In 2016, audiences were introduced to the Medici family, the renowned banking dynasty, in Renaissance Florence.
Medici: Masters of Florence saw Richard Madden (Bodyguard) star as Cosimo de Medici as he succeeds his father Giovanni (Dustin Hoffman) as the head of the bank, the richest in Europe at the time, as he fights to preserve his honour.
Season two, Medici: The Magnificent, is set two generations later, telling the story of Cosimo’s grandson Lorenzo de Medici (Daniel Sharman). Now season three continues Lorenzo’s story, focusing on the Pazzi conspiracy that saw an attempt to assassinate Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano, orchestrated by the Pazzi family, led by Jacopo (Sean Bean).
In this DQTV interview, Big Light Productions CEO Frank Spotnitz and creative director Emily Feller discuss their partnership with Rome-based Lux Vide to produce the series and how it mixes a variety of genres, from historical and family drama to muder mystery and conspiracy thriller.
Medici is produced by Lux Vide and Big Light Productions for Rai in Italy and Netflix.
In part two of a focus on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on television drama productions, DQ speaks to three more producers to see how their latest series have been affected and how development has been pushed to the fore.
About 10 days ago, Chris Aird was in the middle of the Australian outback, 200 kilometres north of Adelaide, on a recce to uncover potential locations for upcoming mystery drama The Tourist. Commissioned by the BBC and Oz streamer Stan, the show opens with a British man being run off the road by an enormous tank. When he wakes up in hospital, he has no idea who he is, while his search for answers is hampered by merciless figures set on pursuing him.
But when Aird, head of drama at UK prodco Two Brothers Pictures (Liar, The Missing), heard US president Donald Trump was about to close the countries borders to many EU countries as a result of the emerging coronavirus threat, he faced an uncertain five-and-a-half-hour journey back to the city. Initially intending to postpone some preproduction plans, Aird soon realised he and his partners would have to suspend everything and get home as soon as possible.
The Tourist is just one of hundreds of television series around the world shut down or put on hold over the last fortnight as the industry, like every other, comes to terms with the devastating coronavirus pandemic. Cast and crew face an indeterminate time out of work, with production companies rallying to support those who have been left in limbo by the shutdowns.
“We’re early enough [in the process] that we’ve only got a core group of HODs and the producer and the director on board,” Aird tells DQ about work so far on The Tourist. “But it has an impact in as much all the people we were planning on bringing on over the coming weeks, with a view to filming in mid-May, they’re not going to be employed now for the foreseeable.”
Another Two Brothers drama, crime thriller Baptiste, was further down the line – eight weeks into a 14-week shoot – when the decision was made to halt production in the Hungarian capital, Budapest. The series continues to follow detective Julien Baptiste, who first featured in two seasons of The Missing before a standalone series launched on the BBC last year.
“It’s been a really challenging process, trying to predict what was going to happen and the international situation and trying to get a sense of the direction of travel, while listening via my colleague John Griffin, the producer, to what was going on on the ground,” Aird explains.
“Because that crew is 80% Hungarian, there was this tipping point around Friday night [March 13] where we went from the crew saying, ‘Look, we want to carry on. These are our jobs,’ to quite quickly, ‘Actually, this is frightening now and we need to get home and be inside.’ It was about being really responsive to that. It’s probably the most challenging management position I’ve ever been in, in terms of fast decisions and really having people’s welfare as much at possible at heart when making those decisions.”
The decision was taken at 09.00 last Monday, with the British crew members back in the air and heading home by Wednesday evening. Meanwhile, sets were left standing, with the art department set to return under safe conditions to pack things up until such time as the production can resume.
“We had a whole production to shut down. In the first instance, that meant walking away from sets,” Aird says. “The office will pack things up. We’ll get all the equipment back. But the first thing to do was to disband the unit as quickly as we could. We’re paying people’s notice and giving people severance pay, but that only lasts so long.”
Now working with Griffin for the next couple of months, Aird is focusing on “Baptiste 2.2,” looking at any decisions that need to be made before shooting can resume, they hope, by the end of the year.
“Most of the crew are local Hungarians, so I’d hope we’d be able to put the team back together,” Aird continues. “There’s cast to think about as well and you hope, certainly with your leads, no one’s going to come sweeping in [to take them away]. If we have to change locations or if we didn’t manage to get some cast members back for whatever reasons, we’d make whatever decisions we needed to and rewrite the scripts.”
In Ireland, Dublin-based Element Pictures has been providing production support for The Drowning, an upcoming Channel 5 and Virgin Media drama from Unstoppable Film & Television, while also finishing post-production on Normal People (pictured top), the eagerly awaited adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel that is due to air this spring on UK online channel BBC3 and Hulu in the US. Development is also underway on Conversation with Friends, based on Rooney’s first novel and also commissioned by the BBC, with a virtual writers room now set up with writers in Ireland, the UK and the US.
Normal People follows the relationship between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) from their school days in a small Irish town to university at Dublin’s Trinity College. Working remotely, post-production is continuing apace, with one person in the editing suite at Outer Limits and everyone else who needs to be involved viewing from their own homes.
“It made it complicated but it’s actually doable,” says Andrew Lowe, Element’s joint MD. “It’s interesting that it has been viable to keep it going. Our big fear was the post house itself would close, but they’ve been very responsible and careful about how they do their business and they’ve managed to keep the thing going, which is great.
