Juan Ramón Gonzalo, Cuarzo Producciones’ managing director, talks to TV Real about the appeal of true crime and what makes Cuarzo’s productions unique in the factual space.
True-crime documentaries continue to fascinate viewers around the world with portrayals of stranger-than-fiction mysteries that captivate the imagination. Cuarzo Producciones, part of Banijay, has recently garnered much success with its true-crime docs, namely The Man Without a Heart and Where is Marta?, which ranked sixth globally on Netflix’s most-watched non-English-language series.
From conspiracy theories and cutting-edge forensic technology to cultural sensibilities and careful handling of the subject matter, Gonzalo says that the most important thing in making these types of productions is respecting and supporting the family as they seek to find closure.
TV REAL: What appealed to you about The Man Without a Heart?
GONZALO: I was attracted to the case itself. It was something we were aware of, but it had certain ingredients that were unique and different from other cases. We managed to get support from the victim’s family, from the victim’s sister. It’s vital that we have the family’s support if they want to take a step further [into the investigation].
The case is truly exceptional because it deals with a man who goes on a trip from Spain to Sweden. His sister later receives a call informing her that he’s been found dead. The details, however, are quite strange. Apparently, he drowned in a fjord, but he had a copy of his ID on him in perfect condition. If he had been in the water for so long, how could it not have been damaged?
He wanted to be buried in the U.K., where his girlfriend was also buried. So, they extradited the body to the U.K., where they conducted a second autopsy. It was revealed that his heart was missing. How could this be? The family then begins the long struggle to find out what happened to their loved one. After many years, they’ve gone to all the institutions, and no one has paid any attention. Through this documentary, we want to give the family a new opportunity to reopen the investigation and give them closure.
The Swiss authorities ruled it a suicide, but where are his organs? A new autopsy was conducted, and additional queries were made with other organizations. We also spoke to all the family members in Spain so we could get a better idea of what could have happened.
TV REAL: Given that this case is still unsolved, and you’ve been very involved in the investigation, careful handling of the subject matter is vital, right? Has it been frustrating not being able to find closure for the family?
GONZALO: Absolutely. It’s clear to us that this isn’t a movie or fiction; it’s reality. Respect toward the family and victim is paramount. We must start from the very beginning, forgetting what we know about the case and start from scratch. We have to carefully analyze all the documents, briefings and evidence on the case, looking to arrive at new conclusions. The important thing is to have data and present it to viewers so they can draw their own conclusions. We don’t take anything for granted.
TV REAL: How do you incorporate creative liberty without falling into sensationalism?
GONZALO: The talent of our team and people who put the images on screen always have a certain degree of creative license. The director determines the best way of portraying the story so it’s factually accurate and accessible to viewers. But again, this is a true story, and we have to be respectful to the family and the victim. Every time we tell these kinds of stories, we need the approval or support of the family, and they’re willing to fight to know the truth, regardless of the consequences. Sometimes the family has a certain idea that is not based on reality, so they have to be [grounded].
In The Man Without a Heart, as well as with the other true-crime docs we’ve made, respect to the family is above everything else. Even if it’s a well-known case, we always try to start from the beginning, so we are not predisposed to what we already know. This gives us clarity from the onset. It is possible to be influenced by all the noise generated by the media, and some outlets follow an editorial line that isn’t correct. For us, data and investigation are very important, and we invest a lot of time researching the facts.
TV REAL: What do true-crime docs have that fascinate viewers around the world?
GONZALO: True crime has always garnered attention, scripted and non-scripted. It offers a variety of attractive elements, including drama, suspense and emotions and many twists and turns along the way. When these crimes are solved, they offer twists that no one expected—very impactful revelations. People are attracted to true crime because the stories are so surprising, and they also generate debates and discussions in society.
We try to tell people how it is possible that someone could do this to another human being. I think it’s fascinating to try entering the mind of the perpetrators to see how they think and analyze how they come to commit these crimes.
TV REAL: Are cultural sensibilities in different parts of the world something you consider when producing true-crime docs?
GONZALO: Unfortunately, crime is universal; it’s present in any and every country around the world. Crime also has common themes, like crimes of passion. But there are many cultural differences depending on where you are. For us, it’s important that, depending on who we’re working for, be it free TV or a streamer, we think about how to make something local into a global product. Here’s where there’s a change in the story’s focus. There are unsolved crimes, and some are notorious and popular in any part of the world. Although A Man Without a Heart is local, involving a Spanish citizen, it has a global vision because Sweden, the U.K. and Spain are all involved in an international investigation. So, here we have different countries and cultures and ways of analyzing the case. I believe these elements enrich the project.
TV REAL: Is working on true-crime docs on free TV different from your approach on streaming platforms?
GONZALO: We had already covered this case on free TV on Telecinco and Antena 3, and it’s true that it wasn’t as popular as other cases. The best place we’ve found to make a doc is on streaming platforms like discovery+, where we had the opportunity to involve different countries to tell the story. It depends on the story, and I think there’s a space for them [on every platform], but you have to know how to tell it, considering the audience you are presenting it to.
TV REAL: Tell us about the success of Where is Marta? on Netflix.
GONZALO: It has to do with the standard of quality that we’ve established at Cuarzo and that is also present at Banijay. As managing director at Cuarzo, it’s the standard of quality that is expected, not only for a doc like Where is Marta? but for any of the projects we work on. Anything that comes after the success of Where is Marta? will have the same seal of quality. We want to be proud of the content we put out.
We always believed in Where is Marta? at Banijay and Cuarzo, but we were very surprised with the success it garnered worldwide. It was number one in Spain for many weeks with strong ratings. We’re very surprised with its success outside of Spain, in Latin America and other European countries. The true story centers on a girl in Spain who disappeared and has yet to be found. We’ve been working hand in hand with the family to try to discover what happened to her. The family is looking for closure and to bury their daughter. We have been investigating the case for over a year, going over the 7,000 folios from the very beginning to find new leads, and we were able to do so. We hope that all this effort will lead to closure for the family.
TV REAL: Forensic and DNA technology are so advanced today that it seems increasingly difficult to commit the perfect crime, yet these crimes remained unsolved. Do conspiracy theories play any role in these cases? Are there greater and darker powers at play, pulling the strings to protect sinister interests?
GONZALO: This came up a lot with Where is Marta? It’s true; these conspiracy theories are always present. Are there powerful people working from the shadows, involved in these crimes? Some say it’s the reason why these cases have remained unsolved. But as you mentioned, technology has advanced exponentially. For Where is Marta?, we were able to analyze the case, which occurred in 2009, with 2021 technology. We’ve been able to benefit from this technology from a case that’s 12 years old. Twelve years ago, authorities didn’t have these tools; now they do. Thanks to these tools, new leads have opened up in the case.
TV REAL: What will you be working on in the next 12 to 18 months?
GONZALO: We’re working on many different projects. One of our strands is based on docs. We started with Yo fui un asesino on discovery+ with the katana crime. It’s the first time the murderer tells his story. He was underage when he killed his parents and sister, and it’s the first time he reveals why he committed this crime. We also have a new doc on a well-known case in Spain [that] will launch on discovery+. We’re also working on new doc projects for streaming platforms and broadcasters.