Misha Glenny, author of McMafia and executive producer of the series, discusses having his book adapted into fiction, Alex Godman’s “crisis of identity,” and how the show gets real-world organized crime right.
Q: What originally inspired you to write the book McMafia?
A: I was working in Yugoslavia during the wars of the 1990s and the early 2000s. I noticed that a lot of the militia groups who were fighting the wars on behalf of very aggressive nationalist politicians were actually also involved in organized crime and moving illicit goods and services through Yugoslavia into their biggest market, which was the European Union. I started tracing all these goods and services — whether they were drugs, women being trafficked for sexual purposes, blood diamonds, untaxed cigarettes — and where they were coming from. I gradually started to develop a map of what looked like a very rapidly globalizing network of organized crime. I thought I’d follow those threads around the world and write McMafia, and that’s how it happened.
Q: What was your reaction when you were first approached about turning the book into a fictional series?
A: I was absolutely thrilled because although it’s not the first time that a nonfiction book was developed into a fictional series, it’s not very common. For a nonfiction writer, it’s a fantastic break. The most important thing was that from an early stage, [Co-creators/Executive Producers] Hossein Amini and James Watkins and I sat down and thrashed out all the challenges, all the possible obstacles we might meet, how we could maintain the authenticity of the world of the book and at the same time, develop it through a compelling narrative story, which I think Hoss and James have done a fantastic job at.
There are some stories they took straight from the book – above all the story of Lyudmilla and women being trafficked from Russia through Egypt and into Israel. Most of the crimes you see committed are either from the book or stories I’ve done elsewhere and we’ve integrated them into the show. It’s not easy because nonfiction books don’t have the clear driving narrative that television does, and yet, neither Hoss nor James wanted to sacrifice that authenticity. Personally, I think they’ve really hit the nail on the head and struck the balance just right.
Q: What other characters in the series are most drawn from real-life inspirations?
A: Alex Godman’s father, Dmitri, is certainly a composite, as is Vadim Kalyagin, Alex’s nemesis as it were. They are drawn from various people I describe in the book and other well-known Russian oligarchs and organized criminals. For Dmitri, Hoss has drawn a lot from somebody I write about in the book called Boris Berezovsky. Elsewhere, in Mumbai, the character of Dilly draws very heavily from the story I describe in the book of Mumbai’s most famous gangster called Dawood Ibrahim and his “D-Company,” which was his gang. Most of the characters have some reference to the book, but essentially they’re composite because we don’t want them to be identified with specific people.
Q: How would you describe the journey of our hero Alex Godman in Season 1?
A: He’s somebody who is determined to stay out of the world that his father inhabited for many decades, and that’s the shadowy world of gangster capitalism in Russia in the 1990s. Dmitri has done what most gangster oligarchs have tried to do, which is give their children a legitimacy which they never had – and Alex has that, having been educated at a private school in the UK and then going to an American business school. So, he’s on the right road but something happens, which means that he’s drawn back into the darker side of his father’s past. There are obviously echoes of The Godfather in it, but what I think is so unique about this is that the viewer is caught between his or her affection for Alex and his or her disdain for what Alex gets up to. The viewer also feels exactly the same about Vadim, his main opponent. You have an extraordinary range of conflicting emotions as you see Alex go through the journey of leaving the light side for the dark side.
Q: Crime dramas have often been about the mob family, but this one seems particularly concerned with the relationship of these characters’ actual flesh and blood. How do you think that approach sets the show apart?
A: In Alex’s case, there’s something really profound, which is his crisis of identity. Although he comes from a very Russian family and feels the pull of Russian culture and the strength of family in Russian culture, he is also very English and very modern. What you’re seeing in Alex is not just a personal family dilemma. You’re seeing an existential dilemma, which I think is familiar to people in the 21st century where you’re having to juggle cultures. That, I think, sets Alex aside in particular. The actor who plays Vadim, Merab Ninidze – it’s a staggering performance what he manages to pull off because he has genuine human sympathy, an underlying tragedy related to his late wife and to his daughter that we don’t fully understand, and a very strong bond with his good friend Ilya. What that demonstrates is that these people have been through terrible things in their lives. The moral struggle that they have is grounded in real tragedy.
Q: What is the greatest misconception about organized crime in our world today?
A: What people have to understand is this is, in some respects, a proper business with rules and strategies and with an immense international dimension that is often underestimated. Particularly in the United States, the UK, Europe and Canada, you don’t see organized crime on the streets of our cities. We don’t feel it, so it all seems rather distant. One of the things I think the show gets across well, which is very important to me, is the fact that Western banking institutions, lawyers, corrupt law enforcement officials or corrupt politicians – we allow people to buy real estate in our country without having to reveal who they are. Our cities are great vehicles to the real estate market for money laundering. This is something I would really like people to understand. We are involved and complicit in a very deadly and damaging shadow economy, which affects the entire world. Since the book was published, I think McMafia culture has spread and developed in various parts of the world. There are people waking up to it, whether it’s journalists publishing the Panama Papers or the Paradise Papers, whether it’s lawyers and policeman in places like Brazil who’ve uncovered the biggest corruption scandal in history, whether it’s law enforcement officials in the Department of Justice who’ve broken a lot of corrupt operations overseas and in the U.S., or whether it’s NGOs like Global Witness or Transparency International. There is a real move to do something about this. People don’t want to tolerate this level of corruption and crime.
Q: What are you most excited for viewers to see in Season 1?
A: I think the most important thing is that they are going to learn a great deal, I hope, about the way the world really works. They can be confident that it is steeped in authentic research, but they have some absolutely riveting characters to guide them through that real world. I’m very much in love with the series and the performances – Alex’s mother played by Mariya Shukshina, Nawazuddin Siddiqui who plays Dilly Mahmood. And at the top of it all, Alex Godman played by James Norton, who’s as good-looking in the flesh as he is on screen, and he’s a superb actor and does the subtlety of emotion really well. That combination of James and Merab as Alex and Vadim is a master class in television, particularly as they start to have more and more interaction personally. It’s really chilling and gripping.
Q: You make a cameo in one of the episodes. What was it like being in the world that you created in your book?
A: [Laughs] On the one hand, it was like falling off a log because I was a reporter for the BBC for many years. It was quite easy to do a bit of method acting there. I studied drama at university and did a lot of stage acting there. It’s a small cameo, but it’s a speaking cameo. James [Watkins], the director, rang me up the week before and said, “Misha, how do you fancy playing a BBC reporter on the show? We’re out in Croatia.” I said, “Hold the front page. I’m there!” It was terrific fun. I really enjoyed it. It was the icing on the cake because the experience overall of the transformation of the book has been marvelous. I’ve been very closely involved, but to actually have a part in it – it doesn’t get much better than that.
McMafia premieres Monday, February 26 at 10/9c.Read More