Joe Wright on Making Benito Mussolini TV Series With a ‘Rave Culture’ Aesthetic and a Techno Score

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British director Joe Wright, who helmed Winston Churchill drama “Darkest Hour” – which earned Gary Oldman an Oscar for his portrayal as the British prime minister – has now changed historical sides. 

Wright is at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios shooting high-end TV drama “M. Son of the Century” which chronicles Benito Mussolini’s rise to power. A timely tale because, as he puts it: “Populist leaders are sprouting up all over the world.” 

Aesthetically, the show will be “quite outlandish” with deeply saturated colors, punctuated by a “kind of techno score,” the director said during a recent set visit. Though “It’s not told in a vérité style,” Wright pointed out that “All the facts of what happened, they’re all there.” 

Luca Marinelli (“The Eight Mountains,” “Martin Eden”) plays Mussolini during the period between 1919, when he founded the fascist party in Italy, and 1925 when – having gained power with the 1922 March on Rome – Mussolini made an infamous speech in the Italian Chamber of Deputies declaring himself a dictator. 

“M” is based on Antonio Scurati’s eponymous Premio Strega-winning and international bestselling novel which traces the birth of Fascism in Italy and Mussolini’s ascent with an innovative approach. The script is written by Stefano Bises (“Gomorrah,” “The New Pope”) in collaboration with Davide Serino (“1992”).

Sky Studios and Lorenzo Mieli’s Fremantle-owned The Apartment Pictures are producing in collaboration with Pathé and Small Forward. The show will play on Sky in its European territories (U.K., Ireland Italy, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland) with Fremantle handling international sales.

The bulk of the series is being shot at Cinecittà where, thanks to a pact between Cinecittà and Fremantle, the production has been using five soundstages, including a large LED wall and a swathe of the outside backlot where several Mussolini-era buildings and interiors have been meticulously reconstructed under the guidance of production designer Mauro Vanzati.

Wright, in his first interview since starting the six-month shoot, now it its final quarter, took questions from the international press.

Do you feel a big weight on your shoulders being entrusted with portraying this particular bit of history, especially given that it’s Italian history?

Yes. I’m aware that it’s a massive responsibility, especially in the sense that he’s a character that hasn’t been looked at very much. When you’re doing Winston Churchill, there’s a lot of movies with Winston Churchill. When you’re doing Jane Austin, there’s a lot of Jane Austin movies – which is also a different kind of responsibility, but still a responsibility. Whereas, for many reasons that are best left to Stefano and David to explain, there hasn’t been the same kind of examination of Mussolini that there has been of other world leaders at the time.

What do you bring as a non-Italian to this story that maybe an Italian director couldn’t or wouldn’t have done?

If this show has taught me one thing, it’s that nationalism is bollocks. And so, as my dear friend Seamus McGarvey, the DP, says: “There’s no nation but the imagination.” There are things that I feel very culturally close to, to be honest with you. I feel culturally closer to Italy than I do to America. And yet we don’t share a language. So I don’t really see myself as being an “other” necessarily. I think maybe the Italians see me as being “other,” but I don’t. If anything I’m a European. The language barrier is difficult, that’s kind of annoying. And there are little foibles about the Italians, like they always look like they’re arguing when actually they’re being quite nice to each other. But I don’t see myself as being “other” really.

In Italy there’s been talk about Mussolini in the media since the recent election. How did it echo what you are filming? Did you try to put that aside, or were you also following what was going on here?

Yeah, but it’s not just Italy. That’s the terrifying thing. Populist leaders are sprouting up all over the world. And so it’s everywhere. Yes, it’s here. But the problem is it’s not just Italy.

What kind of impact can “M” have on younger audiences?

When I was a teenager, I went around going: “The queen is a fascist and the police are fascists and my teachers are fascists and my parents are fascists for not letting me go out on Friday night.” And so I don’t think I really deeply understood what fascism is or was actually. So by looking at the roots of modern fascism, I hope that we can actually gain an understanding of where it comes from and what is it at the center of it or what is not at the center of it.

Talk to us about the tone, the aesthetics of “M”

You can play with the aesthetics and the form of the piece. The score is going to be this kind of techno score. And the aesthetics are a kind of mashup between nineties rave culture and “Man with a Movie Camera” [the 1929 seminal avant-guarde doc by Dziga Vertov] a great Ukrainian film. It’s “Man with a Movie Camera” and every gangster movie you’ve ever seen. So it’s quite full on in that respect. And it’s quite kaleidoscopic.

Speaking about the soundtrack, are the Chemical Brothers in?

I don’t know yet, but I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about that.

Do you play techno music on set while you’re shooting?

Yeah, quite a lot. I play all sorts of music on set, not just techno. If we are doing a sad scene, I might play some sad music. We have a Friday morning sing-along, which is often Elton John. If I’ve got a big crowd with a lot of men, who are supposed to be full of testosterone and energy, then I might play techno, or I might play Black Sabbath. But yeah, music is very much an integral part of the process for me. And it’s all about rhythm and getting people into the right rhythm, and music can help with that. Also it’s a good way of communicating to the kind of periphery of the set, by which I mean craft services or whoever, that this is the atmosphere of the scene today. So they can feel the right energy. And also sometimes it’s four o’clock in the morning and everyone’s just battered.

So if you put on some Chemical Brothers or whoever, then it keeps the energy alive as well. I want people to have a good time on my set. I don’t want people to feel miserable. We spend our lives doing this and certainly we spent six months shooting this. I want people to look back on this experience as an exciting and fulfilling and happy one. The process is as important as the product. And so that process better be rewarding. Otherwise, I don’t just want to end up as a DVD on the shelf and they say: “Oh, that was good. It’s got to be a living life thing.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Luca Marinelli as Benito Mussolini/Courtesy Sky Andrea Pirrello