Tag Archives: Elena Ferrante

Making Friend

L’Amica Geniale (My Brilliant Friend) is one of the most eagerly awaited dramas of the year. Director Saverio Costanzo tells DQ how he steered the ambitious period drama, based on Elena Ferrante’s novel, for Italian broadcaster Rai and US cable network HBO.

Since the project was first announced in February 2016, anticipation has been building for L’Amica Geniale (My Brilliant Friend). Not only does it mark the continuance of Italian broadcaster Rai’s expansive drama ambitions, it is also a rare example of a foreign-language series commissioned by US cable network HBO. Then there’s the fact it is based on the bestselling novel by Elena Ferrante, the mysterious Italian novelist operating under a pseudonym.

Interestingly, Ferrante has been a key member of the development team behind the series, corresponding with director Saverio Costanzo by email. She is also listed as a writer on the first four episodes, alongside Costanzo, Francesco Piccolo and Laura Paolucci.

Based on the first book in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quadrilogy, the story opens with Elena Greco (aka Lenù) who, after discovering her long-time best friend has disappeared without a trace, starts to write the story of their friendship. From her first meeting with Raffaella Cerullo, known as Lila, at school in 1950, she goes on to cover more than 60 years of their lives, describing Lila as both her best friend and worst enemy.

Set in Naples, the Italian-language series stars Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti as the young versions of Lenù and Lila, while Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace play teenage the pair in their teens.

My Brilliant Friend is an HBO-Rai Fiction and TimVision series, produced by Wildside and Fandango. The producers are Lorenzo Mieli and Mario Gianani for Wildside and Domenico Procacci for Fandango, in coproduction with Umedia. Fremantle is the distributor.

The series launches on HBO this Sunday and on Italian streamer TimVision on November 27.

Here, Costanzo, director of all eight episodes, tells DQ how the series came together and discusses the challenges of casting more than 150 actors and 5,000 extras and filming across southern Italy on vast sets totalling 215,000 sq ft.

Director Saverio Costanzo pictured with young actor Ludovica Nasti during filming

How did you first join the project?
I was contacted by the publishing house because, among other suggestions, Elena Ferrante mentioned my name. I didn’t search out this beautiful story; it was looking for me. I feel very fortunate.

What was the appeal of directing the series?
Ferrante’s story possesses the fundamental features for a film narrated in episodes: great characters who are facing a deep and exciting dramatic reality; plot twists that are never announced, but almost invisible, which film enlarges like a magnifying glass, building the tale of a life piece by piece; and a perfect synthesis of the epic and the tragic.

What are your thoughts on Elena Ferrante’s novel? What were the core elements needed in the series?
The real challenge was to succeed in narrating the epic story of a friendship. Friendship is an exchange of love where the boundaries between rights and duties are much more blurred compared with the love between a couple or the love of one’s children. It’s a free exchange and a much more lively one, where roles are mixed together and overlapping. The friendship between Lila and Lenù is a romantic dance that occasionally takes on the form of a very violent struggle. It’s two bodies chasing each other and overlapping, but stubbornly following the same rhythm, with the shared purpose of becoming complete persons, one by means of the other.

How involved were you in the adaptation process?
I wrote the first three episodes in one go, following the narration of the original text. Then, following a blueprint that the author agreed with and accepted, we wrote the rest of the scripts together with the screenwriters.

What was your experience working with Ferrante and having the original author so involved in the adaptation?
She supported and helped us whenever the turns the screenplays were taking didn’t agree with the book. Every so often, she worked on some original dialogue in an extraordinarily convincing way. She has an impressive talent for cinematic writing, a sense of scene that is not self-evident for someone writing literature.

My Brilliant Friend tells the story of an epic friendship

What is your directing style? How did you bring that to this production?
Provided that my approach [as a director] remains the same, I adapt my style each time to the story of the film I am making, to the needs of the story I am telling. In the case of My Brilliant Friend, I was thinking of a classical story where the camera would be almost invisible. The director’s ego, or the director’s character, should never make an appearance in the scene, but rather should let the narration of the story be as fluid as possible. This act of mimesis was the most difficult to achieve.

