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The Great Improvisation of Franklin on AppleTV+

Benjamin Franklin (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0)
Benjamin Franklin (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0)

Two time Emmy awards, for Into the West and John Adams, Kirk Ellis is the screenwriter of AppleTV+ new miniserie, Franklin with Michael Douglas, Noah Jupe , Ludivine Sagnier, Jeanne Balibar and Thibault de Montalembert.

Franklin, like Masters of the Air, was a long shoot, was it because of Covid?

Kirk Ellis: Not because of Covid just because of the scale of the piece. We shot for hundred and twenty one days, and hardly enough the start day of principal of photography was d day June 6 2022 and we wrapped on 17th December of the same year.

Stacy Schiff wrote A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. and have you red The Witches: Salem, Cleopatra: A life, Vera (Mrs Nabokov) and Saint Exupéry, a biography. Did you read them ?

Kirk Ellis: Sure so I actually knew Stacy’s book from my earlier mini-serie John Adams because her book won in 2005  the George Washington Book Prize for history that year. It was actually the secondary source for the scenes between John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in Paris in that show so when the opportunity to adapt the book as its own shevel came about I was familiar with the book. I had loved the book, I had not met Stacy before we became good friends, and colleagues during the production and I had already red her book on The Witches, Cleopatra. I got her new book The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams on my night stand at the moment, she’s a wonderful historian, like David McCullough somebody who gives a personal angle to the history so you’re not reading dry facts, you’re learning about things in a very high style emotional way. So that’s it. It was a marvelous source material for a script  because all the details were there. Naturally I had to do a lot of secondary research, I got a book shelf. I remember in France I had like a hundred books on this book shelf that I could call for anybody one time but he’s was always the first source material for it, she’s a great writer.

What about the director Timothy Van Patten who worked on Boardwalk Empire and Black Mirror ?

Kirk Ellis: Yes I had know his work for a long time: the Sopranos, Boardwalk empire, and all his others accomplishments. We actually worked together before between. John Adams was a long project in gestation before it got off the ground I did a twelve hour mini serie about the American west called Into the west, for Steven Spielberg, AT&T and it had six epsodes with six different directors and Tim directed the sixth episode who was a crucial episode with a the native American boarding school experience and he was a remarkable guy to work with just incredibly personable. That went well with the actors and the crew. He said it. A really low key set, not a lot of drama except when I was on his crew  also that’s 2005 until 2020-2021. And now we’re working together on a show where I and Howard Korder are writing every episode in tennis every episode. It was a wonderful unity personality here.  And Tim was such an efficient director. In France, as you know you work ten hours a day, and 5 days a week. We never went over that and some days I was home early. I could go to dinner and a movie on a production day. He was really him nd David Franco, the cinematographer who ran an incredibly well regulated set. It was a dream you know to be there. That sounds like puffery but if you know my personality, I’m not giving the compliments easy.

Can you explain what Founders’ chic is ?

Kirk Ellis: Well, I’ve red that. And I’ve been mentioned as being founding it because of John Adams but I was certainly not aware of it at the time. I think what they’re talking about was sort of renaissance of the limited series in the initial part of that renaissance, it was historical dramas, they were leading the way, I think we’re seeing that again whether we’re talking of shows on AppleTV+ like our show or Manhunt or Shogun on FX, it speaks to a real hunger for historical subjects not only in America but around the world.

Who was Gouverneur Morris, one of the Founding Fathers of American history?

Kirk Ellis: that was after our time period, because it was actually Benjamin Franklin efforts in France that got Morriss into the trouble in getting all the money from Vergennes and Louis XVI, Franklin bankrupted French treasury in putting to place all the preliminaries of French Revolution and more is ì believe the ambassador during that terrible time but with not as effective as Franklin in navigating that transatlantic relation ship.

What about Orson Welles in Si Versailles m’était conté by Sacha Guitry, or Lafayette,  by Jean Dréville & Tom Wilkinson in John Adams in the role of Franklin ?

Kirk Ellis: I tried not to be influenced by them, and don’t look into other incarnations. I could never look back into John Adams when I was looking on the scripts, but I certainly knew what was in them but this is a very different story because in John Adams, we’re looking at the revolution through John Adams’s eyes so Franklin comes across as a sort of crank, of flying ointment in John Adams’s way was in our show reel I had a chance to look at Adams from Franklin’s point of view and it’s a very different portrayal. Eddie Marsan’s very different from Paul Giamatti in this show so it was the flip side of both characters but you’re always taking the point of view of your protagonists and how he sees people and how you’re going to inflect those characters in the script so the audience sees them the same way.

