An Italian producer unpacks a layered tale of the cocaine trade, shot on three continents.
The challenge, as Stefano Sollima saw it, was finding a new angle for a familiar story.
"Drug trafficking is something that has been told many times," says the Italian director and creative force behind ZeroZeroZero, a crime drama about the international cocaine trade.
"I tried to take a different approach by depicting cocaine like any other popular, profitable consumer good and showing how, through its global reach, it impacts millions of people in all aspects of everyday life — economically, politically and personally."
Based on a searing exposé by bestselling author Roberto Saviano (Gomorrah), the eight-part series on Amazon Prime Video follows the journey of a massive coke shipment from multiple perspectives: the Mexican cartels managing the drug's production, the ruthless Italian syndicates that distribute it, and the American shipping company ferrying the cargo across the Atlantic.
"Depicting three separate worlds, however, made it hard to tell the story in a linear fashion," Sollima explains. "So at certain points I froze the narrative and hopped backward and forward in time, which shakes up the storytelling in an interesting way."
ZeroZeroZero adds another compelling twist in its intimate portrayal of a New Orleans family — played by Gabriel Byrne, Andrea Riseborough and Dane DeHaan — that is dangerously entangled in the enterprise.
"We just took the soul of the book and built these characters from the ground up," Sollima says. "We don't judge them, but simply make them human. Every one of us has both good and evil."
Best known for 2015's Sicario: Day of the Soldado and the 2014 TV adaptation of Gomorrah, Sollima also served as executive producer and what he describes as showrunner, Italian style: others did most of the writing, and two directors handled the last six episodes without his ongoing supervision.
"That isn't the way it's normally done in the U.S. I saw my role more as forming the team rather than micromanaging them."
He did, however, keep a close eye on cinematography and making the landscape — the sprawling series was shot on three continents — a key element of the story.
"Southern Italy was poor, rocky and barren, and even though it was the hub of the whole enterprise, the criminals don't flaunt their wealth there," he says. "But you could see the money in Mexico, which was colorful and full of adrenaline, and in New Orleans, where you could sense it behind the faded elegance."
The ambitious shoot posed logistical challenges, but he took them in stride, including the time the Mexican government denied permission to film — apparently for political reasons — just as the crew was about to land in Monterrey. The production had to find new locations on the fly.
"Experiencing real-life problems that make you think about the world we're living in is part of the process," says Sollima, who covered his fair share of war zones as a news cameraman for CNN, CBS and NBC. "And if you can somehow incorporate that into your work, all the better."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2020
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