The entertainment world can be a rollercoaster, as director/writer Michael Driscoll will attest. The Gil Scott Heron documentary that he shot made him the recipient of a great deal of attention in his early days, including that of the producers of the Canal+ production Borgia. Driscoll found himself jetting around the globe to Prague, New York, and Paris to meet about his possible involvement. Multiple seasons later, Michael’s work became an integral part of this show which was the highest-rated and most awarded TV drama that Canal+ had in over 8 years at the time. Borgia has been recognized as being the highest rated TV Drama in France, Italy, and Germany during its tenure (now viewable in the US on Netflix). The show’s popularity was a fusion of the talented individuals making it, the cinematic locations, and the production’s commitment to being historically accurate. Driscoll’s educational background in Fine Art focused on the Renaissance and gave him an exceptional head start in assimilating to the Borgia production team and perspective. Ask him about his time on this series and he’ll remark that being a part of Borgia was as intense and life consuming as it was rewarding, an epic experience in displaying an epic story.
There’s a slightly bemused tone to Driscoll’s voice when he tells the story of his first meetings with Canal+, Atlantique productions, and Tom Fontana (Borgia director). While he was courted, he was initially passed upon…a situation which was immediately reversed. He recalls, “I was let down gracefully at the warm-up party by one of the producers, so I went back to London with my tail between my legs. About a week later, just before the start of shooting, I got a call from Paris saying I had been hired on the show. It was a complete surprise! I had to fly back to Prague immediately and get myself on the set.” This was more of an indicator of how uncertain and precarious the world of TV and film can be than any statement on one’s abilities. Years later, Michael’s artistic fingerprints are found in his work as 2nd Unit Director, Photographer, and Director/DP/Producer/Writer of Borgia’s On-Air German and Austrian commercial campaign. This first season commercial campaign was an intense production which operated independent on the actual Borgia production but was reliant on it for the use of cast members, etc. It was akin to a 2nd Unit production without actually being one, and no doubt led to Michael’s eventual role as 2nd Unit Director for Borgia. By Season Two, Fontana had placed him in charge of the separate unit in Italy, a trend later followed by directors Dearbhla Walsh and Christoph Schrewe.
Borgia is a series known for its strong commitment to historical accuracy. It was the goal of all the directors involved to present the seemingly hyperbolic reality of this family and the times as grounded in reality. The characters are complex, multi-faceted, and three-dimensional rather than falling into stereotypical categories. Years were spent researching the stories, including original Latin texts. The diversity of the Borgia-era is present even in the casting, which included members of more than twenty-five different nationalities. Driscoll and his peers who were seated behind the camera were diligent in recreating the proper and accurate look which surrounded the Borgia family.
Even with the amazing cast of Borgia, the most awe inspiring characteristic may be the amazing locations seen in the series. Expansive vistas, an eclectic array of architecture, and breathtaking interiors; the visuals of Borgia are a history lesson unto themselves. Season one was shot in the Czech Republic, in Prague and the surrounding towns and villages. Season 2 saw Driscoll take the mantle as 2nd Unit Director in Italy. He remarks, “Prague was like a history lesson and I loved it. Italy was similar but has a history that appealed to me as a filmmaker in a different way. The films that have been made there; Ben Hur, Cleopatra, La Dolce Vita…just made it inspiring to walk around. It was also very exciting to check out Fellini’s Teatro no.5. It created an aura for me on a professional and personal level.” This afforded Michael the opportunity to shoot at authentic locations like the Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola (used to replicate the Vatican) with its endless cascading gardens, and the iconic Cinecittà Studios. Driscoll recalls one instance of the ancient and modern colliding during the production stating, “There was an amazing experience during filming of season two. We were on location in Sermoneta, and one of the rooms we shot in was once the actual bedroom of Lucrezia Borgia. It had original furnishings and everything. It was used for our Lucrezia as her room in the show. It was a surreal connection for myself and the cast.” Season 3 saw the locations expanded from the Czech Republic and Italy to shoots in Croatia, specifically in Dubrovnik (current shooting location for Game of Thrones) and across Istria.
Michael’s success within the show Borgia is congruent to the show’s success and acclaim. The productions ascension to one of the most publically and critically lauded programs in Europe assisted this writer/director in receiving some well due accolades for his work on the series. Every artistic endeavor seems to collect its ounce of discomfort from the artists involved. While confirming that his experience on Borgia was exactly the type of demanding experience he had longed for, he concedes that it left one uncomfortable memory. He reveals, “It’s hard to describe what it’s like to be in the middle of such a massive set, it’s truly a spectacle. I can’t think of anything closer than this to what it might feel like to be transported back in time. For one scene we had a set built in the tank at Cinecittà, which were the streets of Rome. The entire set was flooded, with 40 feet high suspended sprinklers, water jets, everything. The sheer size of the set was incredible, and the SFX was really impressive. We filmed in there for 2 straight days, in 2 stages. The water tank was one of the largest I’ve seen, and still had elements of the old Gangs of New York, and The Omen sets standing around it. The first part of our shoot there was to film a sequence with the water at about waist-height. We all got in, wearing dry suits, with the camera gear, which was all waterproofed. When the sprinklers and jets were turned on, it was totally manic in there. If you stood too close to the jets in the water, they would take you off your feet and you’d be pushed into the current. The second stage of the shoot was to fill the water even deeper, at chest height, to get an even choppier look to the water. I stayed in that tank for about 14 hours a day. The DP Ossi Rawi told me not to stay too long in the water but I enjoyed it so much. It was such a huge SFX set and well organized stunt sequence, it just made me want to spend as much time in there as I could before we moved on to other locations. Out of anyone else in the crew those days, I definitely spent the most time in that water, which turned out to be a bad thing as a few days later I started to get this crazy rash on my neck, face, and arms. I later found out that the water we used for that shoot wasn’t exactly the cleanest water, and I had suffered an allergic reaction to it. I was also the ONLY person to get a reaction from it. So I had to visit the medic, who tried her best to patch me up but I looked a bit like a balloon for a few days afterwards. This was a shame as the press and execs from Canal+ turned up to meet us all right after this.” This tale proves the mindset of Michael Driscoll, lost in the whirlwind of creativity and the need to transfer the emotions evoked by the experience…he can lose an attachment to the physical world. It’s a highly beneficial trait for an artist which can result in great stories…and perhaps the need to avoid being in front of a camera due to the result of being behind one (to treat a rash).