Benjamin Franklin met Lafayette and Voltaire in Paris, all free masons,  of the Nine sisters, from the Grand Orient de France, celebrating its 250th anniversary. He was portrayed in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story and then in Dan Brown’s, Lost Symbol, and in works like Benjamin Gates or Assassin’s creed as a « millennial illuminati ». Were you concerned about not portraying him as the character of a conspiracy theory ?

Kirk Ellis: oh yeah sure I would love to have done the whole Voltaire scene in. He had Voltaire bless his grandson in a temple, you came in and out of early versions of the script, it was a big moment in Stacy’s book but it just turned out to be no room for it. The fact that Franklin, Lafayette and Voltaire were all masons again part of that secret society, you know if you start you want to throw everything in and these complete as much as possible but ultimately you have to start to be leading  to get to the core of something and so from the beginning when you say Benjamin Franklin, what do they think about. They’ll think about kite, electricity, constitution. They don’t know anything but that. Nobody knows about this period, and his life, which was the most consequential period in Benjamin Franklin’s life that defined him as an individual and defined it the United States as a country but the most important part of it was he was seductive. That’s the Franklin that you didn’t see in John Adams. Franklin was not portrayed with any kind of serious import. You understood and I think Michael really understood that the only way to say it could have happened was that he was seductive  not only in the sense physically seductive to woman but as as a personality, seductive to a country at large. That’s how we came to be a nation. You know it’s sort of incredible to conceive that one man’s forceful personality with a little help from his friends and co-conspirators like John Adams and John Jay and others got us our independence. But it was Franklin who initially and ultimately signed the treaty over the course of eight years which were reduced to about six, in the context of a shell. That’s just remarkable thing and that’s what we really need to show to people what the power of personality, what diplomacy really can do. 

Lafayette himself invested as a constitutional monarch Louis Philippe, son of Philippe Égalité, who had commissioned a portrait from P.A. Healy featuring Benjamin Franklin with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, before they sent Rochambeau’s troops to Yorktown. Are you familiar with that ?

Kirk Ellis: again there si so many I know from the secondary research, so many I focused on because of the context of the show  but you know this whole England talks about it’s special relationship with America but America’s most special relationship has always been with France. France was our first ally for all the harsh words that were exchanged politically over the last 257 years they still got affinity between our two countries and this whole remarkable notion of a republic and a monarchy that can find common ground you know and partly for sharing common enemy at the time, Great-Britain, but the other person I refer to was Alexis de Tocqueville who was sent to America to examine the American prison system. All of the country existed at the time to the Mississippi River and produced remarkable appreciation about America life in customs.  There is always been this fascination with France, and America with France. Sometimes the relationship you’re talking about was always a very personal relation ship. Benjamin Franklin and Lafayette for instance. 

Did you know about French actors from the serie such as Ludivine Sagnier, Jeanne Balibar, Marc Duret,  Lili Dupont, Assad Bouab and Thibault de Montalembert before?

Kirk Ellis: I first met them personally when we were casting them but yes I knew those actors very well and Thibault was for both Tim and me our first choice for Vergennes. American audience came to know Thibault and Assad through obviously Dix pour cent (Call my agent). And then of course, Ludivine had been in the Young Pope as well and obviously very well known. So there was never any hesitation about hiring those very well known French actors. I must say that when Ludivine came to her interview having gone to the National Archives and red all of Madame Brillon’s letters to Franklin and Franklin’s letter to her. She probably knew more letters than I did writing the script. It was really remarkable that actors had gone to that level of research. I remember Thibault asking if he got the part, would we have the version of the desk he had designed for him because Vergennes designed his own desk for the ministry of state in Versailles. And yes we had it constructed so he could sit at that desk.  They were all just terrific, all of them down the line. I haven’t met Marc Duret but he was terrific as well . Lily Dupont, Madame de Brillon’s daughter too. Absolutely delightful.

