The eight-part thriller, which will air in early 2018, stars War & Peace’s Norton as a young banker drawn into the shady underworld as a result of his family’s Russian history. In wide-ranging interview, the creators and stars of the show discussed how corruption is global and the journey of the show from book to screen, while Norton addressed rumors of him eventually playing James Bond.
Hall said McMafia, which is produced by Cuba Pictures, shows the “capacity” of the BBC’s drama slate and the broadcaster’s ambition to “keep on pushing the boundaries in primetime.” “It’s both a very intimate portrait of a family and also an intriguing and pulsating thriller. It exudes excitement and gravitas and is one of the most ambitious productions we’ve ever done. It’s a big international drama but it’s a story that’s rooted in family,” he added.
The series is based on a book by former BBC news correspondent Misha Glenny and was adapted by Drive’s Hossein Amini and The Woman in Black’s James Watkins in association with Twickenham Studios and BBC Worldwide. It will air on BBC One, U.S cable network AMC and Amazon Prime Video around the world, including Russia.
The show charts the journey of Alex Godman (Norton), a young hedge fund manager and English-raised son of Russian exiles with mob connections. He is drawn into the murky criminal underworld, while also protecting his British girlfriend Rebecca (Juliet Rylance). Maria Shukshina (the “Meryl Streep of Russia”) and Leviathan’s Aleksey Serebryakov play Norton’s parents, alongside Faye Marsay as his sister Katya and David Dencik as his uncle Boris. Bourne star David Strathairn plays Israeli shipping magnate Semiyon Kleiman.
Norton says: “The beauty of the writing is that it’s not heroes and villains; the adversary is clearly a family man, so we tried to avoid those stereotypes but there was a lot of research. I watched Gomorrah and talked a lot about Michael Corleone and The Godfather because obviously we had a similar presence in terms of family.”
Amini added that “every villain is the hero of their own story.” “95% of the time these gangsters aren’t being gangsters, they’re being husbands and wives, and it was important to get their human story across and avoid heightened movie gangsters.”
However, the expensive drama nearly started out as a feature film. Watkins said that the eponymous book had originally optioned as a feature film. “Hossein and I both read it and we thought you couldn’t do justice to it in film, in terms of its expansiveness and the patchwork quilt of it all, along with all of the different locations.
In an unusual move, Watkins directed all eight episodes between September 2016 and July 2017. “It helps for actors if you have one director,” he said. “We boarded it like a movie, which is out of sequence, which actually means you can do it a lot of cheaper and more efficiently. If you have lots of directors, you have to shoot episode after episode, which is a lot more expensive so there was an economy of scale as well. It was about having authorship between Hoss and I and seeing that through.”
Watkins, who recently directed the “Shut Up and Dance” episode of Black Mirror, added that he received a lot of support from the BBC and AMC and that television afforded him more opportunity to “take his time.”
“We realized was that we spent a lot of our lives battling away negative energy and fighting with financiers in some ways,” Watkins said. “For example, if you make a movie, sometimes now you’re in a world of foreign sales where you can’t necessarily cast the best actors but the first conversation we had with the BBC was to go and cast whoever you like from around the world and we did. [It was great] to have that opportunity to take your time and go deeper into character.”
The title of the drama has received some questions, with BBC Newsnight host Kirsty Wark joking that she thought it was a Scottish mafia story. Author Glenny said it came from the franchising of certain criminal organizations in Russia. “I was having a conversation with someone who was explaining to me about the Chechen mafia in Moscow. Although they were Chechen, they were established as one of the big organized crime groups, and they used to sell their name to organized crime groups in other Russian cities who had to pay them to use their name Chechen Mafia and had to promise that they’d be suitably ruthless,” he said.
There also have been accusations that McMafia essentially is Norton’s audition as James Bond with the first episode seeing the Happy Valley star suit up in a tuxedo, come out of the ocean in swimming trunks, flirt with women across the world and fight a bunch of Israeli gangsters. “I did warn Hoss and James that if they wrote the first scene with me coming out of a cab in a tux they would stir some of [the rumors about Bond]. For me, I’m personally very grateful that Daniel Craig is going to do at least one more [Bond] film, I’m a big fan of his,” he added.
The show launches on BBC One on January 1 and will air on AMC and Amazon later in the year.