How did you use the book to inform your direction?
I let myself be inspired by the literary weight of the original text. I concentrated on setting up the scenes, on the nuances of the acting and on the picture, so that every shot could include the same tension and fullness that makes the pages of the book come alive.

How did you work with the cast, both before and during production? What kind of performances did you look for?
I’m always looking for authenticity, depth and gravitas. The greatest risk was to become generic and focused on motives. We engaged in a long period of rehearsals with the little girls in order to give them a strong awareness of the story and characters. We tried and retried until, once they arrived on the set, they could enjoy the adventure of the story with a strong awareness of who Lila and Elena are. We managed to do an even more specific job with the teenage girls. For six months, they were working every day in a workshop where all of the cast rehearsed the scenes. In this way, they learned to use their voices, bodies and emotions, while at the same time we built a strong and consistent working team. I’m very proud of all of them.

Tell us about casting the lead actors.
We held open casting sessions; thousands of children came. We tried out more than 9,000 people to find the four protagonists. We were helped by the city of Naples, which is like an open-air theatre: everyone is capable of playing a part there, everyone is a great actor. But we were lucky to have such developed characters that were well described by the author. For this reason, once we found ourselves in front of the protagonists, we understood immediately that they were the ones for us. When what you’re looking for is clear to you, it’s much easier to find it.

Margherita Mazzucco as the teenage version of Elena

What kind of Naples is presented in the series? Where did you film and how did you use real locations and studio sets?
Most of the locations were reconstructed in the studio. It was impossible to film in Naples at the real sites, because the city has changed too much since the 1950s. We reconstructed the neighbourhood 20km away from Naples, basing it on a community in the outskirts that the author started from in order to imagine her neighbourhood. We never tried to be only literal, though. We started out from a real piece of data and adapted it to our dramatic needs. Reconstruction added great value: in cinema, a cardboard wall is often more real than a cement one – an imagined city, rather than a real one.

How did you balance working for Rai, TimVision and HBO? Did they have specific demands or needs for their audiences?
Miraculously, all the networks involved in the production had a strong artistic vision. Nowadays, television series are showing they can elevate their discourse to the same level as film. To give you an example, in our first meeting with the team from HBO, the very first question that they asked me was whether the series would be performed in Neapolitan dialect. I said yes, but I asked why on Earth this was so important to them, since their audience would have to read the subtitles anyway, and they answered that it was because they wanted an authentic piece of work. From that point on, it was a wonderfully shared job with the same artistic purpose.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, either in development or production?
When you’re directing a series, it takes many weeks of work. In the case of My Brilliant Friend, there were 29 of them, and the hardest part was staying concentrated and focused for that long. Furthermore, our backdrop had to seem ‘lived in’ each time, and even a simple dialogue scene with two people involved at least 200 extras. Keeping the magnitude and the ambition of the project under control was important.

How does the series stand out against the huge number of series being made around the world?
I wouldn’t know. I tried to maintain a classic linear form of narration. Maybe My Brilliant Friend is simpler than other series that try out more original forms of narration, but maybe it’s exactly this timeless aspect that makes it distinct and, hopefully, attractive.

What are your plans for making a second season based on the next Ferrante novel?
If I don’t get fired, I’ll be happy to finish the entire tetralogy.

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Fiction favourites

Contemporary novelists have featured prominently in our last couple of columns. So in this week’s Writers Room, we take a look at some of the TV industry’s favourite authors when it comes to adapting novels for the small screen.

The only criterion for this list is that the writer is still alive, so that rules out anything involving popular sources such as Henning Mankell, Michael Crichton or Philip K Dick.

George RR Martin
George RR Martin

George RR Martin is the genius who gave us Game of Thrones, a phenomenal work of fantasy that spawned the hit HBO series of the same name. This week it was announced that he is now working with Universal Cable Productions on Wild Cards, a series that is based on another of his mythological worlds. On his personal blog, Martin described the project as “a series of interlocking books, graphic novels, games… but most of all it is a universe, as large and diverse and exciting as the comic book universes of Marvel and DC (though somewhat grittier, and considerably more realistic and more consistent), with an enormous cast of characters.”

