'My Brilliant Friend'
'My Brilliant Friend'
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

HBO's Big Italian Bet With 'My Brilliant Friend'

by Scott Roxborough
September 03, 2018, 8:27am PDT

The network's first-ever non-English series, produced with Italy's RAI network, is the adaptation of Elena Ferrante's novel following the friendship of two girls growing up in 1950s Naples.

Back in 2005, when HBO and the BBC decided to make a series about ancient Rome — called, obviously enough, Rome — it was clear the entire show would be in English, as HBO series have always been. The likes of Irish actor Ciaran Hinds and Englishman James Purefoy were cast to play Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, delivering Anglo-accented speeches about masculine honor and imperial glory against the backdrop of The Eternal City. 

Two years ago, HBO returned to Italy for The Young Pope, a co-production with Italian company Wildside that starred Jude Law as the first American elected pontiff of the Catholic Church. Still shot in English, the series nevertheless had a distinctly European feel, largely due to Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, the Oscar-winning helmer of The Great Beauty, who wrote and directed all 10 episodes.

And now, with My Brilliant Friend, HBO is finally going full Italian. The hotly anticipated new drama series, which premiered its first two episodes at the Venice Film Festival on Sunday, was shot entirely in Italian and, when it bows stateside in November, will be the first non-English series ever to premiere on HBO.

Based on the best-selling novels by pseudonymous Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend follows the lifelong friendship and conflicts between two women, Elena and Lila, who meet as schoolgirls in Naples in the early 1950s. My Brilliant Friend is a co-production with Italian public broadcaster RAI, together with Wildside and fellow Italian shingle Fandango. Italian director Saverio Costanzo (Hungry Hearts) directed and the stars are mainly unknown and amateur actors cast from the streets of Naples itself.

But perhaps most striking is the dialogue. Because My Brilliant Friend, which screened its first two episodes at the Venice Film Festival on Sunday, is not just in Italian, but in Neapolitan, a thick regional dialect even many in Italy find incomprehensible.

“One of the first questions HBO asked me was to make sure that the series would be spoken in a strong Neapolitan dialect,” recalls Costanzo. “That really struck me: I asked why an American network should care about the accuracy of a language if their audiences would be watching the series with subtitles. They replied that they wanted the series to be authentic. There, in that moment I understood why HBO is HBO.”

Saverio Costanzo on set of 'My Brilliant Friend'

My Brilliant Friend is HBO's first foreign-language original series, but it won't be the last. The pay network has given a 10-episode series order to an Israeli drama from The Affair and In Treatment co-creator Hagai Levi and Noah Stollman, inspired by the true story of the disappearance of three teens in Israel. Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar (Beaufort) is directing the series, in Hebrew and Arabic, with Keshet International's Keshet Studios co-producing.

And in July, HBO gave a series order to the Spanish-language comedy Los Espookys, from Portlandia co-creator Fred Armisen. Armisen will co-star in the half-hour series, set in a strange and dreamy version of present day Mexico City, alongside Bernardo Velasco, Cassandra Ciangherotti, Ana Fabrega and Julio Torres. Fabrega and Torres will also serve as writers and co-executive producers, together with Armisen. Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels will executive produce via his Broadway Video shingle.

“There are so many international shows we've seen in recent years where I thought, 'This is so riveting, why don't we just do this instead of adapting it into English?'” Francesca Orsi, HBO’s co-head of drama tells The Hollywood Reporter, explaining the network's move into non-English series. Before My Brilliant Friend, it was only HBO's international operations — HBO Europe, HBO Asia and HBO Latin America — that did foreign-language original series. Orsi notes that the success of foreign-language shows, such as Netflix's Israeli drama Fauda, in reaching an American audience also encouraged the pay-TV giant to make the jump.

But, in the end, Orsi says, getting the greenlight for My Brilliant Friend was due to the “fearlessness” of HBO boss Richard Plepler and president of programming Casey Bloys.

“Richard and Casey were aware of the international success of Ferrante’s book series,” says Orsi, “(but) making a first season show about two little girls in 1958 Naples, shot mostly in the Napolitano dialect with English subtitles was a bold move.”

Appropriately, the My Brilliant Friend series started life in Italy, with Domenico Procacci of Rome-based production company Fandango, and Eleonora Andreatta, head of fiction at RAI, Italy's main public broadcaster. Procacci secured the rights to Ferrante's series of four novels early on and was developing them as a local series with RAI. Costanzo adapted the first book in the series together with writers Francesco Piccolo and Laura Paolucci, communicating with Elena Ferrante via email to get her extensive notes and comments on each new draft of the script.

Fandango and RAI were about a year into development when Wildside's Lorenzo Mieli, a producer on The Young Pope, called him up and suggested getting HBO on board. FremantleMedia, Wildside's parent company, provided additional support, taking on international sales duties for the project. Jennifer Schuur, a TV producer on such series as Hannibal and Hostages, came on board as an executive producer.

“Jennifer helped the Italian writers put the deep cultural and historical elements in the novel into a context that makes them understandable for an international audience,” says Christian Vesper, FremantleMedia's creative director of global drama. “Take the role of communism, for example. To an American, communists in the 1950s were the absolute boogeymen. But you have to understand that in Italy after WW2, the communist party was a legitimate and popular political party, not some fringe extremist group.”

While My Brilliant Friend mainly adheres to the storyline, and narrative style, of Ferrante's novel, Orsi says the series will expand the books' point of view, which is told entirely by Elena. The book and series begin with a 60-something Elena answering a panicked late-night call where she is told Lila, he lifelong friend, has vanished, leaving no trace. In response, she sits down and writes the story of their friendship, as much as an act of love as one of poetic revenge (“I'll not let her have the last word,” Elena notes).

“(Ferrante's) depiction of female friendship is deeply honest and complex,” says Orsi. “The way it looks at the love and jealousy that exists between close female friends, how we often oppress each other, and then are each other's biggest cheerleaders.”

From left: Elisa Del Genio (Elena) and Ludovica Nasti (Lila) in 'My Brilliant Friend'

For Mieli, what sets Ferrante's novels apart is their “extremely relevant, female perspective” on the history of post-war Italy, told through the life-long friendship of the two main characters, Elena and Lila (played in the first season of My Brilliant Friend by Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti and, as teenagers, by Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace).

“Women’s emancipation is a big part of the history of Italy after World War II, but maybe this isn’t sufficiently acknowledged in the general perception,” Mieli says.

“The feminine point of view of Elena Ferrante ... is something revolutionary in Italy, and surprisingly topical,” adds director Costanzo. “Perhaps the reason for this is its honesty. It doesn’t want to proclaim anything on the feminine, nor does it allow itself to be crushed by the ideology related to the feminine. Elena Ferrante simply tells a story that has at once a fierce objectivity and an extreme participation. It also just happens that it’s the story of two women in a profoundly male chauvinist country, and that’s what makes the point of view revolutionary.”

With some 150 actors and more than 5,000 extras, My Brilliant Friend is one of the largest and most ambitious TV series ever attempted in Europe. Production designer Giancarlo Basili built up Ferrante's world of 1950s Naples from scratch, spending four months constructing a 215,000-square-foot set recreating the 14 blocks that make up the Naples subdivision of Rione, which Elena and Lila call home. 

“We shot for 29 weeks, roughly 22 on set and seven on location (in Naples),” says Costanzo. “The budget is confidential, but I can say it’s pretty big for a series shot in Italy, and gave us the freedom to be really accurate in the reconstructions.”

'My Brilliant Friend'

For linguistic accuracy, Costanzo went to the source, holding an open casting call in Naples.

“Having mainly children and teenagers (as our leads) we had no alternative to going out onto the streets,” he says. “Naples is an open-air theatre. Perhaps as a defense against the violence of the city, the Neapolitans need to always wear a mask. I found a city of phenomenal actors.”

First-timers Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti, who play the childhood versions of Elena and Lila in the first two episodes of the series, were widely praised by critics following the premiere screening of My Brilliant Friend in Venice. Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace take over as the teenage incarnations in later episodes.

From left: Gaia Girace (Lila) and Margherita Mazzucco (Elena) in 'My Brilliant Friend'

The first eight-hour season of My Brilliant Friend covers the story of the first of Ferrante's four Neapolitan novels. RAI is on board to adapt the final three books of the series.

As is HBO, provided the series delivers in America this November.