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‘My Brilliant Friend’ Creator Saverio Costanzo on the Great Mystery of Working with Elena Ferrante

Costanzo talks approaching the HBO adaptation like a French New Wave movie, and why teaming with Ferrante is like "working with a ghost."

My Brilliant Friend

“My Brilliant Friend” director Saverio Costanzo and star Margherita Mazzucco

Eduardo Castaldo/HBO

Saverio Costanzo has done the impossible with “My Brilliant Friend,” the HBO series adapted from Italian author Elena Ferrante’s smash literary series known as the Neapolitan novels: he’s turned an unfilmable quartet of books about the inner lives of women, written by an author who to this day remains anonymous, into must-see television art. Ahead of the recent announcement of the series’ renewal for a third season, and at the tail end of the just-concluded second season, Costanzo spoke with IndieWire about bringing this dream project to life, with an invisible author hanging over it all like an all-seeing phantom.

Costanzo’s relationship with Ferrante — which is now something like two people communicating on opposite sides of a two-way mirror — began in earnest in 2007. Costanzo read Ferrante’s compact and chilling novel “The Lost Daughter,” a project now in the hands of Maggie Gyllenhaal to direct, and asked Ferrante’s publisher for the rights.

“She wrote me an email saying that I can have it for free for about six months, and can try to work on the script. If I couldn’t write the script, she would get back the rights without any payment,” Costanzo said. “I tried to make a film about that book, but I couldn’t find it.” Costanzo felt challenged by the level of flashback required for the book, which follows a divorced woman’s introspective journey while traveling alone in her middle age. “I said ‘I’m sorry but I cannot do it,’ and she never answered me. Eight years later, I was in my kitchen, and I received a phone call from the publisher saying that [Ferrante] pointed at my name, among one other, to write and direct ‘My Brilliant Friend.'”

While directing all eight episodes of the 2018 first season of “My Brilliant Friend,” and six of this season’s episodes, Costanzo’s correspondences with the elusive Italian writer, whom some speculate to be a man in disguise, happened almost aways secondhand through her publisher. “It’s like working with a ghost,” he said. “I don’t know who she is, so it’s unfair, the relationship. She’s someone who can see you, but you cannot see her. It’s like working with a presence that’s always there but you can’t see.”

His most direct line of communication with Ferrante occurred during the making of Season 1, during a pivotal moment where the heroines of the story, Lenu and Lila, throw their dolls into the basement chute of a local loan shark. They never manage to retrieve them, and it’s an episode whose ramifications ripple through the rest of the series, right up to the final pages of the fourth Neapolitan novel. “They brought me four dolls. I couldn’t really choose the right one because it’s such a big responsibility, so I sent an SMS to the publisher with pictures of the doll, and this is the only thing I asked her during the set time,” he said. “This is the closest I’ve gotten to her.”

As for rumors that Ferrante is a man operating under a female nom de plume, Costanzo says no way. “I don’t believe it,” he said, adding that the question prompts another issue for him as a man directing nearly all episodes for a female-driven, and female-written, series. “We have a woman now directing two episodes,” he said, referring to Italian director Alice Rohrwacher’s contributions to the explosive double bill of the Ischia-set episodes in Season 2, where Lenu and Lila’s friendship simmers to a head during a seemingly endless summer on an Italian island.

My Brilliant Friend HBO

“My Brilliant Friend”

Eduardo Castaldo/HBO

“The great thing is, as a man, I can never write ‘My Brilliant Friend,’ I’m sure of that. But as a man, I have the right, I can understand it myself, and put myself in their shoes. That makes a big difference, and I feel [Ferrante is] a woman. There is no doubt of that.”

Costanzo said he brought Rohrwacher aboard because he wanted a fresh eye on the story of Season 2, which adapts the second Neapolitan novel, “The Story of a New Name.” Rohrwacher’s previous films include “The Wonders” and Netflix’s “Happy as Lazzaro,” and her sister Alba Rohrwacher not only lends voiceover to the HBO series, but is also Costanzo’s partner.

“Working with a friend is always better than working with someone who’s just another director,” Costanzo said. “I don’t like the the way television fragments episodes, like in a season, there are four directors, [which] means that you kill the specific look of anyone. If you have four directors, it means they all have to be the same. The same form, the same look, the same way to tell the story.” Costanzo encouraged Rohrwacher to bring her own particular vision to “The Kiss” and “The Betrayal,” two episodes that boast some of the series’ most daring visual flourishes, not to mention its spiciest bits of sexual tension and psychodrama.

“Television series are trying to look the same, all the episodes, but it’s alright if you have a change, if there is a different eye that is looking at the same story. It just makes the story more interesting,” he said.

With Season 2, Costanzo not only wanted to bring in another voice behind the camera, he also wanted to rewrite and remix how he initially conceived of the story in Season 1, whose style had more fidelity to Italian neorealist filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. They captured the grit, slow pace, and economic despair of Italian life in the late 1940s and early ’50s with what Costanzo called an “innocence in the frame.”

Costanzo said that for the second season, with respect to Ferrante’s novel, “you have the main character in front of the camera, but in the back of the frame you have Italian history. I was thinking a lot of the second book, on the dynamism,” he said. “[Lenu and Lila] start to run, like the Italian economic boom starts to run, and I imagine myself, like if I was Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, directors in the Cinémathèque of Paris who want to kill their fathers, and their fathers are the directors of Italian neorealism.”

Certainly the second season takes some wild aesthetic turns, included a seventh episode shot entirely in 16mm, and the rest of the series shot on ALEXA, using an anamorphic lens built by “Apocalypse Now” cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. “What we imagined in the concept of the second season, like with Alice [Rohrwacher], is to be like these guys at the Cinémathèque saying, ‘Let’s break with the tradition. Let’s make something more unconventional, something more anarchic, something more crazy in the way it’s told,'” Costanzo said.

My Brilliant Friend

“My Brilliant Friend”

Eduardo Castaldo/HBO

The telling of both seasons of “My Brilliant Friend” required some of the most massive production design in Europe. While many of the exterior shots of the series are filmed on-location in Naples, most of the show is shot on an elaborate set in Caserta, about 45 minutes from Naples by car. The construction and level of detail involved in the set, plus the hundreds of extras milling throughout, evoke a kind of real-life “Synecdoche, New York,” the Charlie Kaufman film wherein Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character mounts an elaborate indoor recreation of his entire life.

“The set is like 18 buildings, four floors. It’s a city,” Costanzo said, adding that the interior is like a cross between Cinecittà, the 100-acre studio in Rome where films like 1963’s “Cleopatra” were shot, and a factory. “All the houses, all the apartments, we built inside a huge enormous space where people were building cars before. It’s a place with an atmosphere.”

Indeed, there’s a haunted quality hanging over the entire series, from Costanzo’s interactions with Ferrante to the production itself, because he also described this set as “like a ghost city. You have a feeling that there is a lot of life that came together in that spot, because of the workers before. There’s history in that place.”

All episodes of “My Brilliant Friend” are currently available to stream on HBO platforms.

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