Tag Archives: Hossein Amini

Out of this world

US cable channel TNT turned to Caleb Carr’s arresting novel The Alienist as the premise of its biggest ever drama series. The creative team behind the series, alongside star Luke Evans, discuss bringing the period piece from page to screen.

Adapted from military historian Caleb Carr’s first novel, The Alienist is set in the Gilded Age of New York City in 1896. When a series of haunting, gruesome murders of boy prostitutes grips the city, newly appointed police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt calls upon criminal psychologist (aka alienist) Dr Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) and newspaper reporter John Moore (Luke Evans) to conduct the investigation in secret.
They are aided by a makeshift crew of singular characters, among them the intrepid Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), a young secretary on Roosevelt’s staff who is determined to become the first female police detective in the Big Apple. Here, the team behind the series – coproduced for TNT by Paramount Television and Studio T and debuting on January 22 – give DQ the inside track…

Rosalie Swedlin, producer, Anonymous Content: What made the book such a huge bestseller was the richness of the detail. It was set in such an extraordinary time and had similarities with the world we’re living in today. It never got made by Paramount as a feature film; I believe they had several screenplays and directors, but the project got put on the shelf.
Years later, when Paramount Features opted to start a television division, they decided it was time to maximise the assets of the Paramount feature library. This was the same time as Anonymous Content had just done True Detective. We were approached to do a first-look TV deal with Paramount and I asked if anyone had claimed The Alienist because I’d read the book and loved it.

Luke Evans plays reporter John Moore

Writer Hossein Amini (McMafia) was the first person on board and wrote the opening episode and series bible, before TNT picked up the project blind…
Swedlin: Then we had to find a place to shoot the series, which turned out to be a huge challenge because New York today looks nothing like New York in 1896. Just the complications of bringing carriages into New York streets and blocking them off to traffic proved extremely difficult, even though we scouted New York three times.
We scouted Montreal twice and various other places, before finally it was suggested we go to Budapest. Then we needed to find the director who would give shape and vision to the show, and all of us had seen London Spy and The Fall and absolutely loved Jakob Verbruggen’s work. After we all met, it was clear he was the right director for the series.
Jakob Verbruggen, lead director: The appeal of the series was the possibility to create a visual roller coaster, because that’s what the book is. I’ve done The Fall, so there was a connection with serial killers, but what made this series stand out was the unique setting. New York is a city in transformation. This is a world 100 years ago that is quite similar to ours – immigration, depression, how to we treat the weak, rich
and poor.
The series also has an unlikely group of heroes that guides us through this process, and having them come together to catch the greatest evil known to humankind – a serial killer or predator – was quite fascinating.
It’s called The Alienist and it’s about psychiatry, so of course all these guys have inner demons – and to come clean with themselves, to solve the quest, they have to confront their demons. All of the main characters, episode by episode, we peel off their layers and that was an interesting challenge.
Something else that stood out from the book and is very atypical was the killer’s victims – boy prostitutes. It allowed the series to say something about child trafficking and
child abuse.

To tell this story, Verbruggen wanted to cast “the finest of actors,” but he was also looking for some new faces unfamiliar on television…
Verbruggen: Kreizler is somebody who lives on the edge of the spectrum but he’s also a master puppeteer. He’s a foreigner in an America that is finding itself at the time, so [German actor] Daniel Brühl brings that strength and foreign flavour.
For Dakota Fanning’s character, we looked for someone with an enigmatic but strong gaze that carries a secret, which I think she does so well. For Moore, the book is written from his point of view and it’s a very dark world, but Luke Evans brings charm, wit and warmth to the character and he’s the one that takes the audience by the hand and helps them during this journey.
Luke Evans: I’d read the first five episodes but it was very difficult for me because I’d never done [a television series]. So I knew if I did it, it would have to completely pull me in – and it does within the first few pages of the
first episode.
Moore is a very complex character, much more than in the book. He’s massively flawed in so many aspects of his life and personality, but there’s something heartwarming about his struggle. He finds it very hard to hide his feelings and that’s why he’s very relatable for the audience.
Kreizler can be very cerebral, methodical and detached from human emotion because he’s not feeling it, he’s observing it and trying to work out why. Yet Moore is totally drawn into it. I just thought this was a very interesting journey, and the one magical gift television gives you is 10 hours’ worth of story.
I’d never experienced that, I’d only experienced two [on TV], or three in a movie. So it was a challenge to stay in a character and keep the character fresh for six months of shooting but also to go on this journey and see how he develops and changes, and how the people around him see him. It’s a big journey, so it was a wonderful gift. It was a no-brainer for me.

