Magazine article American Cinematographer

A New Pope

Magazine article American Cinematographer

A New Pope

Article excerpt

Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino was at work on his Oscarwinning feature The Great Beauty in 2012 when he first conceived of The Young Pope. He'd long been fascinated by the Vatican - so when Wildside producer Lorenzo Mieli approached him about doing a series, possibly about the venerated saint Padre Pio, Sorrentino countered with the idea of a show about the pope himself.

The main character coalesced after the real-life election of Pope Francis, the most liberal and open-minded pontiff in recent memory. Sorrentino wanted a foil, a Pope who'd never been seen before. What he created was Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), aka Pope Pius XIII, a young, chain-smoking, Cherry Coke Zero-loving American man of the cloth - one who is personally devout and rigidly dogmatic, capable of Machiavellian maneuvers but also vulnerable, insecure, and suffering from a midlife crisis of faith. Sorrentino's script follows the upheavals in Vatican City after the pope's election, and offers enough intrigue, scandals, big life questions and visual splendor to keep viewers hooked for 10 episodes - all shot by Sorrentino's longtime director of photography, Luca Bigazzi.

The two - neither of whom had formal film training - have been on a roll. They first teamed up in 2004 for The Consequences of Love, then continued with The Family Friend, II Divo, This Must Be the Place, The Great Beauty, and Youth (AC Jan. '16), earning piles of awards along the way.

"I work with Luca on all my films," Sorrentino says via email. "We get along well; we're fond of each other; and we have an immediate understanding without having to talk too much, which I detest." For his part, Bigazzi considers Sorrentino a genius and a good friend.

The Young Pope - a coproduction of Sky, HBO and Canal+, that debuted in the U.S. on Jan. 15 - was Bigazzi and Sorrentino's first foray into television. Their approach was to treat the 10-hour series like a very long feature. "Paolo and I wanted to make a TV series as similar as possible to a movie, both in terms of frames and the visual look - with no fear about using wide shots and decisively extreme contrasts," notes the cinematographer via email.

Still, The Young Pope was on a whole different scale. It was shot over 24 weeks, "so half an hour of edited material each week," Bigazzi says. "A terrifying pressure." The 122 days of production resulted in 2,777 shots and 189 terabytes of footage, and London's Double Negative created around 900 visual effects. The fixed crew numbered 131, with 464 daily crew added as needed. Locations spanned Italy, the U.S. and South Africa.

The settings were big, too: St. Peter's, the Şistine Chapel, the pope's expansive office. During prep, "our main preoccupation was undoubtedly the vastness of the environments," Bigazzi says. "Working with Paolo is a source of great gratification, but his requests are often the source of nightmares! Extreme speed, the use of several cameras at the same time - often alternating wide-angle and telephoto lenses - which means finding a light that will work both for the close-ups and the more extreme full shots."

No cameras can be placed on Vatican soil, so Vatican City had to be conjured from scratch. At Cinedttå in Rome, production designer Ludovica Ferrario - another Sorrentino veteran - supervised the creation of a full-scale, in-studio replica of the Şistine Chapel, measuring 581,251 square feet. Other sets included the pope's private office, the Vatican balcony, and the balcony of Saint Mark's Basilica cathedral in Venice. The rest were practical locations in and around Rome: Santi Luca e Martina standing in for St. Peter's Basilica; Villa Doria Pamphili and Villa Medici for Castel Gandolfo, the pope's summer residence; Villa Lånte for the Vatican Gardens; and Palazzo Venezia for the Vatican's passageways and stairwells. "Rome is a city where every corner hides environments historically connected to the Church," Bigazzi notes.

When picking locations, Sorrentino says, "I wanted a great deal of half-lights and the sun entering the windows with a beautiful light. …

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