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Saverio Costanzo on Adapting Elena Ferrante’s Bestselling ‘My Brilliant Friend’

My Brilliant Friend,” based on the first of the four internationally bestselling “Neapolitan Novels” by Italian author Elena Ferrante, became the latest TV series Sunday to receive a prestigious world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. The show, produced by Wildside and Domenico Procacci’s Fandango for HBO and Italian pubcaster RAI, which originated the project, will roll out day and date in November in about 20 territories.

Director Saverio Costanzo spoke to Variety about the challenges of bringing this high-end drama to the screen.

Elena Ferrante has a screenplay credit. Can you talk to me about her input in the writing process?

I found out that, besides being a great writer, she has a distinctive sense of cinematic narrative. So she wasn’t at all defensive about her work, though of course I had no intention of changing its key aspects. The way we worked is we showed her our drafts and she sent us notes. But when we proposed a type of narrative structure which is very different from the book…much more classic…she didn’t bat an eye. I think she had already come to terms with the change. That aside, her input is everywhere. She was our compass. The book is a lot more complex than one might think as a canvas in terms of the web of relationships and narrative strands, so her guidance was crucial.

You also worked with U.S. writer Jennifer Shuur. What was her input?

Her input was mainly in the development stage. She provided guidance in terms of making sure that the world outside Italy would understand what is a very local story, very Italian. So we needed a compass in terms of the rest of the world.

The four actresses who play the two girls at different ages are all non-professionals. How did you pick them?

We picked them out of 8,000 people who came to the casting calls. But they were the only four options we ever considered, and this is pretty incredible! It’s as though each one of them just grabbed the part….They did not give us any other option; we never had any doubts. 

How did you train them?

The key for us was not picking non-professionals who looked right for the part, but young people who were able to act the part. So all the kids went through a six-month workshop. They are professionals now.

Of course, you also have professional actors.

Yes, and in that case it’s sort of the opposite. They are pros, but they don’t look like they are acting. The great thing about Neapolitans – and the entire cast of the show is from Naples or thereabouts – is that they always manage to have depth in terms of what they bring to the screen, but are as natural as though they came in from the street. Naples is an open-air theater. Probably to defend themselves from violence they always have to wear masks. Everyone there is an actor. People mistakenly say the Neapolitans are comic actors, but I think they are tragic. And Ferrante writes tragedy.

The other aspect where Naples is key is the amazing set.

Ferrante, in order to distance herself from stereotypes, set the novel in a suburban part of Naples which has nothing to do with its picturesque aspect. We had to reconstruct it entirely, and I think this was a plus. From scratch, we had to rebuild a place that was like a dusty Wild West in the middle of nothing. It’s the third character in the series, and it will grow as the show goes forward.

Will the second season happen? 

That’s the idea. For me, the four books are like a single novel. There is a continuity between them, and the eighth episode of the first season will end with a major hook.

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