Frank Spotnitz may be best knows as one of the creative minds behind the iconic series The X-Files, but he’s been very busy these days as well with his involvement in the fabulous award-winning Amazon Prime series Man in the High Castle (season two premieres December 16), and his latest project, the new Netflix Series Medici: Masters of Florence, which premieres December 9.
Shot on location in Italy and set during the Italian Renaissance, Medici features the great Dustin Hoffman as influential Giovanni de Medici and Game of Thrones‘ star Richard Madden as his son Cosimo. Mr. Spotnitz took a few moments from his busy schedule to talk to Blogcritics about his new series.
Hi Frank. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I’m a big fan, going all the way back to The X-Files! Your newest project Medici: Masters of Florence premieres Friday (December 9) on Netflix. Can you tell my readers a little bit about the series?
This is a series about one of the most important families in the history of western civilization. The Medici not only helped fund the Renaissance in the 15th Century, but their massive economic power as bankers to the pope changed the way people lived, creating economic opportunity for ordinary people when previously there was none. This series deals with all of that, but at its heart it’s a family saga, a love story and a murder mystery about a son who has to sacrifice his dreams in order to fulfill the dreams of his father.
Why this project? Why the Renaissance?
I was approached by a lovely man named Luca Bernabei at Lux Vide Productions in Rome, who said how personally meaningful this story was to him and his father, Ettore, who was one of the giants of post-war Italian television. He said he intended to bring the very best of Italian talent to the project and that we would shoot in the real locations in Tuscany and Florence. The ambition of it appealed to me enormously. And when I started reading and educating myself about the Medici, I saw there was a very timely and important story to tell about the sacrifices it took to build the civilization we all enjoy today. Luca’s father Ettore passed away shortly before the series premiered on Italian television, but he did get it to see it made.
Renaissance Italy: Birthplace of the Renaissance. One of the richest cultural eras in the history of Western Civilization: art, writing, music. The landscape for a fictional world is expansive. I love that you’ve decided to focus on the mystery of Giovanni’s death to frame the telling. Could you elaborate on why this starting point and where it takes you for the larger narrative?
My co-writer, Nicholas Meyer, and I wanted to find a way to make this story appeal to everyone. As much as we were interested in the Medici and the Renaissance, we assumed that most of our audience would not be, in fact. So creating a murder mystery around Giovanni’s death immediately gave the story an urgency, threat and personal dimension for his two sons, Cosimo and Lorenzo. And it gave us very simple way for the audience to understand who the Medici were – all we had to do was look at the suspects in Giovanni’s death to understand what they stood for.
Speaking of Giovanni, I’m excited that Dustin Hoffman is filling that role. It’s an unlikely choice. Why Dustin, and how did you get him interested in the role?
Well, as I said Luca’s ambition for this project was enormous from the outset. When he asked me who my first choice was for Giovanni, I said Dustin Hoffman, not really dreaming he’d be interested or available. But we sent him the scripts and, much to our delight, he responded positively. I had a brief call with him to discuss the part, and then a few months later he was on a plane to Rome. It is hard to convincingly portray one of the most important men in the history of Western civilization, and I think Dustin not only gives it that gravitas because of his own stature as an actor, but because of the intellectual and emotional intelligence with which he so clearly imbues the character.
I haven’t yet screened the series, but I know the story will tell the rise of Giovanni’s son Cosimo as he rises in power and influence in Florence. Cosimo is often called the mastermind of the Renaissance. But the series depicts his early years post-Giovanni. How do you tell his story during season one of the series?
We were looking for a way to make us understand why Cosimo became one of the architects of the Renaissance. And so we imagined this trip to Rome as a young man, where the treasures of ancient Rome and the rediscovery of them by Botticelli was already underway. The idea that Cosimo always wanted to be an artist, but had to sacrifice his own dreams in order to fulfill his father’s ambitions for the family, which take generations upon generations to realize. Later, when he completes the Duomo, you understand this is his way of not only serving the bank and Florence, but expressing his own hopes for what he might achieve in his life.
Richard Madden is playing Cosimo. Can you tell me how Richard became attached to the project?
I think, like Dustin, he simply responded to the part. And of course it is a fantastic part to play. Richard brings an enormous intelligence and depth to the role. I think he plays it with great subtlety and nuance. It’s really an astonishing performance.
Several years ago, Showtime also plunged into this era with The Borgias. The Medici and the Borgias often clashed. Will this tension enter into the Medici series storyline?
Our first season takes place several decades before the era of Cesare Borgia, but the Medici become bankers to the Pope, so we absolutely do deal with the politics of that. But so much of the politics of this series are timeless and things people are still arguing about today.
The X-Files, The Man in a High Castle, etc. are both mystery-thrillers with strong political overtones. Is this how you see Medici, despite the lavish, historical setting?
Absolutely, this is a murder mystery, a family saga and a very powerful love story. And like The X-Files and The Man in the High Castle, it has very powerful themes, in this case about sacrifice and the bad things people are called upon to do in order to achieve good.
I understand you’ve taken immense care in depicting the setting and story as realistically as possible, from the costumes to the settings. Man in the High Castle is a recent example of the care you take in the production—the details that ground a fictional (or fictionalized) story in authenticity. Can you talk about the production design: sets, costumes, etc. that will put viewers into the midst of Florence?
We had the immense good fortune of actually being able to shoot in the real locations in Tuscany and Florence. That gives the series a visual splendor and authenticity that is extremely rare, as often even big-budget feature films will go to other countries in Eastern Europe for shooting in order to minimize costs. But we have taken conscious efforts in other areas to make the show feel immediate and more accessible to modern audiences. The costumes, for instance, which I think are absolutely magnificent. Our designer, Alessandro Lai, did enormous research into the costumes of the period, but then set about subtly modernizing them, both in the cut of the clothes and the fabrics they use. They feel true to the period, but they have an appeal to modern sensibilities that makes it easier for the audience to connect to this period. We felt that was very important in every aspect of the production.
Music provides atmosphere, tone, and emotion. How do you use music in the series? Who’s your composer? Will the music be original, or will you use music from the period (or both)?
We had an incredibly gifted composer in Paolo Buonvino, and I think his score both elevates and deepens the drama immeasurably. Here, too, we wanted music that felt true to the period, but also felt immediate and modern. So he mixes very traditional and orchestral elements, religious music and electronica in a way that is new and startling, yet feels absolutely right. It’s a very original and thrilling approach.
Where will future seasons of Medici take you? Do you have an overall series arc in mind?
We are already well into writing Season 2, which charts the rise of Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent. In many ways, it’s a more obviously dramatic period in the Medici saga. The series could go on for sometime after that, but I would hope to at least do a Season 3, that would take us to the end of Lorenzo’s life.
The series will premiere here on Netflix this week, giving viewers the entire season in one shot. It gives viewers an opportunity to watch the series end-to-end over a short period, much like the experience of reading (or listening to) an novel. This is your second (?) series that releases everything in one shot (at least for a season), the first being The Man in the High Castle (which I cannot wait to screen later today!). Do you like this new model? Or do you prefer the one episode-per-week reveal of a season?
I really like both models! I started my career in the traditional episodic format of network television on The X-Files, and it’s a kind of storytelling that I still love. In fact, my new series Ransom, which debuts on CBS on New Year’s Day, is told this way. But it’s also hugely rewarding to be able to tell a story that moves forward in time, and where characters are only going to experience that moment in their lives once, and then the narrative changes irretrievably in the next episode. There are so many serialized shows on television these days, though. It amazes me that there seems to be an inexhaustible appetite for more!
Medici: Masters of Florence premieres on Netflix Friday, December 9.