Daniel Brühl is the eponymous ‘alienist,’ another term for criminal psychologist

The biggest challenge on the series was to recreate 1896 New York, with settings ranging from Lower East Side tenements to the Gilded Age interiors, as well as populating one of the most crowded places in the world…
Chris Symes, executive producer and line producer: We wanted to tell these stories in a place you could smell and taste; where you could feel the grime, the texture and the overcrowding. As it happens, Budapest turned out to be pretty perfect for our needs: it’s a Gilded Age city built more or less in the same period.
There were one or two streets we could use, not as many as we would have liked, which meant we had to build six blocks of the Lower East Side. It was a huge undertaking throughout the middle of a Hungarian winter, but we ended up with a spectacular set we could redress and turn into different neighbourhoods. We also built it full height – it’s an 18 metre-high set – because extending it digitally would have been such a huge operation in terms of post-production and the VFX budget that it was deemed worth building it top to bottom, which of course gave us complete freedom to put the camera anywhere.
Evans: I’ve been very lucky in my career to work on some incredible sets, and The Hobbit was closest in size and detail to this. It was
like time-travelling every day. You couldn’t often see the ends of the streets. You were immersed, completely, which as an actor only benefits your ability to forget where you are and be present in the time period. Then you add the extras and the smell and the smoke – it was breathtaking.
Verbruggen: We were a bunch of lunatics and detail-obsessed madmen. We weren’t just building the streets but also putting dirt everywhere. If there was a market, there were real meats and the smells were terrible. There were horses everywhere, horse shit everywhere. The research we did was very detailed.

The production faced the major task of recreating 1890s New York City, eventually settling on Budapest as the filming location

With five directors working across the 10-part series, continuity between the cast and crew was imperative to ensure the style of the show carried across every episode…
Jamie Payne, producing director who helmed the final two episodes: It’s such a detail-rich world in terms of character, emotion, spectacle and scale that there needed to be a constant presence.
We had some of the best talent in the world so, beyond the first three episodes Jakob directed, there were lots of questions about episodes coming up. I was able to look ahead at the scripts so that when the directors came on board, there was already a toolkit for them to understand the style of the show. There was a very clear aesthetic but every director contributed something. You’re also there to give the cast constant support should they need it. They’re literally on set all day, every day and at some point we had two units going.
At one time they were jumping between storylines from five episodes. It helped that Luke, Daniel and Dakota were so close that, during a 10-hour story, they were able to support each other.

The Alienist was originally envisioned as a limited series, so the production decided not to go down the showrunner-led route…
Swedlin: We just chose brilliant individual writers – Hoss [Amini], E Max Frye [Band of Brothers], Gina Gionfriddo [Boardwalk Empire] and John Sayles. We had a very unconventional writers room. They assembled in New York, Hoss assigned the episodes and they wrote them.
When the time came to make the show, McMafia was happening so Hoss wasn’t available, and we didn’t have that creative voice we would have got had we hired a showrunner. Jamie played a significant role in providing an overview, story continuity, character content, and continuity for the aesthetics, so he was critical to making sure the whole show has a coherence.

With Netflix picking up rest-of-the-world rights, talks are already underway about a potential follow-up…
Swedlin: We’ve had early discussions about a second season and whether it would be based on Angel of Darkness, the follow-up novel, or whether we would take the characters on a completely original journey. It’s still to be determined.

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Making McMafia

McMafia stars James Norton (War & Peace, Happy Valley) as Alex Godman, the English-raised son of Russian exiles with a mafia history.

Alex has spent his life trying to escape his family’s criminal past, but finds himself forced to confront his values as he struggles against the lure of corruption.

In this DQTV interview, co-creators Hossein Amini (Drive) and James Watkins (The Woman in Black) discuss how they worked together to turn Misha Glenny’s non-fiction book into a global drama set in a world where the mob is no longer confined to one location.

