Showrunner Stefano Voltaggio on Netflix’s ‘Zero’ About Black Youths in Italy (EXCLUSIVE)

Netflix recently announced a new Italian original titled “Zero” that will mark the first Italian series centered around the present-day lives of black Italian youths. “Zero” is based on several books by young writer and TV music show host Antonio Dikele Distefano, who was born in Italy from Angolan parents. The project was originated by Italian screenwriter and now showrunner Stefano Voltaggio, who pitched it to Netflix. It’s being produced by Italy’s Fabula Pictures, the shingle behind Netflix’s “Baby.” Variety spoke to Voltaggio about how he got this groundbreaking show off the ground. Excerpts.

“Zero” is groundbreaking for Italy in several respects. There’s the subject matter, of course, but also the fact that it originated from a writer pitching it directly to Netflix. How did you pull it all off?

“Zero” was born out of a collaboration between myself and Antonio Dikele Distefano who wrote three novels. When I read them I found the world they portrayed really interesting, but the plots weren’t adaptable into movies or series, so I suggested that he work with me and other screenwriters to bring his world to the screen with different plot lines. I have a development company called Red Joint with four other partners, one of whom is director Paolo Vari (pictured with Voltaggio, who is on right). When we got to the point where we had a pitch ready…I brought it to Netflix and Netflix liked it.

What do you think the clincher was?

The particular strength of “Zero” is that it’s about the second generation of [African] immigrants to Italy. They are Italian kids, though not all of them are legally Italian. But they are culturally and socially Italian, in every which way. Their world hasn’t been depicted in Italy and there are analogous situations that haven’t been depicted around the world. This makes “Zero” interesting for, say, Netflix because it represents a rarely explored universe in other countries as well.

Can you tell me more about Red Joint? Your company seems to be treading new ground.

We are agile, we are small. “Zero” is a perfect example of what we do. We look for universes that aren’t represented on screen, but that are part of the audience’s everyday consciousness and, when possible, we try to find an existing voice that represents that world to ensure that our depiction will be genuine. Then we bring them to the attention of broadcasters and other production companies. But the real reason I started Red Joint is that I’m convinced that stories don’t have borders, just like [streaming] platforms. I think stories can be conceived anywhere around the world and brought to another territory. If I have a French story that I want to tell…I can produce it for a platform and take it to France. All I need to do, as I did with “Zero,” is guarantee authenticity.

What are the next steps for “Zero”?

After Netflix expressed interest, we sought out a production company that was the right fit. Fabula came on board and we started working together. We set up a writers’ room, the head writer is Menotti (a.k.a. Roberto Marchionni who penned “They Call Me Jeeg”). Antonio is in the writers’ room with Massimo Vavassori, Carolina Cavalli and Lisandro Monaco and myself. We’ve been writing for several months.

So the next step is casting.

Casting is being done in the same spirit as the way the project was conceived. We really need to delve into this world, so we are doing it with a strong component of street casting…We started with a casting call launched by Antonio Dikele Distefano on Instagram that had a huge response…hundreds and hundreds of kids have sent us a video byte shot with their cellphones. It’s a world of hope. It’s something very vital and also heartwarming. 

What’s Dikele’s exact role in all of this?

A large portion of what’s on screen is an expression of his world. He is one of the writers…and he’s very involved in all the production steps to guarantee authenticity…The other aspect is that Antonio is a music producer…he manages various trap music artists. This music is very tied to the world we are representing, so he is also very involved in the music aspect.