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Exclusive: Frank Spotnitz Talks Medici: Masters of Florence, Premiering Today on Netflix

Frank SpotnitzToday Netflix premieres its new series Medici: Masters of Florence, which premiered in Italy earlier this year. The eight-part drama, which was filmed in Italy, will be released in its entirety today. The show stars Dustin Hoffman as Giovanni Medici, and Richard Madden as Cosimo Medici, and was created by Frank Spotnitz. The series follows the Medici family as they use their banking business to fund the greatest artists of the Renaissance.

Spotnitz, who also serves as executive producer, recently talked to SciFi Vision in an exclusive interview about the series, as well as teased a bit about the forthcoming second season.

SCIFI VISION: Can you talk about what made you want to create the series and how the whole process began?

Frank Spotnitz
Photo © Liane Hentscher
FRANK SPOTNITZ: Well, I was approached, and I had never been asked to do a historical drama before. I was intrigued by the challenge of it, and the producer who I spoke with, this lovely man named Luca Bernabei from Lux Vide in Rome, was very impressive, and he said that he was going to bring to bear the talent in Italy, you know, the best production designer, costume designer, cinematographer, and that we'd have unparalleled access to the real locations in Florence and Tuscany.

And I was really excited about that. You know, who doesn't love Italy? And the opportunity to shoot in those places is actually quite rare.

So I started educating myself about the Medici, whom I knew nothing about. I knew they had something to do with the Renaissance. And they are an absolutely amazing family, and one of the primary architects of the Renaissance, because they funded DaVinci and Michelangelo and Botticelli, and Donatello, and on and on.

But what really impressed me about them that I hadn't realized, is that they became so wealthy, because they were bankers to the Pope, but they used their money to create opportunity for ordinary people, because before then, if you were poor, you stayed poor. There was no social nobility. But because they had all this money from the Pope, they used it to invest in trade and commerce, and they created opportunity for the ordinary man, which, you know, we argue on our show is through the beginnings of the middle class.

So the more I looked at the story with my co-writer, Nicholas Meyer, the more I saw its relevance to the modern world we live in today, and kind of like how you can see yourself in this world and understand yourself better by understanding their story. So those were all things that made me want to do the series.

Why did you focus on this part of the story?

Well, that's a good question, because they did say, "Where would you like to begin?" Because it's a saga that runs for centuries. In fact the most tempting target is a generation later, this guy known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, because he's the high Renaissance, and actually his life is like a movie; it's extremely dramatic. But Nick and I really felt if we were going to tell the story of the Medici, we really wanted to tell it closer to the beginning. We didn't really see enough in Giovanni's life - he's the founder of the bank, the one played by Dustin Hoffman - but we thought, if we begin with Giovanni's death, and if we create this sort of historical what if question, which is 'what if he was murdered?' Nobody knows how he died. We don't know the cause of death; it's not listed, but it's possible. But if we take that license and say that he was murdered, suddenly you have his two sons, who are embarking upon an investigation that creates kind of a murder mystery frame for the whole story, which makes it much more accessible to any audience, really, about two sons trying to understand who killed their father. So once we had that, we felt we were really on to something.

Then, when you see the show, you'll see a lot of it is about Richard Madden's character, Cosimo, and how much he has to sacrifice being Giovanni's son, because Giovanni's ambitions for the family are so grand; it takes several generations to realize them, which means Cosimo's life cannot be his own. And so he, in our telling of the story, wanted to be an artist, but he can't be; he has to be a banker. So when he takes over for his father, you see how he tries to fulfill his father's dreams, while not completely sacrificing his own. And anyway, it was a very moving story for us.

I know there's a season two on the way. Will it be about that part of the story with Lorenzo, or will that be later on in the series?

Yes, season two we're going to fast forward twenty years to Lorenzo the Magnificent, which is as I say, the high Renaissance, so that is when you get to Botticelli and Michelangelo, and there's a huge real life conspiracy thriller involving Lorenzo.

I noticed for the whole season there's one director. A lot of times on series they use one director per episode, or one per few episodes. Can you talk about why you decided to go in that direction, and how you feel it added to the series?

The way we shot the series, it was like one eight-hour movie. So what we would do, is we'd sort of stop in one medieval town in Tuscany, like Brachiano or Pienza, and we'd stay there, and we'd shoot all the scenes for all eight episodes at one location, and then move to the next location, and the next. And what that meant, was it would be very difficult to do this in a traditional, intelligent way, where you've got one director per episode, because you'd have to have for all eight episodes, all eight directors standing around waiting for their scenes. So it's very scary though to invest in one director for the whole thing.

