EXCLUSIVE: In March, Italy was the global epicenter of the coronavirus crisis. The world looked on in horror as the nation was ravaged by the disease and life ground to a halt. More than 35,000 people have died in the country. The rest of the world would soon know Italy’s pain.
Amid the destruction wrought by the pandemic, businesses have had to adapt and innovate in order to survive. Devils and Medici producer Lux Vide, one of Europe’s leading independent TV producers, is a shining example of that fortitude. Here, Lux Vide CEO Luca Bernabei tells us how the Italian firm has managed to shoot a remarkable five shows since coming out of lockdown, including their biggest budget project to date: big-canvas international drama Leonardo, starring Aidan Turner.
As we reported today, production has recently wrapped on the Sony-backed English-language series, which heralds from The X-Files and The Man In The High Castle exec Frank Spotnitz and Jericho creator Steve Thompson. Getting the show made amid such turmoil turned out to be a feat da Vinci himself would have been proud of. You can check out some behind-the-scenes drone footage of the vast backlot here.
Three weeks ago, Lux Vide also wrapped on medical drama Doc, whose first episodes were the most watched in Italy during the Covid crisis. Still in production are Good Morning Mum, a family drama co-produced with RTI Mediaset, the sixth season of successful format Sister Angela’s Girls, and recurring show One Step From Heaven 6, which has been filming in northern Italy’s Veneto region, one of the world’s original coronavirus hotspots. After the summer, the firm is set to start a premium drama for national broadcaster RAI.
DEADLINE: It’s an incredible turnaround. Just a few months ago the world was looking on as Italy suffered as one of the main coronavirus hotspots. Now, as many countries are seeing spikes and second waves, the country is far less in the news. The fact that you have been able to shoot five significant productions in that time is in part testament to the country’s functionality. How have you, and Italy, been able to do this?
LUCA BERNABEI: On a national level, I think there are two fundamental reasons. If you are poor in Italy, hospitals and the state will generally take care of you for free. That has been important. The second reason is that we were the first to lock down and did so quickly. That saved us. Italians generally don’t love discipline but people stayed at home.
When we shut down production of Leonardo on March 9 we started thinking straight away about how we could get back. We had nine weeks left still to shoot.
The national unions were really effective. There was a real sense that we were going to overcome the problems together. We managed to re-open set on June 8 but we’d never known anything like it. We didn’t know the enemy we were dealing with. It was very strange to see everyone in masks.
Creating our bubble was so important. We had a doctor on set the whole time and followed strict protocols. We bought a new disinfection machine called Sani-Gate [more commonly used by hospitals, nursing homes and airports] which sanitizes clothes, shoes, takes temperatures, everything. Everyone has to walk through the machine before going on set. Overnight, props were bathed in ultra-violet light to sanitise them.
We managed the daily and weekly swab tests ourselves, partly relying on a drive in by a local hospital and partly on set. We also managed the antibody tests. It was quite a cost for an independent production company.
DEADLINE: What did you do about Covid insurance?
LB: When production resumed in June there were no insurance packages deemed ready or satisfactory. We made sure through our protocols and safety measures that every single area of the set was covered in order to prevent any risks and reassure the cast and crew. All external guests where kept away from the set. We think this says a lot about how much the co-producers and talent trusted us.
DEADLINE: Did you have any positive Covid results?
LB: None on set after the lockdown. We found out that three or four people had developed antibodies so had had it before we returned.
DEADLINE: Was it more difficult to achieve the scale you wanted coming back out of lockdown?
LB: Maybe a little, but using invention and CGI helped us to put the money where it was needed. You have to be intelligent and smart about it. We had a crew of thousands. Leonardo was originally supposed to be shot in Rome, Florence and Milan but we realised straight away that Milan was too dangerous so we re-routed the production to Rome where we scaled up our backlot to double as Milan.
We made sure we had no more than 40 extras per day and tried to re-use the same people who were tested often.
DEADLINE: How did the hiatus impact your budget?
LB: It impacted it a lot. We lost at least 15 percent of our budget. Throughout the three-month hiatus, part of the crew was still working and we needed to fly the actors home all over the world.
DEADLINE: What was your budget?
LB: €26M [$31M]. That’s our biggest for one season. There were some significant set-pieces such as the painting of da Vinci’s iconic and epic mural The Last Supper. We did it almost 1:1 dimension and in eight stages and captured how Leonardo realized he had made a mistake in the dimensions so had to start all over again. It was a huge effort.
DEADLINE: It’s ironic how inventive you had to be on a series about one of the world’s greatest inventors…
LB: Yes, we had to be inventive but da Vinci was a true genius. He was so many different people in one. He reinvented himself so many times.
DEADLINE: How did Aidan Turner handle the role?
LB: Very well. He is an intelligent and devoted actor. He studied a lot and was always the first on set. He was impressive. He was living in Rome but he wasn’t going out and about late at night. He lived like a monk. The same was true of Freddie Highmore who plays an investigator searching for the real Leonardo.
DEADLINE: When will we see the series? Are there any streamers in for it?
LB: I believe there will be streaming partners. Our distributor and co-producer Sony is getting plenty of requests. There will be an interesting mix of partners on this show.
The series was supposed to debut at the Venice Film Festival. We had originally envisioned that. But we hope to complete the pilot this year for people to see next year.
DEADLINE: It’s early, but is there any talk of a second season?
LB: [Laughs] Some of the craftsmen have asked me. You never know. Hopefully. Let’s see how the first series goes first.
DEADLINE: Meanwhile, you’ve also been in production on four other series. One was Italian medical drama Doc…
LB: Yes. We had to shut down the show during Covid. We were two weeks from finishing the first season. The first part of the show aired during the pandemic and was a massive success, with around 30% audience share: that’s around eight million people. It was incredible. It has been the most-watched shows on Italian TV in the last 15 years. We were afraid people might be fatigued of doctors and medical storylines amid the pandemic but the opposite was true. We are filming the second half of the first season now.
DEADLINE: What would your advice be to those going back into production?
LB: It’s very important to be connected with the unions and to have protocols in place. The bubble was also very helpful. Without the bubble, this wouldn’t have been possible. Having our own studio space helped of course. It meant we could control and check everything. Ultimately, a producer has to be smart but also caring of the crew.
DEADLINE: Italian TV drama is in a good place. Where do you see Lux Vide in this growing market?
LB: We’re one of the last independent companies here. Things are moving very fast in the market. Look how Netflix has just hired Eleonora Andreatta from Rai [Rai’s longtime head of drama is one of the country’s leading TV execs]. That was a huge statement about the market in Italy. It was a declaration.
We’re relatively big for an independent. We are around 60 full-time staff, and that goes up to thousands when we’re in production on various projects. We love our job. Every show we make [Bernabei runs the company with sister Matilde], we try to make the audience think as well as entertain them. Content creators have a responsibility.