Thursday, July 28, 2005

HBO's Rome

HBO’s Rome Debuts Aug. 28

Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson, Ciarán Hinds, Kenneth Cranham, Polly Walker, James Purefoy, Tobias Menzies, Lindsay Duncan, Indira Varma, Max Pirkis And Kerry Condon star

The year is 52 B.C. Four hundred years after the founding of the Republic, Rome is the wealthiest city in the world, a cosmopolitan metropolis of one million people; epicenter of a sprawling empire. The Republic was founded on principles of shared power and fierce personal competition, never allowing one man to seize absolute control. But now, those foundations are crumbling, eaten away by corruption and excess. The ruling class has become extravagantly wealthy, with a precipitous decline in the old values of Spartan discipline and social unity. There is now a great chasm between the classes. Legal and political systems have weakened, and power has increasingly shifted to the military.

After eight years of war, Gaius Julius Caesar has completed his masterful conquest of Gaul, and is returning to Rome. He brings with him legions of battle-hardened, loyal men, unimaginable riches in slaves, gold and plunder, and a populist agenda for radical social change. The aristocracy is terrified, and threatens to prosecute him for war crimes if he enters Rome. The delicate balance of power lies in the Senate with Caesar's old friend, partner and mentor, Pompey Magnus.

Such is the situation when two soldiers of Caesar's 13th Legion, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, are ordered into the wilds of Gaul to retrieve their legion's stolen standard, the unifying symbol of Caesar's Legion, setting off a chain of circumstances that will entwine them in pivotal events of ancient Rome. An intimate drama of love and betrayal, masters and slaves, and husbands and wives, Rome chronicles epic times that saw the fall of a Republic and the creation of an empire when it debuts Sunday, AUG. 28 (9:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT), on HBO. The first season consists of 12 episodes, debuting on subsequent Sundays at the same time.

A co-production between HBO and the BBC, Rome began shooting in Rome in March 2004, with Michael Apted ("Coal Miner's Daughter," "The World Is Not Enough") directing the first three episodes. Additional directors include Allen Coulter (HBO's "The Sopranos"), Julian Farino (HBO's "Entourage"), Jeremy Podeswa (HBO's "Carnivàle"), Alan Poul (HBO's "Six Feet Under"), Mikael Salomon (HBO's "Band of Brothers"), Steve Shill (HBO's "The Wire"), Alan Taylor (HBO's "Deadwood") and Timothy Van Patten (HBO's "Sex and the City"). Production for the series is based at Rome's Cinecittà Studios, with additional locations throughout Italy.

Among the actors starring in the first season are Kevin McKidd ("Kingdom of Heaven") as Lucius Vorenus, Ray Stevenson ("King Arthur") as Titus Pullo, Ciarán Hinds ("Road to Perdition") as Gaius Julius Caesar, Kenneth Cranham ("Gangster No. 1") as Pompey Magnus, Polly Walker ("Patriot Games") as Atia of the Julii, James Purefoy ("Vanity Fair") as Mark Antony, Tobias Menzies ("Foyle's War") as Marcus Junius Brutus, Lindsay Duncan ("Under the Tuscan Sun") as Servilia of the Junii, Indira Varma ("Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love") as Niobe, Max Pirkis ("Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World") as Gaius Octavian and Kerry Condon ("Angela's Ashes") as Octavia of the Julii.

Rome is one of the largest co-production deals ever by the BBC for an American series, and marks the first series co-production of the two networks. HBO and the BBC previously partnered on the 2001 miniseries "Band of Brothers," which won six Emmy(r) Awards, including Outstanding Miniseries.

August's episode:

Episode #1: "The Stolen Eagle"
Debut date: Sunday, Aug. 28 (9:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT)
Other HBO playdates: Aug. 30 (9:00 p.m.) and 31 (11:00 p.m.), and Sept. 1 (1:45 a.m.), 2 (10:00 p.m.), 3 (10:00 p.m.), 4 (8:00 p.m.) and 16 (8:00 p.m.).

HBO2 playdates: Aug. 28 (1:00 a.m.) and 29 (10:00 p.m.), and Sept. 5 (9:00 p.m.).

52 B.C.: Eager to return to Rome after eight long years of war, Gaius Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds) ends his campaign with a resounding triumph in Gaul - and news of a shattering personal loss at home. When his army's gold standard is stolen, Caesar's cousin and commander Mark Antony (James Purefoy) enlists two soldiers, Centurion Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Legionnaire Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), to track it down. Despite their differences, the two make a formidable duo, and elevate themselves by retrieving more than just the missing standard. In Rome, Caesar's old friend Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham) is counseled by Cato (Karl Johnson), Cicero (David Bamber), Scipio (Paul Jesson) and other old-guard members of the Senate, who worry that Caesar's popularity among the masses will rattle the patrician status quo, along with their wealth and power. Pompey too has experienced a personal loss, which Caesar's niece, Atia (Polly Walker), looks to assuage though an offering of her already-married daughter Octavia (Kerry Condon). Careful to play both sides of an escalating power struggle, Atia sends Caesar a grand token of her esteem, hand-delivered after a perilous journey by her 11-year-old son Octavian (Max Pirkis). Written by Bruno Heller; directed by Michael Apted.

"You rarely see onscreen the complexity and color that was ancient Rome," says co-creator, executive producer and writer Bruno Heller. "It has more in common with places like Mexico City and Calcutta than quiet white marble. Rome was brightly colored, a place of vibrant cruelty, full of energy, dynamism and chaotic filth. It was a merciless existence, dog-eat-dog, with a very small elite, and masses of poverty. We see the same problems today - crime, unemployment, disease, and pressure to preserve your place in a precarious society. There's the potential for social mobility, if you're smart.

