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Simply Magnificent

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.

Actor Daniel Sharman: “I just had to research that time and my job was to do it justice”

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.

The new season is described by Bernabei as “completely different” from Medici: Masters of Florence

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.

Sharman’s new role follows his part in Fear the Walking Dead

“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.”

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Meet the Medici

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!

Frank Spotnitz
Frank Spotnitz

“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.

Dustin Hoffman
Dustin Hoffman is ‘amazing’ as Giovanni de Medici, says Spotnitz

“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.

Game of Thrones' Richard Madden (right) also stars
Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden (right) also stars

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.”

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European dramas get backing from buyers

Game of Thrones star Richard Madden in Medici: Masters of Florence
Game of Thrones star Richard Madden in Medici: Masters of Florence

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).

Trapped
Trapped will return for a second season

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.”

Zero Days
Zero Days examines cyber warfare

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.

The original She's Gotta Have It
The original She’s Gotta Have It

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.

Roadies has been cancelled by Showtime
Roadies has been cancelled by Showtime

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.”

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