Named after a character who does not even appear in it, the French show “Lupin” has seduced audiences with a stylish, light-footed combination of family drama, romance and high-stakes capers. At the center is the star Omar Sy (“The Intouchables”) as the affable trickster and heistmeister Assane Diop, whose role model is the fictional gentleman-thief Arsène Lupin — an iconic figure in France invented by the mystery writer Maurice Leblanc in 1905.
As it turns out, one of the essential forces behind this very Gallic creation is British: the screenwriter George Kay (also one of the masterminds of “Criminal,” a Netflix series with four versions, each in a different country). When Kay joined the team, he had limited information. He knew that Sy was attached to the project and that the plot had to somehow incorporate Lupin. Exactly how this was to come together was up to him, as creator and showrunner. During a video call from his home in London, Kay shared the movies, songs and spaces that influenced him as he worked on the series.
“The Wolf of Wall Street”
Kay explained that the first key was the star himself. Sy, who is also credited as executive producer, was instrumental in getting the series rolling when he floated the idea of Lupin as a dream role. Naturally, this translated to his being an engine in the writers’ room. “Omar is really important and central to the scripting process,” Kay said. “In a way I found myself adapting the Omar Sy qualities as much as I was the books. We were always having conversations about ‘good arrogance,’ the attitude with which Assane can do his crimes.” The idea that a character’s charm could give him free rein was a lesson Kay drew from another character: Leonardo DiCaprio’s corrupt stockbroker in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” “When the charisma is that strong, you’ll forgive a character almost anything,” said Kay.
“Sunny” by Bobby Hebb
“Lupin” has an endearingly lighthearted tone that sets it apart from many projects dealing with cons, theft and avenging the death of your wrongfully accused father. And that’s no accident: It was important to Kay and his colleagues to create a violence-free, family-friendly series. “This song by Bobby Hebb called ‘Sunny’ was in my head and on every playlist when I was writing,” Kay said. “It’s about the sun coming out of the clouds, and positivity and optimism.” Kay kept trying to place “Sunny” in an episode, but each time another track fit better. “It became this kind of private song that would continually steer me to the tone,” Kay said. “I kept playing it as I was writing because I was thinking about Omar and how he brings a smile to your face the whole time.”
The Louvre figures prominently in the first block of episodes released in January (a second batch is due later this year). But it was another Parisian institution that stirred Kay’s imagination: the Musée d’Orsay. While “Lupin” is set in contemporary Paris, Kay looked at the time period of the original books for inspiration. A natural destination was Orsay whose collections focus on the turn of the 20th century. “It was a place to go and relax and enjoy the paintings,” Kay said. “But what started to happen — and you’ll see it more and more across ‘Lupin’ — is that the museum became a real inspiration as a place for ideas for the series.” One of the holdings, van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over the Rhône,” inspired an episode in the next set of shows (though it ended up being switched for a Pissarro painting) and the museum is responsible for the name of a forthcoming character. Featuring the Normandy beach town, Étretat, whose signature cliffs figure prominently in the Leblanc novel “The Hollow Needle” and in the show’s fifth episode, can also be traced to the museum, which has period renderings of the town in its collection. “It’s the most Lupin building,” Kay said, laughing, of Orsay.
Marché aux Puces de St. Ouen
Among the recurring characters is Assane’s longtime friend and current fence Benjamin Ferel (Antoine Gouy), who operates out of an overstuffed antique store. For that vibe, Kay looked to the Parisian flea markets, and particularly the Marché aux Puces de St. Ouen. “I was surprised because you’ll turn a corner and suddenly you’ll get some really expensive boutiques attached to the flea market,” he said. “You can be buying really expensive things in the same place where you might buy a cigarette lighter or an old photograph or postcard. The intention around Benjamin Ferel was that he’s at the very high end of that kind of cash-in-hand, mischievous economy.”
Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
One of the show’s most memorable characters is the reclusive investigative journalist Fabienne Bériot (Anne Benoît), whom Assane befriends when he discovers they have a common enemy. As escapist as it can be, “Lupin” often touches on societal issues, and pays particular attention to those who get cast aside. “There are these social blind spots, and with Fabienne I wanted to show that it happens across society — that’s particularly true of older women in the workplace, especially in the media or the creative sectors,” Kay said. “Assane falls in love with that person, platonically, and that kind of thing was evident in Marielle Heller’s film ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ Fabienne is a bit ramshackle in the way that Lee Israel is in that movie.”
Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing”
Assane is a thief, like his hero, so obviously the show had to depict his capers. Kay and the script executive Joe Williams, both big Stanley Kubrick fans, looked closely at one of the director’s early films. “We love the racecourse bar scene in ‘The Killing,’ which you see from many different perspectives. Quentin Tarantino uses that technique.” An illustration of that approach comes early on when we revisit the caper at the Louvre and see exactly how Assane pulled off the theft of a bejeweled necklace that had belonged to Marie Antoinette. These scenes are among the show’s most entertaining as we discover the full scope of Assane’s ingenuity — and more are on tap in the second half of the season. “There are scenes in the first five episodes that you’ll see again,” Kay said with relish. “We’re always burying these little acorns, these seeds.”