It’s a new fact of life in Hollywood. Amazon Studios has officially upped its game to becoming an A-list player. If all those Emmy Awards for “Transparent” and Golden Globes for “Mozart in the Jungle” weren’t enough, hello. Seven Oscar nominations, including the first-ever best picture nod for a streamer for “Manchester by the Sea.”
“Z: The Beginning of Everything” fits right into the ambitious gameplan, which includes an upcoming original drama series from “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner.
The ten-episode “Z” traces the beginning of the relationship between the legendary Zelda (Sayre) Fitzgerald and the even more renowned author F. Scott Fitzgerald and stars Christina Ricci as Zelda and David Hoflin as Scott. As told from her point of view, it encompasses their lives together during the few years from the end of World War I into the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, a time of tremendous change in American society and culture.
And while F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books have been the basis for countless movies — there have been five adaptations of “The Great Gatsby” alone, including the 2013 version starring Leonardo DiCaprio — this is the first time Zelda’s life story has been told on the screen.
Amazon held a gala premiere Wednesday night in New York, where much of the story takes place in the gilded halls of private clubs, speakeasies and at the Biltmore Hotel, where the newly married couple lived for a time as Scott was enjoying the success of his first novel, “This Side of Paradise.”
“We were brought into this project by Christina Ricci and producer Pam Koffler, who were interested in our take on how we would turn Zelda’s life into a full-blown, multiseason streaming TV series,” said co-creator, executive producer and writer Nicole Yorkin, who shares those credits with Dawn Prestwich. “I was already a huge fan of Scott Fitzgerald’s writing when I first read the Nancy Milford biography of Zelda, in the ’70s, which was a huge revelation. Until then, the popular perception of Zelda had been that she was the crazy wife who’d brought her genius husband down. This biography presented Zelda as a fully fleshed out person, an artist in her own right, a woman who was as much a victim of the time she grew up in as she was of a complex relationship with a difficult man. I’d never forgotten that book, so when we were presented with the idea of adapting ‘Z’ and bringing Zelda to life, we jumped on it.”
The pilot for the series was based on Therese Anne Fowler’s 2013 book “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald,” which captivated Ricci, who also serves as an executive producer, and inspired her to get it produced. Originally conceived as a movie or miniseries, Amazon Studios suggested a lengthier series. Each of the episodes runs about half an hour.
Ricci said Fowler’s book reminded her of Patti Smith’s book “Just Kids,” which chronicles her youthful relationship with artist and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In moving the project forward, she was intent on clearing up the misconceptions about Zelda’s life, particularly that she was Scott’s downfall.
“It was really fascinating how little I knew about her, and the things I thought I knew weren’t very accurate. I knew her as the crazy, alcoholic woman but the truth is more complicated than that,” Ricci said. “She’s one of the most fully formed characters, based on how much information I had about her. In addition to reading her bios, I read her fiction, and his fiction, and it created for me a very complete person and allowed me to be spontaneous and fresh.”
“The novel was a great jumping off point, but a novel is not a series,” Yorkin said. “Since Scott and Zelda were real people, we and our writers busied ourselves reading everything written both about and by Scott and Zelda. We also spoke to historians about the period 1918-1920, which was, as one UCLA professor told us, the true beginning of the Modern period in American history.”
The producers concluded that the best way they could tell Zelda’s story was by dividing it up geographically. They designed the first season to span from 1918 in Montgomery, Ala., where Scott and Zelda first met — Zelda’s hometown — and then on to New York and their first year of marriage. The season concludes where it began, in Montgomery, after the couple’s brief and rocky idyll in Westport, Conn. Yorkin said if the series continues, it can move on to the Fitzgeralds’ time in St. Paul, their stint in Paris, or their years in Asheville, North Carolina, and in Hollywood.
They decided early on to begin the pilot with Zelda speaking from the grave, so the audience would know whose story it was from moment one.
“Zelda’s story has never been told accurately,” Ricci said. “She was a truly creative force. In fact, a lot of Scott’s writing was lifted directly from Zelda’s journals. They both wrote about their many adventures. When she did later publish a book, Scott insisted on editing it heavily because he had written so much about their shared experiences in his own books.”
Playing the brilliant, iconic and flawed character of F. Scott Fitzgerald put pressure on Hoflin, who read nearly all of Fitzgerald’s books in preparation for the role. Particularly in “This Side of Paradise,” the main character of Amory Blaine, modeled on the author, gave Hoflin insight into Fitzgerald’s opinion of himself. Yet the dearth of footage of Fitzgerald’s mannerisms and speech gave him a wide arc within which to base his portrayal.
“He’s so iconic and there is so much impact he and his wife had, but what we’re delving into is not just his success, but their relationship,” Hoflin said. “The main focus is two people in love with their own personal problems to deal with. But the most interesting part of the show is that he is seen in Zelda’s view. It was skewed to be more about her experience in the relationship. We discussed certain things that could be taken both ways and wanted to be sure we were more in line with Zelda’s view.”
“We can honestly say our version of the Fitzgeralds is completely unique from any other filmed versions,” Yorkin said. “David Franco, our director of photography (‘Boardwalk Empire,’ ‘Game of Thrones’), is a true artist, who helped set the rich, cinematic look of this show, along with our talented directors.”
