‘Franklin’ Director, Writers on How Benjamin Franklin Saved America, Why Michael Douglas Was Perfect for the Role: ‘He Has an Absolute Lust for Life’

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Franklin” director Tim Van Patten, who won Emmys for “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Pacific,” says that although he loves history and is a history buff “this was a slice of history I was not aware of.”

Van Patten, who was also Emmy nominated for “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City” and “Game of Thrones,” adds: “For me, at this point in my career, I like to take myself to a world I don’t know, and also to do the same with the audience.”

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“Franklin,” which stars Michael Douglas, has its world premiere at series festival Canneseries on April 10 in Cannes, France, in the presence of cast and crew. The show, which is a co-production between ITV Studios America and Apple Studios, makes its global streaming debut April 12 on Apple TV+.

“Franklin” tells the story of how Benjamin Franklin, best known at the time as an inventor, travels to France in December 1776 on a secret mission. In the American colonies, the British appear to be winning the War of Independence. “The stakes are so high surrounding this endeavor,” Van Patten explains.

The revolutionaries are in “dire straits,” Van Patten adds, and so Franklin has been dispatched by Congress to persuade France, an absolute monarchy, to send guns and money to this democratic rebel alliance, and, ultimately, to bring France into the war on their side.

The show, based on Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff’s book “A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America,” was adapted by Kirk Ellis, who won an Emmy for another show about an American Revolutionary, “John Adams,” with writer Howard Korder, who was Emmy nominated for “Boardwalk Empire,” joining the project at a later stage.

The drama series shows how Franklin had to outmanouver British spies, French informers and hostile colleagues. It was originally pitched by Ellis as “‘John Adams’ meets John le Carré,” but as the project progressed through development and toward production, Russia attacked Ukraine and the show acquired a more contemporary resonance. “There was a very clear similarity between the Ukraine in those years and America as this nation of virtually no importance to anybody that could not survive unless it had help from a foreign power with some muscle,” Ellis says. “And so, it’s the same situation replayed almost 250 years later.”

Korder, who came on board in March 2022, also saw the similarities to Ukraine’s situation and Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s efforts to save his country. “I was very taken with this notion of an outmanoeuvered, outgunned, outmanned country, trying to survive in the face of a superpower’s domination and having to go to another superpower for assistance,” he says. “This idea of a man having to argue with every ounce of his capability for money and weapons. I think it’s still pretty potent.”

Just as Zelenskyy has had to use all his powers of persuasion to win the support of allies, Franklin proved himself adept at adapting himself to meet the demands of the situation.

“For me, personally, of the Founding Fathers, I feel he’s the most relatable, the most human,” Van Patten says. “He embodies the American spirit. He was flawed, but he was also brilliant, and charming, and, arguably, our first humorist. I just liked him as a person. I’m not sure who said this, but someone said he’s the Founding Father he was going to hang out with. I think people will especially relate to him because he’s a humanist and a libertine and flawed like all of us.”

Douglas was a “good fit” to play Franklin, Van Patten says. “He embodies a lot of Franklin’s spirit in that he is really smart, and charming, and completely contemporary in that he’s aware of everything that’s going on around him, on a global level and on a personal level. And he’s curious. And he has an absolute lust for life.”

Franklin deploys his charm in order to advance the American cause. Ellis is particularly fond of a line in the show that Douglas delivers: “Diplomacy must not be a siege, it must be a seduction.” We also see in the show that he is an expert chess player, Ellis says, which serves as an allegory for how he plays the long game.

Although Franklin was sophisticated and cosmopolitan, he invented a different version of an American to gain the confidence of his French hosts. “Franklin creates this image of that sort of bumbling, frontier rustic,” Ellis says. “It’s with us today, whether you’re talking about MAGA or anybody else. He created that and the French ate it up.”

One of the key relationships in the series is between Franklin and French foreign minister Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, played by Thibault de Montalembert. “He was equally as good a chess player as Franklin. But he made the same mistake [as everyone else] – even after half a decade of dealing with him – to underestimate Franklin,” Ellis says. “He never believed that Franklin would make a separate peace [with Britain, signed in 1783] without telling him. But he did, because his first responsibility was to America.”

Although during the series Franklin is seen receiving news about the battles in America, we largely don’t see the war being fought, although in an earlier version of the script there were more scenes in America. “I always wanted it to be totally French set. It was about the game. It wasn’t about the war. And that’s what [Douglas] really latched on to because Franklin was shouldering all of the many twists and turns of the narrative,” Ellis says.

Van Patten adds: “We get glimpses of moments in America, but really, for me, I felt that we wanted to be with Franklin on this journey. Be with Franklin when he hears the information about good moments going on back in the States. Be on Franklin’s shoulder really. See the world through Franklin’s eyes. And that sort of works. It really works in humanizing this character and bringing him to life. I feel really good about the direction we took it in.”

One of the other key relationships in the show is between Franklin and Madame Brillon, played by Ludivine Sagnier, who “became a wonderful vessel to explore French society from a particularly feminine lens,” Ellis says.

“This was a woman who has gone completely invisible to history. At the time, she was one of the most accomplished musicians on both the piano and the harpsichord in Europe. Famous composers like Boccherini, her mentor, and J.S. Bach, wrote suites for her, which she would play in these private concerts. But she faced the whole nature of French society being strongly patriarchal.”

Van Patten adds: “They were both sort of on a parallel journey. She in her private life, and he in his. She was an accomplished artist and musician of the time. But, of course, in that world in that time, she wasn’t fully recognized for it. So, they were both having this parallel journey of frustration. And, I think they found each other good company. It’s nothing illicit, it’s just sort of this relationship story, which underpins the story in a good personal and human way.”