“We’re also continuing with our development meetings and production meetings. Everyone just dials in remotely so there are lots of people on the screen at the same time, which is a nice thing for everyone. It gives some sense of normality and continuity in what’s an otherwise strange and unsettling time. The positive thing to come from this is it’s enabling us to focus more on development. With fewer other things going on to distract us, we can focus more on opportunities that have been around for a while but we haven’t managed to advance.”
In a rapidly evolving situation, Lowe says the Element team will continue to work from home, while the production hiatus will offer him and partner Ed Guiney the chance to carry out some company housekeeping.
“Our attitude is very much, ‘Let’s hunker down for the coming weeks and months and, if this ends up being a very prolonged period, we have more than enough to be getting on with developing new material and cleaning up older stuff,’” he adds.
“As founders and directors, Ed and I often struggle to strike a balance between operational time running the business and actually standing back from it and spending a bit more time strategic planning, so this period will give us a chance to take a bit of a breather and complete some work we’ve been doing for a while in terms of strategic planning for the growth of the business. We just have to focus on the more positive aspects, because it’s obviously a grim and serious situation otherwise.”
Elsewhere, production has also stopped on Leonardo, a series based on the life of Leonardo Da Vinci. Created by Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) and Steve Thompson (Vienna Blood), the show is produced by Lux Vide in collaboration with Rai Fiction and Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions, in association with Sony Pictures Television. Poldark star Aidan Turner will play the seminal artist and inventor, with filming underway since December.
“We are in the same situation as everyone else in Europe, where all production has stopped, as much of the world has as well. With Leonardo, we’re looking to manage the situation and get back as soon as we can,” says Emily Feller, creative director at Big Light (The Man in the High Castle).
“With regard to everything else, we are so fortunate and lucky that we have jobs where we can work from home. But what we’re aware of is a lot of team members won’t have been based from home on a very regular basis. We put together a pack of etiquette and expectations of working from home, just as a support, really, and also being quite aware of mental health and a sense of isolation in your home if you live by yourself. We’ve really wanted to be careful and proactive in thinking about the team as a whole.”
Big Light is also involved in a virtual writers room for an as-yet-unannounced series, working through stories, narratives and characters, while Feller says the move online has had no effect on the openness and creativity of the collaboration process.
“Last week we were working on two episodes in particular and we’re screen-sharing so, instead of having cards on the wall, we’re using bullet points [on screen]. It’s working fantastically so far,” she says. “I don’t think anyone can plan for this. You can plan to work six or nine months a year, whatever your preferences are or needs are, but I don’t think anyone can plan for this. It’s such an incredibly unique situation for us all.”
The company will have a second writers room opening this summer, while progress is also being made on its proposed live-action Warhammer 40,000 series, in partnership with Games Workshop.
“It’s about maintaining our drive to be pushing forward the high-quality storytelling we’re lucky enough to be able to do and working with the writer we’re still working with,” Feller adds. “That side of things doesn’t change. What these next few months will allow us to do is get into a fantastic place to then go once production is up and running again.”
The cast and crew of Medici: Lorenzo the Magnificent reunited in Florence for the launch of this luxurious historical drama. DQ travelled to Italy to hear more about the series.
In the heart of the historic city of Florence, tourists and sightseers fill the walkways and pavements along Via Camillo Cavour, a bustling street that begins next to the Piazza San Marco and the grand church that overlooks the square.
There is particular excitement outside Cinema La Compagnia, where a black minibus has just pulled up. As the doors open, screams can be heard and flashbulbs pop as the stars of Medici: Lorenzo the Magnificent climb out and make their way into the venue for the official launch of the series.
Produced by Lux Vide in partnership with Italian broadcaster Rai, Big Light Productions and Altice Group, this is the second instalment in the Medici television series, following 2016’s Medici: Masters of Florence.
That first season ended with the birth of Lorenzo and now 20 years later, in 1469, the young man played by Daniel Sharman (Fear the Walking Dead) is obliged to take charge of the family’s powerful banking empire. Under his leadership, his family’s power in Florence increases while his enlightened views lead him to support artists such as Botticelli and Poliziano – putting him at odds with hated rivals the Pazzi family and even Pope Sixtus IV. Season two climaxes with the famous Pazzi conspiracy, in which Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano are the targets of an assassination attempt.
The series is directed by Jon Cassar (24) and Jan Maria Michelini, based on scripts by Frank Spotnitz, Alex von Tunzelmann, James Dormer, Mark Denton, Jonny Stockwood, Francesco Arlanch, Lulu Raczka and John Fay. Spotnitz and Lux Vide’s Luca Bernabei are the producers.
Filming took place in 30 locations across Tuscany, Lazio and Lombardy, including Volterra, the cathedral and the Palazzo Contucci in Montepulciano, and the cathedral and the Palazzo Piccolomini in Pienza. The costumes were once again designed by Alessandro Lai, who has created vibrant outfits that matched those of the Renaissance but did not restrict the performances of the actors wearing them. Around 5,000 items were made especially for the drama, with designers including Antonio Riva, Fendi, Rubelli and Tirelli also providing dresses, materials and clothing.
Along with the upcoming HBO coproduction My Brilliant Friend and other projects, Medici is at the heart of Rai’s focus on high-end English-language dramas that tell Italian stories for a worldwide audience.
With a third season of Medici already in production, focusing on the second half of Lorenzo’s life, Rai Fiction director Eleonora Andreatta says her intention is to showcase Italian history and culture on a global scale, with Medici imagined in the same way as a great historical novel.
“In the Medici production we see the best of what an international perspective can offer with unique Italian talents,” Andreatta says. “The Magnificent is Lorenzo, a young man who makes a great cultural and political revolution in his time, and that is the very embodiment of the Renaissance. Our narrative challenge was to tell this story through contemporary audience sensibility.