While Yorkin was struck most by the modernity of Zelda in an era when women were newly granted the right to vote — with her desire to be seen as an artist and not just a wife — Prestwich was bowled over by the fact that she was a unique and interesting writer in her own right.
“Her voice was extraordinarily poetic and searingly accurate in how she characterized her life, and her love of Scott,” Prestwich said. “I think what also became clear was that whatever mental illness she had (possibly bipolar disorder), it was severely exacerbated by the crude treatments of her time — insulin shock therapy, electroshock therapy, etc. After years of these treatments, it is no wonder she often appeared confused, or catatonic.”
But that is getting far ahead of the story told in the series. We first meet Zelda as a smart and sassy young woman whose free-spiritedness riles her strict father, a judge played by a taciturn David Strathairn. Her mother (Kristine Nielsen), meanwhile, exhibits nearly unconditional love for Zelda, the youngest of six children. Two of her sisters are shown to be much more bound by Southern traditions.
“I love Zelda’s entrance into New York — her unimaginable excitement as she moves from the slow, uninspiring 19th century world of Montgomery into the fast-paced, game-changing, 20th century world of New York City in 1920,” Prestwich said.
“Visually, I love the contrast between the intimacy of Zelda’s life in Montgomery and the grand scale of 1920s New York,” said Yorkin. “I am always delighted as we enter a Harlem speakeasy with Zelda and Scott, seeing the glittery, raucous world through their eyes.”
Soon after she arrives in the big city, Zelda is pressured to forsake her Southern style, which many in the elite circle Fitzgerald had already cultivated viewed as embarrassing. He even manipulates a woman friend to take her shopping for new clothes. “She was very much looking for her own identity when she came to New York,” Ricci said. “She wanted to be admired, and to impress her husband, but the idea that there was a uniform for women in New York [a Jean Patou suit] repulsed her. She takes it to another level on one-upping people.”
The production design, the music, automobiles and period costumes lend glamorous realism to the depiction of the Jazz Age. Luminaries of the age including poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and actress Tallulah Bankhead play small but important roles in re-creating the era.
“Production designer Henry Dunn and costume designer Tom Broecker are the true stars of this show,” Prestwich said. “Their brilliant work is what sets the era so beautifully for us. Both are relentless artists, who are obsessed with creating a compelling, inspiring foundation for our characters to spring from. Months before we ever started shooting, Tom was in Europe, scouring wherever he scours — the nooks and the crannies — for beautiful costumes. His love and devotion for the period, characters, and story amazed us. He’s a true genius, as well, in his composition of costume design in a scene. He always works with an eye toward what tells the story, and what emphasizes the characters. Christina, David and all the actors were beautifully supported by his brilliant work, down to smallest details like purses, and cigarette holders.”
And then there is the alcohol, loads of champagne, gin, whisky and a cocktail called Between the Sheets that is imbibed by Bankhead, her sister Eugenia — and Zelda’s mother.
Scott Fitzgerald is rarely shown without a drink, a flask or a bottle in hand, with Zelda often joining him. “It was how he coped with failure and success,” Hoflin said. “That goes hand in hand with a lot of artists who have problems with alcohol and drugs and their addictive natures and that was certainly the case with him. No doubt he had a drinking problem, but we certainly didn’t want to go to a state where he was always belligerently drunk. He was by all accounts a functioning alcoholic, and most of the time people wouldn’t know he’d been drinking.”
The drinking did not get in the way of his huge passion and drive for success. “He really wanted to be remembered as one of the great American novelists, to be famous and successful and in the limelight and rich,” Hoflin said. “He didn’t come from a wealthy background, but he longed to be in that society, and when he went to Princeton he wanted to be part of it. Along with his drive, it also comes with a healthy ego. He believed in himself a lot, and to his credit, he really stuck to it. He was a very passionate man and he felt passionately about Zelda. She was his muse for a lot of his writings.”
The couple’s life appears to be one big adventure, yet it is tinged with sadness and despair and coping with triumph and loss, especially for Zelda.
“The point is telling Zelda’s life story in context of the relationship and to try and be honest; we have to show them both at their worst,” Ricci said. “You don’t want to destroy one’s reputation at the expense of the other. That was one thing we were greatly aware of. Yet it was important for the show to have a feeling that everything is seen through a lens that is her mind, and having that point of view in terms of filmmaking, even with colors that are carried through in terms of her memory.”
“Zelda wouldn’t have had the same opportunities as a man to begin with,” said Hoflin. “She was a great writer in her own sense. F. Scott used a lot of her writing. He was always aware they would be more successful if it was his name on the book, yet a lot of her words shined through in his books. There’s no confusion that she contributed quite heavily to his success. I’m hoping we can get people to understand and feel their intense relationship on either side of the spectrum. Intense love, but it was always breaking apart.”
“I think we hope that viewers fall in love with Zelda — ‘her courage, her sincerity, and her flaming self-respect’ — the way Scott did,” Prestwich said. “We want them swept off their feet by this wild, tumultuous journey, filled with hope, excitement, and tragedy.”
“I hope it’s a great escape,” Ricci said. “Right now we need entertainment that is something people can lose themselves in, gorgeous and sumptuous.”
(“Z: The Beginning of Everything” streams on Amazon Prime Video beginning Jan. 27.)