One of the most eagerly anticipated premieres on the Lido screened Saturday — the first two episodes of “The Young Pope,” Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino’s eight-part TV drama about a conservative, cigarette-smoking American cleric unexpectedly chosen to lead the Roman Catholic Church.
The series — a joint production by HBO, Sky, and Canal Plus — stars Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII, and is yet another example of the great migration of movie talent, from both behind and before the camera, into high-end television. Sorrentino tells Variety how “The Young Pope” came about, how he won his battle with the English language at last, and why he now needs to take a break.
What was the genesis of your becoming involved in “The Young Pope”?
For a long time, the producer Lorenzo Mieli and I wanted to work together. We discarded a number of initial ideas that did not seem challenging enough or would engage us for such a long time. Suddenly, a word that in our country is taboo came up: the Vatican. We had found the suitable challenge. And we soon got to a unity of purpose in the project vision: showing that world for what it is in its entirety, without sticking to the surface of morbid ideas relating only to the scandals and unethical conduct of the church. There had to be this in the story, of course, because it is real, but the Vatican universe and of a pope is much more.
It is about everyday life, work, sacrifice, the difficulty of making decisions, and continuing questions about its survival, it being one of the smallest countries in the world but among the most important ones. We then shared these ideas with Sky, which has shown itself as a champion of courage in dealing with such a sensitive issue with an impressive effort of means and, above all, enthusiasm and availability.
Why did you decide to take on a television project?
I think that the opportunity to make high-level television … is a wonderful new and exciting opportunity available to directors today. In the long run, even churning out one film after the other can be a routine. Television offers the ability to regenerate as storytellers, since the television narrative imposes tough challenges, real climbing up rugged mountains. Finally, in deciding to do television, I was in the company of some of my idols, like [Steven] Soderbergh, [Martin] Scorsese, and many others.
How different has it been shooting a TV series from shooting a film?
I have tried to minimize the differences. I planned and filmed the work as a long film. The advantages are the ability to compete with narrative opportunities that cinema excludes, because the length of two hours against the 10 hours for television imposes sacrifices. The disadvantages are that the television times are long — in my case seven months of filming — and you have to fight to keep your concentration alive, plus physical and psychological resistance, and the difficulty of holding together a huge and chaotic whole. [Francois] Truffaut said that a director must simply keep things together.
On TV these things are endless.
“The Young Pope” involves an American pope, but he speaks Italian and lives and works at the Vatican. Why is the series being shot in English?
The idea of an American pope immediately appealed to me. There never has been one in reality, but sooner or later there could be, and this seemed a good compromise between invention and verisimilitude.
You’ve shot two films in English. Is doing a longer English-language TV series more challenging, or the same?
My long and personal battle to learn English was finally won after this very long work. It seems to me that now, at last, I can understand and speak English. Two films shot in English were not enough. The artistic challenge, however, is always to be able to hear the musicality of acting even when it is not in your native language.
What is your next project?
Rest. I wrote all the episodes, filmed all the episodes, worked hard through the whole post-production process. A future project, now, would be inappropriate, because it would be born from fatigue.