We really had a very, very short list of people that we felt comfortable taking that risk with, and Sergio [Mimica-Gezzan] was at the top of that list. And he's an incredibly bright, articulate man, who happens to be one of the most gifted directors for actors I've ever worked with, and I think it shows in the series. And if you talk to the cast, it was one of the best experiences of their careers, because he's just such an incredibly gifted actors' director. So I think we chose really well.
Frank Spotnitz
Photo © Max Colson

Were you present for a lot of the day to day filming?

No. I never am. You know, even going back to The X-Files, I feel like that's the least useful way to spend my time. It's not that it's without any value, but if I've done my job right, if the script is good, and the director knows what he is doing, I make a marginal difference being there. And there're so many other things that I could be doing, like editing and visual effects, and music, and all that other stuff. So no, I'm rarely there, actually.

But you did go down at least to get to go and see the sets and everything, I assume?

Yeah. Having said that, I probably went a dozen times, but I'm not there day to day.

Okay. Good, I was just thinking it would be sad to be filming there and not get to see -

To miss it.

Yeah exactly.

Yeah, that I did.

It sounds like some of the series is historical, but obviously some of it you've taken artistic license with it: like you said, no one knows how Giovanni died; but can you talk about what parts you did take from history and what parts you added or changed?

Well the biggest artistic license is asserting that Giovanni was murdered, because we simply just don't know that. But many of the other characters, you know a lot about them, but you don't know nearly enough to be able to write a television drama. So why did Cosimo complete the dome on the cathedral? We don't know, so in our minds, we said, 'well, obviously he had artistic ambitions. Where does that come from?' He wanted to be an artist as a young man. So that's how you sort of start to fill in the blanks when you're doing these historical stories, because history's just simply not going to tell you, and you have to make sense of it in a way that an audience will understand.

I think for me the most powerful example of that is the character of Contessina de' Bardi, who's played by Annabel Scholey, who is Cosimo's wife, who has been erased from history. I mean, she's there, but you know almost nothing about who she was or what she did, and I think that's often true of the female characters in particular, that history simply will not offer you much help, and so we really felt like we're trying to sort of rescue her from history, you know, with our imaginations, and imagine the role she might have played in this family, as consistent as we can be with historical facts. And honestly, I think she's one of the greatest characters in the show, one of the strongest most moving characters in the show, even though we didn't have much to go on.

At least in the US, this is going to air/debut on Netflix, and I know your other series, Man in the High Castle, is on Amazon. Does that to you make the series feel different as opposed to being aired on television, and if so how?

What I like about it, is that first of all, everybody can consume it, you know, at their leisure, and I mean, a lot of people will consume it in a very short time. And I like that it's not ratings driven. So that means, you're there, and people can come to it when they want to come to it, and it will be there for a long time.

As you know, I grew up in network television, where you lived or died by the ratings, and it was incredibly stressful every week. And, you know, there're a number of shows I was very proud of, where you're just waiting to see where you're going to live to be able to broadcast all the episodes you filmed. And so it's really like a dream when you do what I do to have a service like Netflix or Amazon that says, "We're going to put them all on." Everybody's going to see them, and they'll be there forever, or for as long as these services exist. So that's a wonderful thing, and the reach of these services - Netflix is global, Amazon soon will be. It means you reach audiences all over the planet.

Right and then it doesn't end up like Harsh Realm where you have fans like me upset they never finished it.


I loved that show.

That's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about, and you know, this is one of the things about pop culture, and I'm sure you know this, is that, you know, the good guys don't always win. There're sometimes great shows [that ended, and] it wasn't right; they made the wrong decision, but you don't get to appeal it.

I know from what I read, at least in Italy, it aired in 4K. Do you know if it will be in 4K on Netflix as well?

Yeah. It was shot in 4K, so I'm certain it will be.

MediciSince the show is about the Renaissance, do you have a favorite artist from that period?

You know, I can't say. I will say what was the biggest revelation to me, and who kind of emerged as my hero, was Filippo Brunelleschi, who is all too briefly in this first season, not just because he completed the dome, which is an act of genius, and a great story - that is pretty historically accurate the way we render it in the show - but also, he designed the doors to the Baptistery, which are one of my favorite things in the world. And, you know, he was one of the inventors of what we call perspective, [laughs] which is hard to believe somebody invented the idea of perspective in art, but he did, and I wasn't familiar with him at all before I started researching the show.

Do you want to promote some of your other projects that are coming up?

Well, I mean I can say I have a production company in London, Big Light Productions, and we've been sort of doing these big coproductions now for a few years, so Man in the High Castle is one of our shows, Medici is one, and then we have two more coming up. We have Ransom, which is premiering on CBS on January 1st, after football, and then it will be on every Saturday, which is about a private kidnap and hostage negotiator. And then in January, we have a series called The Indian Detective, the comedian starring Russell Peters, which starts shooting. So that's what's keeping me busy these days.

And then lastly, could you describe Medici in three words?

Passionate, thought-provoking, and meaningful.

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