In a relatively short period, the Italian production company Wildside has built up a reputation as one of Europe’s most sought-after drama producers. Co-founder Lorenzo Mieli is keen to employ the same auteur-led approach that has been present in Italian cinema for decades to Wildside’s TV projects, and in doing so has brought fresh voices to the television landscape and many high-profile projects to boot. This includes working with the Oscar-winning film director Paolo Sorrentino on his first-ever TV series, The Young Pope, and the upcoming The New Pope, with Mieli serving as producer on both. The film director Saverio Costanzo is bringing the acclaimed Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante to TV, starting with My Brilliant Friend, which Mieli is also producing.
TV DRAMA: Given your experience with international co-productions, what have you learned about satisfying the needs of several broadcasters while maintaining the vision of the series’ creator?
MIELI: The first real international production that I did was The Young Pope. We wanted it to be international, but we didn’t want it to be international in the way that co-productions were built in the ’90s and early 2000s—the days of the “Europudding.” Usually, at least in Italy, producers sign deals with broadcasters in the very early stages of development to mitigate risk, thus giving away sovereignty (and ownership) over the project. But when all the partners are part of the development, the process becomes full of compromises and strange outcomes.
I felt that the best way to avoid this was to take on 100 percent of the risk in the development: we put forward the investment to attach Paolo Sorrentino, to write all the teleplays and to cast Jude Law. With all of this together, we went to the broadcasters and said, “Do you like the scripts? Do you like Jude Law? Do you like Paolo Sorrentino? If you do, we are supposed to shoot next summer for 24 weeks, and you can have the show.”
At the time, Wildside was still a rather small independent company, with no solid financial backing, and that was a big chunk of money invested. So that was by far the biggest risk I have taken in my entire professional life. But it worked!
From there, the partners could start giving notes and discussing, but this would not change the shape or vision of the show. We have used this same model with all of our projects since.
TV DRAMA: How did The Young Pope, which was shot in English, open up opportunities for Wildside in the international market?
MIELI: I have nothing against productions set in Italy or Europe where Italian characters speak in English. We just didn’t feel that it fit the needs of a contemporary show, where you want authenticity, specificity and originality. We decided, along with Paolo, to make the character an American pope. This pope has the power to determine what language is spoken in the Vatican based on his nationality, so from his first day on, everybody will speak English. That meant it was authentic. The Italian characters speaking in English would have an accent and make mistakes rather than having Italians played by American or English-speaking actors. Having this type of show in English opened up the market for us for other potential international series.
TV DRAMA: What can you tell us about The New Pope?
MIELI: It’s going to be a totally new world with a new pope. Paolo had this show in mind from the beginning. He was editing a scene in The Young Pope, where Jude Law is talking to the Italian prime minister, and there is one particular line that gave him the idea for this project. The New Pope will be something in between a second season and a sequel. So the idea came early on, but we waited to see if The Young Pope would be successful or not. The expectations were very low at the time for the U.S. market, but the response from the critics and the buzz gave us the confidence to move forward.
TV DRAMA: How did the Elena Ferrante series come about?
MIELI: I read the books three summers ago. I hadn’t read them before because I didn’t think they were my cup of tea: female friendship, epic saga. I knew that Domenico Procacci, who owns the production company Fandango, had already bought the book rights, so I was reading them for fun. I fell in love with the books. Domenico is a friend, so I went to him and asked what he was doing with the four books. He said that they were already in advanced talks with Rai to make a long miniseries, and that’s where I jumped in. I asked him to give me the chance to do this together and said we could scale it up to an international show, even though it was going to be in the Neapolitan language. I thought it would be hard to sell it as an international show—getting on board important partners that could invest a lot of money in a show that needs to be aired in Italian with subtitles—but given the “Ferrante fever,” maybe it would work. He accepted, and we together decided on the director and writers, and Elena Ferrante herself was already part of the deal. We wrote the first scripts, prepared the pitch and then went to HBO. They loved it; Francesca Orsi [HBO’s co-head of drama series] believed in this attempt to make an American prime-time show in Neapolitan and has been really supportive ever since.
TV DRAMA: How have Rai and HBO been collaborating on the scripts?
