'The Borgias': Why Creator Neil Jordan Is Glad He Failed to Get It Made as a Movie

Jonathan Hession/Showtime

Neil Jordan tried for years to make The Borgias, about the ruthless 15th-century Italian ruling clan, as a movie that almost starred Viggo Mortensen and Christina Ricci, then Colin Farrell and Scarlett Johansson, but it's probably better as a Showtime series. The first season, which ended May 21, averaged 3.15 million viewers a week (including replays, on demand and DVR). That beats the fourth and best-rated season of The Tudors. On Thursday, the glossy, gory family drama could fetch Emmy noms for Jeremy Irons as the Godfatherish Borgia pope, Holliday Grainger and Francois Arnaud as his tormented offspring, Joanne Whalley as his bitter wife, Lotte Verbeek as the mistress on whose body his finger sketches the map of Italy, and Colm Feore and Derek Jacobi as scheming cardinals.

Besides Irons, the show's likeliest Emmy noms are for costumes, art direction, and the writing/directing of Jordan, who won the 1993 writing Oscar (plus a directing nom) for The Crying Game. He spills The Borgias' bloody secrets to The Hollywood Reporter.

The Hollywood Reporter: Doesn't The Borgias work better as a series than a movie?

Jordan: I'm glad I waited. Colin Farrell would have been a great Cesare [Borgia], but he's a little too old. Francois is perfect, he can grow with the part. I had spent so long with the imaginary image of these characters, it wasn’t that hard for me to write 10 episodes, which actually became nine because we ran out of money.

THR: How much was the budget?

Jordan: $45-50 million. I saw this a four-year project really. In the first season, I felt like it was my job to very carefully plot out the historical context. Now, as I’m writing the second season, I can get much more down and dirty much more quickly. It becomes much more drenched in blood.

THR: Some of the sex scenes remind me of Game of Thrones -- brutal assaults, and brothers and sisters who seem rather close.

Jordan: I haven't seen Game of Thrones. I've been watching The Wire, of course, The Sopranos, and Boardwalk Empire. And what's that wonderful series where the professor cooks the methamphetamine?

THRBreaking Bad.

Jordan: That's pretty cool, isn't it?

THRThe Borgias also reminds me of The Tudors. Is it a Showtime requirement to have so many sex scenes?

Jordan: No, I don't think so. They had done The Tudors and had had big success. I had to keep saying, “You know, look, gentleman, this is a different story.'”

THR: Different how?

Jordan: Well it was just a more dramatic story and it was more to do with the development of these characters.

THR: Their moral degradation.

Jordan: Yeah.  It’s more Hitchcocky in way. It’s more to do with the tension and development of situations of cruelty and murder and betrayal. It’s more to do with suspense than extravagance or sexual excess.

THR: There's a great Hitchcocky moment where you think Lucrezia (Grainger) is going to get caught with a stable boy, but the sound turns out to be a servant churning butter.

Jordan: Yeah, that was fun.

THR: Could you do a breakthrough movie like The Crying Game today?

Jordan: Movies have become really difficult, they really have. When I started out making films, once I put together the script it could be done quite quickly, but now it takes forever. And some of those huge tentpole movies, they are not really directed, they're more managed. And somebody like myself and Todd Haynes [Mildred Pierce] and I don’t know, Barry Levinson [You Don't Know Jack], perhaps, people who are interested in movies for adults --

THR: You feel more welcome on cable?

Jordan: I feel lucky to have been given the opportunity because people who are really good directors just can’t work at the moment. Also, I was learning a lot. I’ve never supervised other directors.

THR: You made Interview with the Vampire, and you're making the vampire movie Byzantium. In a way, aren't the Borgias also sort of vampires?

Jordan: Well they wear a lot of red, don’t they? And they seem to wander around at night and in the shadows, and a lot of that choral music is kind of vampire music in a way.

THR: And they feast on the innocent.

Jordan: They do, totally, yeah.

THR: If you win an Emmy, will it change your life?
Jordan: Do you think I will win an Emmy?
THR: Why do you think I’m talking to you? You’re not just an Oscar man.
Jordan: OK. If I win an Emmy, even if I was nominated, I would be very proud because actually some of the greatest writing at the moment is definitely in American cable television.

THR: What’s the difference between being in an Emmy race and an Oscar race?
Jordan: You get an enormous lot more emails. My God. Flood in.

THR: Everyone knows Jeremy Irons is Emmy bait, but Francois Arnaud's Cesare is haunting, a real find, and Holliday Grainger's Lucrezia is as fresh as dawn in Eden. 

Jordan: They both haven’t become evil yet. And they will get very evil next season. They’ve only begun to learn evil. I really did want to present them as characters who have learned to become the monsters that we know.

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