'Borgias' Executive Producer: Historical Dramas Need Brands to Succeed

James Flynn, whose Octagon Films is also behind Starz's "Camelot," discussed the drastic changes made from the original script and the recent shift from big-screen filmmakers to TV with The Hollywood Reporter.
"The Borgias"

April has become a big -- and risky -- month for the pay cablers. With Starz up first with "Camelot," Showtime following with "The Borgias" and then HBO rolling out "Game of Thrones," a question arises: Is there room for all three series — all arguably similar in scope?

Ireland-based James Flynn of Octagon Films, executive producer of "The Borgias," isn’t phased. (Octagon Films is behind "Camelot" as well.) While he argues the three series cater to different audiences, he says what they all have in common is the filmic quality set in a small-screen world. “I first noticed it with 'Band of Brothers' in the early 2000s. There was an awareness then of the power of television with the people from cinema crossing over into that world,” says Flynn.

Flynn chatted with The Hollywood Reporter about the key ingredient risky period dramas always need, ratings expectations and the changes made from the original feature film script.

The Hollywood Reporter: What were the biggest challenges of making The Borgias?

James Flynn: I think the challenge probably was the timeframe. We had a very short timeframe because it got greenlit that January after TCAs. We had to get it done that same year. And when it was greenlit, we hadn't actually decided on a location. We would've only had two scripts. Having access to a full-on writer [with writer-director Neil Jordan] was what made it achievable. The normal challenges of you have to shoot two episodes in a block of four weeks, that's always tight as well. Time would have been the enemy.

THR: We’ve started to see a growing swath of film directors sign on to do television pilots. Why is that?

Flynn: Absolutely. It is interesting. Certainly a story such as The Borgias, for example, where there's so many plot points, I now find it hard to do [anything but] a long-running TV series because it's such a vast canvas.

THR: Why do you keep going back to historical dramas?

Flynn: I think the story is what really excites me. The amazing thing about The Borgias is it still has contemporary themes. It was originally the story that inspired The Godfather, apparently so. I suppose this particular series, for me, is about power and corruption, quite contemporary and yet very appealing.

THR: Were there any changes from the initial pitch to Showtime that you had to make?

Flynn: What they would've had was a two-hour movie script and they would've wanted to see how that would extend to a 10-part and potentially a 20- or 30-part series. In the feature film script, there's a scene when Rodrigo [played by Jeremy Irons] was [crowned] as pope and I think that's 1-1/2 pages, where in the pilot episode -- which is a combination of episode one and episode two -- you have a whole sequence and quite a lot of tension. Then you see Rodrigo in action bribing people and then you see him doing a corridor deal with another corrupt cardinal. There was a whole subplot there that television allowed. You wouldn't have had the time to do that in a feature film.

In feature films, there certainly is a prominent character, but in the TV series, [Rodrigo] is effectively a co-protagonist. He has his own journey and his own story in every episode. A character like Giulia [Farnese], who is in love with Rodrigo or Pope Alexander, her role in the feature film screenplay wouldn't have had the same amount of time to expand her relationship. The character interaction and the subplots to the story for the various characters is something that the TV series gives a natural outlet to explore.
In the feature script, you literally enter into 1492 with no explanation and you have to kind of make that leap. I think in the TV series, there's more exposition with where we are, what world are we in, part of the backdrop of the time and the audience has a chance to enter into that world and learn more about the time and what's happening.

THR: Starz is launching Camelot, HBO is debuting Game of Thrones and Showtime has The Borgias all in the same month. Do you believe there is room for all three?

Flynn: I haven't seen Game of Thrones, but I would imagine it has very good production value and I would imagine it would attract a good audience. I think Camelot and Borgias are two very different projects.

THR: Why is there a sudden fascination with period dramas on TV?

Flynn: All the great themes of power, corruption, drama, intrigue, all those elements keep it current. There’s something contemporary about all these dramas that would attract an audience. Not to mention, I think there is actually good old-fashioned entertainment in them. There is a matter of escapism as well. Particularly with the current recession and the downturn in feature films.

THR: Has Showtime given any indications on ratings expectations?

Flynn: We talk all the time, but we’re all hoping that it gets very good feedback, gets good reviews. If it did the kind of figures that The Tudors did, obviously we’d be absolutely delighted.

THR: How do you go about developing and pitching projects?

Flynn: We pitch five or six projects every year, and quite a lot of them don’t ever happen. What we do is we put together a filming bible [and then] pitch. We target what dramas, what gaps might be emerging as a series comes to a natural end.

THR: You and your production company will look at spaces that may open up or you believe could be filled by a drama series. How common is that perspective?

Flynn: It’s really funny because every executive you meet is looking for contemporary drama. Everyone always says, “We want contemporary drama.” Everyone always says this, possibly because some people are interesting in modern-day politics or [there’s] modern-day intrigue. And it’s also cheaper. [Laughs] You’re not dealing with costumes, huge sets. You can use natural locations. But for all the talk about contemporary drama, there is a trend to make historical dramas. The BBC continues to do it all the time. ITV continues to do it, Sky are doing it. Showtime and HBO are doing it. It’s an interesting trend and everyone is always talking about contemporary drama, and yet you continue to have a huge amount of historical drama commissioned. [Historical dramas are] riskier, it is seen as riskier because there’s a larger infrastructure investment.

That’s why people like a brand. The Tudors very much had a brand. They have a natural lifespan because Henry VIII had six wives. It had an iconic character. The Borgias again is an iconic family. I can imagine the Medician in Florence, that could be a TV series for example. Camelot, again, a myth that is known to millions. Pillars of the Earth, they’re based on huge bestsellers [by Ken Follett]. I think everything has to have a hook. Everything needs to have some kind of backdrop — apart from a strong actor and a strong directing team.

The Borgias premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime.