The biggest set in Europe is in Campania, in Marcianise, in the province of Caserta: it is the set created for “My brilliant friend”, the TV series directed by Saverio Costanzo based on the novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante.
This is how it has been defined by Lorenzo Mieli who produced the series with Mario Gianani for HBO-RAI Fiction and TIMVISION, together with Domenico Procacci for Fandango, in collaboration with Rai Fic- tion, TIMVISION and HBO Entertainment, in co-production with Umedia.
The Rione Luzzatti, the working-class district in the suburbs of Naples and the main setting for the series, has been restored to its 1950s appearance through meticulous reconstruction work – featuring 12 small buildings, 9 studio sets, a church and a tunnel – carried out in a former industrial area on the outskirts of Caserta that occupies a total of 40,000 square meters. It is an impressive undertaking, just like Ferrante’s four novel saga (in fact another three seasons are planned based on the other books in the “Neapolitan Novels” series) that has had an incredible worldwide success, laying the foundations for this great international co-production.
In Italy, where the book has sold a million and a half copies, after passing through the Venice Film Festival the first two episodes were premiered in movie theaters on 1-2-3 October, whilst the eight episodes making up the first season will be broadcast on Rai Uno in November.
Expectations are high especially in the countries where the novel has been sold (it has been translated into forty languages and two million copies have been sold in the United States alone).
Lorenzo Mieli confirms: “This series is a high level production mosaic which, so far, has opened the doors to numerous countries for us. The sales negotiations, handled by Fremantle in collaboration with Raicom, are still underway but for now I can announce that – in addition to the United States – it will go to nearly all the countries in the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and the Middle East”. In the meantime, continues the producer, “we are in the process of writing the screenplay for the new season which we will begin filming in 2019.”
There will be 32 episodes in total, 8 per season, a huge mass of work as well as a strong investment in the region: “We are still working on the post-production of the first season and are therefore unable to quantify the final budget and even less that of the whole series. We can, however, say that it is undoubtedly a big investment, in the order of several million Euros, that has had a strong economic impact on the region, and we are extremely happy about that.”
In fact the contribution of the region on both an institutional as well as a professional level was decisive. Mieli continues: “We were looking for a place that could lend itself to the reconstruction of the district – and that could also host the equipment, technical venues, and a large canteen capable of accommodating the technical crew, cast and numerous extras. After having looked around a lot we finally found it in Caserta where, thanks to the collaboration of the local bodies of the Regione Campania and its Film Commission, we built this citadel in just one hundred days. This was also achieved thanks to the extraordinary professionals we hired on site and the excellent cooperation of the institutions which immediately understood the value, in terms of economics as well as image, of an international series like “My brilliant friend”. ”
The main instigator of this ‘architectural miracle’, was the set designer, Giancarlo Basili who, after years of experience in cinema, is making his television series ‘debut’.
“When I devised the project” explains Basili “I went to live for a week in the real Rione Luzzati, alongside the inhabitants who gave me some indications about what the district was like in those times, when, by the way, it bore signs of the rationalist period. Armed with this information and having read the book and screenplay, I reinvented the structure, following Saverio’s directing requirements.”
The impressive work of locating the area, which began in early 2017, required a lengthy process of research and preparation in which the production and set design departments were accompanied by the Film Commission Regione Campania.
“It was an area that we reclaimed and on which we built the district starting from scratch. We have practically recreated a film studio” recalls the set designer: “This allowed us to stay in Campania and establish an extraordinary relationship with the local people”.
Basili goes on: “The basic venues of the story that we recreated were the tunnel, the shopping street (the tobacconist’s shop, the Carracci delicatessen, the Bar Solara), the main street, the church (that came out
identical to the real one!), the small gardens, the courtyard where the two protagonists live and the train embankment. Then we surrounded everything with a green screen and used computer graphics to recre- ate the backdrop of Naples around the district. When the district’s inhabitants saw it they were overcome with emotion remembering how beautiful it was in the past!”
The set design department, which was quite small given the amount of work involved (“15 permanent staff in total which, during the most intensive working days rose to 25”), consisted almost entirely of Neapolitans: “ in Campania there is a big school for training set decorators. Each day my team modeled the district according to our own and the director’s visual demands”.
Starting with the use of color: “with Saverio we decided to opt for monochrome, using around twenty shades of grey on the buildings. The idea was to move to color when the young protagonists left the district and discovered the city of Naples, and subsequently Ischia. We also kept to the monochromatic theme inside the residences, which were laid out using only original furnishings. The result was real but reinvented houses, with grey, faded atmospheres and a special eye also on the relationship between costumes and backgrounds”.
Generally speaking it involved a huge amount of craft labor dedicated to attention to detail:
“I was a bit hesitant in the beginning because I had never worked in TV before and I was a bit worried about the work,” Basili reveals. “I feared that since it was a big HBO production there would be a lot of expectation for a ‘De Sica-style’ Naples, the 1950s Naples that remains in the international imagination, whereas our first images are very different because they are set in another place, in an outlying and little known district”.
Italian cinema’s traditional artisan ability finds its ideal expression here. This is underlined by Maurizio Gemma, director of the Film Commission Regione Campania:
“The filming of the scenes outside the Caserta set required an unprecedented commitment from the regional bodies and institutions involved, and no less from the citizens who, with their patience and passion, surrounded the project with affection and solidarity. Without this support it would have been even more difficult to achieve the visual quality of “My brilliant friend”.”
The ‘extra’ Neapolitan locations include Palazzo Gravina, the head office of the department of Architecture of the University Federico II, where the high school and offices were reconstructed, the Galleria Principe in Naples, Via dei Tribunali, the Molo San Vincenzo in the Bourbon port and Piazza del Plebiscito (“which in the mid Fifties was a parking area for vehicles and we therefore had to adapt a bit”).
Even in the course of this first season the recreated district undergoes a transformation given that the period of time covered goes from 1950 to around 1958, “and the stores, for example, gradually become more modern.”
The years will continue to go by, following the story of Elena and Lila, as girls and then women, in this citadel which will also be the set of the next series. And then what?
Mieli replies: “We will definitely be filming the next series here, the Rione will evolve and change as the story progresses. That is our plan for now, with regard to future uses of the set, we’ll see when we’ve fin- ished the series”.
“My brilliant friend” has certainly opened up new strategic prospects for the region, with the president of the Regione Campania, Vincenzo De Luca, announcing on the occasion of the Venice preview of the series that “the Region intends to structure the interventions and aim for an industrial plan that once again takes the cinema district project into consideration”.
The right conditions are there.
“We can proudly state” confirms Maurizio Gemma, “that for a few years now Campania is no longer just a land that is capable of great inspirational strength and a generator of creativity. Projects of this kind confirm our capacity for welcoming and accompanying complex productions, the reliability of a mature sector and the existence of a regional system that works”.