I don’t know about you all, but I am absolutely chomping at the bit for Billions to get to our screens. Damian Lewis? Back on cable TV? Not to get too technical or obvious, but really: Damian Lewis is going to be back on Showtime? All that implies? I can’t even.
So while we wait to see Billions wrapped up and ready for us, we’ve been following along on the filming and bits of behind the scenes we’ve been lucky to see.
Before getting to that, though, I’d like to talk a bit about the nature of obsession. (Apologies in advance for this post that is neither here nor there, but, in fact, is everywhere.)
I’ve just finished a great book I picked up on a whim, Priscilla: the Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France, by Nicholas Shakepeare. It’s a biography of the author’s aunt, his mother’s half-sister, who lived a somewhat redacted life before, during and after the Nazi Occupation of France. The nephew got a hold of a treasure trove of ephemera from his aunt’s life and wove a really captivating tale around it, most captivating because it was all so true.
Let it be known, that I’m a glutton for WWII stories. I’ll further confess that until relatively recently, there was a big France-shaped hole in my understanding of the intricacies of WWII. My American high school introduction to 20th century European history told us about Pearl Harbor, of course, as the act that precipitated US involvement in WWII and we learned about the Holocaust, the horrors of which were not truly discovered until the war was over. We also learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In short, we learned the avenues in which the US was involved and affected by what went down in Europe 1939-1945. Furthermore, I learned about the Normandy landings, with the most poignant learning moment being my history teacher breaking out in tears when she recalled first getting the news about D-Day (Her older brother was a participant). So I vaguely knew that Americans landed on beaches in France and helped liberate Europe from the Nazis. I learned about the London Blitz from Empire of the Sun and various other films on that time. What I didn’t know then and didn’t learn fully until much later, not until I read Ian McEwan’s Dunkirk chapter in Atonement, is that France was occupied by the Germans for 5 years.
A sovereign European nation taken over by another sovereign European nation: All the implications of occupation, the resources of a nation stolen and used by an enemy state to feed its war machine, a city like Paris (Paris!) taken over by an enemy state who apparently (according to Priscilla’s story) used the city as its personal brothel, museums ransacked, invaluable works of art stolen, still not recovered even today. It was mind-blowing. Most mind-blowing was why did it take so long for me, a reasonably well-educated person, curious about the world, to learn about what happened in France during those five troubling years? Where were the films, books, first-hand accounts handed down from the Resistance? Where was the outrage from France in the post-war 20th century, the cries of “Never Forget! Never Again!”, the cries we hear so often now from places in the world which have been victims to similar injustices? In the current long-running trend of art to give voice to victims everywhere, to tell stories of the oppressed, where are the stories from France 1940-1944? The veil of shame around the event were (and are) as intriguing as hell. And the underlying current beneath it all that no one wants to talk about: the nebulous region between Resistance and Collaboration.
Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of his aunt Priscilla Mais bravely walks that nebulous region. Priscilla was the daughter of renowned BBC journalist SPB Mais and his estranged first wife in a time when divorce was not an option. Her story speaks of a broken girl from a broken home and what can happen when tragic under-parenting meets the extremes of survival in wartime.
So I’m reading this book of this fascinating woman and her fascinating life and enjoying it thoroughly, but, because, I’m the fan I am of Damian Lewis, I’m seeing connections to him all over the book. Crazy! Obsessive! Get this woman a straitjacket toute suite! Recently, Damianista and I batted around an idea of writing about the six degrees of separation from Damian Lewis, something akin to the Kevin Bacon game, and I’m sure one of us will get around to posting our findings. Meanwhile, I am LIVING it. I see him everywhere.
Thus, here I present – points of intersection between a completely unrelated biography of an English woman in wartime France and Damian Lewis:
1) Priscilla was a beautiful woman and she loved beautiful things. In a time when women were drawing seams on their bare legs with bits of charcoal because the world they lived in no longer had any silk stockings, Priscilla wore Schiaparelli gowns. Now, I know the names of some of the big names in fashion – Chanel, Armani, Dior – but I’d never heard of Schiaparelli until….Damian Lewis identified Schiaparelli as his favorite designer in a Name Your Favorite interview for Vogue with Claire Danes (hers is Narciso Rodriguez).
