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Of the many writers who helped change U.S. TV drama in the 1980s, allowing it to incorporate serialized story arcs and offer more complicated characters, Tom Fontana has led one of the richest careers. His breakthrough came with the revolutionary hospital drama St. Elsewhere, for which he won the first three of his four Emmys. From there, he helped shepherd Barry Levinson’s television pet project about cops to the small screen and ended up with Homicide: Life On The Street, the show that directly paved the way for cable dramas like The Wire. And after that, he created HBO’s Oz, which made room on the network for the shows that opened the door for the current cable drama renaissance. Fontana’s latest project is in another new arena: international co-productions. His Borgia: Faith And Fear, newly out on DVD (and not to be confused with the similarly themed Showtime series, The Borgias), first aired in the U.S. on Netflix, instead of on traditional television networks. Fontana recently talked with The A.V. Club about the benefits of working with international financiers, why Catholics make good TV dramas, and why he’s glad the Internet wasn’t around for the St. Elsewhere finale.
The A.V. Club: Borgia: Faith And Fear aired in Europe in two-hour timeslots, and it aired in the U.S. on Netflix. How do you write for people consuming television in larger chunks?
Tom Fontana: I don’t actually worry about it, because each episode is connected, so the way they want to air them in Europe or anywhere, it doesn’t matter. The episodes are designed as hours, but were shot in two-hour blocks. So what’s good about the two-hour blocks is you have the same director, and there’s a consistency in the stylistic choice that that particular director may or may not make. And the episodes tend to flow. For example, in the third and fourth episodes, it covers the election of the pope. So it was really important for one director to be doing both of those, because it would have been like getting half the story done by one person and half the story done by another. I actually had the same writers write those two episodes as well, so the language and everything was consistent.
AVC: There’s a lot in Borgia: Faith And Fear and in your prior work about the intersection of religion and power. What interests you about that theme?
TM: I’m a Catholic, and I have always been fascinated by not just my religion, but religion in general, in the sense that it is the ultimate brand that they’re trying to sell. Whereas Ford is trying to sell cars, the Vatican is trying to sell salvation, which is a much better product to be peddling. So if you stripped away the idea of faith from the institution of the church, you can look at it in a much more contemporary kind of way.
So the Borgia family is less about a bunch of wayward priests than it is about the [Rupert] Murdoch family. You know what I mean? It’s not even about the Corleone family; it’s really about the Murdoch family, and how being a foreigner can work to your advantage and work against you, and how much you want to empower your children and the next generation, and ensure the future of every generation after that.
So for me, the religion aspect has to do with the corporate structure of the Church, specifically at the time of the Renaissance. The other element that the series deals with is the idea of faith: the lack of faith, the corruption of faith, and also the exultation of faith, because I’m not trying to attack anybody’s beliefs. For myself, personally, I believe, and then there are times when I don’t, because the nature of the universe tells me that I’m a fool to believe in something greater than myself. And then there are times when I’m absolutely in awe of the greatness of God, or whatever name you want to attach to whatever it is that’s controlling our lives.
AVC: There have been a number of really strong drama series that have that strong influence of Catholicism. Why do you think that makes for good TV drama?
TM: You know what I think it is? I think first of all, there’s a lot of showmanship to the Catholic faith in the sense of the ritual and the demonstration of one’s faith. We’re constantly, as we’re growing up, being exposed to these incredible stage performances. I think for those of us who are Catholic who are writers, that ignites a kind of need to tell stories, as opposed to just sort of accepting it and going, “Oh, okay, that’s all there is to it.” I think for the stories in the Catholic Church, whether the story of Christ per se, which is not an exclusively Catholic story, but then you take the lives of the saints, and some of the lives of the saints are the craziest stories you could ever have. You read them and you just go, “This is much better than anything I could invent.”
AVC: This is an international co-production. Did that in any way change how you went about making this show?
TM: I will say [that] first of all, it was the closest I’ve come to since doing Oz on HBO in terms of the amount of creative freedom that I was given by my French and German partners. I would say that I was stunned by how little they demanded of me. It wasn’t like, “You need to cast five Frenchman, four Germans, two Austrians, and a duck in order to qualify for some kind of credit” or something. They were very liberal.
I’m lucky in the sense that it’s a European story, so it’s not like you suddenly want to get a guy from Brooklyn in there, though we do have two American actors on the show. The rest of the cast is very international, even Australia. In that regard, it didn’t have an enormous effect on the storytelling or on the producing. The hardest thing about producing this show in the Czech Republic was just simply, there were 18 different countries represented on the stage at any given moment, and there was miscommunication basically because even though everyone was speaking English, things don’t translate as well. [Laughs.] So there would be moments of me thinking I had expressed myself, and then 10 minutes later, somebody brings me a prop and I go, “No, that’s not what I was talking about at all.” But then again, I’m shooting in Canada [on Fontana’s new BBC America show, Copper], and we supposedly speak the same language, Canadians and Americans. But there’s as much confusion here as there was in Prague.
AVC: Copper has international co-production financing, too. Do you think international co-production is the future of how TV is going to get financed?
TM: I think it’s the future of dangerous television, or unusual television. If you were going to do another CSI, you wouldn’t need this model. But whether they’re historical or not, if you’re going to tell the kind of big stories that used to be done as miniseries on both broadcast and cable networks—and nobody seems to be doing that many miniseries anymore—this is an expanded version of the whole miniseries model, where you would say, “Okay, we’re gonna do four episodes about the Roman Empire,” and you end up doing two seasons on the Roman Empire.
So I think it is the future, and I have to say, it’s very exciting to be part of that. Because they don’t know in Europe what a showrunner is, so the first couple of months that I was there, I was sort of explaining to everyone what it was I was doing there, because they’re used to the writer not being around. Suddenly, they had this guy there who has the final say in everything, and there was a little bit of an adjustment people had to make. I will say, they all seemed to embrace it, because they—I’m going to make a terrible generalization here—but I would say the Europeans I have been in contact with over the past year or so truly admire American television. American dramas. You know? I think they perceive that they don’t know how to do it as well as we know how to do it, so I’m sort of taking the fire from Mount Olympus here in America and carrying it over to Europe, and saying, “Here’s how you make fire.” It’s been very exciting, thrilling, for me, dealing with the whole thing.
AVC: How happy are you that the Internet wasn’t around when the St. Elsewhere finale aired?
TM: [Laughs.] Good question! I don’t even know. People still throw bricks at me. I guess the difference would have been that the bricks would have been in cyberspace and wouldn’t have hurt so much. No, it’s true, though, I’m very grateful. I’d still be writing people back, all these many years later, apologizing and trying to make people happy.
AVC: Two of your most famous episodes—“Time Heals” on St. Elsewhere and “Three Men And Adena” on Homicide—are polar opposites. One is epic for the TV standards at the time, and one is intimate. Is there a certain type of storytelling you prefer?
TM: You know, all I would say is that everything should be driven by character. And I think if you look at my work, that’s what you would see. That the journey that the characters took in “Time Heals,” and the journey that the three characters in “Three Men And Adena” took, that’s what it’s about. Whether you’re doing it over five decades, or over an evening in Baltimore, I think you have to say, “Where do these characters start? And where do they finish? And what do you want the audience to take away from that?” I think that’s the heart of—well, I would hope that’s the heart of—my writing. No, actually it’ll turn out that it’s about people with moustaches.
AVC: Both of those writing staffs, on St. Elsewhere and Homicide, had such great people on them. What do you look for in young writers?
TM: First of all, I don’t want somebody who writes like me. Because I can write like me. I know what I’m capable of and what my limitations are. If you’re going to build an orchestra, you don’t want all tubas—you want a violin and you want a cello and you want a drum set. So, like, with Homicide, if you’re lucky enough to get somebody like Jim Yoshimura, and Julie Martin, and Jorge Zamacona, and Henry Bromell in the mix, they will bring so much richness of their own to the material that you can sit back and not try to have to invent that stuff. They’ll already bring it. And that’s what I think it is. It’s building a team. It’s trying to get people who do different things better than you, and then orchestrating it so you’re all working in the same zone.
AVC: Looking at Oz, that was sort of the birth of the cable drama. What was the cable landscape like back then?
TM: It was wonderful, because I had pitched various versions of a prison show to the broadcast networks, and was basically beaten out of the room with a stick. And HBO, which had never done a drama series before, was looking for something that was different from all the other drama series that were around. It was just a kind of happy accident that we connected, and [HBO chairman/CEO] Chris Albrecht was extraordinary in his generosity, and in admitting his own ignorance. It’s very rare when a network executive will say, “I don’t know about this, so I need you to help me.” Most of them want to pretend they were sitting next to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz saying, “How about a series about a crazy, wacky redhead?” [Laughs.]
So I think I was extraordinarily lucky that I happened to be there at a time when HBO was willing to take enormous risks, creative risks, and that they had the money to back those risks. Because we were the first game in town. I will say to you, I felt an enormous amount of responsibility to the next guy in the room. Because I thought if I fucked it up, and Chris had given me all this freedom, the next guy would come into the room and Chris would say, “Well, I trusted Fontana, and I got fucked! So I’m not trusting any more writers.” [Laughs.] So I was glad that he was happy enough with what we delivered that it created an environment for David Chase and Alan Ball and everybody who’s come afterward. I’m very proud of that, that I didn’t fuck it up.
AVC: You’re well known for the shows you’ve been on that lasted, but there are a number that haven’t. Is there one you wish had kept going, or you wish were more readily available on DVD?
TM: I would say two of them. The Beat, which we did with Mark Ruffalo and Poppy Montgomery, that we did for The WB. [The Beat actually aired on UPN, though Fontana also produced The Bedford Diaries for The WB around the time both networks folded.] That late, lamented network, The WB. I like to say not only did I get my show canceled, I got a network canceled. [Laughs.] That’s something to be pretty proud of. And then the other one is The Philanthropist, which was just on a couple of summers ago. I thought that show had real potential, in the way The West Wing did, to really deal with the issues of the day, but in an entertaining kind of way. So those are the two shows I lament not having the opportunity to make more of.