New series “Lafayette” will be presented this week at the Mercato Internazionale Audiovisivo (MIA), the film and TV market taking place in Rome. Variety spoke to the show’s producer Nicolas Deprost, CEO of the French production outfit Wild Horses, and writer, Oscar winner David Franzoni (“Gladiator”), ahead of the market.
“Lafayette” kicks off in the spring of 1777, when the Marquis de Lafayette, a 19-year-old French aristocrat, sets sail from France for the New World, inspired by the spirit of the American Revolution and determined to hitch his fate to the fledgling cause. There he discovered that the faltering movement rested on the shoulders of one man, George Washington, the general struggling to lead a rag-tag army to victory despite insurmountable odds.
The series tells the story of the father-son bond between the young Frenchman and the man who would become the first president of the U.S., and how their mutual devotion saved the American Revolution. At the show’s outset, the revolution is on the brink of collapse. Washington’s forces have suffered a string of crushing defeats. The colonies are riven by indecision and infighting. The British have all but declared victory by the time Lafayette arrives in the New World.
Yet somehow, a cast of larger-than-life figures emerges, determined to see their audacious project to its completion. “We have this big epic story that can focus on this quite ad-hoc family between Lafayette, Washington, [General Nathanael] Greene—all the people that were gathering around Washington during the revolution,” said Deprost.
The French producer is a self-described “historical geek” and co-creator of the forthcoming historical drama series “Lionheart,” about the 12th-century English King Richard of Lionheart, which is currently being developed with a studio partner.
In Franzoni, he found a kindred spirit who was already developing a project about one of the most iconic Frenchmen to join forces with the American Revolution against the British. “When I discovered the way that David was thinking and was working on Lafayette, it was obvious that we share the same vision, and we need to work together,” Deprost said.
Franzoni, a New England native who was born and raised in Vermont, said he’s “always been in love with the American Revolution.” He described the tale of a young Frenchman crossing the ocean to join the cause as “an irresistible story.”
“The thing for me about Lafayette is that he represents all of us when we were young,” said Franzoni. “He’s a kid. He’s a teenager. His head is full of ideas. He’s been reading Rousseau. He’s crazy with ideas. And America happens. America doesn’t happen very often—a real people’s revolution just jumping out of the woodwork.”
Lafayette set sail from France burning with revolutionary fervor. After arriving in the New World, the young Frenchman wrote to Henry Laurens, then President of the U.S. Congress: “The moment I heard of America, I loved her; the moment I knew she was fighting for freedom I burnt with a desire of bleeding for her; and the moment I shall be able to serve her, at any time, or any part of the world, will be the happiest of my life.”
“He just found it irresistible,” said Franzoni. “It was a love affair. When he came to America, he brought that with him.”
Against that historical backdrop is the relationship between the orphaned Lafayette, who was just two years old when his father died fighting the English, and the childless Washington, who was searching for a son. The bond they forged was an especially poignant one for Deprost, who lost his own father a year ago. “It gave me a push to work on this father and son bond…and the way that it makes you evolve [and] builds you as a man,” he said.
The series also recasts the American Revolution to reflect its radically diverse nature, a fact often overlooked in contemporary tellings. Colonial women not only held down the fort while their husbands and sons went off to battle, but disguised themselves as men so they could also take up arms. Slaves enlisted in the army, believing they were also fighting for their own freedom. One of the men who was instrumental in whipping the Continental Army into shape, Baron Von Steuben, was openly gay.
“You always have the human diversity in reality,” said Deprost. “We need and we want that on screen. The series is named ‘Lafayette.’ But the real story is this gathering of completely diverse people that gather around the idea of the revolution.”
“It’s an irresistible story,” said Franzoni. “It’s about personalities that won the people’s revolution. Without those personalities, it would have failed.”