Neil Jordan
“Nobody ever wields power and says, ‘Hey, I’m doing this because I want to, and I enjoy being bad.’ They say, ‘Hey, I’m doing this because I want to make the world a better place.’”
Behind the Robes
Oscar-winning film scribe and director Neil Jordan’s first foray into television is a sexy, sordid, and savage look at the papacy under the Italian dynasty The Borgias.

Written by Dylan Callaghan

(April 20, 2012)

The sex and blood oozing from Showtime’s acclaimed series The Borgias, now in its second season, is an ideal fit for cable, but that’s just inherent in the source material, says Oscar-winning writer-director, and first-time series creator Neil Jordan.

The story of the 15th century papacy of Rodrigo Borgia – known as Pope Alexander VI (played by Jeremy Irons) was legendarily corrupt, lascivious, and mob-like no matter where you tell it. While Jordan wanted all the salacious, brutal bits, what really turned him on about this tale was the paradox between morality and power that the family so colorfully embodies.

It’s a paradox older than the Borgias and as relevant today as ever, he says.

Jordan tried for several years to develop the material as a feature script. Though he had never worked in television, when it was suggested he try turning it into a cable series, a light came on. After reviewing the rich, seemingly endless character and plot material he’d jettisoned to write his feature script, he realized TV might be the exact place to let out the robes of this legendary dynasty.

He spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his journey to TV and why he wants the show to be sexy and bloody but is careful to avoid trashy or comical titillation.

You’d been trying to make this into a feature for years and, because that didn’t happen, you got this series. What have you discovered to be the joy of cable TV, particularly from a writing standpoint?

Photo: ©2012 Showtime
Francois Arnaud and Jeremy Irons in The Borgias.

I was originally commissioned by DreamWorks a long time ago to write a movie on this subject, and predictably, they decided not to make it. I tried to make it independently and failed. I asked them to take another look at it, and they said, “Why don’t you try it as a cable series?” When I began to think about it, it made a lot of sense, but I’d never done anything in television before.

I went back to the script I’d written and all the notes I’d made, and I looked at all the things I’d had to leave out to compress it into a two and a half hour movie. I suddenly thought, this could be really interesting, you know?

But I’d never written television before, or shot a pilot or even discussed one.

What if any fears or reservations did you have about making it into a series for cable?

I didn’t want to make something bad, first of all. I didn’t want to make something that was trashy. I don’t live in the United States, so I wasn’t quite au fait [fully aware] with the world of cable as much as American writers and directors would be, but I basically looked at it as an opportunity to make a 40-hour movie, where as before I would have made a two-hour film.

When I began to write it, I just really began to enjoy it from the word go. It was thrilling actually to have all this space and all this time. It was a totally different way of approaching it.

I also write novels, you see, so I’m used to the long form of the novel. For me it was quite a thrilling experience actually. Normally on shows they have teams of writers, and I was just doing it on my own. It was a lot of work, but I totally enjoyed it.

This material, in addition to being period and epic in scope, is kind of soapy, if you know what I mean, in the best way. It follows this family in a way that you can’t in a feature format. Did you find that to be an advantage?

The danger with stuff would be – they’ve made things on the Borgias before. There was a notorious BBC series that was made after I, Claudius. It’s a legendary event in British television…

A legendary catastrophe?

Yeah, a legendary catastrophe. They cast a Bond villain as the Pope.

They were all high on the success of I, Claudius and went crazy?

I don’t know, but there is something inherent in the subject matter that is potentially risible really. You’re talking about men in red skirts having all these really shocking orgiastic parties, which, when you think about it, weren’t really that shocking at all.

What I wanted to do was root it in the family. I wanted to build a portrait of family that would be compelling. The tensions within the family would be as compelling as the historical context or anything like that.

I also wanted, at the very center with the character of Rodrigo Borgias, somebody who had two or three sides to him. I find the tension between someone who has these almost naive religious beliefs, but who is a supreme manipulator and also a kind of orgiastic man… I wanted all these things side by side in the same character.

There is a ton of sex, blood, and Sopranos-style stuff. To what extent is that kind of a “for Showtime” thing and to what extent is what you would have done in a feature anyway?

It’s just in my script. It didn’t become bloodier or sexier because of Showtime. There was no requirement of any kind like that. I wanted it to be sexy and bloody, like a murder-an-episode kind of thing almost, you know? There’s so much to do that with in the subject matter.

When the series came out a lot of people said it wasn’t bloody or sexy enough. They said it was a bit too much about the history and stuff like that. It could have been far more lurid than it is, but I think it’s lurid enough.

How do you draw the line as a writer, or find a balance with the sex and violence in the material?

Well, you don’t basically. You don’t draw the line with the sex and violence. You just want it to be as good as possible. For some reason over the last few years there’s an appetite for these kinds of historical dramas. As you say, they tend to be kind of lurid and kind of faux shocking trips through other eras.

I just wanted to make it as good as possible. I didn’t want it to be risible because there is a potentially risible aspect this…

Explain that to me.

The classic Borgias scandal at the time was this thing they had called the Banquet of Chestnuts, which took place in the Vatican where they had scores of prostitutes who had a competition to see who could pick up chestnuts with their butt and stuff like that. You’re talking about aged men in skirts and nubile young women picking chestnuts off the floor. It sounds comical to me, let’s put it that way.

What I’m interested in is the potential for criminality in this family. The power plays and stuff like that. I’m more interested in the way that religious belief can exist side by side with political savagery.

Do you feel that’s apropos of our current era?

Very little changes really. People who wield power have to find some moral way to justify it. They have to find some cloak of religious or morality or some great political design. Nobody ever wields power and says, “Hey, I’m doing this because I want to, and I enjoy being bad.” They say, “Hey, I’m doing this because I want to make the world a better place.” That’s the paradox of human beings. It was then and still is. That’s what interests me.