Another important relationship for Franklin is with Madame Helvetius, played by Jeanne Balibar, “who’s very different, who’s a libertine, who doesn’t care about those structures and violates them as often as she can,” Ellis says.

Then there is Franklin’s relationship with grandson Temple, played by Noah Jupe. In real life Temple was “a bit of a ne’er do well, who never really amounted to much,” Ellis says, but in the show his gallivanting serves a purpose. “This gave us a chance to open up how French society looked to a young man of 17, who is a blank slate, and show how he becomes a courtier. And it’s true that he was close friends with Marquis de Lafayette in his sort of entourage – we call them in the script the Four Musketeers, as a kind of shorthand. And he became known as a fop at many of these society events.

“Noah Jupe is an incredibly smart actor. He had the whole part calibrated when he got onto the set the first day, if not before, and he knew how to track this journey of a young man who sees opportunity but doesn’t see the risks and the cost to his soul.

“And that’s a thing about America as well. Jefferson famously put all the architectural features on Monticello facing West, not East. You are meant to look to the future, not the past. We are still obsessed with the Old World, which explains our fascination with the [British] royal family and this idea of opulence.

“Temple thinks he can move up, that there’s upward mobility, but there isn’t, and he gets stopped at a certain point.”

Franklin was a printer by profession and a recurrent theme in the show is the power of the word. To illustrate this, Ellis refers to the line at the end of Episode Two, where Franklin hands Temple the shattered bits of the printing press, and says: “Do you know what you hold in your hand, Temple?” and Temple says “letters, words,” and Franklin makes a fist, and goes: “Power. Never forget it.”

“We see it now exercised in a much more deliverable and much more dangerous format on social media, whether that’s Facebook or X, or any of the other platforms. But Franklin believed that the words would make the difference. And they did. After the Battle of Saratoga he spent the entire night printing up flyers. They were partially truthful, not altogether, but they really made a difference in the pressure that was put on the French court by Vergennes to recognize America. So that was a devastating example.

“Diplomacy is based on language. You’re in the mid-18th century, with an American who doesn’t really speak French very well, but the fact that he speaks it badly is attractive to his society patrons. He is reliant on messages he is getting from various people, including Temple, who becomes a translator for him at a certain point. And the one translator he trusts and that’s really critical. A lot went wrong here. In terms of what Franklin understood, and what the French court understood him to say. I should probably add that Michael speaks excellent French. And one of the challenges was he had to speak it badly for the show.”

Van Patten says the series is timely given the tensions in America. “I think it’s a great reminder of how delicate the idea of our republic is, and it brings to the forefront the ideas and principles of our Founding Fathers. Franklin was completely committed to the idea [of a republic], but when he’s finally succeeded, he wonders out loud that he really hopes that this would land. It was so fresh an idea and so bold.”

The show might serve as an opportunity for Americans to reflect on how the country was formed and what type of country it is or should be. Korder says: “During the events that are uncovered in the show, there was no consensus about what the words the United States even really meant. There was no constitution, there was a confederation, which proved completely unworkable.

“In the first episode, Franklin goes to his first clandestine meeting with Vergennes and Vergennes says: ‘But it’s not a country. It’s just a collection of little towns between the forest and the sea,’ which is nice and poetic and true. Certainly, from the standpoint of a Frenchman in a highly urbanized society. In retrospect, I wish we’d had him say, ‘But you’re not a country, just a collection of colonies that would as soon fight each other as the British.’ That would have been quite accurate.

“There was a great contentious debate as to what the United States would even mean, and we’re having that argument right now, in a dozen different venues. It’s all about the power of the states versus the federal government. This principle, for better or worse, has been endlessly argued: What powers still adhere to the states and what power is reserved for the federal government?”

Korder underscores the debt Americans owe Franklin, and France. “I think this is a case where the individual really made a difference. Franklin was a unique combination of charm, wiliness and canniness. He was a universal solvent; he could fit in anywhere. He had an ability to comprehend and exploit any different number of circumstances. He was paradoxical, and, in many ways, self-contradictory. He was quite single minded in what he was there to achieve. And I don’t know that anyone else could have done it. Without that, there would be no United States.

“We really owe a huge debt to him and the now vanished Bourbon dynasty of the French monarchy for our existence.”

For France, the funding of and military support given to the American Revolution had an unintended consequence: the French Revolution. Van Patten says: “It’s so funny because he was soliciting a monarchy to overthrow a monarchy, but we didn’t help their cause very much because we really did help bankrupt them and that led to what you know.”

Franklin was not to everyone’s taste. “D.H. Lawrence despised him for his pragmatism and his alleged materialism and his get along to get along attitude,” Korder says. “He considered it extremely American and highly reprehensible. But after spending many, many months with Franklin, I thought: ‘Well, if I had to choose, I think I’d go with Franklin over D.H. Lawrence, because he actually did things that improved people’s lives.’ He started a library, where I’m sure today you can go read D.H. Lawrence, because the library still exists in some form. He funded a university. He started a company of firemen. He had streets paved.

“His attitude was: ‘This is what government can do to improve people’s lives. I can’t improve your life philosophically. I can’t give you a reason to live. That’s up to you. But you can do things that improve the daily circumstances of your existence.’ And he was very committed to that. He had a maybe misguided faith in the wisdom of the common man. I think he really did believe that people could act collectively for their own good and for other people’s good. And that’s quite an idealistic notion, but one that would be worth discussing today.”

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