Justin Haythe, creator of Starz’s latest period drama, “The Serpent Queen,” understands the absurdity of the Medici era. For him, this is a landscape where the simplest cut could outright kill a person (not unlike that of “House of the Dragon,” where the ailments are constant and incredibly ill-defined) and an argument could easily transition into people throwing furniture at each other. “I had not set out to do a royal show or a period show. That’s a very established genre and you have to satisfy this genre, which, hopefully, we have. But I didn’t have an idea how to reinvent it,” Haythe told IndieWire via Zoom.
For Haythe, that reinvention came from opening up the world of French leader Catherine de Medici (Samantha Morton) to characters that have been commonly written out of history. “Anything is fair game if the character is right. All those people exist in history, the kings and the queens. The people who serve them, the people who brought them their horses, or share their lives most intimately, are nonexistent in history, so you can invent those people,” Haythe said. “If you start inventing those people who got written out everybody’s invited.”
Haythe went on to discuss his plans for Season 2 (which might have been spoiled if his whiteboard was pointed in a different direction), as well as putting the series together during the height of COVID.
IndieWire: Looking at the films you worked on before this, like “Red Sparrow” and “The Lone Ranger,” I wouldn’t see a Catherine de Medici drama as something you’d be into. What drew you to this project?
Justin Haythe: I started writing books and short stories, and then moved into feature films. I never had any prescribed idea of the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. But there’s an attitude that is mine, perhaps a tone. What makes me laugh. What I think is absurd. And when Francis Lawrence sent me this book — he and Erwin [Stoff, executive producer] sent me this book — I read it, and the tone came to me immediately.
When I read this book she just seemed so modern to me, and she seems so such an antihero. I couldn’t think of a female antihero [though] I’m sure there’s one, but I couldn’t think of one. In the sense [I’m] watching these guys, like [Tony] Soprano, or [Don] Corleone, or Walter White and saying, “I know why you’re doing these things. They’re terrible, but I know why you’re doing them so I’m with you. I’m still with you.” The whole tension is when am I going to say, “I’m not with you anymore?” That seemed right for Catherine.
But also we were talking about the period, the absurdity of the period, and the absurdity of a system of royalty. I began to think, “Who was the person who walked into a field one day and said, ‘Hey, guys, God picked me to be king.'” How do you convince everybody? The entire system is built on something pretty tenuous; it’s kind of showbiz. You got to keep everybody believing and that’s very funny, and very irreverent, and very absurd, and a little contemporary in the sense that there’s a lot of stuff going on that people know in their gut is unfair. How do you keep it going? How do you keep pedaling? When does the music stop, as it were?
People forget the Medicis were the “Succession” clan of their day.
The Medicis were this incredible force in Europe, [an] incredible force for accumulating wealth and building art. Because history has been recorded the way it has, there’s actually a huge amount of room for invention because so many people have been written out of it. People have a really clear idea about what a period should look like and who should be in it in terms of their race, and their gender, and the way they should talk — they should all have British accents — and when you defy that, some people have an issue. But of course, it wasn’t reported accurately. My goal was never to be so anachronistic that people would stop caring because we don’t have the plague, we don’t have black magic. It would be very easy to make the stakes irrelevant to us. You can’t make it so irreverent that the stakes don’t matter, but you want to make it as relatable as possible.
It’s why Kiruna Stamell having such a central role as Mathilde makes this show shine. We don’t often see disabled characters in period dramas, though we know they existed.
There’s been some stuff online that the show is woke, which is absurd. Just think about how close North Africa was to Rome. There’s been an intermingling. And there was no French language at the time. There were all kinds of different French languages. So the idea that everyone should have the same accent, for me, it started there. I’ve been down the road of doing a movie where everyone’s talking in a foreign accent and then you think, “Why are we doing this?” Because we’re already suspending disbelief because they shouldn’t be speaking [English], right? So any accent is fair game and it makes it more relevant, more real. So Karuna is in her Australian accent, [David] Denman’s in an American accent. That’s the beginning of it.
And then casting someone like the Guise brothers, that was just looking at actors and their father’s of Iranian descent, the actor who played that. Anything is fair game if the character is right. All those people exist in history, the kings and the queens. The people who serve them, the people who brought them their horses, or share their lives most intimately, are nonexistent in history, so you can invent those people. If you start inventing those people who got written out, everybody’s invited. Karuna is a fabulous actor, and she brought an enormous amount to the part. It’s treating everybody with the same irreverent brush. No matter who [or] where they’re from, they’re all capable of the same level of pettiness, the same level of care, of survival.
Was there a specific moment this season that sticks out for you?
I’m enormously proud of the first season because it was done under such difficult circumstances, meaning that it was high COVID and we were sort of dancing through the raindrops trying not to get shut down. It’s credit to our crew and everybody that we never got shut down, but it also meant people couldn’t go home because there was a quarantine on both ends. So we were kind of this traveling circus, this theater group, and that was hard on everybody. But it also created a communal, supportive environment that will be hard to replicate, and so I look back on that with real pride.
I would really stand back and marvel at where we were shooting, Chateau de Chambord, and these costumes. Karen [Muller Serreau, the costume designer] did the most extraordinary job, and there would be times that they would work through the night and they would come out of the wardrobe department into the actor’s trailer onto the set. This was the time pressure we were under, and I think that’s an enormous accomplishment.
The season ends with Mary (Antonia Clarke) returning to England, and history buffs know what that means. Was it always your intention to end Season 1 there?
The advantage and the disadvantage of doing a show that is guided by history is that it forces you to set up the poles you’re going to try to go around. Because you have to know where it’s going to end at the end of Season 1 in order to know where these things happen. Catherine arrives, she gets married, her father-in-law dies, her husband dies, her son dies, you had to beat these things out and make sure you had the rope you needed to get to an end. I thought the arc from this girl in an orphanage getting punched in the face and saying, “That’s the first time I knew I mattered to anybody” to [her] saying, “I am the ruler of all France.” I wanted to see that. So in that sense, I knew right from the beginning, and then it was a question of what do you deposit along the way to give yourself room to invent what you invent?
Can you say anything about Season 2?
I can tell you that whiteboard over there [points], I had to turn it around because it has the whole second season on the other side. I made that mistake before. I’ve got a lot of very specific ideas about where I want Season 2 to go. I wanted to start with what I think was Catherine’s real ambition to try to modernize France. She built the Tuilleries. She brought a lot of artists to France. She tried to introduce religious tolerance and somehow got from there to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and that’s an interesting arc.
“The Serpent Queen” Season 1 is available to stream on Starz.