Schiaparelli was known for irreverant surreal designs that pushed a lot of boundaries: hats shaped like shoes, ribbed corsets that mimicked the female skeleton beneath them. Her more mainstream contributions to the world were the wedge shoe, built-in bras for bathing suits, buttons that aren’t round, and wrap dresses (later revived and immortalized by Diane von Fürstenberg). Her design house was active between the two world wars and closed in 1954 due to failure to adjust to the austerity after WWII. Looking at her work today in our post-surreal world, I can’t help but see frivolity and ironic humor, designs that are thoughtful and dramatic, but not terribly dark, maintaining a thread of fun throughout. Of course, Damian Lewis would be appreciative of such an artistic vision!
2) Needless to say, any story of the liberation of France is going to have some overlap with the story of Band of Brothers. So, not too much of a stretch to find Damian’s Dick Winters’ Easy Company in Priscilla’s story. The village of Carentan cropped up in the book and I remembered it right away as one of the episode titles in Band of Brothers. Priscilla tried to ride out the Occupation at her French husband’s estate at Boisgrimot, 16 minutes away from Carentan. The book mentioned the 101st airborne arriving in Carentan on June 12, 1944. Easy Company was, of course, one of the regiments within that division of paratroopers. Here’s a video of the liberation of Carentan from Band of Brothers.
3) For a time until she managed to escape, Priscilla was interned in Besançon in a camp specifically designated for British women and children. It was akin to the POW camps for English soldiers captured in Germany. Though living conditions were harsh, neither of these camps could be compared to death camps like Auschwitz. In Priscilla’s story a comparison was made between Besancon and Colditz (Colditz was harsher). And what did the name Colditz recall? Damian Lewis as Nicholas McGrady, of course!
4) Upon liberation, French women determined to have had relations with German soldiers were publically humiliated by having their heads shaved. Priscilla saw it happen, and, as she was bed-ridden from a surgery at the time, she barely escaped being one of those women. This practice was performed in several places infiltrated by the Germans. Again, Band of Brothers had a very poignant scene showing the practice of “femme tondue” in the Dutch town of Eindhoven in the episode, Replacements. Who can forget the men of Easy Company looking on as the townsfolk took out their anger and frustration on women who had little choice in the matter of survival.
So there you have it: a massive aside from a post ostensibly about Billions. If I looked harder, I’m sure I’d see other connections between Priscilla and Damian Lewis. A more exact and academic version of what I just did here may be called establishing concordance, ie listing all occurrences of some word or idea within a text. So, yeah, there is a concordance of Damian Lewis everywhere when one is a forensic fan. And such is the nature of obsession: finding concordance between unrelated bodies of work, in this case, the life of an Englishwoman in WWII France and Damian Lewis. If I looked even harder, I’m sure there’d be a role for Damian Lewis if ever there was a film adaptation of Priscilla’s story. Like concordances, I see roles for him everywhere too.
Now, back to Billions, if I may? What do we know? Well, filming is happening apace all over Manhattan. It’s also happening in Middle Village in Queens (a pizza place told us about that) and in Westchester county, where the team was shown leaving the home of Chazz Palminteri after filming there. So now we know a bit about the sets we will be seeing in Billions.
More about the set comes from Brian Koppelman who vined a bit of the art we’ll be seeing on the walls of Axe Capital. The works are by NYC based Mexican artist Victor Rodriguez. A bit of Warholian pop art meets Day of the Dead.
Koppelman also podcast an interview he did with Damian’s costar in Billions, Paul Giamatti. (link in tweet below) And he assured me that a podcast with Damian is on the horizon.
So, dear readers, watch this space for more concordance, compilation, and charismatic gushing over all things Damian Lewis!