It ‘s understandable if the producers and actors on HBO’s “Rome” expected a lavish craft services spread on the set in a country renowned for its sumptuous cuisine.
“Italians don’t snack,” explains executive producer Bruno Heller. “You eat lunch and dinner. You don’t stuff food into yourself in the interim. We’ve had to get used to coffee and an orange in the middle of the day.
“But work stops at 8 or 9 o’clock and everybody goes home for a proper meal. And we get the same amount of work done.”
That’s just one of the myriad discoveries the producers, actors and others made after they committed to the gargantuan undertaking that is “Rome,” one of the most ambitious television series ever made, in terms of scale and authenticity.
There was also the matter of keeping the mostly London-based thespians from driving themselves to the set in the dizzying Roman traffic, adjusting to the language and culture, adapting to the facilities at the famed Cinecitta studios and finding craftsmen who could re-create period props and sets.
The most daunting challenge, however, was developing an episodic Roman drama like “I, Claudius” for the cable net that had alternately an intimate touch and an epic feel.
“I think it’s a genre that hasn’t really been done before,” Heller says. “There’s nothing to compare it to in that way. It’s a gritty, realistic take on an epic subject. It’s a costume action adventure soap opera.”
The show had a complicated genesis, but essentially executive producer Anne Thomopoulos had wanted to do a Roman series, and John Milius and William J. MacDonald came to HBO with a raw version of the current show. Heller was then brought in to tailor it more to HBO’s tastes.
The producers had little doubt that the show had to be filmed in Rome and not on a Los Angeles soundstage.
“We very much wanted the Roman light,” Heller explains. “We would get actors coming out of England. The whole sort of zeitgeist of being in Rome is important; there’s a certain joie de vie that still exists in Italy today. Rome is very much still Rome. We didn’t want to have a Victorian Anglo-Saxon feel that so many productions lapse into by default.”
With one season under their belts and another on the way, Heller and his colleagues feel much more settled and comfortable than they did when they first embarked on the production.
“Now the machine is working great,” he says. “One of the joys is the cross-cultural exchange. The Italians have a much more livable way of making shows. They’re not working until 1 in the morning. And the Americans brought a degree of precision to doing things.”
Best episode: The one in which Atia offers her daughter Octavia to Pompey, even though she is already deeply in love with someone much closer to her age. It illustrates early on what lengths Atia will go to in order to get what she wants.
Most complex character: Atia. She can be loyal and loving, yet she is capable of doing the most villainous things.
What should happen next season: Titus Pullo needs to have more screen time and become more central to the action. His character is the one that is closest to being a regular guy and someone to whom audiences can relate.