On a hilly patch of greenery outside Rome, a group of extras is milling about in a meticulously reconstructed eighth century B.C. village wearing leather sandals, coarse red tunics and baseball caps.
It’s scorching. The set is on a vast backlot on the grounds of the Cinecittà World theme park where during a period of roughly six months a temple of Vesta — the virgin Roman goddess of the hearth, home and family — was built by craftsmen based on input from archeologists.
It overlooks some 20 equally period-perfect mud-and-straw huts and stables that make up the village.
The production company is several weeks into the 28-week shoot of Sky original “Romulus,” a 10-episode high-end series filmed in archaic Latin, set in a primitive and brutal world in which man’s fate is decided by the merciless power of nature and the gods, according to promotional materials.
“Romulus” is “about feelings, war, brotherhood, courage and fear,” says director Matteo Rovere, who is making his debut as a TV director after helming similarly themed but conceptually different feature film “The First King,” a realistic rendition of the mythical tale of the founding of Rome in the eighth century B.C. by twins Romulus and Remus.
The series, which features a young, relatively unknown cast, is a spin-off of the movie. However, Rovere is keen on distancing the show from the film, noting that it starts earlier and explores the lead-up to Rome’s foundation myth.
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“It is a great, epic fresco, a highly realistic reconstruction of the events that led to the founding of Rome. But above all, it is an investigation into the origins and the profound meaning of power in the West: a journey into an archaic and frightening world, where everything is sacred and people feel the mysterious and hostile presence of the gods everywhere,” he says.
One thing is clear: this show is a far cry from the sword-and-sandals epics Cinecittà became known for in its heyday. Yet from a production standpoint, there are similarities: thousands of extras are being used, more than 700 stunt people and hundreds of authentic weapons were manufactured for the show, which is produced by ITV-owned Cattleya. ITV Studios Global Entertainment is selling the series internationally.
“For the costumes, our initial references were images we saw on an Etruscan tomb,” says costume designer Valentina Taviani, standing near a bubbling vat where handwoven fabric is being dyed for the tunics.
“It is not the most expensive Italian series ever made,” says Cattleya chief Riccardo Tozzi, who declined to specify the budget. “But I believe it’s the most complex one” in terms of narrative and production.
Tozzi says Italian TV series are rooted in the country’s filmmaking heritage: “director-driven and dare to venture outside the box.”
“A series like this has never been made before in Italy, nor has it ever been seen,” says Sky Italia director of original productions Nils Hartmann. He points out that “Romulus” is “clearly conceived as an international product” and fits in with plans recently announced by new in-house production unit Sky Studios to double investments in original programming as part of an effort to become the leading production force in Europe, under new owner Comcast.
Sky Italia chief of programming Nicola Maccanico says the project has at its heart “what is perhaps the most recognizable brand in our country: Rome.”
He has high hopes that with “Romulus” the Eternal City will once again draw worldwide attention with a great ancient epic. Except this time it will be “raw and realistic.”