“This series is part of the mission of Rai as a big European public broadcasting service, a project of strong Italian identity and, at the same time, international. Frank, with Lux Vide, gave a fundamental contribution in creating a project in which each artistic choice – from the director to the cast, from the editing to the soundtrack – is of an international standing.”
For his part, former The X-Files showrunner Spotnitz says he’s “so proud of it. I would put it up against anything being made anywhere in the world. This is a story about the Renaissance but it’s being made for a modern audience. So one of our first challenges was to ask ourselves why a modern audience cares about a story about 15th century bankers.”
The story of Lorenzo reveals a young man born in privilege who determines that, given the advantages with which he was raised, he can make a better world, Spotnitz explains. “So he’s enormously intelligent, enormously capable and very idealistic. It’s the young generation seeking to change the established order, which is not easy.”
Standing in Lorenzo’s way is Jacopo Pazzi, played by Sean Bean, who represents the established order – one that is determined to crush Lorenzo’s idealism. “That was a story we felt had resonance for a modern audience,” Spotnitz continues. “You can look at the story of Lorenzo as we’ve told it in two chapters: this first season is the first chapter, ending in the Pazzi conspiracy, which is a searing defeat for Lorenzo; then the second season is about how Lorenzo recovers and goes on now that his idealism has been destroyed. So we felt it’s a very moving and meaningful story about the 15th century but also about today.”
The cast also includes Bradley James as Lorenzo’s playboy brother Giuliano, Julian Sands and Sarah Parish as their parents Piero and Lucrezia, Synnøve Karslen as Lorenzo’s wife Clarice Orsini and Matilda Lutz as Simonetta Vespucci, a married woman who begins a passionate affair with Giuliano.
“It wasn’t hard to be a mother to these two beautiful boys,” says Parish of working with Sharman and James. “It was a real honour to play Lucrezia because really, from my point of view, she was a feminist in a way – one of the first feminists in Renaissance times. She wrote poetry and plays, she was an amazing artist. To have all those talents in that day and age was quite incredible for a woman, so it was a real honour to play the part.”
The female characters play a hugely important role in the series, which shows the power they wield through their relationships with the male characters.
Karslen notes that Clarice comes into Lorenzo’s life and becomes the matriarch of the family, with Lucrezia still a driving force behind the scenes. “Jon said to me when we first started, ‘These men would be nothing without the women they have.’ Lucrezia is the brains behind so much of it, but the person who can act on it is Lorenzo,” she says. “That’s not just because he’s a man but because Lorenzo was extremely capable and talented. That’s what this series does really well. It brings the importance of these women and those relationships to the front of the show.”
Before shooting began last year, Sharman had asked the producers if he could arrive two weeks early. He used the time to lose himself in Tuscany, exploring the places where the real Lorenzo lived and worked.
“It’s something I wanted to do because the work that everybody has put in on this is incredibly detailed. It’s actually a pleasure to come to work because the actors you get to act with on this, the production, the costumes, the level of detail that’s gone into it is truly astounding. You want to do justice to this piece,” Sharman says. “But at some point you have to throw that all away and find the very human element in it that I can relate to, which is that this is a person who’s been groomed for power, who isn’t sure if he’s even good enough, who isn’t sure if he understands enough, which I relate to very much in terms of growing up as an actor. You’re always concerned with whether you’re good enough or whether something works.
“So, weirdly, the character and you kind of align in saying, ‘I don’t know if I can do this character or this person justice,’ just as Lorenzo doesn’t know if he can take on something as daunting as lifting Florence out of an extremely difficult situation. Then you just rely on people around you – the amazing directors we have had, the actors you get to work with – and it’s really your job to let it go and let your vulnerabilities show.”
Streaming platform Rai Play launched the series on October 16, with its debut on Rai Uno set for October 23. Netflix is expected to roll out the series in English-speaking territories in early January. Distributor Beta Film also screened the first episode to international buyers this week at Mipcom in Cannes.
Meanwhile, the success of Medici season one, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Richard Madden, has also seen Rai partner with Lux Vide to produce more series about the Renaissance.
Following the official launch, the cast and crew gathered further along Via Camillo Camour at Palazzo Medici Riccardo, an ornate 15th century palace designed for the Medici family. On the first floor, overlooking a grand courtyard, costumes from the series are displayed in rooms covered with numerous works of art.
It’s here that British actor Bean, who won a Bafta earlier this year for his role in BBC drama Broken, says it was “refreshing” to appear in the historical drama, noting his own interest in the Renaissance period. “It wasn’t like working in that sense because it was actually a hugely enjoyable experience,” he says. “I didn’t really know a lot [about the Medicis]. I did read quite a lot about the family ties and lineage but, after that, it’s a matter of getting on set and saying the lines.”
Rather than playing real-life characters in a docudrama or biopic, Bean says he was given room to invent the character of Jacopo, admitting he had a lot of fun playing someone who was amused by creating chaos and then exploiting it for his own opportunism.
“It’s like Lord of the Rings,” recalls the actor, who played Boromir in Peter Jackson’s big-screen trilogy. “There was hardly any character description in Lord of the Rings, least of all Boromir. It just said he wears this crimson top and a blue thing and I thought, ‘Fuck, is that it?’ You do as much as you want really for this and it’s exciting. If it’s a drudge, it’s pointless. It’s like when you’re at school doing history; it was a drudge because you couldn’t picture anything and it didn’t make much sense. Something like this brings the characters to life.”