Finding You
Finding You

Marc Levy battles it out with Guillaume Musso for the title of best-selling French author (though Levy is currently number one in terms of international sales). Both have had their novels adapted into films but so far only Levy has seen one of his novels adapted for the small screen. The title in question was Finding You, a 2001 work that was adapted for M6 in 2007. The French market’s recent renaissance in TV drama might lead to more book-to-TV adaptations for French authors.

Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel published her first novel in 1985 but it was 2009’s Wolf Hall that really established her in the front rank of contemporary novelists. This book, and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies, was then transformed into an award-winning BBC miniseries. Mantel is currently working on the third book in the Wolf Hall trilogy, which is called The Mirror and the Light. Both her and the BBC are keen for this to be turned into a sequel to the Wolf Hall miniseries. In the meantime, the BBC is developing another Mantel novel called A Place of Greater Safety, which is set during the French Revolution.

The Last Kingdom
The Last Kingdom

Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series of novels was adapted for TV in the 1990s and was briefly revived in 2006/2008. All told, it led to 16 TV movie length productions –  all starring Sean Bean. That might have been the last we saw of Cornwell’s work on TV, but in 2015 the BBC and Carnival Films created The Last Kingdom, based on his Saxon Stories. The show has been recommissioned for a second season and has the potential to run for a while, given that Cornwell is just about to publish the 10th book in the series. Cornwell has also written novels about Arthurian Britain, the American Civil War and The Hundred Years War, so don’t rule out another epic TV adaptation from this prolific writer.

Beck
Beck

Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, from Sweden, are part of the rich tradition of Nordic crime writers that also includes Jo Nesbø, Stieg Larsson (who died in 2004) and Henning Mankell (who passed away in 2015). Their great creation is detective Martin Beck, the star of 10 novels written between 1965 and 1975 (the year Wahloo died, aged 48). The 10 Beck novels have been adapted numerous times for film and TV and have also spawned TV productions based on the central character. The most recent example was a series of eight TV films that aired on C More across 2015 and 2016. These were picked up by the BBC in the UK and rated pretty well. Sjowall is now 80.

zoo-cbs
Zoo

James Patterson, the world’s best-selling novelist, is working on a true-crime limited series with US cable network Investigation Discovery. However, his novels are also a regular source of inspiration for TV series. CBS’s Zoo, for example, is based on a 2012 novel by Patterson. His books have been used as the basis for TV and film productions since 1991 and include Women’s Murder Club, a series for ABC. In 2015, there was talk this show might be revived by USA Networks. Also on the cards is a CBS legal drama based on his novel Now You See Her. In 2015, another Patterson adaptation, For Justice, was piloted by CBS.

Mukul Deva has been described as India’s answer to Tom Clancy. A former army officer, he has written highly authentic military thrillers such as Lashkar, Salim Must Die, Blowback and Tanzeem. Given the strength of the Bollywood business in India, movie adaptations are most likely to be the first port of call for Deva’s books. Currently, there are plans for Lashkar to be turned into a film by Planman Motion Pictures. “Lashkar started getting offers from Bollywood within days of its release,” said HarperCollins India in a statement. “Deva is a very visual writer and his military background brings a lot of realism to his books. We had been waiting for a filmmaker with the right vision and drive and have full confidence that Planman will make a blockbuster movie.”

Elena Ferrante is a fascinating novelist who has written a number of acclaimed books. Despite being named one of the 100 most influential people on the planet by Time in 2016, no one knows who she is – since Ferrante is a pseudonym. There has been speculation that the author is Italian professor Marcella Marmo, though this has been denied. Two of Ferrante’s novels have been turned into films. However, the big news is that FremantleMedia-owned Wildside and Fandango Productions are turning Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels into a 32-part TV series.

