Frank Spotnitz discusses Medici, Leonardo, and The X-Files
Frank Spotnitz is best known for his work on The X-Files, but if Medici viewers have anything to say about it, that won’t be the case much longer. The three-part series, which can be found on Netflix, has built a large, vocal fanbase.
Medici is produced by Big Light Productions, Ltd. and Lux Vide in collaboration with Rai Fiction and Altice Group. Big Light’s Frank Spotnitz and Emily Feller served as executive producers alongside Luca Bernabei, Matilde Bernabei, Daniele Passani, Richard Madden, Sara Melodia and Luisa Cotta Ramsino.
It’s based on the history of the real family that ruled Florence for generations. Rather than a dry history lesson, the three seasons make up a gripping, engaging visit to the past.
We spoke to Frank Spotnitz on Medici’s genius balance of fact and fiction
Hidden Remote: Congratulations on your success with Medici. How did you pick which pieces of that extensive history to condense down so well?
Frank Spotnitz: It was overwhelming, honestly, to look at the entire Medici family and go, “where do we begin?” But my co-writer, Nicholas Meyer, and I just started reading all these biographies about the Medici.
We hit upon the idea of the father-son relationship between Cosimo and Giovanni. The idea that Cosimo was the one who completed the dome, and we’d read about his love of art—that just became the trigger and the way in.
I have to say, the idea that a modern audience would be interested in a story about 15th Century bankers was not obvious, and we were looking for that thing that made it personal, relatable, and modern. Both Nick and I were just struck by, this is a family whose dreams were so big that it took generations of them to achieve it. The idea that the son had to sacrifice his desires for this dream his father had defined, we found really moving and thought that’s something that people would respond to.
HR: Nothing I found in trying to refresh my history gave any voice, whatsoever, to the women in the family. How did you decide how much to play with history to include them?
Frank Spotnitz: I have to say, that’s my favorite part of the show because, as you said, history recorded so little about most of them. We were able to pick up clues about Contessina de’ Bardi or about Clarcie Orsini. There’s more about Lucrezia—we know a lot more about her.
We imagined who they were, based on these little pieces, and filled in the blanks. You know, nobody knows. So, for us, it felt like rescuing these people from history because history didn’t record what women did back then.
I felt like the women characters were at least as vivid and powerful as the male characters, even though we had so much less information to go on. So, I was really proud of, and really enjoyed, doing that.
HR: Did you get any feedback—I know I’ve seen some commentary about, you know, there’s no way all of these people were that beautiful.
Frank Spotnitz: Yes. [Laughs]
HR: That aside, has there been any pushback from any historical societies or anything similar?
Frank Spotnitz: I think the vast majority of audiences just enjoy the show for what it is. When you realize, when you really start reading and studying history, that all of the storytelling is an act of translation for a modern audience, you can’t literally do a perfectly accurate show about the 15th Century.
It would be unintelligible to a modern audience. You’d need notes to understand the way people thought and their assumptions, their biases. We just look at the world in a completely different way. All you can hope to do as a dramatic storyteller for television is to make it relatable.
My hope is that a certain percentage of the audience will be so moved or interested by what we’ve done, they’ll go back and read the real history. But for most people, it’s a way into this world that they never would have had otherwise.
HR: I know there’s a Leonardo series coming up. How is that going?
FS: We did have to stop because of the coronavirus situation and had to move a lot of locations. We had been planning to film in Mantova, near where a lot of the outbreak occurred.
We’re hoping to resume soon. One of the good things—if you can say there are any good things about this—is that, because Italy was hit first, it will be one of the first to come back, as well.
But, we’re going to come back and obviously be very, very careful. Safety is our paramount concern.
We were lucky to be a little more than halfway done when it stopped; so hopefully, we’ll be able to finish in the near future.
And we were able to edit all the footage we’d shot during this period. We made use of the time.
HR: Will that tie in with the Leonardo in Medici?
