Tom Fontana’s ‘Borgia’

10:47 PM PST 03/28/2011 by Scott Roxborough
Nicolai Pennestri/Atlantique/EOS

The small-screen vet pushes the envelope with a risky costume drama that arrives at MIPTV to go head-to-head with Showtime.

We’re shooting an incest rape scene today!” the director says, a bit too enthusiastically, as he sets up the next shot on the new historic drama series Borgia.

French actor Stanley Weber, all lechery and loathing as Juan Borgia, leers at his onscreen sister Lucrezia, played by Russian thesp Isolda Dychauk.

He then utters a line that’s disturbing even by pay-cable standards.

If you were expecting I, Claudius, you should have stayed home. Because Borgia is not your father’s costume drama.

Instead, this take on the notorious Borgia dynasty — the Renaissance family whose ruthlessness is thought to have inspired Machiavelli’s The Prince — is Europe’s attempt to do American-style must-see TV.

“Don’t want to miss a good rape,” jokes Borgia writer and showrunner Tom Fontana as he slips on the headphones to watch the scene on the flat-screen monitor. Fontana is the odd man out on the Borgia set. While the cast sashay by in their velvet finery, the creator of HBO’s prison drama Oz and writer-producer of Homicide: Life on the Street — with his gray Timberland sweatshirt, worn jeans and white low-top sneakers — looks ready to crack open a beer and enjoy the game.

“Just do the top of the scene again,” Fontana tells the crew. Then, responding to an AD’s comment: “But it should be mean and unsatisfying! That’s the point!”

To be clear, this is not The Borgias, the heavily promoted potboiler starring Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander. Strange as it seems, there are not one but two Borgia projects hitting the market: Fontana’s Borgia, which Beta Film is selling at MIPTV, and The Borgias, Showtime’s take on the same corrupt Italian family, directed by Oscar winner Neil Jordan.

“Both projects were in development, in parallel for years, and neither knew about the other,” Fontana says. “They were literally announced within a day of each other.”

Worried that two Borgia series would cannibalize the same audience, Fontana and Jordan initially tried to merge their projects. Fontana flew to Jordan’s home in Dublin to try and “work out a marriage.”

“I had a lovely dinner. Neil Jordan is a charming, fascinating guy, but we clearly had utterly different views of the material,” Fontana says. “Jordan said he didn’t care about the history; he said he’d make things up — which I fully respect.”

So the world will have two Borgia series. Showtime’s The Borgias is first out — it debuts April 3 in the U.S. before hitting international territories, while Fontana’s Borgia bows in Europe on the fall. Judging by the channels that have bought the Showtime show — British Sky Broadcasting in the U.K., ProSieben in Germany — The Borgias is looking to play to a more mainstream, commercial audience. Borgia is aiming more high-brow, targeting mainly public broadcasters in Europe. It doesn’t yet have a U.S. network on board, and convincing an HBO or AMC to go pontiff-to-pontiff with Showtime may be a hard sell, meaning Borgia could take a while to cross the Atlantic.

If the other show didn’t exist, Fontana figures his series would have presold to either HBO or Showtime long ago.

“And it would have probably changed because of it,” he says. “It’s great to be doing it without a U.S. broadcaster at this point because I’m not getting the kind of notes I would be from an American network. I’m doing the show I want to do.”

Fontana’s approach to the Borgias is the opposite of Jordan’s: He’s trying to stick as close as possible to the recorded history, even researching 15th century documents in the original Latin.

Fontana didn’t create Borgia — it was the brainchild of European producers Canal+, Atlantique and EOS — but the show is clearly his baby. “In Europe, the writer is usually the least important person on set, but here I have all the creative control and responsibility,” Fontana says. “I have final cut on all the episodes, on the casting, the directors, the sets, the costumes, whatever.”

With that creative control, Fontana is trying to do what’s never been done before: make a high-end, American-style cable series outside the U.S. With all his choices, starting with his own R-rated script to picking claustrophobic German filmmaker Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) as director of the first four episodes, Fontana has made it clear that Borgia will be closer to The Wire than Brideshead Revisited.

Fontana has even picked The Wire’s John Doman to star as Rodrigo Borgia, the man who became Pope Alexander VI, the baddest of the bad pontiffs.

“Tom is a very gritty writer,” Doman says. “He brings the same sensibility to this material that he did on Oz or Homicide. I might be in robes, but the dialogue is just as realistic, the characters just as gritty.”

Borgia is one of a new wave of lusty period series — think The Tudors and Spartacus — that are spicing up the genre by adding sex, violence and intrigue to their small-screen history lessons.

Fontana’s attention to detail is everywhere on the Borgia set in Prague. While actors in full armor clank by, Czech set painters put the final touches on the handpainted ceilings, replicating originals copied from Rome.

Much of the series is being shot in Martinicky Palace, a Renaissance-style castle in the middle of the Czech capital. Most of the original paintings and woodwork had been plastered over during the Communist era, but the new owners have allowed the Borgia team to restore the palace to its original Renaissance glory.

None of this comes cheap, of course. And the fact that Borgia does not have a U.S. buyer yet — Showtime’s competing project hasn’t helped — has meant the European series has had to become financially creative. “We had to drop the budget a bit — from $35 million to $30 million [without the U.S. sale], but this is still the biggest series Europe has done on its own,” producer Klaus Zimmermann says. “It’s a real test of whether this kind of financing can work for these kind of HBO-style shows.”

Zimmermann says Borgia backer Canal+ is looking to become “the HBO of Europe” by bankrolling high-end English-language series: “Canal+ has 12 million subscribers; they can put up $1 million an episode for serial drama. The rest of the budget you deficit-finance — get three big European networks to back a show.” 

The Borgia financing model is similar to that of other big-budget period series. The Tudors got backing from Irish and Canadian broadcasters; The Pillars of the Earth pieced together its $40 million budget from networks in Germany, Spain, Canada, Austria and Hungary.

“It’s about value,” says Michael Edelstein, president of NBCUniversal International Television. “These co-productions allow two or three broadcasters to get the show they want for a fraction of the cost.”

But many are skeptical about Borgia’s all-European financing model.

“Without a U.S. window, the financing doesn’t work,” says Craig Cegielski, president of GK-TV and executive producer of Camelot. “When you look at the U.S., it’s the one territory where they pay the largest license fee — so you have to be producing for a U.S. broadcaster. A good sale in the U.S. can make up for 15 bad sales internationally. But the reverse isn’t true.”

Fontana is out to prove him wrong. But will Europe’s Borgia be sexy enough to entice U.S. viewers?

Back on the set, Fontana has traded the gray Timberland for an orange Harley Davidson shirt, but he’s still obsessing over every detail.

“This show is a marriage between the American and European approaches,” he says. “In a lot of ways, it’s like the early days of HBO, back when we made Oz. There wasn’t a model then — no one else was doing what we were trying to do. It’s the same here. Can we do an HBO show entirely out of Europe?”

Leaning back, Fontana smiles.

“I’m a die-hard New Yorker. People back home ask me what it’s like doing this show in Europe. I tell them it’s certainly different. Prague, Europe, is a very different place. But it’s a hell of a lot better than L.A.”

Mimi Turner in London contributed to this report.

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