Flügel der Liebe
Pilcher’s Flügel der Liebe

Rosamunde Pilcher, born in Cornwall in 1924, is a romance writer whose novels are very popular in Germany. Public broadcaster ZDF has responded to this with a huge number of TV adaptations of her work. Starting with Day of the Storm, ZDF has adapted more than 100 of her stories, usually as TV movies. Pilcher, whose works are mainly set in Devon and Cornwall, retired from writing in 2000, but she continues to be popular with German audiences. In fact, a German film crew was in St Ives last spring to film a new story – one of many regular trips German crews make to the UK. Some Pilcher productions are also available via Acorn Media.

Does The Night Manager prove that international coproductions are the way forward for UK drama?
The Night Manager

John Le Carré is not only a giant of contemporary fiction, he is also one of the most adapted novelists ever – possibly only outdone by horror maestro Stephen King. His novels have been made into films pretty consistently for the last 50 years. In TV, he had a purple patch from 1979 to 1991 but then went quiet. This year, however, he came back with a bang as The Night Manager became one of the year’s most talked-about dramas. Now, The Night Manager producer The Ink Factory is planning a TV version of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. To date, Le Carre’s film count is 10 and his TV series count is five. He has written 23 books, so there is plenty of potential for new stories (or updates of some of the older screen adaptations).

Nermin Bezman wrote bestselling novel Kurt Seyit ve Sura in 1992. A lavish period piece, it was transformed into a TV series for Star TV by Ay Yapim in 2014 and ran for two seasons. Turkey has a rich tradition of novelists, but the best-known living authors (Orhan Pamuk, Selcuk Altun, Elif Safak) are rarely adapted for TV. A key reason for this is that their work is often too politically sensitive for the tastes of Turkey’s TV censors. In general, Turkish broadcasters tend to turn to historical writers like Halit Ziya Usakligil for inspiration. Bezman has written a number of novels, including The Wings of my Mind and The Devil’s Failure.

Cloudstreet
Cloudstreet

Tim Winton burst onto the Australian writing scene in 1981 and has never looked back. Outside Australia, his reputation received a major boost when Dirt Music was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2001. However, he was already a major success at home thanks to his 1991 novel Cloudstreet, the story of two working-class families rebuilding their lives. Cloudstreet was turned into a TV miniseries in 2011, with Winton writing the script alongside Ellen Fontana. Winton’s children’s books, the Lockie Leonard series, was also adapted by Nine Network. More generally, Winton’s work is adapted for film (Shallows, Breath), though some of his works have also been made as operas.

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Walking on the Wildside: DQ hears from Young Pope producer

Italian producer Wildside is targeting high-end international drama with Jude Law-starrer The Young Pope and the adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Michael Pickard reports.

Since establishing a TV division in 2014, Wildside has become one of Italy’s top drama producers.

Most notably, the Rome-based company is responsible for the Italian version of Israeli hit format In Treatment, which starred Sergio Castellito, and thrilling political drama 1992, which drew comparisons to The Sopranos, The West Wing and House of Cards.

Next up is The Young Pope (pictured above), which tells the controversial story of the beginning of Pius XIII’s pontificate. Described as a complex and conflicted character, his conservatism borders on obscurantism, yet he is full of compassion towards the weak and poor. He is also a man of great power who is stubbornly resistant to the Vatican courtiers, unconcerned with the implications of his authority.

Jude Law stars as the pope, with Diane Keaton playing Sister Mary, a nun from the US who is now living in Vatican City.

The eight-part series, which comes from director Paulo Sorrentino, is produced by Wildside, Haut et Court (Les Revanants) and MediaPro for Sky Europe, HBO and Canal+ in France.

Lorenzo Mieli
Lorenzo Mieli

With the show now in post-production, Wildside MD Lorenzo Mieli, an executive producer on the series, tells DQ the project has been one of the most interesting of his career.

“Our aim was to create a true piece of art in the form of a TV drama,” he explains. “It was highly ambitious and it was tough but we are really happy about the result.”

Mieli describes Sorrentino’s writing and directing style as “a unique combination between irony and drama, with a very personal identity. Plus he has great technical skill in shooting and visualising immediately what he sees.”

He adds: “Everybody in Italy and the US and elsewhere truly believed in the project since the very early stages of development, and gave Paolo all the freedom he needed as a result.”