FS: It will be completely different. That’s the other funny thing: If you look at the character of Leonardo in the third season of Medici, he’s used as a political tool by Lorenzo de’ Medici.
In the Leonardo series, the whole show is about Leonardo. In fact, Lorenzo is not even a character. It’s a very different take.
HR: Will you be looking at any other period in future series?
FS: I stumbled into this whole historical drama thing, and I was surprised when I was asked to do Medici because I’d never done anything remotely like it.
I was most famous before Medici for The X-Files. That would seem to have nothing in common with it. But actually, what I found is, I really liked X-Files because supernatural, or science fiction, storytelling—there’s a theme, and you have to know what the theme is. You’re much more likely to have a successful show if you know what the theme is—why you’re telling the story.
The exact same is true about history. When you’re looking at the past, you have to find your way and say, “what’s the idea about this history that’s so interesting to a modern audience?”
For us, with Medici, it was doing bad to do good. If you look at the three seasons, that runs from beginning to end.
Cosimo does bad to do good in the first season. In the second, Lorenzo tries to do good; that ends up pretty terribly. In the third season, he’s trying to play God—which doesn’t work out so well, either.
HR: Not at all. Viewers are pretty much instantly connected to these people; every little thing is a shot to the chest. How?
FS: It really helps that it’s a family. Everybody can relate to a family. I think the third season is especially powerful because it’s a family with young children.
You have to be very fluid with time because we’re going through decades—the last two seasons go through 20 years of Lorenzo’s life. It doesn’t feel like that.
It’s an emotional time. Suddenly, they have children; and suddenly, the children are older. We’re very careful about where we have these ellipses in time.
HR: If people are hesitant because they don’t think their interests are in history: Aside from, “it’s a family story,” or “it’s Frank. You love him from The X-Files,” what else would you want people to know about Medici?
FS: My desire was to make a show that would appeal to people who didn’t think that they would like a show like this. I wanted to make sure that I would watch, even though I don’t normally watch this genre.
To me, it is a historical drama, a family drama, and a love story. It’s also got a lot of thriller elements in it, and mystery elements in it, that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. In the first season, we invented that.
There is no indication that Giovanni de’ Medici was murdered. That was a device we invented to draw you into the story, and it allowed us to tell you so much. As you’re investigating who may have killed Giovanni, you’re learning all the reasons why people would have hated the Medici.
I think people who don’t think they like the genre might be surprised because there are so many other genres cloaked within it.
HR: Is there anything else that you haven’t had the chance to get out there yet?
FS: Both the first and the last seasons were directed by a single director. The first season, it was Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, who had done The Pillars of the Earth. The third season was Christian Duguay. It’s an absolutely colossal undertaking, and it’s really like a giant film because it’s one director’s vision the entire time.
One of the reasons I did the show in the first place is because it was going to be entirely Italian, and it really is—except for some of the actors and writers. The beauty of everything—not just the scenery, but the costumes—it’s a wonderful place to go. Right now, especially, during this period of lockdown.
HR: Do you mind one X-Files question to put something to rest?
FS: Go ahead.
HR: Mulder and Scully…William…Back when you were involved with the show, what was the story there?
FS: It was not what Chris did in the last two seasons. And I spoke to him about that.
I think it was very bold what he did. He didn’t give people what they wanted, and that was his choice. It’s never the way I thought about the story and never the way I thought about William.
Of course, I wasn’t involved. It’s not necessarily what I would have done if I had been involved. I see why he did it, though, and I admire his courage and still wanting to surprise people that late in the life of the show.
But I equally understand why so many people, so many die-hard fans, were…It wasn’t the ending they wanted, and it wasn’t the storyline they were hoping for.
HR: Thank you for clearing that up, and thank you for your time.
Loving Medici? Looking forward to Leonardo? Just want to talk Mulder and Scully? Stay caught up with all things Frank Spotnitz on Twitter.