They also talk about casting Norton in the lead role and how they wanted to capture the same authenticity and tone laid out in Glenny’s book.

McMafia is produced by Cuba Pictures for BBC1 and AMC and distributed by BBC Worldwide.

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From Russia with cash

James Norton and Juliet Rylance lead the cast in McMafia, the BBC and AMC’s global crime drama about a family of Russian ex-gangsters struggling to stay respectable.

Langleybury House, a splendiferous stately home on the outskirts of London, oozes opulence. The drawing room boasts a set of matching statement chandeliers and enough oil paintings to fill several rooms at the National Gallery. There are two classical columns in the middle of the room and a gigantic marble fireplace across one wall. The room screams megabucks.

When DQ visits, however, ‘megaroubles’ might be more accurate, as the sumptuous home is doubling as one of the residences of the fictional Godman family, a clan of former Russian gangsters who have made serious money from illicit activities around the world.

When you look around their home and eye items such as the incredibly ornate drinks table – where surely they only mix White Russians – your first thought is, ‘Who says crime doesn’t pay?’

On the back of their dodgy dealings, the family have turned respectable. They have whitewashed their stained past and become a worldwide corporation, with a lucrative franchise on every continent. They are the McMafia.

Hossein Amini

This sweeping new eight-part drama, also called McMafia, is produced by the BBC, AMC, Cuba Pictures and Twickenham Studios and distributed by BBC Worldwide. It’s adapted by Hossein Amini and James Watkins from Misha Glenny’s bestselling 2008 non-fiction book, McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime.

The story centres on Alex Godman, played by James Norton with the same suavity he brought to the role of another powerful and charismatic Russian, Prince Andrei in War & Peace. Now an upstanding businessman, the English-raised Alex has spent his entire life attempting to extricate himself from the tentacles of his family’s mafia history. Forging a legitimate business as the head of an ethical hedge fund, he is trying to escape his background and build a law-abiding existence with his girlfriend Rebecca (American Gothic’s Juliet Rylance).

But when the Godmans’ criminal legacy comes back to haunt them, Alex swiftly becomes enmeshed in a sinister underworld and is obliged to reassess his values in order to shield those he loves from peril.

This ambitious thriller investigates how the rise of globalisation has dramatically narrowed the gap between the corporate and the criminal. When businessmen and gangsters wear the same hand-made suits and inhabit the same first-class lounges, how can you tell the difference?

Amini, who previously wrote the highly regarded screenplays for The Dying of the Light, Jude, The Wings of a Dove, Drive and Our Kind of Traitor, takes a seat in the luxurious mansion to explain what drew him to McMafia. “The book is factual and there are no storylines as such, but what was really exciting is that the world Misha’s book painted was so interesting,” he says. “It was such a potentially exciting canvas. The book gave us great characters and a great world, and it’s easy to invent scenes for that.”

The Iranian-British filmmaker continues: “I’ve always loved the gangster genre, but even shows like The Sopranos, which I loved, are all about the end of that genre and the end of the gangster. They told us about the death of that in the 1990s.

McMafia stars War & Peace’s James Norton as Alex Godman

“But then I read this book, and it was all about how gangsters were being reborn globally. Suddenly the triads were dealing with the cartels who were competing with the Russian mafia. It was like Game of Thrones with mobs.”

The authenticity of McMafia is underlined by the fact the producers insisted Russian actors played Russian characters, Israeli actors played Israeli characters, and so forth.

Watkins comments: “There was a big conversation we had with AMC and the BBC first off, which is that I didn’t want to do that thing where, not naming any other productions, you cast a big-name British actor to play Alex’s Russian dad.

“It feels false straight away – I can smell it. It’s costing us quite a lot to fly all the actors in, but it’s worth it in terms of the reality it gives. When you’ve got four actors from Tel Aviv playing a scene in Hebrew, you can’t fake that.”

The director, whose other works include The Woman in Black, Eden Lake and The Take, adds that this approach has enhanced the verisimilitude of the project. “It’s fantastic, because as a director you want truth. This is not about heightened drama, it’s about truth. It’s about understated performance, and I think some of those European actors really bring that. I don’t know what’s in the water, but it’s really amazing. Less is more.”

