them. 

That really connected with me.  With all of my eight novels so far, I have tried to write twists on the traditional monster tale, by making the types of women who often get excluded from these stories the main characters. 

After all, how many times can we watch another story about sexy male vampires being metaphors of lust and temptation when you have banshees as a metaphor for women finding their voices and learning how to use them right there? White men tortured with the curse of lycanthropy (ie. becoming a werewolf)? Tired. Werewolfism to talk about female rage and the feminine grotesque? Wired. So often, women are only featured in horror as a genre because we’re the ones horror happens to, yet making women the central drivers of narrative in that space has always been more interesting to me.

And in Money Heist, the Professor's band of thieves is made of many traditionally under-represented peoples in action and heist stories: women, queer people, immigrants. The show doesn't reveal that straight away, instead slowly -- apologies -- un-masking who these characters are. And without spoiling things, this scene is pivotal for Manila, who is trans.

Yeah, I mean, what’s so interesting about that is that it’s reflective of the world as it is, right? You walk down the street and it’s not an unending sea of straight, white men which is predominantly what we’ve seen in heist movies, because they have been made by straight, white men. 

Something like Inside Man really stands out because: A) it’s a Spike Lee joint and; B) it’s set in New York, one of the most culturally diverse cities, so the characters (hostages, thieves, detectives) reflect that. If that wasn’t the case, it wouldn’t feel authentic to who Spike Lee is as a filmmaker and how New York is as a place. 

Money Heist reminds me of that a lot, it aligns more closely with Inside Man than Heat for instance. I’ve worked on a lot of genre shows where even something as small as making the main character a woman, or a black woman, or a queer woman, or a trans woman, is seen as this big, political move or a marketing point of difference. And it’s like ’nah, brah - look outside, where the fuck do you live?'

Art reflecting life! A novel concept. The thing I really enjoy about Money Heist is how complicated its characters are: no hostage, heist or police member is defined by identity alone, or with the villain/hero binary. But, and hear me out, I think the masks themselves have Big Hero Energy, in that crowds in Money Heist adopt them as a symbol against greed and inequality. It reminds me of V For Vendetta.

I think the Dalí masks from Money Heist were designed to invoke V For Vendetta because of the bigger themes of the show. A dude straight up jogged past me yesterday with a huge tattoo on the back of his calf of the Guy Fawkes mask, which is probably the most iconic one politically. 

I was so tempted to speed up to him and be like ‘oy, what’s ya deal?’ Like, maybe he’s a V For Vendetta fan! Maybe he’s in Anonymous (lol, unlikely but still). It’s so interesting though, because it’s one symbol - this mask - that can be interpreted so many different ways and, regardless of the original meaning, appropriated for the cause of the wearer. 

I’m currently in pre-production atm on a thing about The Phantom, who was the first masked superhero ever. From his debut in 1936 to now, the pop culture etymology of masks and what they mean to those who perceive them and those who wear them is just like a storytelling goldmine. 

That point reminds me of Tokyo's narration in the opening scene, explaining that they were going outside un-masked to show that Libson was in the building, despite police saying they'd captured her: "We were showing them if we could do that, we could do anything. And people began to believe in miracles". 

I meeeeeean, how topical does that moment feel? People connect to art they feel reflected in - it doesn’t have to be physically, more often than not it’s thematically. Right now, for the present moment, that feels poignant as fuck. 

It’s truly one of my favourite things as a storyteller; seeing what folks connect with in your work. Sometimes it’s the things you expect: there are a lot of witch imagery and alchemist symbols from The Witch Who Courted Death that I’ve seen tattooed on readers’ bodies, and plenty of werewolf/feminist crossover pieces from Who’s Afraid? that folks have turned into murals and ink. 

But other times, it’s really unexpected I met a reader at a signing in May who had a quote from The Rose Daughter (my seventh book) tattooed on her wrist and I was like ’sweet baby angel hoooooow?!’ The book had just come out but also, I have Powerpuff Girls, X-Men, Huntress, and The Fifth Element tattoos. My body is a nerdy tapestry of all the pop culture that I love. I get it: what can just be a mask to someone or a Frankenstein tattoo can mean a lot more to the wearer (in my case, a wink to Mary Shelley aka the baddest bitch to ever do it).

And masks are across so many genres, too: superhero films, heists, and then horror as well. Like you said, the Dalí masks are pretty creepy.

Maybe my favourite example of this is the opening heist of The Dark Knight, which is basically Christopher Nolan’s way of letting you know that he has seen and enjoys Michael Mann’s Heat, in case you couldn’t tell that from literally everything else. (Men! They love Heat! That’s all I know!) 

In it, the robbers are all wearing clown masks while they go about having various conversations about the Clown Prince Of Crime, the Joker, and his intentions. When the first reveal happens,  we get a first glimpse at Heath Ledger’s iconic performance, as the Joker pulls off his clown mask to reveal his true face, which is a mask in and of itself. 

There’s a practical purpose within the superhero genre – to hide one’s true identity – and it’s the same purpose for the heist genre, so when unmasking happens in Money Heist it’s for a significant reason. The choosing of the masks and their aesthetic from a storytelling point of view can tell you everything about the intent of the filmmakers … or it can be a bootleg William Shatner mask someone finds in a dollar store, á la John Carpenter’s Halloween. Yolo!

Call me shallow, but sometimes things strike a chord because they look cool.

Hello, yes! Give me meaning but also give me aesthetic if I can have both, please. Cue Edna E. Mode’s ’no capes!’ monologue here.


Maria Lewis is a best-selling author, screenwriter, and film curator. Her seven Supernatural Sisters novels have been published globally, including the Aurealis Award-winning The Witch Who Courted Death and her latest title, The Rose Daughter. The eighth and final book in the series, Her Fierce Creatures, is coming out March 2022. As a screenwriter, she has worked on television and film projects for ABC, Stan, Ubisoft, Nickelodeon, SBS, DC Comics, and more. 

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