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.
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.
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.
“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 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.”
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.”
The global nature of the television business was on show at Mipcom in Cannes this week as stars from around the world presented their latest projects. DQ editor Michael Pickard offers his thoughts on a busy week in the South of France.
When you first walk into the Palais des Festivals, it can be quite overwhelming to see the sheer number of posters, billboards and signs promoting hundreds of new drama series from around the world. The experience, of course, begins long before you have navigated through the security checkpoints, seeing as La Croisette is transformed into a mile-long red carpet of promotions for dozens more shows.
To be a drama buyer in the current market must be both a daunting and thrilling experience, with the opportunity to spend hundreds of hours searching for the next big hit and watching the contenders, whether they are produced in your broadcaster’s local tongue or a language from further afield.
What, then, can producers and distributors do to make their projects stand out from the crowd? Well, the quickest shortcut to making some noise is to add a sprinkling of star power.
TV movies are much maligned, but could Catherine Zeta-Jones bring the format back into fashion? She was here in Cannes to promote forthcoming Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother, a project she helped develop and bring to the screen. The Oscar-winning actor also plays the lead role of real-life Miami drug lord Griselda Blanco, who was involved in the Cocaine Cowboy Wars that plagued the city in the late 1970s.
“Years ago there used to be such a stigma between television actors, film actors and theatre actors,” Zeta-Jones said this week. “I was stuck in the theatre actor box. It wasn’t just that, it was a showgirl theatre, it wasn’t even Royal Shakespeare. So I was part of that world trying to get out of that box, that pigeonhole. I eventually made it into television, made it into film – and then if you got to film, you don’t go [back] to TV.
“That’s changed. Actors are able to do human stories [in television], they don’t have to be robots in a $200m movie. As an actor, that’s why we do it – to have those international human stories that any culture can understand because they’re human. It’s human nature. It’s qualities that you have or, like Griselda, you don’t have but the fundamental bottom line is they’re human stories – and on TV we’re able to have the time to be able to take those stories out.”
Adding an A-lister to a TV movie is a well-worn path for Lifetime parent A+E Networks, which has also previously cast James Franco (High School Lover), Whoopi Goldberg (A Day Late & a Dollar Short), Lindsay Lohan (Liz & Dick), Heather Graham (Flowers in the Attic), Harvey Keitel (Fatal Honeymoon), Susan Sarandon (The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe) and Emily Watson (The Memory Keeper’s Daughter) in such projects.
It’s a tactic others are clearly employing too. Zeta-Jones wasn’t the only star to light up the red carpet this week as a plethora of other famous faces travelled to the South of France. David Morrissey joined fellow cast members Nikolaj Lie Caas and Eleanor Worthington-Cox for the world premiere of Roman-era drama Britannia, the first series coproduced by Sky Atlantic and Amazon US.
James Norton and Juliet Rylance were talking McMafia, Kristin Kreuk chatted about making Canadian legal drama Burden of Truth, Mark Strong marked his return to television in Fox espionage thriller Deep State and Philip Glenister was Living the Dream with his new Florida-set comedy drama.
Elsewhere, Jeremy Sisto (Ice season two), JK Simmons (Counterpart), Daniel Sharman (Medici), Jessica Brown Findlay (Harlots season two) and Jon Beavers, Michael Kelly and Darius Homayoun (The Long Road Home) were also enjoying the sunshine in Cannes.
What was particularly notable about this year’s Mipcom, however, was the truly global nature of the market. Japan’s Aoi Miyazaki (Kurara), Belgian actor Veerle Baetens (Tabula Rasa), Australian stars Claire van der Boom and Pallavi Sharda (Pulse), Turkey’s Erkan Petekkaya, Songül Öden and Dolunay Soysert (City of Secrets), Swedish actors Charlie Gustafson and Hedda Rehnberg (The Restaurant), and Zion Baruch, creator, writer and star of Israeli vampire thriller Juda, were also in town.
Mipcom’s Russian Content Revolution was also celebrated with appearances by The Road to Calvary’s Anna Chipovskaya and Yulia Snigir plus Gogol’s Yulia Franz and Taisiia Vilkova.
For several years now, the globalisation of television has also been represented by the types of coproductions being brought to screen. Jour Polaire (Midnight Sun) is probably the best example of two countries coming together in the last few years, in that case France and Sweden joining forces. But more ambitious pairings are now in evidence.
In particular, producers and broadcasters from China, France, Germany and Australia have teamed up for Farewell Shanghai, a period drama set at the start of the Second World War that recounts the shared destinies of a group of European Jewish refugees and Chinese characters in Shanghai between 1938 and 1945.
It will be shot in China in the English language and has been written by Radu Mihaileanu, based on Angel Wagenstein’s novel. K’ien Productions, Banijay Studios France, Breakout Films, France Televisions, Shanghai Media Group Pictures, China’s Holy Mountain Films, AMPCO Studios in Australia and Germany’s NDF are all involved.
Another global project announced at the market was Straight Forward, an eight-part series produced by Screentime New Zealand and Mastiff in Denmark. It is coproduced by broadcasters Viaplay and TVNZ, with Acorn TV also on board in North America and the UK.
Created by writer John Banas and set in Queenstown and Copenhagen, Straight Forward sees a Danish woman attempt to leave her criminal past behind by moving to a small New Zealand town to start a new life. It will premiere on Viaplay in 2018.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that producer and distributor Banijay Group is central to both Farewell Shanghai and Straight Forward, utilising its production companies and distribution partnerships to bring these series to air.
