Before the coronavirus outbreak put Italy on lockdown in early March, writer-director Niccolò Ammaniti was in Palermo, shooting “Anna,” a series for Comcast-owned pay-TV operator Sky centered on a 13-year-old Sicilian girl who must contend with a viral contagion that kills off all adults on the island of Sicily.
“We were shooting scenes in which we had adults saying, ‘We have to stick together. We have to go to the countryside, because cities are [virus] hotbeds.’ There were all these elements that resonated,” recounts Ammaniti, speaking from his Rome residence.
But the director, along with producers Mario Gianani, Lorenzo Mieli and Lorenzo Gangarossa — who are making “Anna” with Fremantle’s Italian production company Wildside — were still impervious to the urgency of the impending health crisis, since there had not been any reported cases of coronavirus infections in Sicily at that point.
“We even shot some really complicated scenes that involved lots of [actors playing dead] in a piazza in Palermo,” Ammaniti says.
The scene involved 300 extras, who were “quite amused” by the whole experience, he notes. “They all lay down on the ground, and we covered them in [white] limestone powder. It was a really good shooting day,” says Ammaniti, who previously directed Sky original “The Miracle.”
However, Ammaniti soon heard alarm bells. “I said to myself: ‘Maybe everyone will start getting worried, seeing something like this.’ Even though it’s just a TV series.” The next day, he got a call from Gianani who told him the “Anna” shoot was shutting down.
“Of course, with a virus-themed series, you would really look like an idiot if you didn’t shut down the set,” Gianani says.
The producer reckons “Anna,” which went on hiatus March 4, was probably the first shoot in Italy to be suspended — one day after Italian authorities ordered people to keep a social distance of at least one meter (3.28 feet) from one another, and five days before the nationwide lockdown was effected. “We didn’t even call the insurance company,” Gianani adds. “We just asked Fremantle, which was very understanding” and ordered the closure.
Ammaniti returned home immediately after the production shut down and hasn’t set foot outside his apartment since. But he’s quick to point out that “Anna,” which is based on his eponymous 2015 novel eerily set in 2020, is not centered on a pandemic but uses the event as a jumping-off point.
“What I was interested in was describing a particularly extreme condition of childhood and adolescence, imagining that I could remove adults and have these kids inhabit an infantile world,” he says.
In Ammaniti’s fictionalized realm, everyone over the age of 14 is killed by a virus known as the Red Fever. The titular protagonist sets off across Sicily, fending off feral dogs and crazed child gangs, in search of her kidnapped brother. Anna is guided in her quest by a book of instructions left by her mother.
Ammaniti underlines he’s “not interested” in playing up the tragic coincidences that caused the shoot to stop abruptly. The coronavirus has killed more than 18,000 in Italy and infected more than 143,000 through April 8 — a mortality rate approaching 13%.
For him, what’s crucial is to express through Anna — played by Sicilian newcomer Giulia Dragotto — the ability of people “to harbor hope and faith in something bigger,” he says, “the capability, even during the darkest times … to see some kind of light. To believe in something.”
Gianani agrees that “the series is not about a virus.” However, there are flashbacks that fill in the blanks of the virus’s destruction — and these parallels, he says, are “unfortunately very close to us.” The similarities are why the team “will be careful not to be heavy-handed” in depicting the on-screen pandemic.
Fortunately for the “Anna” shoot, which started in October, production was in its final stretch when it was forced to stop due to the real pandemic.
Ammaniti and his team are now editing by sharing the screen digitally from their respective homes. Gianani still hopes to make the show’s planned delivery date of late 2020 to early 2021.
Wildside is co-producing the series with Arte France and Paris-based production company Kwai, also owned by Fremantle, which is handling international sales outside Italy.
The director and producer are uncertain how audiences will take to “Anna,” though Ammaniti allows that if the filmmakers manage to complete it quickly, it could be timely. “Not because it depicts a virus,” he notes, but rather, “because it depicts a theoretical aftermath.”
And even though Ammaniti says the on-screen post-virus scenario of “Anna” “does not coincide with what [the post-pandemic] will be for us,” he believes the series will nonetheless raise questions.
“Questions about what we’ve done [to the world] and what we are leaving for our children,” he says. “That’s for sure.”