But with The Young Pope due to air later this year, Wildside has already identified its next project.

In February, it struck a deal with fellow Italian producer Fandango Productions to co-develop and coproduce adaptations of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet of novels.

The series portrays the gritty lives and friendship of Elena and Lila from childhood to motherhood, set against the social and political backdrop of 1950s Naples. The novels depict how the women’s relationship is shaped and often distorted over time by their social status, jealousy and tension amongst other female friendships, domestic violence and the changing conditions of women from marriage to motherhood.

The story will unfold over four eight-part seasons, with filming to take place in Italy.

“The huge success of the entire saga, both in Italy and worldwide, really aroused my interest,” Mieli says. “The last time an Italian novel was made such a fuss of outside of Italy was in the 1980s, with Umberto Eco’s Il nome della Rosa. In Ferrante’s case, we have a great description of 40 years of Italian history, which is a very good narrative material.

“Besides that, I really loved the architecture of those books – it’s compelling storytelling, plot-driven and accessible to everybody, and it’s literature in the purest sense of the word, in terms of going really deep into contradictory characters and depicting not just a story but an entire narrative world. These are the same elements on which contemporary high-end cable TV dramas are based. So I got in touch with Domenico Procacci from Fandango, who had already bought the rights, and everything went smoothly.”

No broadcasters have signed up for the series as yet, however, as development remains in-house.

Wildside's political drama 1992
Wildside’s political drama 1992

“Everybody in the US already knows Elena Ferrante after Domenico got the rights, so lots of broadcasters from all over the world have been very interested in the project,” Mieli notes. “What’s happening now is that we’re developing the project internally, as we always do, so we can come back and present the whole package with the creative team and talent attached.”

Wildside was formed in 2009 by Mieli, Mario Gianani, Marco Martani, Faust Brizzi and Saverio Costanzo after the merger of production companies Wilder and Offside. The creation of an international TV division came in 2014 at the same time as another division was established to focus on feature films and documentaries.

The new company’s international credentials were given a further boost last August, when FremantleMedia acquired a 62.5% stake in Wildside. FremantleMedia International will distribute The Last Pope.

Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO of FremantleMedia, said at the time: “This is a key strategic acquisition for FremantleMedia as we continue to strengthen our primetime scripted presence. Wildside is fast becoming one of Europe’s most sought-after drama producers and will complement our existing primetime drama businesses in the US, Germany, Scandinavia, The Netherlands, Australia and the UK. The team have an impressive track record of attracting world-class creative talent and delivering award-winning drama so I’m really excited that they are joining our family of production companies.”

For Mieli, the next year offers Wildside an opportunity to take further advantage of coproduction opportunities and utilise the partnerships now available within the FremantleMedia group.

“We’re pushing a lot on coproductions in order to give wider visibility to our talent and IP internationally and to attract foreign talent into our own drama arena,” he says. “Our aim for the next year is to establish the Wildside/Fremantle partnership as a leading player in the European film industry.”

And the expanding Italian TV market is providing plenty of opportunities for Wildside to win commissions. Future projects also include adaptations of Emanuele Carrere’s book Limonov and Niccolò Ammaniti’s Anna.

Describing the TV landscape in the country, Mieli says: “On free-to-air channels there are some established genres (family dramas, comedies and crime procedural) representing the mainstream trend. Additionally, inside that trend, there’s the possibility to innovate in order to create new sub-genres or hybrids. This was the case with Don’t Kill, an interesting experiment we did on RaiTre. The pay/cable the market is more fluid, and so are the options in terms of language. Plus, we tend to find a wider opening to international coproductions there.”

Yet it’s The Young Pope that Mieli thinks will showcase the new kind of European coproductions taking place across the continent.

“I believe The Young Pope will demonstrate that there’s something like a ‘European way’ to do great high-end dramas that can travel worldwide,” he says. “In the last few years in Italy, broadcasters such as Sky Italia (for which Wildside produced 1992) have been major drivers in developing contemporary dramas, allowing openness to innovative content. But this spreading of sophisticated stories on cable TV has also had great repercussions on free-to-air channels, which are searching for more original drama.”

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