When National Geographic Channel debuted its anthology series “Genius” last year depicting the life of Albert Einstein, it was an ambitious project and a huge roll of the dice for the cable network.
But “Genius,” which was NatGeo’s first-ever scripted series, struck chords on many levels, with audiences, with the industry — not surprisingly due to its provenance — with critics and with awards voters.
The program was nominated for 10 Primetime Emmy Awards, including nods for lead actor Geoffrey Rush, for director Ron Howard and for the composers of the main title theme music, Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe.
Not only is “Genius” back for a second season, with Antonio Banderas and Alex Rich playing Pablo Picasso over 10 episodes beginning Tuesday night, but a third has just been announced. Iconic author Mary Shelley of “Frankenstein” fame will join the pantheon of the two brilliant men who have already received the “Genius” treatment.
The story of Picasso, considered one of the most influential and important artists of the 20th century, begins with his dramatic birth in Malaga, Spain, into a loving and supportive family. Viewers will see that as a child, he was told he would be a great artist after his prodigious talent was apparent very early on — shown by his depiction of a bullfight he attended with his father.
As with the story of Einstein, that of Picasso cuts back and forth between his youth and various stages of his adulthood. For both men, being Europeans during the rise of fascism on the continent had major repercussions in their lives and on their work. Both were also endlessly appealing to women other than their wives.
Executive produced by Howard and Brian Grazer, “Genius” was created by Noah Pink and Kenneth Biller, whose credits include shows ranging from “Beverly Hills 90210” to “Star Trek: Voyager” to “Perception.”
We caught up with Biller by phone from his Hollywood office to talk about the Picasso of Season 2, the artist’s personal tragedies and shifting alliances and the challenges of creating a look and feel for a show about a subject who is one of history’s most brilliant masters of visual arts.
TVWeek: What are the similarities and the distinctions between the first and second seasons portraying the lives of Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso?
Kenneth Biller: There are some clear similarities. One thing that is very fortunate is to bring back some of the actors from Season 1 including T.R. Knight, who played J. Edgar Hoover and now plays Max Jacob; Seth Gabel, Lucy Russell, Johnny Flynn and Samantha Colley, among others. If the audience keeps watching, there will be little chestnuts. Both seasons take a very deep, intensive dive into the respective characters of two men who lived very long lives. Both use two actors to portray them as adults. Alex Rich plays Picasso from his late teens to mid-30s and then Antonio Banderas from his mid-40s to his death at the age of 92. That’s a similarity in the nonlinear approach, juxtaposing events from their youth to inject some surprise into the storytelling. Yet one of the differences is that we had Geoffrey Rush [as Einstein] in only five episodes and Antonio is all ten, so it is a more aggressive approach.
I directed the first two episodes and we definitely retain stylistic choices that Ron Howard made and adapted them to a new subject with a more aggressive handheld shooting style. With Einstein and Picasso, there is a similarity in their relentless drive to innovate and create and in the way they sometimes to their own detriment and that of others put their professional work ahead of their personal lives. They are very different temperaments in that one is a fiery Mediterranean and the other is a German Jew, but they share other characteristics.
TVWeek: It seems as if you built a sort of repertory company with Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, your cinematographer and editors. Tell us more about your production team.
Biller: I’m so proud of our production team, and getting to work with Ron and Brian has kind of been my dream. I have continued to work with an incredible team of artists and brought back much of the team, including two of the three editors and the VFX people, UPP in Prague, the best I’ve worked with. My real secret weapon is hair and makeup artist Davina Lamont and cinematographer Mathias Herndl, who won an ASC award. “Genius” is a grueling, ambitious project with people who share my passion for it. These are people who in a very busy world of TV content I’m grateful they’ve shown this loyalty and lent their talents to the project. It sounds crazy, but it’s a family and a labor of love. Some of my writers, like Raf Green, we go back to “Star Trek” and “Perception.”
TVWeek: What are the unique challenges of depicting an iconic visual artist and translating that to the look and tone of the show?
Biller: Sometimes I thought, “Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?” Yet I was not alone with a canvas in a studio like Picasso was. I thrive on collaboration. I spent a lot of time with Mathias looking at Picasso’s work, and looking back on Season 1 to keep the continuity. I had many conversations with Ron on how to approach the show stylistically. We wanted to give it a cinematic scope. What was important to picture was the Mediterranean light, which was a huge challenge at the time of year we shot in places including Malaga, the birthplace of both Antonio and Picasso, and in Barcelona and Malta to get the warm weather look. It was a challenge moving the company around. We also shot in Paris and Budapest.
TVWeek: What will we learn about Pablo’s relationships with the many women in his life and how they influenced his work?
Biller: The women are really complicated and not easily defined. Picasso’s artistic and romantic interests changed over time. He has a reputation as being a womanizer, but that’s a simplistic view. But what’s undeniable is that he loved all these women, and sometimes didn’t treat them well — but he didn’t treat the men in his life well either. He was an enigma, full of contradictions. With Einstein, you learned of his first wife Mileva, and you wonder why history has not recognized her more. You’ll learn quite a bit about Dora Maar and Francoise Gilot, both brilliant artists in their own right. We discover no one does it alone, that they are inspired by or at odds with other figures. We tried to give these women their due, though with a warts-and-all depiction.
TVWeek: How did the tragedies in his life affect him, from the death of his sister to the suicide of his best friend Carlos Casagemas?
Biller: He was deeply affected by certain traumatic incidents, including the premature death of his younger sister who was his childhood companion. When she got sick with diphtheria, he famously made a vow to God to give up painting if she survived. The family was steeped in Catholicism in a very traditional church-based patriarchal world. Picasso’s vow was very real, not theoretical or abstract, and he felt like he almost had a divine duty to keep creating. He was obsessed. Over his lifetime, he created 45,000 works, so that means he painted pretty much every day. When he suffered the death of another friend, he went into what’s known as his Blue Period, proving you can’t separate art from life, and he couldn’t either.
TVWeek: The series shows that from a very early age, Picasso was determined to be a great painter and demonstrated his streak of independence. What are some of his other qualities that made him among the most important artists of modern history?
Biller: The topmost is how incredibly prolific he was, the sheer output of 45,000 works over his lifetime. The other thing is he mastered so many styles of art. He was never satisfied with what he was doing. With artists like Matisse and Dégas you can readily identify them. With Picasso, there were so many styles including his Blue and Rose periods, to Cubism, ballet, sculpture — he could do anything and he could paint in any style. He always wanted to reinvent himself and constantly did. He was driven.
TVWeek: Talk to us about how politics of the first half of the 20th century affected his work.
Biller: He was reluctant to get involved in political causes because he believed that art shouldn’t be political. Yet we show the creation of Guernica, his most powerful political statement, which came in response to the Nazi bombing of a Basque town. We depict how that came about and his initial reluctance. Picasso wasn’t instinctively, actively vocal in the world of politics but then he is very effectively and passionately engaged once he did. You’ll also see how he responds to World War I, fascism and then communism after the Second World War.
TVWeek: What do you hope that viewers take away from this season of “Genius”?
Biller: I hope they take away a deeper, richer understanding of a fascinating, complicated, sometimes infuriating yet endearing figure. I hope they see the amount of passion, work and dedication necessary to create at this level, and the inspiration of the other artists who surround him. I hope they’re entertained and provoked by the subject matter.
(“Genius” premieres on National Geographic Channel Tuesday, April 24, at 9 p.m. ET/PT, 8 p.m. Central)