The Man From Oz Finds Religion

Showrunner Tom Fontana takes an unorthodox approach to distributing Vatican drama Borgia

The latest show from the creator of Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz is not on pay cable. Or cable at all, actually. Or broadcast. It’s called Borgia (not to be confused with Showtime’s The Borgias), and it’s a twistier, more political take on the Renaissance-era family that produced two popes. In an unprecedented move, production company Atlantique hired Fontana to create the historical drama without a network—it’s already aired on French premium channel Canal+—and now that it’s in Season 2, the Borgia team is trying to get some stateside attention. Believers already include Netflix Streaming and Amazon Instant Video.

Adweek: How is this different from producing directly for a network?

What’s remarkable to me about it is that there was a time when you couldn’t go to Europe and make a TV series unless it had a network or a studio attached to it. Atlantique said, “We just want to do this; all we want is an American showrunner. We don’t need the money; we just need the expertise.” And when they contacted me, I said, “Are you really serious about doing it the way they do in America?” Because my understanding is that in Europe, the writer is the least important person in the equation, and I said, “I really want to be in charge of everything. If you can live with that, I’m happy to spend time in the Czech Republic and go to casting sessions in Paris and London.”

Where have you guys been picked up so far?

It’s streamed on Netflix, but we want to try to get it out there on a more traditional level, just because obviously it’s also more money. But the amount of money they’re looking for—and I don’t know the exact numbers—is relatively low. The one thing that traditional television still has that none of [the streaming services] have is in-your-face, pop-culture-y recognition. It’s ironic because the show is a hit in 55 countries, just not America.

So this isn’t a crime show.

Well, you can just make them a bunch of popes who poisoned people and skulked around corners cackling about having killed Cardinal Orsini, but it’s boring to write. And, I would imagine, boring to perform.

Why did you cast John Doman (from HBO’s The Wire) as Rodrigo Borgia?

When we were casting for our Rodrigo, we saw a lot of wonderful British actors, but they all seemed very British to us. And being Sicilian myself, there’s a kind of Mediterranean thing you look for. John’s not Italian, but he has that thing.

How did you get involved?

First they approached Chris Albrecht [formerly of HBO, now head of Starz] about doing a show about the Borgias, and he knew that I have a fascination with the popes, being a half-assed Catholic. And he said, “Well, if you want an American showrunner and you want somebody who already knows everything about the Borgias, you should just get Tom Fontana.” I love research, so I was just a pig in shit. It was sort of the same thing that happened with Oz, when Chris and Anne [Thomopoulos, another HBO vet] said to me, “We should just have fun with it.” This is the first time I ever thought I would be excommunicated for writing a television series. I thought I was going to be shot before, but now I’m worried about the afterlife.

But you’re not as hard on the Borgias as others have been.

The Borgia family has had such a bad reputation over all these hundreds of years. Some of it is merited, and for some of it, they were swiftboated. The cardinals hired writers to write bad things about them. Go back to original source material and look at Latin that hasn’t been translated into any other language. To me, they were less the Corleone family than the Murdochs. They had this global brand—salvation!—that they could sell!