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MIPTV: Frank Spotnitz on New Drama 'Medici,' 'X-Files' Parallels

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“The show certainly invites you to ask about what they stood for vs. what people stand for today,” says the creator who also discusses bringing the U.S. writers’ room concept to Italy.

The X-Files and The Man in the High Castle creator Frank Spotnitz has taken a significant step back in time, working on his first historical drama in the form of Medici: Masters of Florence.

Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman and Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden star in the drama that chronicles the Medici family and its rise to power and contributions to culture and economic upheaval during the Renaissance in the eight-episode drama.

Spotnitz co-created the show with Oscar-nominated writer Nicholas Meyer and executive produced by Matilde and Luca Bernabei, which was shot on location in Italy over 18 weeks. The crew had unprecedented access to historical sites, including the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo in Florence.

The Medicis used their vast wealth to fund artists such as Boticelli and Rafaello, as well as help create upward mobility for the lower classes, which was revolutionary at the time. For Spotnitz, the story has immense modern social relevance. “We are living unfortunately in a time of great economic inequality, and these were people who were ambitious for themselves, yes, but also were giving opportunity to the ordinary man in the process of realizing their own ambitions,” he tells THR as the show is being sold at MIPTV in Cannes.

The creators took minor liberties with the story, building a murder mystery around the death of banking head Giovanni Medici. “That’s our ‘what if’,” said Spotnitz, comparing it to The Godfather (“for obvious reasons,” he says) and Amadeus.

Mystery aside, the show shares its core moral concept with The X-Files. “The X-Files was always about something,” he said. “It sounds naive in our day and age, but the Medicis actually wanted to do good. They wanted to enhance civilization,” he said. “The show certainly invites you to ask what they stood for versus what people stand for today.”

Madden’s character is morally compromised and faced with his sins. “He understands that sometimes you have to do bad things if you want to do good,” Spotnitz says. “And remember this is the 15th century, and god exists. There is not a question in his mind that he will be punished for his sins,” which he says bucks the modern trend of bad guys just being bad. 

The historical drama was made in English because of the international sales potential, and as it is budgeted at $3 million an episode, it must be accessible globally.

“To me it’s not an Italian story, the story belongs to European and Western culture, and we needed to make it with an international cast,” said Luca Bernabei. “There is a new generation of European actors that is rising, they need to speak English and they need to be able to act in other languages.”

Partnering with France’s Wild Bunch for its first – and very ambitious – TV project was a natural process, Bernabei said. “We had been talking a lot with them because we know each other as quality producers. They knew about our work and they knew who Frank was and we gave them the script. They were looking for something that was not banal. This is not banal, it is not good versus evil, black and white.”

Spotnitz also launched the writers’ room concept in Italy, which was unheard of when he started working in the country six years ago and which is still an uncommon structure in Europe. “I’m not coming here to impose by American sensibility, hopefully, but rather to allow Europeans access to this way of working in this market and to create more of a conversation with the English-speaking world than we have had, which I think is going to be good for both sides of that divide.”

The second season of The Man in the High Castle started filming two weeks ago with an expected release before the end of the year, and the team is two months into writing the second season of Medici, which will go into production early next year.

As for balancing the Amazon show’s alternative reality post-war universe and the historical dramas of 15th century, Spotnitz says he travels seamlessly between the two worlds. “It’s like children. You know as soon as you walk into their room who that kid is and what to do about it,” he explains. “It’s an emotional and intellectual attachment you have to each show, so it’s not as difficult it might sound.”

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