The drama was partly filmed in Mumbai

The Russian cast members have clearly relished the experience of working on a British drama. A big star in her own country, Maria Shukshina plays Alex’s Russian mother, Oksana. “I’m very happy James is now my son,” she says, laughing. “He has a big following in Russia, a lot of fans. When I was coming over here, all the ladies were telling me to say ‘Hi’ to him and saying, ‘Give him a hug.’ So I said, ‘Of course!’”

Shukshina says she has found very little difference between the shooting techniques in the UK and in Russia. “It’s absolutely the same, apart from the lighting. It’s a lot darker on set here, there’s no light. It’s only natural light, really.

“I gave a Russian doll to the director of photography as a celebration of International Women’s Day and now he puts up a light panel when they’re doing wide shots of me – I know what I’m doing!”

Filmed in no fewer than 11 countries (including the UK, Russia, India, Israel, Turkey, Qatar and Croatia), the project is conceived on an epic scale and Watkins has evidently had to summon up great depths of energy to make it.

He spent seven weeks just filming in India, for example, and has also been leading the McMafia crew all over London. “We’ve shot in the Sky Garden at the top of the Walkie-Talkie building [the distinctive skyscraper officially named 20 Fenchurch Street] and we had a huge Russian banquet scene in the Victoria & Albert Museum. We’re trying to use London as this city where anybody can buy their way in.”

McMafia is produced by the BBC, AMC, Cuba Pictures and Twickenham Studios

Norton, who has also starred in Happy Valley, Black Mirror, Grantchester, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Life in Squares, pulls up a seat beside the filmmakers and chips in: “When we talk about the Mafia, it is so tied up with those portrayals that we’re so used to in The Sopranos and The Godfather. But what’s so lovely and fascinating and so relevant about this story is that it shows how the mafia is a totally new phenomenon.

“It’s now a globalised corporate entity. It straddles all these different countries and financial systems. It’s no longer just a protection racket. It’s the Panama Papers, it’s corrupt presidents and prime ministers, it’s even in the possible link between the Kremlin and the White House and how that’s facilitated. That was a real eye-opener for me, and I hope that’s what the show will reveal.”

Another intriguing aspect of McMafia is the fact that even though Alex is very much an anti-hero, viewers are – almost in spite of themselves – still drawn to the magnetic central character. Watkins describes him as “The Russian bear in the bowler hat.”

So is it a case of ‘the devil has all the best tunes?’ Norton believes it’s more nuanced than that. “It is fascinating, and it’s kind of sexy and empowering because there is this whole underworld of people who don’t abide by the rules and do what the hell they want – and it’s exciting. You get seduced by it, but you’re never quite sure how much you’re being seduced.

“Alex convinces himself that it’s about protection and survival, but there’s another side to it, and the beauty of Hossein’s writing is that he and the audience are never quite sure. Each choice Alex makes – is it to do with survival or is it a bit more to do with the fact that he just wants to go deeper and deeper and gather more control and money? So, McMafia is brilliant because it’s never about villains and heroes – it’s all about that wonderful mess in between.”

Before he is called back on set, Watkins expresses his hopes about what viewers will take away from McMafia. “You look around you and realise crime is everywhere. The point of the book and the series, really, is that it’s invisible, but that it’s all around us. We’re all, in some way, complicit. If someone buys a fake watch, say, they’re part of the problem.

“Or look at illegal labour. That affects people in ways that they don’t necessarily realise. McMafia is about the blurring of those lines between governments, corporations, intelligence, police, criminals. Particularly in a ‘post-truth’ world, people aren’t clear what those boundaries are.”

The director continues: “I think McMafia is very timely. For me, the best drama has some kind of grip on the world and touches on that. I hope that it’s not only entertaining, but also that on the way home, or in the pub, people talk about it. It’s not Chekhov, but you’re hoping it has something that has a little bit of grit.”

Amini closes by homing in on one tiny detail in McMafia that underlines the authenticity of the drama. “Misha told us about a gangster whose hobby is going to dog shows. I could never have invented that.” Did that make it into the series? “Yes, it’s in. You can’t ignore a thing like that.”

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