Marc Duret is famous for his punk-rock roles in La Haine, Nikita or Le Grand bleu and Jeanne Balibar is the daughter of a Marxist philosopher, Etienne Balibar, mentioned by Emmanuel Macron in his memoir of philosophy, although Balibar later denied knowing him. I’m surprised you know so much about French actors. Are you fond of French movies ?

Kirk Ellis: oh yes of course I majored in Film history at the university of California, and one of my favorite film directors include Truffaut. I taught myself to read in French for the production of the movie. I got fluent by reading subtitles films all the way through. I’ve been watching French films since my teens or late twenties.

Do you watch French contemporary movies ?

Kirk Ellis: There is a French movie festival in LA but I still need to catch up because I’ve been living in Paris in 2022 but there’s still a lot of French films I want to see. I saw Jean-Jacques-Annaud film, Notre Dame brûle. That was a fascinating film on a technical level. Yes there was a terrific policier La nuit du 12. And as a screenwriter, I appreciated that because as I understood it came from a 650 page police procedure and it was one case in there. And the screenwriter transferred it to a different landscape in France up in the mountains that worked very well. And then of course I have to mention the Anatomy of a fall which I’ve seen three times now. It’s really compelling.

Dominik Moll, the director of La nuit du 12 is totally obsessed with David Lynch. Have you also seen the Zone of interest, by Jonathan Glazer ?

Kirk Ellis: Yes of course I saw that. As a matter of fact, our visual effect supervisor on Franklin was one of the producers of Zone of interest. That was a remarkable film as well. That’s the kind of thing I like to do, it’s like when you do a story than people I know that story, Auschwitz, Schindler’s list, blablabla you find a different road into it. Zone of interest is like no other film. It’s completely unrepeatable. You always want to play against audience’s expectations of what they’re about to see.  People tuning in to see Franklin after one episode it’s probably gonna be like the Cambern’s documents, like historical drama. It’s not like a John Mc Carry thriller, you haven’t seen something like that before.  You always have to find that angle into that story to make it fresh and certainly the Zone of interest did that.

Claude Lanzmann said Auschwitz was unfilmable, before the Son of Saul. This approach to filming for an international movie is something new. It has to be acknowledged that Steven Spielberg faced significant criticism for not adopting this approach. However, he explained that without his movie, Americans might never have known about it.

Kirk Ellis: There is a direct sort of immediate kind of visceral impact you can use or you can take the more indirect method and build from an audience perspective a mystery. That’s why the soundtrack of Zone of interest.And I think I’m right saying he won an academy award deservedly. You know it’s all on the track. You never need to see anything. That’s the beauty of that. What’s left it’s so drooling. You know this is a conversation Cimino on that subject says, you don’t have to show everything, you can suggest stuff . You don’t have to keep telling people it’s about this, it’s about that. And you know if I may, just to go back to the French actors. You’re the first person who asked me about them so far. I love them all and i should tell you that from the beginning this was never going to be a movie where you would have American or English actors with accents. That was never going to be movie about diplomacy and communication so we needed to have these two idioms English and French, sometimes together, sometimes in opposition. And the other thing is that there is so many people who have lost the spotlight they never should have out of. People like Beaumarchais. People in America will know him as a play writer, not that he was our first gun lender, that Assad plays that so misleadingly in shell. The Comte de Vergennes, we would never had an alliance. Madame Brillon who opened all the doors for Franklin and who was herself one of the most amazing musicians, composers in Europe but because she was a woman never got the credit than she deserve. In fact her music went undiscovered for several centuries and we’re using for several compositions for the first time in the show. If you remember; if you’ve seen the show episode 4 that march of the insurgeons that was really her composition and she gets the credit for it. That’s why I love what I do because you get  to say hey, Franklin’s great but pay attention to this person, pay attention to this person, do you remember, you’ve heard of them, now you’ve heard of them, now you can go back and do some reading about them and how much of a collaborative effort it took in this place

What about Howard Korder, a Pulitzer Prize winner like Stacy Schiff ?

Kirk Ellis: we both live in Santé Fé, Mexico how about that for a coincidence. We’re not exactly neighbors. He brought so much  fresh energy, fresh eyes on the material. We took directions together I alone could not have anticipated on my own. It was Tim, it was Michael, it was Howard, it was me. Howard and I had different sensibilities but ultimately the script speaks in the same voice which is what’s the most important I think.

About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery.