On set in Budapest with The Borgias

The first nine episodes of The Borgias, a US-Canada-Ireland co-venture, are almost complete. Denis Seguin reports from Budapest, Hungary.
The Borgias - On Set

Blood is relative

Jeremy Podeswa walks into the steaming chamber and looks at the heap of corpses in the drained Turkish bath. Just what the call-sheet ordered: “50 x dead bodies”, an equal mixture of living ‘dead’ extras and never-alive but creepily life-like prosthetics.

“Great,” says Podeswa, in his understated Canadian way. Not that it isn’t great, but after you’ve seen the slaughtered minions of The Tudors and the mangled GIs of The Pacific, fifty plague-blotched stiffs is neither here nor there.

This is Day #75, Scene #920 of The Borgias, a new multi-territory TV series written and executive produced by Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan, who along with Podeswa is one of four directors on the project. The others are Brits John Maybury and Simon Cellan Jones.

Backers CTV (through Bravo!) and the US net Showtime are hoping The Borgias will do for Renaissance Italy what The Tudors did for Henry VIII: deliver eyeballs through a combination of historical fact and good old-fashioned sex and violence.

The Borgias were big fans of both. But unlike Henry Tudor, Rodrigo Borgia (played by Jeremy Irons) didn’t start his own church so he could divorce his wives. He didn’t bother getting married. He engineered his way into the papacy and, once Pope Alexander VI, he married off his various lovers to well-paid cuckolds and then screwed his brains out.

This being Renaissance Italy, naturally enough Jordan, Podeswa and Co. are in Budapest, Hungary, where the price is right, the studios are modern and the period locations are plentiful. Driving from a set-up at Buda Castle to the Turkish bath, I tell him I was at once surprised and not surprised to discover that Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather saga, was inspired by the Borgias.

“It’s a Mafia story,” says Podeswa. “It was a family business.” He made one son a cardinal at 18 (skipping over all that tedious seminary stuff), another son the general of the papal army and then married off his daughter, Lucrezia, to co-opt an adversary. Adds Podeswa, “Rodrigo is Don Corleone.”

I ask him how he got the gig: did Neil pick up the phone? Podeswa is modest.

“More like Showtime picked up the phone.” Having directed episodes of Showtime series Weeds and Dexter, not to mention The Tudors, Podeswa was an easy call for the network.

“I’ve got a long history with Showtime,” he says. “Especially doing period shows.” Jordan, he says, saw his stuff and “was OK with the choice.”

Meanwhile, the “dead” extras are sweltering in their pile. They’ve been down here for over an hour waiting for the blocking. Podeswa sets them free. When they come back for camera, he wants the prosthetic dummies face-down and the extras face-up.

“But it needs to look more random. Not like spokes on a wheel.”

Tomorrow: “Paid liar” Colm Feore