Interview with James Watkins (Screenwriter and Director)

BBC One’s ground-breaking new international thriller McMafia is an eight-part series created by Hossein Amini and James Watkins and inspired by Misha Glenny’s best-selling book of the same name.

Published: 19 December 2017
Between huge budget franchise films and micro indie movies, the film industry has become a difficult place and the freedom you have in television means you can explore the stories in a much richer and deeper way.
— James Watkins

What inspired you about the McMafia book to create this drama?

What appealed to Hoss and I when we read the book was the world. There’s a reality in the world of the mafia and it seems very zeitgeisty in terms of the corporate becoming criminal and the criminal becoming corporate. We had many conversations about the project, we thought about making a film but felt we couldn’t do any justice to the global aspects of the story if we did that. But in eight episodes of television there’s time to interweave multiple strands and storylines and geographical locations around the world. We spoke a lot about The Wire and how it was the story of a city and how McMafia is the story of an interconnected global city, so we thought it would be really interesting to explore.

Was it important to you to have an international cast?

It was incredibly important to us to cast globally for the authenticity. One of the first discussions we had with our partners was that when we depicted Russia, we wanted the language to be Russian, so needed to cast Russian actors. I think audiences are far too sophisticated now to have an English actor putting on a Russian accent, it feels fake. In order to immerse people in these worlds we wanted to seek out the best actors in these different countries, Russia, Israel, Georgia, Czech Republic etc. It was fantastic working with people from different worlds as everyone has the same approach but different processes.

How do you hope McMafia is received by audiences?

We want McMafia to be a tense gangster story, but also a family story. It’s a collusion of those two worlds. We talked a lot about The Godfather and the way it’s epic yet intimate. We want to draw people into the story of Alex Godman and his family and Vadim, his nemesis, and his family. It’s a clash of clans and we hope that makes for a thrilling and immersive drama. I want them to be entertained, engaged and to go on a journey with our characters. If you look at the best drama at the moment its stories about the world in which we now live, which I hope McMafia can do in some way.

Tell us about the development process of McMafia?

The development process was pleasurable, Hoss and I are friends and we’d meet up in cafes or in the garden at the Victoria & Albert museum and work out the story timeline and arc. Then we got some of the best UK writers into a writer’s room, David Farr, Laurence Coriat, Peter Harness. They sat down with us and collectively kicked the tyres of what we had come up with, went away and fleshed out the episodes. Hoss has put a tonal unity over all of the episodes and put his stamp on it. Quite early we spoke to a lot of broadcasters and gave them our vision and the BBC and AMC came on board. We then scouted locations in Croatia and London and it all came together very quickly.

Tell us about the locations where you filmed?

We shot in many territories around the world, main and second unit, to give us that breadth of scale. We were in London, Croatia, Serbia, Qatar, India, Turkey, Czech Republic, and Israel. None of the story is actually set in Croatia but Croatia is incredibly impressive in how it can double for so many places, there is such a variety of landscape and architecture.

You directed all eight episodes - what was the decision behind that?

It was a difficult decision because it was a 27 week long shoot and you don’t do that lightly. But at the same time, having created the series with Hoss, I would have found it difficult to hand it over. It also meant I could keep a strong tonal authorship over the material, so I feel pleased to have made that decision. I think it also helped the actors; it would have been very hard for them to maintain their journey with their long character arcs otherwise. I approached it like an eight hour film and hopefully that pays off.

Where was a highlight to film?

Filming in India was very special. The chaos, the noise and the sensory overload was all really wonderful. It was a new world to me and being able to capture that was incredible.

The other highlight was working with actors from across the world and talent that you might not normally see in mainstream drama in the UK or USA, actors who are huge stars in their own countries but undiscovered to those audiences. It’s wonderful to be able to showcase their talents.

Do you think the world of television is changing?

The world of TV has already changed and it’s an ongoing conversation. A lot of the best stories are now being told on television. The opportunity to be able to tell long form character stories is something that TV affords and is therefore a terrain that a lot of filmmakers are interested in exploring. Between huge budget franchise films and micro indie movies, the film industry has become a difficult place and the freedom you have in television means you can explore the stories in a much richer and deeper way.

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