"Human nature never changes," continues Heller, "and the great thing about the Romans, from a dramatic perspective, is that they're a people with the fetters taken completely off. They had no prosaic God telling them right from wrong and how to behave. It was a strictly personal morality, and whether or not an action is wrong would depend on whether people more powerful than you would approve. You were allowed to murder your neighbor or covet his wife if it didn't piss off the wrong person. Mercy was a weakness, cruelty a virtue, and all that mattered was personal honor, loyalty to yourself and your family."

Rome portrays the historical events of ancient Rome through the experiences of two ordinary soldiers, focusing on a segment of Roman society that is rarely portrayed, but also intersects with the ruling class and historical figures. Explains Heller, "One of the overarching themes is that Vorenus is a loyal member of Caesar's 13th Legion, but he cherishes the old ways of the Republic. So he's forced to make a choice between personal loyalty to a powerful leader, who for all intents and purposes is destroying the Republic, or to follow his own deeply held political ideals.

"The other archetypal story is that these men have been away from home for eight long years. Vorenus is married with children who've grown up without him. His wife has been looking after herself. How do you reconnect with them? How do you go from war's brutalities to a civilized existence? When you're used to being in charge, how do you deal with ordinary human interactions when you can't kill someone who contradicts you?"

Working with the production team is historical consultant Jonathan Stamp, who formerly ran the archaeology department of the BBC. When the BBC came on as a co-production partner, Stamp began reviewing the scripts for historical authenticity on an occasional basis, which eventually became a full-time assignment.

Says Stamp, "We are doing everything we can to make these episodes historically authentic, which means researching and incorporating every kind of detail we can about the way our characters behave, the way they interact, how they dress and gesture, the kind of streets they walked down, the way they conducted their private and public lives. We are not, however, making a documentary. We're striving for authenticity because it enriches the experience of the drama for the viewer. For example, we know that Vorenus and Pullo are historical figures who were mentioned by name in Caesar's account of the Gallic wars. Bruno then invented the details of their lives."

While life among the aristocracy is fairly well documented, there are few direct sources for details about life among the poor and working class. "It's all about taking little clues and extrapolating from there. The three sources you have are archaeological, such as the ruins at Pompeii and Herculaneum, throwaway references in literature, and tomb inscriptions," says Stamp. "Tomb inscriptions are incredibly important because everyone had them, regardless of class. People saved money their entire lives so they could have a funeral. And although the inscriptions are brief, they're priceless, honest indications of the way things were. There's one for a 16-year-old boy that reads, 'Once a slave, now a son.' That speaks volumes about the nature of slavery, that it wasn't always shackles and cages, although that existed as well. So slavery was a diverse phenomenon - some were chattel, disposable, and some were absorbed into the emotional fabric of the family, and eventually freed.

"Rome of this time was a noisy and bustling metropolis," Stamp continues. "There's a description in literature where the author's complaining of not being able to sleep when in Rome, because in the daytime, he describes the noise from the nearby gyms and the street vendors, and then, instead of quieting at night, it gets worse because all the traffic starts. Large carts were banned during the day, and all started up at night."

Rome boasts the largest standing set in the world, comprising five acres of backlot and six soundstages at the legendary Cinecittà studios, and is the first English-language series to be shot entirely in a non-English-speaking country. Although this presented unique challenges, the producers agree it could not have been shot anywhere else. Says executive producer Anne Thomopoulos, "There is nothing like walking the same streets that your characters are walking down, seeing the same structures, feeling the continuum as people shop and work and carry out their lives as they would have in ancient Rome. And Rome boasts some of the best craftsmen in the world. The crew takes such pride in working on a project that is their ancestors' story, I don't think we could have done this series as successfully anywhere else in the world."

Living and working in Rome has been of benefit to the actors as well. "It's been one of the greatest challenges, but also a great reward to live here," says Ray Stevenson. "A challenge because you're relocating your life for such an extended time, but I can't think of better preparation for the role than spending time in true Roman bars and coffee shops, away from the tourists, observing and absorbing contemporary Roman life. Because Pullo is a contemporary character in his world, and it hasn't changed all that much as far as the way people interact, talk to each other and gesture."

"It's been fantastic living here," agrees Kevin McKidd. "It's a way of life that just rubs off on you and makes the performance that much more authentic. And it's been such a rewarding experience to work with this cast. Just by being here you become a better actor because everyone's raising the bar for everyone else."

Adds Heller, "This cast has been just amazing. They've had to work so hard for so long, and the performances are fantastic. We're asking them to both be themselves, and be ancient Romans, which is a very hard thing to pull off."

"One of the most remarkable moments I've had on set was watching a scene, and forgetting that I was in ancient Rome," adds executive producer Frank Doelger. "The character story was so immediate and wonderfully realized, it wasn't about the set dressing, props and costumes. And I saw then that we'd done exactly what we wanted to do, which is to take Rome out of the museum and make it as real and immediate and vital as if we were shooting a contemporary drama."

Rome is a co-production of HBO and the BBC; co-creators, John Milius and William J. Macdonald and Bruno Heller; executive producers, Bruno Heller, William J. Macdonald, John Milius, Anne Thomopoulos and Frank Doelger; co-executive producers, Jim Dyer and Eugene Kelly; produced by Marco Valerio Pugini; producer, Lucy Richer; consulting producer, Michael Apted; production designer, Joseph Bennett; costume designer, April Ferry; casting, Nina Gold, Nina Gold & Associates.

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