MIELI: Amazingly well! It was a tough call, because the channels are very different, culturally and concerning the target audience. But we also felt that there were elements from the books that could work for both audiences, both nationalities, both of the channels’ needs. The books are very simple in a way: they’re plot-driven. Then there is another level to them that is character-driven: full of twists, contradictions and mystery. We felt that we could play this up in a way that would fit both broadcasters, and it worked.
The incredible thing is that their notes on the scripts and the production have been basically the same. I think that is because of the books themselves. They have such a strong and unique character, and people are so passionate about them, that staying true to Elena Ferrante’s vision helped keep everyone on the same page.
TV DRAMA: How has the role of the writer evolved in the Italian television market since you began working in TV?
MIELI: I started doing scripted for Fox in Italy 12 years ago. I made a TV comedy called Boris, which was a fictional behind-the-scenes of one of the numerous crappy dramas that were aired by traditional free-to-air channels. It was the first scripted show ever commissioned by a pay-TV channel in Italy. That was the starting point for another way of writing. I found writers for that show who had never done television before; they had worked on movies and were playwrights. It took a long time for me to find someone who could write something that was funny, weird and cool. It was liberating. From then on, the market has changed radically, and opportunities for writers have changed.
Generations of writers had been forced to write horrible stuff for television for decades, in a hyper-conservative and entirely risk-averse environment. The slightest provocation was deemed inappropriate for the audience, and anyone with an independent creative vision wanted to do movies, as that was the only place where they felt they could express some form of art. Writing (or directing) for TV was a way to pay your bills, almost considered something to be ashamed of.
After Fox, Sky stepped into Italian scripted production with a wave of innovative, bold and creativity-driven shows. And now the market has evolved enormously with all the new players coming in. It also happened thanks to the rebirth of international drama production, and to the introduction of local incentives that have placed more power in the hands of producers. There’s been a tremendous leap forward in the quality and ambition of Italian shows.
Today, I would say that there are maybe a dozen really good writers for TV shows in Italy. And there is a new generation of writers coming up who are working with these established writers. It’s bringing new energy. All the production companies are fighting to get the few good ones under contract for the rest of their lives. [Laughs]
My approach is based on the idea that it’s important to bring to television the type of director-writers that Italy is full of in movies. People like Paolo [Sorrentino] and Saverio [Costanzo] used to do art-house movies, and they are very good writers but hadn’t watched TV before—forget working for it. I felt that they could bring a new vision to TV series, and this is probably precisely because they never watched television.
The people who are purely writers have gone on to become head writers, not showrunners. The real showrunner is a mix of writer, director and producer; they manage the budget, directing and oversee the other writers. The U.S. industry has built that up over decades. In Italy, we now have a bunch of really good head writers, and there is a bunch of director-writers/co-producers. There is also the very fundamental role of producers, which is creativity. Looking at Wildside and its competitors, each of us has a specific taste. You recognize the company behind the show. There is a clear editorial path.
TV DRAMA: How do writers and producers share the work of bringing a TV project to life?
MIELI: We involve the writers in the development of the show early on when the project is just with us and not yet with a broadcaster. We build a very strong link between producers and writers. Wildside has a creative team comprised of writers, [former] writers and directors. Alongside myself and [co-founder and CEO] Mario Gianani, the creative team works on a daily basis in development with directors and head writers. What comes out in the end, whether it’s a pilot or a couple of episodes, is the fruit of this collaboration.
TV DRAMA: Is a figure like the American showrunner emerging in Italy?
MIELI: Honestly, no. I think the model that we use works better. It gives a balance of power. I know too many stories about the superpower of the showrunner to say that it’s not exactly what we need. What we need are good writers.
TV DRAMA: What types of shows does Wildside want to offer the Italian market, and in what kinds of international projects does it want to be involved?
MIELI: Our interest has been in projects that have a dominant political or cultural element. We start with topics that we think are relevant in terms of politics and culture. We’ve never done, for example, a procedural crime show. Not because we don’t love them; we do watch them. I’m interested in the future to work in genre; the way that genre was in the Italian movies in the late ’70s and early ’80s—like spaghetti westerns or Dario Argento’s horror movies. Those have been auteur-driven reinterpretations of genre. That’s something that I would love to do in the future, and I’m working on it. It’s more about the auteurs that we like to involve than the specific type of show.