Fast Company: My Brilliant Friend director talks about bringing Elena Ferrante’s beloved novel to life for HBO

Italian director Saverio Costanzo spoke with Fast Company about the challenge of adapting the first novel in the Neapolitan series (as a man, no less).

On Fast Company

Nicole Laporte – 23 Nov, 2018

In 2007, Italian director Saverio Costanzo wrote to the publisher of Elena Ferrante’s novella The Lost Daughter and asked if he could option the film rights. The story had captured the filmmaker’s attention because of the way it mined a simple plot—a middle-aged professor vacationing at the beach takes a young girl’s doll—for maximum emotional and psychological effect. The publisher and Ferrante (who writes under a pseudonym and is famously reclusive) granted Costanzo his wish with one condition: He had six months to come up with an adaptation that pleased all parties. Costanzo accepted the challenge. But after six months of trying, and failing, to bring the story to life for the big screen, he abandoned the project. 

“I was not able to find a common theme to transpose the novel into a film,” he told Fast Company via email. 

But Costanzo made an impression on Ferrante, and nearly a decade later, the author herself suggested that Costanzo direct the adaptation of My Brilliant Friend, the first novel in her four-part Neapolitan series that has sold more than 10 million copies in 40 countries. Costanzo said yes. “I am certainly more mature and more aware than I was back then,” he said.

But no amount of maturity and awareness can prepare one to tackle a project as singular as My Brilliant Friend, a co-production between HBO and the Italian networks RAI and TIMVision. Set in a rough, working-class neighborhood in post-World War II Naples, Ferrante’s Neapolitan books chronicle the complicated friendship of two girls—the narrator Elena (nicknamed Lenù) and Lila—their lives intertwining and unraveling many times over the course of some 50 years. The first episode of My Brilliant Friend debuted on HBO last Sunday.

For the series to work, it had to capture the details of the bustling, often violent world Ferrante created, starting with the Neapolitan dialect spoken by the characters. To find their elementary school-age Lenú and Lila, the producers auditioned nearly 9,000 kids all over Italy’s Campania region before finally stumbling on two girls with no acting experience: Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti. Once hired, the girls took acting classes to master not just memorizing lines but also conveying the deep interiority of Ferrante’s books, a large portion of which take entirely place in Elena’s head.

Translating the inner workings of literary characters to the screen is never easy—and it becomes even trickier when the author is as elusive as Ferrante. Little is known about the pseudonymous author, but much is conjectured: That she is a translator living in Rome in a nine-bedroom apartment; that she is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor; that her books draw on her own life. During the production of My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante made herself available to Costanzo, weighing in on all eight of his scripts, critiquing dialogue, and arguing for scenes to not be cut—always via email, never in person. The director has likened the experience to working with a “ghost,” albeit a rather opinionated one. (Costanzo also worked with a team of Italian writers as well as Jennifer Schuur, a U.S. TV writer and die-hard Ferrante fan who was brought onboard to make sure the show was accessible to American audiences.)

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