Behind the Scenes on Hit Italian Prison Drama ‘The Sea Beyond’ (Exclusive)

Our appointment is set for 3 p.m. in the Piazza Mercato, in the heart of Naples, on a hot September day that feels like August. It’s a sunny, deserted and silent square, where three big trucks and two vans are parked. The crew is busy preparing the scene. The grips, working in religious silence, position the camera on a dolly for a tracking shot. We are on the set of The Sea Beyond, season four of the hit series produced by Rai Fiction and Picomedia, about the lives of a group of kids in juvenile prison. The show has been the most successful ever on RAI’s streaming platform, with the first three seasons — which are now also available on Netflix in Italy — generating 220 million views (in a country with a population of 60 million).

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We are greeted by director Ivan Silvestrini. This, he says, gesturing to the grips setting up the dolly, will be the longest tracking shot of his career. The scene’s protagonist is one of the recurring faces of the series: A girl who, after a period of freedom, ends up making another mistake and goes back behind bars. It is hot in the square, the crew is busy setting up. It’s a young group, average age is around 30, about 50 people in all.

Gathered in a corner of the square, a small group of teenagers paw the ground. About 15 in all. They wear flashy The Sea Beyond-style outfits: Miniskirts, crop-tops and garish shirts — a look that has become increasingly popular among Italian teens thanks to the show. They are the extras, playing background bystanders. For some, this is their screen debut. Others are series regulars. They have been summoned to the set but they haven’t been told what to do yet. They aren’t too concerned. “After all, we just have to walk around,” says one.

Cinematographer Francesca Amitrano is explaining how light works in The Sea Beyond.

“Ivan [Silvestrini] is interested in natural light, which means that sometimes we have to wait for the right conditions to shoot. But not always,” she notes. “This season, in one episode, I had to recreate the light of a dream, to give it movement. Shooting a series like this, which is based on emotions and gut feeling, it’s all about enhancing emotions with light.”

The star on the set today is Silvia (Clotilde Esposito), one of Sea Beyond‘s recurring characters. She arrives when everything is ready. Dressed in pink, makeup and hair dolled up with huge sunglasses and a driver holding her bag for her and an umbrella to shield her eyes from the sun.

“Today we’re shooting an arrest scene — always a classic in the series. We always show how and why our kids ended up in juvie.”

He quickly breaks down the scene with Esposito and the other actors, including those playing the police and the one they call “Rattuso” (pickpocket). Blocking and timing are done on the spot. Esposito has the script and knows what she has to do. The rest have to catch up quickly, memorizing Silvestrini’s directions on the fly. It’s two hours of technical adjustment and then…

Clotilde Esposito, who plays Silvia in 'The Sea Beyond' with director Ivan Silvestrini.

Clotilde Esposito, who plays Silvia in The Sea Beyond with director Ivan Silvestrini.

Francois Abramovici

“Rolling, and — action!”

But where’s Rattuso? He’s not in the shot. Take two! Rattuso’s blocking the shot. Take three! Silvestrini shifts Rattuso in the scene: He wants coverage from another angle. Take four! Maria Grazia, the assistant director, takes Esposito aside, admonishing her for “parading” instead of walking. Take five is spoiled by a plane overhead. On take six, one of the cops forgets to case Esposito. Grazia steps in to explain the scene again…

Take seven! It goes well but the camera operators aren’t sure it was clean. Take eight! The director decides Rattuso should tie up his hair back so we can see his face better, but he misses his mark. Take nine! Rattuso, after his attempted pickpocketing, stays in the scene instead of running away. Take 10 … cut! Technical error. Take 11! Rattuso is a beat too slow entering the frame. Take 12! This time he comes in too fast. Take 13! Finally, everything runs smoothly. That’s a wrap. The crew moves on to the next set-up.

Thirteen takes to shoot the final 30 seconds of the first episode of season four. Grazia, the first-time assistant director, is the day’s real hero. Again and again, she tirelessly positions the extras and actors: Shouting, warning, encouraging and controlling the mob through the power of her impressive vocal chords. “I don’t use a horn, I like to get everyone going with my own voice,” she says smiling.

Martina, the script supervisor, explains that they have to film eight to 10 minutes of footage a day. It took more than three hours to shoot the first 50 seconds of material. If every shoot goes like the first, they’ll be on set 24 hours today.

