In Spy/Master, writers Adina Sădeanu and Kirsten Peters serve up a fresh take on the Cold War in a story about a Romanian spy who finds himself in danger while defecting to the US. DQ finds out how real events inspired them to write the six-part series.
While there are many on-screen Cold War stories focusing on the US and Russian sides on the streets of a divided Berlin, the perspective of the conflict from Communist Romania has rarely been portrayed. Now, however, a six-part thriller called Spy/Master will tell a unique story that it is inspired by the dramatic defection of one of Romania’s biggest spies to the US in the 1970s.
Victor Godeanu is a high-ranking officer in Romania’s secret service and the closest and most trusted advisor to President Nicolae Ceausescu – but he is also working for the Soviet Union. When his espionage activities are on the verge of being exposed, he travels to Bonn in Germany under the pretence of a diplomatic mission to offer himself as a defector to the US.
Focusing on events a week before his declaration and a week after, the story flashes backwards and forwards in time as Godeanu (Alec Secăreanu) attempts to stay alive with the help of undercover Stasi agent Ingrid Von Weizendorff (Svenja Jung) and his new CIA contact, Frank Jackson (Parker Sawyers), while avoiding capture by the KGB and his country’s own intelligence officers, Carmen Popescu and Mircea Voinea (Ana Ularu and Laurentiu Bănescu).
Produced by Proton Cinema and Mobra Films for HBO Max and WarnerTV Serie in Germany, the Romanian-, English- and German-language series is loosely based on the true story of Ion Mihai Pacepa, who in 1978 became the highest-ranking defector from the Eastern Bloc when he was granted political asylum in the US.
His story was one that had long inspired Romanian screenwriter Adina Sădeanu. Then when the opportunity to enter a script competition run in partnership with HBO Europe arose three years ago, she pitched her idea to fellow writer Kirsten Peters and the pair set to work.
Sădeanu wrote an initial outline before they jointly submitted a pilot script and a summary of all six episodes. When the pair subsequently won the competition, they partnered up with HBO to complete the first scripts, before they were commissioned to write the full series.
“I had this idea for a while to write about the last days of defection, inspired by real events, and when I talked to Kirsten, she loved it,” Sădeanu tells DQ. “I have a book based on the real archives that describes step-by-step what happened during Pacepa’s defection and all the fuss and the craziness with the system. I wrote an outline and I sent it to Kirsten and then she said, ‘Oh, I love it. I’d love to be part of it.’ So we submitted it and then it was a four-month wait.”
“When Adina pitched the idea, she’d done so much research,” says Berlin-based German-American Peters, who first met Sădeanu three years earlier on a screenwriting course. “It is inspired by a crazy story, and you could tell it in any which way, from starting episode one with him being a child or whatever. But what was really compelling about Adina’s idea was to focus on the week before the defection and the week after. That was really the angle that made this thing really special.
“With her background in journalism and production, plus my background as a screenwriter, and with her being Romanian and me being German-American, it was like the perfect storm of complementary skill sets and experiences that made us uniquely qualified to try to write this thing. The only thing missing was if both of our grandparents had been spies.”
The writers developed the whole series together via Zoom during the pandemic, blending some of the key moments from Pacepa’s story with new characters and events. Importantly, the foundation of the drama and the scene that opens the series is factual: the moment Victor walks into the US embassy in Bonn.
“That was true,” Sădeanu says of Pacepa’s story. “A lot of other things are also based on the archives and on real life. Sometimes life is more surprising than any scene or movie that you can have in in your mind. But then other things definitely came out through the process of writing and creating it.”
In the beginning, the writers went back and forth over how best to frame Victor’s story, at first deciding to stick to a chronological structure where he would defect at the end of episode one. But soon afterwards, they decided to start going forwards and backwards in time – a tactic that keeps viewers on edge just as much as Victor as he tries to navigate his way between competing intelligence agencies.
“It was three years and several drafts ago, but I remember I always had this idea in my mind from the very first moment, when I thought, ‘Oh my God, this could be something,’ with him knocking on the door of the US embassy,” Sădeanu continues. “I had this idea of a high-level security officer, the right hand of a dictator, defecting, and everything that led up to it was part of it.”