The future of television was also on display, from Japanese broadcaster NHK’s stunning 8K presentations to the keynotes from executives at Snapchat and Facebook.
Sean Mills, senior director of content programming at Snapchat parent Snap Inc, talked about the firm’s desire for the messaging app to move into original content following the announcement it had teamed up with NBCUniversal to create a studio that will focus on producing scripted series.
The fruits of that partnership may still be some time away. More immediate are Facebook’s plans to bring original content to its Watch platform, launched six weeks ago and currently only available in the US, though an international roll-out is planned in the future.
There were audible gasps in the Palais’ Grand Auditorium when Facebook head of global creative strategy, Ricky Van Veen, revealed that the social media giant would be the home of the English-language remake of Norwegian teen drama hit Skam (Shame), with original creator Julie Andem showrunning the remake.
The buzz around the NRK series has steadily increased over the past year and it’s a huge statement of intent that Facebook has picked it up – though, in many ways, it is the perfect home for a show that is made up of short video segments that are posted at the times of the day that match when the action plays out.
At the end of the four-day market, it’s clear the drama boom shows no sign of slowing – yet. It seems unlikely that every series is making its money back, meaning it is inevitable there will be a downturn at some point in the future. Until then, the debate surrounds the new players picking up scripted series and the challenge of luring star names to help a show to break through to audiences. Facebook original series? I’ll be Watching.
The great and good of the television industry are once again packing their bags for another week in the south of France. DQ previews some of the drama series set to break out at Mipcom 2017.
Mipcom is often viewed as an opportunity for US studios to showcase their scripted series to international buyers. But this year the US will be jostling for attention with dramas from the likes of Spain, Russia, Brazil, Japan, Scandinavia and the UK.
The Spanish contingent is especially strong thanks to a major investment in drama by Telefonica’s Movistar+. Titles on show will be Gigantes, distributed by APC; La Peste, distributed by Sky Vision; and La Zona and Velvet Collection, both from Beta Film. The latter is a spin-off from Antena 3’s popular Velvet, previously sold around the world by Beta.
Beta is also in Cannes with Morocco – Love in Times of War, as well as Farinia – Snow on the Atlantic, both produced by Bambu for Antena 3. The former is set in war-torn Spanish Morocco in the 1920s, where a group of nurses look after troops, while Farinia centres on a fisherman who becomes a wealthy smuggler by providing South American cartels a gateway to Europe.
Mipcom’s huge Russian contingent is linked, in part, to the fact 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Titles that tackle this subject include Demon of Revolution, Road to Calvary and Trotsky – the latter two of which will be screened at the market. Trotsky, produced by Sreda Production for Channel One Russia, is an eight-part series that tells the story of the flamboyant and controversial Leon Trotsky, an architect of the Russian Revolution and Red Army who was assassinated in exile.
Other high-profile Russian projects include TV3’s Gogol, a series of film-length dramas that reimagine the famous mystery writer as an amateur detective. Already a Russian box-office hit, the films will be screened to TV buyers at Mipcom.
Japanese drama has found a new international outlet recently following Nippon TV’s format deal for Mother in Turkey (a successful adaptation that has resulted in more interest in Japanese content among international buyers). The company is now back with a drama format called My Son. NHK, meanwhile, is screening Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter, a 4K production about Japan’s most famous artist.
Brazil’s Globo, meanwhile, is moving beyond the telenovelas for which it is so famous. After international recognition for dramas like Above Justice and Jailers, it will be in Cannes with Under Pressure, a coproduction with Conspiração that recorded an average daily reach of 40.2 million viewers when it aired in Brazil.
From mainland Europe, there’s a range of high-profile titles at Mipcom including Bad Banks, distributed by Federation Entertainment, which looks at corruption within the global banking world. From the Nordic region there is StudioCanal’s The Lawyer, which includes Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) as one of its creators, and season two of FremantleMedia International’s Modus. The latter is particularly interesting for starring Kim Cattrall, signalling a shift towards a more hybrid Anglo-Swedish project.
While non-English-language drama will have a high profile at the market, there are compelling projects from the UK, Canada and Australia. UK’s offerings include Sky Vision’s epic period piece Britannia and All3Media International’s book adaptation The Miniaturist – both with screenings. There’s also BBC Worldwide’s McMafia (pictured top), sold to Amazon on the eve of the market, and ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s The City & The City, produced by Mammoth Screen and written by Tony Grisoni.
From Canada, there is Kew Media-distributed Frankie Drake Mysteries, from the same stable as the Murdoch Mysteries, while Banijay Rights is offering season two of Australian hit Wolf Creek. There’s also a screening for Pulse, a medical drama from ABC Commercial and Screen Australia.
Of course, it would be wrong to neglect the US entirely,since leading studios will be in town with some strong content. A+E Networks, for example, will bring actor Catherine Zeta-Jones to promote Cocaine Godmother, a TV movie about 1970s Miami drug dealer Griselda Blanco, aka The Black Widow.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, meanwhile, is screening Counterpart, in which JK Simmons (Whiplash, La La Land) plays Howard Silk, a lowly employee in a Berlin-based UN spy agency. When Silk discovers that his organisation safeguards the secret of a crossing into a parallel dimension, he is thrust into a world of intrigue and danger where the only man he can trust is his near-identical counterpart from this parallel world.
If you’re in Cannes, don’t forget to pick up the fall 2017 issue of Drama Quarterly, which features Icelandic thriller Stella Blómkvist, McMafia, Benedict Cumberbatch’s The Child in Time, Australian period drama Picnic at Hanging Rock and much more.