Nutopia partnered with Italian prodco Mon Amour to make Vendetta, a dramatic six-part story of contemporary Sicilian mafia. Pippa Considine talked to the series’ executive producers about the challenges of this Anglo-Italian production that started in development with Amazon, but has found a home on Netflix.
Think back to 2017. The streamer revolution was starting, the market for epic documentary was growing. At the same time, Nutopia wanted to expand beyond its specialist factual heartland.
Enter Italian film-makers Ruggero Di Maggio and Davide Gambino, with a taster tape of a protagonist in a mafia drama. “You couldn’t look away,” says Nicola Moody, executive producer at Nutopia. “You could immediately tell that this was an extraordinary documentary character.” In 2017, Trump had been elected; stories of Russian hacking were rife. “The universality of this subject felt absolutely crucial….Corruption at the heart of our institutions.”
A fit with Netflix
Fast forward to September 2021. With competition for viewers intensifying, six-part docu-series Vendetta: Truth, Lies and the Mafia fits squarely into the Netflix strategy to go local, with big stories that might resonate internationally.
A combination of traditional observational documentary, investigative journalism and courtroom drama, the cast is led by two powerful characters, both ostensibly leading the fight against the Sicilian mafia and both in the dock for the very crimes that they’ve battled against for decades. Outspoken journalist and TV host Pino Maniaci and Court of Palermo judge Silvana Saguto are also sworn enemies.
Amazon initially developed the series; Netflix took it up in Spring 2021. “Amazon Studios Europe were involved in the project before stepping away,” Amazon said in a statement. “They have remained supportive of the series, and supportive of Vendetta finding a new producer and broadcast partner.”
Lucy Leveugle, Netflix EMEA lead on non fiction and Giovanni Bossetti, Netflix Italy’s unscripted and doc series executive worked closely on the series. ”It was a genuine creative partnership,” says Moody. “We felt we were in the room with them.”
Di Maggio and Gambino recognized the currency of the story 15 years ago when they began to follow Maniaci. In 2017, at a pivotal point – with court cases for Maniaci and Saguto looming – the production crewed up to create a premium documentary series.
Show-runner David Herman has a track record for working with criminals and law enforcers. “When I arrived, Nicola said this’ll be the most challenging series you’ve done to date and I laughed…..But she was right.”
The Anglo-Italian dynamic
The production was based in Italy, with the edit in London at Envy. It was decided that producers and directors would need to be Italian speakers. “It’s impossible to do intimate, proper, observational documentary filming if we don’t speak the language,” says Herman.
Four DoPs – two Italian, two British – recorded in 4K, using a trio of cameras: the Panasonic EVA, the Panasonic GH5S and the Sony FS7. Sound was 2.0 stereo and 5.1 Surround.
The production was after three different looks: the observational documentary element, following the protagonists, their families and their lawyers shot hand held and designed to be really intimate; the court room drama; and, as a backdrop, the scenery of Sicily. “A local drone operator in Palermo was a genius,” says Herman.
One of the biggest challenges was to marshall the huge amount of material. Di Maggio and Gambino had been shooting since 2005. Then there was the footage from Maniaci’s TV station Telejato, which he took over in 1999 and had broadcast two hours a day. Not forgetting archive footage from other sources.
Nutopia had a team of edit assistants and translators in Italy and the UK. An initial edit ran for two months, sifting through archive. “We had huge teams of people,” says Herman. Everything had to be logged from the Telejato archive, then selected material needed to be translated and subtitled for the editing team.
Archive was important, but “we really didn’t want this to be an historical film,” says Herman. “We wanted this to be an unfolding drama of two people battling for the soul of Italy….We were aiming for Tiger King, with that level of access and drama.”
Court proceedings began in 2018. The production was given access to the court room in Palermo for Maniaci’s case. “We had about seven cameras and were able to put a mic wherever we wanted…we could cover everything,” says Herman. For Seguto’s case, they were only able to get into a small number of hearings, but these included her testimony and the verdict.
Herman himself travelled regularly between Palermo and London, where there were six or seven edits on the go. . “The management of the project was immense,” says Herman. He would have daily conversations with Moody and series producer Kevin Hull about the evolving shape of the episodes.
Composer Nitin Sawhney suggested themes early on in the production process and kept close to the project through the edit. “His music elevates the story, it gives it that cinematic feel,” says Herman.
Crucial legal advice for the production came from a team of Italian, British and American lawyers, who viewed every single line.
When lockdown came in March 2020, the court cases hadn’t finished. British crew came home, leaving the Italians to shoot final sequences, right up to April 2021, when Maniaci’s verdict was given. Producer Flaminia Iacoviello stepped up and directed the last episode.
Produced by: Nutopia in association with Mon Amour Films
Executive producers: Nicola Moody, Jane Root, Ruggero Di Maggio, Davide Gambino, David Herman
Co-Executive Producer: Hamo Forsyth
Series producer: Kevin Hull
Directors: Ruggero Di Maggio, Davide Gambino, Flaminia Iacoviello, Daniela Volker, Suemay Oram.
Written by: Ruggero Di Maggio, Davide Gambino, Nicola Moody, Jane Root, David Herman
Producers: Francesco Ficarra, Flaminia Iacoviello, Marco Gangarossa
Editors: Luca Salvatori, Franco Bogino, Steve Barclay, Nadeem Khan, Sean Mackenzie, Iain Mitchell
Directors of photography: Mike Carling, Will Churchill, Andrea Nocifora, Giuseppe Vaiuso
Music: Nitin Sawhney
This article appears in Televisual’s Autumn issue. Subscribe to Televisual here.
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