Massimiliano Caiazzo, who plays Carmine in 'The Sea Beyond' on set of Season 4.

Massimiliano Caiazzo, who plays Carmine, on set of season four.

Francois Abramovici

The new set is inside the prison. The director tours the Naval Base at St. Vincent Pier, transformed into Italy’s most infamous juvenile prison. The back door has been turned into the fictional prison’s main entrance. The boy’s and girl’s sections are actually the same location, just shot from a different angle.

In the makeup room, we find Edoardo, played by Matteo Paolillo, whose version of the The Sea Beyond theme song, “O’ Mar For,” can be heard soaring out of bars, clubs and car windows across Italy these days (the show’s influence on the culture is so significant that when the Napoli soccer team won the Italian league last season, the crowd spontaneously began singing the theme song). Just beyond is the costume department, a large room with a series of clothing racks, each with the names of the main characters. Rossella Aprea is the costume designer.

“This year I had fun creating the look of Donna Wanda, who will be a praying mantis, dressed in black, latex, leather and metallic. Rosa Ricci will also have a more rock and dark look,” she says. “Of the boys, Pino will be even more stylish and super colorful, while Cardio Trap will be [more] urban Neapolitan.” She shows off the cast’s endless wardrobe. Then she holds up a series of customized T-shirts, each with the effigy of the characters in the series.

“The T-shirts with the faces of the actors are a gift I gave the boys, to wear in their downtime between scenes when they are eating or at makeup,” she says. “As for the costumes, we decided to immerse the protagonists in the reality of the Neapolitan neighborhoods. I tried to bring the fashion of Scampia, Sanità and Forcella, here inside the juvenile penitentiary institute. Assigning each of the kids their own personal style.”

In one of the cells in the men’s section, assistant director Giuseppe Eusepi is directing Carmine (Massimiliano Caiazzo) and Pino (Artem) in a scene in which Pino freaks out and Carmine tries to calm him down. It’s an “easy” scene, and the two actors get through it quickly, in just a few takes. Silvestrini says the material they’ve shot over 18 weeks (plus two weeks from the second unit) for Season 4 is so good that some episodes might have a longer runtime than planned.

We spot Antonio Farina, The Sea Beyond set designer, who built the cells and the prison interiors.

“We turned the Naval Base into a big stage set,” the master craftsman explains. His team is currently building a new set inside the prison chapel but that’s off-limits to us for now.

Matteo Paolillo, who plays Edoardo in 'The Sea Beyond' getting made up for a scene.

Matteo Paolillo, who plays Edoardo in ‘The Sea Beyond’ getting made up for a scene.

Francois Abramovici

One notices how young The Sea Beyond crew is, at least compared to most Italian shoots. Even the director, the adult in the room, is only in his 40s.

“You can’t yet speak of a real generational change in film and TV [in Italy], but these new series were the way in for me and other colleagues of my age, including [producer] Ludovico Bessegato (Skam, Prisma) or Stefano Ludovichi (The Trial),” Silvestrini says. “These series created a strong demand [for younger stories] just as we were waiting for an opportunity that never seemed to come. We found ourselves to be the perfect generation, ready to do something completely different than the Italian art-house cinema of yesteryear.”

While these 40-something directors are cutting their teeth on TV series, all still dream of the big screen. Silvestrini plans to return to movies as soon as possible, even with The Sea Beyond.

“We’re going to show the first two episodes of The Sea Beyond season four in movie theaters as a test, to gauge audience reaction on the big screen,” he says. “After all, it is one of the most anticipated television events of the season.”

The first two episodes of season four of The Sea Beyond will have their world premiere at the Rome Film Festival next month, with the cast and crew set to walk the red carpet. It’s an unexpected success for Rai in particular. The public channel is enjoying a new popularity among younger viewers, an audience the network has struggled in the past to attract.

This all looks like a dress rehearsal for a planned Sea Beyond feature film. Roberto Sessa of Picomedia suggested a feature film version of the series was in the works at a presentation of TV programming in Naples recently. And Maria Pia Ammirati, director of Rai Fiction, confirmed that alongside plans for a fifth and sixth season of the series, the producers are “well underway” on “a more ambitious project, anticipated by an audience that’s young but also old, across the family spectrum. We are making good progress on it.”

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