Jacopo relishes his position as a bad guy, Bean adds. “But first and foremost he’s pragmatic, realistic. He’s very black and white but, on his journey to achieve power, there’s a lot of fun and games to be had on the way.”
Lorenzo the Magnificent takes centre stage in the second chapter of Renaissance drama Medici: Masters of Florence. As filming continues apace in Tuscany, DQ speaks to the star and producers of the Rai series, which has built a worldwide audience on Netflix.
The life of Lorenzo de Medici is widely associated with the golden age of the Renaissance. Politician, diplomat, magnate, he was also a patron of scholars, artists and poets. Who better, then, than Lorenzo the Magnificent, as he was known, to be at the centre of the next season of Medici: Masters of Florence.
The series – Medici: Masters of Florence – The Magnificent to give it its full title – begins in Florence in 1469, when an attempt on Piero de Medici’s life forces his son, Lorenzo, to assume leadership of the family-run bank.
Once in power, young Lorenzo resolves to do things differently. With his brother Giuliano and young artist Sandro Botticelli at his side he abandons the cynical politics of the past to usher in a new era of creative and political revolution. This sparks conflict with the head of Florence’s other powerful banking family, Jacopo Pazzi, leading to one of the most notorious political intrigues in history: the infamous Pazzi conspiracy.
The Magnificent follows the first chapter of the anthology series, which focused on Lorenzo’s grandfather Cosimo (played by Richard Madden) and great grandfather Giovanni (Dustin Hoffman).
“Lorenzo the Magnificent is considered the greatest Medici of all,” says executive producer Frank Spotnitz of the Italian banking family and political dynasty. “He’s a remarkable guy who changed the course of history. It just so happens he was also the victim of one of the greatest conspiracies of all time. The drama is just irresistible. Assassins set upon Lorenzo and his brother in church during mass – you don’t have to make it up, you just have to try to do it justice. It’s an incredibly obvious, juicy target for a series. Why hasn’t anybody done this before?”
Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions coproduces the English-language series for Italian broadcaster Rai with Lux Vide, whose CEO, Luca Bernabei, also an executive producer, is quick to point out the differences between the first Medici series and this forthcoming show.
“This is a completely different; it’s not even season one and season two,” he asserts. “Every actor changes because we’re now in the middle of the Renaissance, so there’s more colour, more light, the costumes have more colour. And because we were surprised by the presence of a young audience who watched the first season, we are looking to this audience even more on this season because this story is really about a young group of people getting the power from the old nobles.”
To build on the young following of the show, the Medici producers also sought a young actor to play the role of Lorenzo, who was just 16 when he entered political life and assumed power four years later on his father’s death, in 1469. He went on to rule Florence until he died in 1492.
They found Lorenzo in the shape of London-born actor Daniel Sharman, who has played roles in Teen Wolf, The Originals and, most notably, Fear the Walking Dead. His co-stars include Bradley James, Sean Bean and Sarah Parish.
“It’s quite nice to have a basis for a show like a period of time that was obviously fascinating,” Sharman says. “The obvious way would be to do this story first, but it’s quite nice that there’s this precursor season because there’s a foundation there for what happens this season. This world is just incredibly dramatic and we’re dealing with the beginning of the Renaissance.
“You have geniuses being born within 30 or 40 years of each other, where all these influences were within this tiny geographical point. This series is dealing with that moment, that incredible alchemy. I didn’t have to be pitched it, I just had to research that time and my job was just to do it justice. You get out of the way of making it more dramatic than it already is.”
Sharman researched the period before the scripts — a move that he says paid off, because otherwise, “I never would have believed it was true,” he says. “Then I went down the rabbit hole of wanting to know everything about this family and about everything that influenced it and what it influenced.
“You get Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo Di Vinci – these are heavyweights of the world, and it’s all in the script because it’s a truly glorious time. I was working in Mexico at the time [he got the role] and was listening to a lot of audiobooks and reading and then I was in Africa reading this biography of Lorenzo. I’ll never forget being in the back of a truck in Uganda just becoming overwhelmed by this amazing period.”
Fans of Walking Dead spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, however, should be aware there won’t be too many similarities between Lorenzo and Troy Otto, the character Sharman plays in the AMC zombie drama.
“I don’t think I could imagine a more different part if I’d tried,” he adds. “An American prepper on the border with Mexico to Lorenzo the Magnificent was definitely a big jump, but that’s the joy in what you do. It’s a different rhythm, a different posture. That’s the lovely part about inhabiting someone else.”
From the outset, Spotnitz and Bernabei agreed that if they were going to do The Magnificent, it had to be better than the first Medici season, which drew record ratings in Italy as 7.5 million viewers watched the first episode in October last year.
“We wrote and wrote and wrote – it was quite a process,” says the former X-Files showrunner. “It took longer than we thought it would take because we’ve already done a Medici series, but this is completely different. The characters are different, the ideas were different and we under-estimated how hard it was going to be to get to the bottom of that. But to our credit, we didn’t give up until we thought we actually had it.”
Bernabei also teases a more action-packed series, with directors Jon Cassar (24, The Kennedys: After Camelot) and Jan Michelini (Don Matteo) behind the camera.
“The way he shoots, whether with a steadicam or a handicam, it’s fast,” he says of Cassar. “But he always pays attention to the heart of the scene. The actors are always moving on the sets and he’s always moving the camera, so actor and camera are always moving together.
“The first season was a bit more stagey. It is completely different visually. It appears the same but the way we are lighting it is very different. It’s going to be interesting. It’s still Medici but completely different. In the first season, there was less light, so you couldn’t see the backgrounds. But we have been studying a lot to achieve it. Even the costumes are much more modern.”
Sharman agrees that there’s a modernity and freshness to this period drama that will make it stand out from its stuffier peers.
“It’s all very well being historical accurate but if that’s all you are, then you’re missing something when these were times when people were pushing the boundaries of art and fashion,” the actor explains. “So in order to do that, you have to make costumes that suggest a period but have a modern influence, because then it feels energetic and new.
“Sometimes when you do a period piece you are almost a museum piece – you’re recreating a perfect sense of what it was back then. That misses the point, and if you’re doing something in the Renaissance, it has to have an energy and artistic flair people haven’t seen before.”
Filming is currently continuing across Tuscany, with the crew returning to locations such as Pienza and Montepulciano and adding new backdrops such as Mantua. Bernabei has been particularly instrumental in securing access to the real locations to ensure this second chapter, distributed by Beta Film, is as authentic as possible.
“It’s something we’re really taking care of,” he notes, adding that he didn’t want the scenes to be recreated on a studio backlot. “We have a special deal with the Italian ministry of culture because they consider these locations national property. Because our series is conveying images of Italy, they’ve given us the opportunity to film in places they wouldn’t normally allow. We have to be really careful not to use certain lights, but it was more difficult using film because you need more light. Now, with digital, you can almost use natural light. It’s less complicated.”
Medici: Masters of Florence – The Magnificent is due to air on Rai next year, with Netflix also carrying the series around the world. A third season is already in the works, adds Spotnitz, who teases: “The saga continues.”
DQ visits Big Light Productions to see a writers room in practice as executive producer Frank Spotnitz works on a second season of Ransom.
Imagine a writers room and you may well picture several people sitting around a big table, pens in hand and plenty of coffee within arm’s reach.
And on a visit to the offices of London-based Big Light Productions, DQ finds that isn’t far from the truth. In a fifth-floor room with a view across the city, three large desks have been pushed together and are covered with notepads and sheets of paper, laptops, pens, bottles of water and bowls filled with grapes, nuts and other treats.
Around the desks sit eight people – six writers and two script editors – who are in early development mapping out episodes for a potential second season of hostage drama Ransom. Created by David Vainola and Big Light CEO Frank Spotnitz, the series follows crisis and hostage negotiator Eric Beaumont (played by Luke Roberts), whose team is brought in to save lives when no one else can.
Season one debuted on CBS in the US and Canada’s Global TV on January 1 and will also air on Germany’s RTL and TF1 in France. All four networks coproduced the series, which is produced by Big Light, distributor Entertainment One, Sienna Films and Wildcat Productions.
Inside the writers room where work has been underway on season two since the beginning of the year, four cork boards are covered with notecards, each marked out with a different plot point or scene. Around the walls, there is memorabilia relating to previous Big Light series as well as shows Spotnitz has worked on himself. Posters from The X-Files, Hunted and The Man in the High Castle can be seen alongside a clapperboard from the set of Medici: Masters of Florence. Pictures of the Ransom cast are stuck to another wall.
As DQ pulls up a chair to sit in on the ongoing discussion, executive producer Spotnitz takes his place at the head of the table to listen to the latest episode outline. Whether leaning back with his arms folded or sitting forward to emphasise a point, the former X-Files showrunner wastes no time in offering notes as the episode is dissected, or leading discussions on character motivations and movements.
On several occasions he refers to movies to illustrate a point he is trying to make, and continually takes the writing team back to the beginning of the episode to iron out any wrinkles in the plotting.
Spotnitz has long championed writers rooms outside the US and describes the room at Big Light as a hybrid of UK and US production systems, using script editors to help guide the writing process in a way a showrunner might across the Atlantic. “I do think writers rooms are getting more traction outside the US,” he tells DQ later. “It won’t work for all shows. Really, you need eight or 10 episodes to even make it worthwhile. But with a certain number of shows, if they’re needed in a certain period of time, it’s just faster and I do think it’s better. The quality’s higher when you have all these people interrogating every beat of the story. They argue but it’s good because if you can survive that process, you have your whole story worked out and you go to the script process feeling really confident.”
Spotnitz jumps in and out of the room as his schedule permits – he’s also overseeing production of Canadian series The Indian Detective in South Africa and season two of aforementioned Italian historical drama Medici – leaving the other writers to get on with the task at hand in his absence.
“They’ve worked out a lot of it and then they tell me the story, and in a perfect world I’d say, ‘Great, go write it’ – but that rarely happens,” he admits. “Usually I go, ‘What about this and what about that?’ We talk about it, I’ll have read the story outlines that have been sent to broadcasters. There’s a lot of formal steps you have to go through because we have to please our studio and the broadcasters.
“But after season one, we know our show better and what worked well; we know our actors better and their strengths and chemistry. That’s one of the joys of doing television – you keep doing it, you don’t just do a movie and it’s over. We can learn and refine and do things we didn’t do before.”
In the room, it’s also clear that Spotnitz isn’t just thinking about the story. He might be imagining the budget total rocketing up when different settings are discussed for a particular scene, before suggesting the action be kept in a previous location.
“When I first started doing this, I remember thinking, ‘this sucks’ because we had to go back to an old location. But we’ve only got 10 days to shoot an episode and we can’t have 15 locations,” he says. “We’ve got to be practical. It forces you to simplify your storytelling and that’s actually really good. It’s hard to be simple but it’s better to be simple. So I’ve come to not resent it at all and to actually like it. The few times I’ve done episodes when I didn’t simplify things and I insisted we did all this production stuff, it hasn’t been better. There’s an economy to it that the audience responds to.”
The Ransom writers room is also notable for two of the scribes taking part – Bo Poraj and Susie Farrell – who were invited to join the team as the winners of a shadow writing scheme launched by Big Light and Creative Skillset, which works with the UK’s screen-based creative media industries to develop new talent.
Actor-turned-writer Poraj has worked on British soaps including EastEnders and Doctors, and the writers room experience offered a big step towards high-end drama that isn’t often available. “Getting your own stuff on screen is such a lottery,” he says. “Unless you get that break, it’s very hard. So hopefully a scheme like this is win-win because it gives us that development opportunity and also gives Big Light a potential talent pool to draw from in the future.”
Poraj admits the process isn’t perfect, with hours of discussion often leading to dead ends that serve no use to the final script. “There have been days where it felt like we didn’t make any progress at all,” he says, “but sometimes you feel like that and then at the end of the day, you touch on something that fixes the whole problem and you realise it was worth spending five hours meandering around the subject.”
And despite the downsides to using a writers room, including the increased cost of keeping several writers in place across many weeks, Poraj suggests its something the UK drama industry should do more often.
“I know it’s more expensive but when you think of production budgets, as a percentage of that budget, without a decent script, you’ve got nothing,” he says. “Even the best director and the best actors aren’t going to make it compelling viewing. It seems to be a fairly expedient policy to not invest more time in script development. I hope we will move more towards that model in the UK. Collaborating can be much more fun as well. You get an idea for a script and you get to run it past seven smart people – it can only make it better, can’t it?”
Over the last seven years, Big Light has brought around 60 writers through its doors, having established writers rooms on every show it produces. Spotnitz believes it’s a natural opportunity to train new writers.
“In the UK it’s very challenging. Broadcasters tend to buy drama from established writers – and if you’re not one of those established writers, it’s very hard to get your show commissioned,” he explains. “But drama is growing because of things like Netflix, Amazon and international coproductions. We need people who are trained to work collaboratively, who are comfortable sitting in that room batting around ideas and talking with other writers. Younger writers are really eager. They have watched American television and they’re not intimidated by it. They don’t feel like a writer must sit by themselves in a shed and write, they’re open to coming in and it’s fun. You laugh and make friends and go for drinks. It’s more fun than sitting by yourself with your computer.”
Kaye Elliott, programme lead for Creative Skillset’s High End TV (HETV) Council, adds: “The scheme provides a fantastic and unique opportunity for writers to learn about the process of working in a writing team for HETV. Creative Skillset is proud to support such an excellent initiative and encourages the development of more UK writers rooms to give writers more opportunities to further progress their skills and build their networks.”
Spotnitz concludes that ultimately, whatever the writing process used, there is no perfect story. “You get to the point where people say, ‘I enjoyed that,’ and that’s success,” he says. “There’s no true success, and perfection is not achievable. You’ll never get there. But that’s why this is an interesting job. You’ll never master this, you’ll never get bored because it’s impossible to say, ‘I’ve got this.’ Every story is so unique and different with different variables, it’s like a new puzzle to put together.”
Dustin Hoffman and Richard Madden are father and son in Medici: Masters of Florence, the story of one family’s rise from simple merchants to power brokers in Renaissance Italy.
When Frank Spotnitz was looking for an actor to portray the head of one of the most famous families in Italian history, the seasoned showrunner sought a screen legend who had enough gravitas to carry the role.
So when Dustin Hoffman agreed to play Giovanni de Medici, the writer was understandably excited.
“He was amazing – I’ve grown up my whole life watching him, so I can’t believe we get to have him,” Spotnitz says. “I was so nervous when I spoke to him on the phone the first time!
“We needed someone to present both the hardness and the humanity of this character. There aren’t many people in the world who have that. And Dustin’s such a brilliant actor with such presence. It was a bit unreal having him there.”
Hoffman heads the cast in Medici: Masters of Florence, which charts the family’s rise from simple merchants to power brokers in 15th century Florence.
As the family’s influence sets off an economic and cultural revolution, patriarch Giovanni de Medici (Hoffman) is murdered in mysterious circumstances. His sons, Cosimo (Richard Madden) and Lorenzo (Stuart Martin) are then forced to confront a range of enemies plotting to oust the Medici from power.
The series, produced by Lux Vide and Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions, receives its world premiere in the Tuscan city next Friday before it airs on Italian pubcaster Rai. A second season has already been commissioned.
Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle, The X-Files) and co-creator Nicolas Meyer (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) have a long-standing relationship and the former immediately thought of his sometime collaborator when the chance to dramatise the Medici was first proposed.
“Lux Vide, approached me two years ago and said they were going to make a show about the Medici,” Spotnitz recalls. “They had a script, which they weren’t happy with, but they thought the show had huge potential. They wanted the best locations, the best costume designer, the best production designer, everything. I said it sounds good to me!”
And the producers were good to their word, particularly when it came to locations. Medici: Masters of Florence was shot entirely in original locations, adding a layer of authenticity to the story, which blends elements of political thriller and murder mystery with a family saga.
“There’s some CGI in the show but not much,” Spotnitz reveals. “We had an amazing production designer who knew everything about the 15th century. So we drove all around these medieval villages in Tuscany. It’s just amazing how much is unchanged. You just have to take down the signs and get rid of some cars and it’s like you’re in the past.
“And the access Lux Vide was able to get… I had the mayor of Florence showing me around the Palazzo Vecchio, seeing all the rooms and the cell where Cosimo really was imprisoned. And we got to shoot in the real cathedral in Florence. It was astonishing. We’re used to seeing period drama like this where you shoot in Romania or Hungary or Bulgaria – some place that’s less expensive. So to actually be able to shoot Italy for Italy is quite extraordinary.”
Filming in the Tuscan countryside did have an impact on the show’s shooting schedule, however, as scenes from all eight episodes were shot based on the production’s location. Having director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan take charge of the entire first season added extra continuity to the style and tone of the series.
As Spotnitz explains: “It really had to be one director because of the way we were shooting. We’d go to Montepulciano and we’d shoot all the scenes from all eight episodes there, and then we’d move to Pienza, so you couldn’t divide it all up between different directors. It would have been impossible. It’s quite a jigsaw puzzle.
“The show has a fairly classical style a la The Godfather. It has the lustre of The Godfather but with the beauty of Italy and the colours of the Renaissance. But for me, Sergio’s real gift is with actors. I’ve never seen actors respond better to a director than to him. I remember the first day when Dustin Hoffman was in Rome and we rehearsed and he said to him, ‘You’re the best kind of director for an actor,’ because he’s very good at listening to actors and guiding them and making them feel understood.”
Spotnitz hadn’t previously been interested in working on a historical drama but once the story was stripped down, it was a tale of two brothers searching for the person who murdered their father that stood out to him.
The fact that that the truth behind Giovanni de Medici’s death is unknown also meant Spotnitz and Meyer could use history to their advantage.
“We have taken a few liberties here and there [with historical accuracy] but the truth is there’s an awful lot that’s not known,” he says. “For instance, there’s not a lot written about Cosimo’s wife, Contessina [played by Annabel Scholey], so we were trying to connect the dots, trying to imagine the human being who did these things. I think we were fairly faithful to the facts, but you realise when you write one of these things how much of it is an interpretation.
“[The Medici] were trying to change the world. They were making money by providing credit and trade to the common man and it created social mobility and an opportunity for people to better themselves, and that was radical. It felt like a very relevant issue for today.”
The story of the Medici was particularly personal to Lux Vide heads Luca and Mathilda Bernabei, whose father was born in Florence. Momentum behind Italian drama has been building, with shows such as Gomorrah winning acclaim on the international stage, and Luca Bernabei says Medici grew from his ambition to create a series that spoke about the creation of modern Italy.
Spotnitz was then the key to turning a historical story into a contemporary murder mystery.
“He gave us this wonderful way of writing that was able to bring history alive,” he says. “But we were giving him the possibility to shoot in the real places where the story actually took place. We were shooting where the Medici lived instead of in a back lot in Bulgaria or wherever. That’s what makes it different from all the other Italian shows.
“Even the costumes, the concept was they were bankers so we gave the men a banker style – black, grey, blue. It’s very contemporary, like [styles seen in] the City of London. For the women, we used rigid geometry inspired by the greatest fashion designers. We tried to avoid ‘museum’ costumes in order to bring the show to life.”
The decision to produce Medici in English was made early on in order to broaden the show’s reach. “From the beginning they knew they wanted it to be in English,” Spotnitz says of the producers. “You reach a very small audience with Italian drama. Even with the most successful Italian drama – Gommorah, Inspector Montalbano – there’s only a certain number of people in the world who are willing to watch a show in a subtitled format and you just reach a huge audience with English. So they knew from the beginning it would be in English and they would try to get a first-class cast.”
Bernabei adds that the challenge for Medici, and Italian drama as a whole, is to bridge the gap to UK and US dramas, which often have a budget many times larger than those filmed in mainland Europe.
“Our challenge was to show we can make a really international product, not something local, not regional,” he continues. “But momentum in Italy is building because of Gomorrah, The Young Pope and now Medici. So this is a new era for our production. There are three or four producers in Italy that are able to produce international drama. It is changing our business. Producers are able to collect more money in the market.
“This is also [distributor] Wild Bunch’s first TV project, so it was a wonderful combination of a company like ours specialising in television working with a company like them that specialises in cinema. It’s very interesting because we’re different but similar and we both love a challenge. We were talking the same language and that was wonderful.”
Work is now well underway on season two, with production due to begin by the end of the year. The story will focus on Lorenzo the Magnificent, one of the most powerful statesmen in Renaissance Italy and Cosimo de Medici’s grandson.
“It’s a family saga, it’s a murder mystery and it’s a political thriller – it’s all of those things,” Spotnitz says of the show. “The Medici were who Machiavelli wrote about. They’re really good at manipulating politics but the story is very much rooted in the family.”
He adds: “It’s such an incredible time in television. Yes, it’s amazing in the US with this explosion of drama, but in Europe, it’s a different story. Europe has been so underserved for so long and people have been deprived of opportunity for so long, primarily because the US wouldn’t buy European drama. That’s changing, and now there’s huge appetite and they’re looking for ways to buy it, which is great for Europeans because it creates opportunities to make these large-scale shows that compete with the best of US drama.”
Series like War And Peace, Borgia and Versailles have proved that there is a global market for lavish period dramas originated in Europe. And now Medici: Masters of Florence, featuring Dustin Hoffman, looks set to join this list of successful shows.
Produced by Lux Vide in collaboration with Big Light Productions and Wild Bunch, the show was commissioned by Rai in Italy and is distributed internationally by Wild Bunch TV (except in the US, where WME is handling sales).
This week, Wild Bunch announced a slew of Medici sales to SFR/Altice Group (France, French-speaking Belgium, Luxembourg), Sky (Germany), SBS (Australia), eOne (New Zealand), Sony Pictures Television (Latin America), DBS (Israel), VRT (Belgium), Canal+ (Poland), LRT (Lithuania), RTV (Slovenia), RTVS (Slovakia), Canal+ Overseas (French-speaking Africa), Hulu (Japan), Georgian Public 2 Broadcast and BTV (Bulgaria). This follows a previous sale by Lux Vide to Telefonica/Movistar+ (Spain) and news of a second series commission by Rai.
20 years ago, shows like these tended to end up ponderous and stilted, earning the ‘Europudding’ epithet. The main problem was that too many partners had a say in the creative direction and casting. These days, backers have learned to put greater faith in the hands of the storytellers – and have benefited as a result. In Medici’s case, the series is written by Frank Spotnitz, whose credits include series like The X-Files and The Man in the High Castle, and Nicholas Meyer (Houdini, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan).
Medici is set in 15th-century Florence, the city that will host its world premiere on October 14. The eight-part show features Dustin Hoffman as Giovanni de’ Medici, the patriarch of the Medici family who is found dead in mysterious circumstances. His sons, Cosimo (Richard Madden) and Lorenzo (Stuart Martin), are forced to face a range of enemies plotting to oust the Medici from power. Shot entirely in Tuscany, the series depicts the foundations of one of the most profound financial, artistic and scientific awakenings the world has ever known: the Renaissance.
More good news for the European production business this week is the news that RVK Studios, Icelandic national broadcaster RUV and Dynamic Television have announced that Baltasar Kormákur’s Icelandic crime series Trapped has been renewed for a second season. Widely praised by critics, the series attracted a strong audience during its 10-episode run earlier this year. In the UK, the series premiere on BBC4 reached more than 1.2 million viewers. In France, episodes one and two attracted more than 5.7 million viewers on France 2. Audiences averaged more than 500,000 viewers for NRK Norway, while 86% of television-owning homes in Iceland tuned in. The show is also soon to air on ZDF in Germany.
Based on an original idea by Kormákur, Trapped tells the story of a troubled cop investigating a grisly murder when his small Icelandic town is hit by a powerful blizzard, trapping the villagers and most likely the killer in the town. Season two, slated to air in autumn 2018, will follow the same lead characters as they examine an even more complex and challenging murder case. “I am so excited to get to assemble this great group of talent again,” said Kormákur. “This story is far from over. There is a lot more to come, both story-wise and also concerning our lead characters. I guess we all want to get to know them a little bit better.”
Klaus Zimmermann, managing partner of Dynamic Television, which distributes the show, said: “Audiences overwhelmingly responded strongly to the thrilling drama and powerful characters and they will find the next season every bit as gripping.” Trapped stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who has also appeared in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and True Detective. It is written by Sigurjón Kjartansson and Clive Bradley.
We’ve written a lot in the last year or two about talent being parachuted into TV drama from film, theatre and publishing. This week, we were reminded of another source of inspiration, following the news that Carnival Films is developing a drama based on Alex Gibney’s feature-length documentary Zero Days, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February.
Written and directed by Gibney, Zero Days is a documentary thriller about warfare in an arena without rules – the world of cyber war. The film tells the story of Stuxnet, a self-replicating computer malware that the US and Israel unleashed to destroy a key part of an Iranian nuclear facility, and which ultimately spread beyond its intended target. It’s a comprehensive account of how a clandestine mission hatched by two allies with clashing agendas opened forever the Pandora’s Box of cyber warfare.
The drama (whose working title is Stuxnet) will be written by Stephen Schiff, who has been a writer/producer on FX’s acclaimed scripted series The Americans since the second season. Gibney directs and will also produce alongside Marc Shmuger. Nigel Marchant, David O’Donoghue and Gareth Neame are exec producing for Carnival. Participant Media will executive produce while NBC Universal International will distribute the series.
Film buffs in the audience will note that all three of the above scripted series are directed by talent that is better known for feature-film work. In addition to Gibney and Kormákur, Medici is directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzani – whose credits include Catch Me If You Can, Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report.
Continuing with this theme, SVoD platform Netflix is partnering with feted director Spike Lee on a drama based on his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It. The show will follow a Brooklyn-based artist who juggles her time between her friends, job and three lovers. Lee will direct all 10 episodes of the show, which was initially in development with premium pay TV network Showtime.
Looking beyond the usual suspects in the TV drama business, Keshet International (KI) has picked up global distribution rights to Croatian crime drama The Paper and will be promoting it at the Mipcom market in Cannes next month. The 12×50′ show, produced by Croatia’s Drugi Plan, is set in the offices of a newspaper and explores political corruption, power struggles, crime and betrayal.
Commenting on the news, KI acquisitions chief Sebastian Burkhardt talked up the growing market for non-English-language drama: “With the current opportunities out there for non-English-speaking series, and our experience with them, we are confident that The Paper will find its audience outside of Croatia.”
Finally, another high-profile US series has bit the dust after just one season. Showtime has announced that Cameron Crowe’s Roadies will not return, following poor ratings (echoing the story with Vinyl at HBO). Crowe said: “Thanks to Showtime and [exec producer] JJ Abrams for the opportunity to make the one and only season of Roadies. My mind is still spinning from the giddy highs of working with this epic cast and crew. Though we could tell a thousand more stories, this run ends with a complete 10-hour tale of music and love. Like a song that slips under your skin, or a lyric that keeps speaking to you, we hope the spell of Roadies lingers. It was a life-changing experience for all of us.”