Intriguingly, the Americans don’t immediately accept Victor’s plea, leaving him out in the cold and making him an increasingly open target – which brings numerous other characters into the story.
Likening plotting the series to completing a “big puzzle,” Sădeanu says the writers initially struggled to make the flashbacks work to tell the story without frustrating potential viewers by frequently leaving Victor and changing perspectives.
“It was a lot of learning by doing and seeing what works and doesn’t work,” notes Peters. “After a while, you figure it out, and then we were into the groove and it got easier as time went by.”
“It was so interesting to have someone who used to have so much power and then, one day, he was falling between the cracks of history,” Sădeanu says. “He was like a little god, a king in Romanian intelligence. He had so much power that, in reality and in the series, although he was a number two, he was perceived as the de facto leader of the Romanian equivalent of the CIA. But then he defects and then he discovers this game is bigger than him.
“It was interesting to have someone one day realising this game is something he has never played or done before. He’s the spy who is forced to face some of the consequences of his own choices.”
Peters describes Victor as an ambivalent character, at least initially, with the duplicitous nature of being a spy making it difficult to know what his plan is and what kind of game he might be playing. But as the series progresses, “you get to know him more and more as he gets to know himself a bit more and realises the consequences of what he has done, and not just the defection,” she says.
For Sădeanu, Spy/Master offers an opportunity to assess Romania’s involvement in the Cold War and examine its “paranoid” dictator, while also drawing parallels to modern-day events.
“Romania was a different ball game in many ways,” she says. “There are things that are not known today, that are not necessarily common knowledge, and one of them is the fact that as a dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu was obsessed with power. But he was always afraid and paranoid that the KGB was going to kill him and preparing to overthrow him. This created an interesting element history-wise, and we use this in the series as well in his relationship with Victor.”
Peters brought her own perspective to the historical elements of the show, and Sădeanu says the writers complemented each other during both the development and writing periods, which was particularly important as they couldn’t physically be in the same room.
They would start by discussing each episode together, talking over character arcs and themes before separately writing their own outlines. These would then be shared and the best parts would be combined to create the finished version. A similar process was then used for the scripts, leading Peters to describe finding a singular voice for the series as their biggest challenge.
“It shouldn’t feel like, ‘Oh, this half was written by this person, this half was written by that person.’ We looked for a method that would help us make it feel like it was one flow, like it came out of one pen, and we would just keep going back and forth until we were both on the same page with every sentence,” she says. “Some things went really easily. Sometimes we had different ideas, and then you just had to claw it out until everyone agreed, ‘OK, that’s the sentence it’s going to be.’ In the end, it worked really well – you can’t tell who wrote which scene because we’ve gone over it so many times.”
In writing the scripts, Sădeanu and Peters also left a lot of room for director Christopher Smith to bring his own ideas and interpretations as to how a scene might look and play out on screen. Yet here they faced another challenge in terms of putting across the subtext behind the dialogue.
“Romania was a country dominated by fear, regardless of the power that you had, so everybody knew that if you said something wrong today, you could be out tomorrow,” Sădeanu says. “That’s why even the secondary characters spoke with a double meaning. That was one of the things we had to make sure was clear on the page, so the actors would actually know exactly where it goes and what it means and how it sometimes plays against what he or she actually says.”
But despite Spy/Master’s period setting – the show was filmed in Hungary and Romania – the writers sought to create a modern story that still feels very fresh for viewers. The series will have its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, which begins today, as part of Berlinale Series, before airing later this year on HBO Max and WarnerTV Serie.
“These characters, at least to me, are relevant today through their humanity, through the things that transcend time, and through those elements that make them universal,” Sădeanu says. “You deal here with betrayal, fear, friendship and lost loves, and all these elements will make the story feel universal and timely.
“You also get to see a clash between two worlds through the eyes of two characters, Victor and Frank, and the dynamic between them. It has so many fresh elements, because you’ve rarely seen a character like Victor having to deal with inner conflict.”
“What I think also makes this so special is the insight into the complex difficulties involved in this defection,” Peters adds. “Defection often seems like a straightforward type of thing, but why wouldn’t the Americans take him? That’s something new that I hadn’t seen before.”