The Borgias, Day 3: Where do little TV series come from?

Did The Tudors beget The Borgias? Are you kidding? It was practically incest. Denis Seguin wraps his report from the Budapest set of The Borgias.
The Borgias - Battlefield

James Flynn is one-half of the Irish bit of the Canada-Ireland-Hungary TV series The Borgias, an epic tale of the infamous first family of Renaissance Rome. Ninety minutes north of Budapest, he sits down across from me at a picnic table on the margins of a battlefield. There’s a distant thunder of horse hooves and tromping troops.

Neil Jordan, the Irish auteur of such cinema gems as The Crying Game and Mona Lisa, is Flynn’s other Irish half: writer, director of the first block of episodes and show runner.

“Neil had written a feature screenplay about the Borgias back in 2002-03,” says Flynn. “He was talking to Anthony Hopkins, Ewan MacGregor and Christina Ricci. But he was financing it independently and, as with a lot of dream projects, it didn’t happen.”

Then The Tudors came to Ireland and James Flynn and his other partner were hired to produce the Irish bit. Then Flynn produced Jordan’s latest feature, Ondine.

So, he says, “When Showtime expressed an interest in The Borgias they thought of me producing because: a) they knew me from The Tudors; and b) I had produced Neil’s last film.”

Later the same day, I’m on the phone to Toronto with The Borgia’s other two executive producers, Sheila Hockin and John Weber of Take 5 Productions, the Canadian coproducers of The Tudors.

“Showtime was looking for another period drama to replace The Tudors,” says Weber. “Showtime asked Neil Jordan to write a script about the Borgias last year. Take 5 acquired the rights from Showtime and then we commissioned Neil to write a second script. And once we had presented that to Showtime and they committed, we went over to Europe. We found coproducers in Ireland and Hungary, made the sale to CTV and accessed some other Canadian funds. That was all in the first quarter of this year and we were in production by June.”

Compare and contrast: an internationally-renowned auteur wants to make a feature about the Borgias and can’t get the money. Then he writes a TV script on the Borgias and the money starts pouring in. Just shy of $40 million, according to a well-placed source.

Says Hockin by way of explanation, “There’s been an explosion in audience interest in dynamic period drama. The Tudors aired in more than 120 countries.”

Not to mention a burst of interest from feature directors like Martin Scorsese, who is directing Boardwalk Empire.

“This is Neil’s first TV experience, as a writer, director and certainly as show runner. I remember him saying: ‘In TV, you have all these hours. You can go deeper and deeper into these characters…’

“That’s what’s drawing feature people to TV. They are so excited by what’s going on in television. The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men: it’s television that has not just great writing but great production, great sound design. All around the world, features are harder to finance. And so we are seeing more great drama on TV.”

Back at the picnic table, Flynn is mining the same vibe: “I remember Band of Brothers breaking out on DVD. That was 1999. And now you go into a video store and you have the box sets of everything, The Tudors, Rome, The Sopranos. It’s very much part of the culture that it wasn’t ten years ago. You can’t beat seating in a cinema with a group of people but too many independent films get released on one screen. With a TV series, there’s a built-in audience. You know that the product, for want of a better word, will be seen by many people. That’s satisfying.”

The horses hooves grow louder. “Whoops,” says Flynn. “I’ve got to go watch that.”

PREVIOUSLY: The Borgias: Blood is relative

PREVIOUSLY: The Borgias, Day 2: Layers of unreality