'McMafia' Creators Hossein Amini And James Watkins On How Their Show Is 'Game Of Thrones' With Mobs [Interview]

The network that brought us Breaking Bad is now taking a bigger picture look at crime. Where the tale of Walter White was the saga of an individual crime empire, AMC's McMafia looks at organized crime on a global scale.

Based on the book by Misha Glenny, the TV adaptation from Hossein Amini stars James Norton as a British businessman who becomes drawn into the eastern European and middle Eastern mobs with which his family had been connected in the past. Amini spoke with /Film, along with co-creator James Watkins, who directed all eight episodes of McMafia. McMafia premieres Monday, February 26 on AMC.

Even though you have the passage in the pilot where you explain the connection, are you worried everyone is going to think McMafia is about McDonald's?

Amini: The title came from the book. There were discussions but what we felt it captured really well was this notion that as the new reincarnation of the mobs and gangs is very much this franchising. This globalization is happening. These gangs are spreading and cartels are competing with the Italian mafia, competing with the triads. So the idea of this franchising of crime made the title seem quite strong ultimately, but we did discuss it, absolutely.

Watkins: I think it's a title like Argo that initially, you're like, "What's that?" What's interesting now in the U.K. is that initially when people would say, "What is it? Is it about the Scottish mafia or something or is it Irish mafia?" Then once people get to know it, it has a certain resonance to it.

Amini: We had an article about property talking about the McMafia effect. Just the reaction we've had in the U.K. since it broadcast is it's an easy term for journalists to pick up on. So it gets more press I think.

Watkins: I think it makes sense once you understand it.

Were you interested in making the Mafia international?

Amini: Yes, that was the big thing for us. I've been a huge fan of mob movies. It seemed from  the Cagney Golden Age, it became Goodfellas and Sopranos, it was the end of the Italian Mafia. It was about the mob was dying. Then when I read Misha's book, it was suddenly not ending, not dying. It was reinventing itself as this many headed global hydra. It's almost Game of Thrones with mobs. Suddenly it just felt very fresh as a canvas to tell those mob stories and reinvent the genre. The international spread of it was what was appealing rather than the gangsters always being really confined to cities and countries.

On television, where was it feasible to film on a regular basis to recreate those countries?

Watkins: We shot in 12 different countries.

Was Israel one of them?

Watkins: We had second unit in Israel, absolutely. Croatia doubled for a lot of countries. We were in London obviously and the U.K. We shot in France, we shot in Serbia, we shot in Slovenia, we shot in Mumbai because you can't double Mumbai. It's so unique. We shot in Moscow, Turkey, Doha. In terms of doubling, just for the economies of scale, we doubled some of Israel, some of Moscow, some of Prague in Croatia and Serbia.

Was all of the world building of the families already in the book?

Amini: No, the only thing that was strongly from the book is the people smuggling story. That came directly from the book. Some of the family stuff came from my personal [story]. I was originally born in Iran and came to the U.K. just around the time of the Iranian Revolution. I came at a time when there weren't that many foreigners and that spirit of being an exile, being a foreigner in a different country and the pressures that puts on family and relationships. Also, I felt very embarrassed about being other and being Iranian when everyone was very English around me. Some of that got into Alex's character and the idea of a family. I think when you're co-writing eight episodes, you're drawing a lot on personal stuff. That was where it's invented but we used the tone of the book and the authenticity but we had to invent eight episodes of story really.

What was the book's tone you wanted to convey?

Watkins: The tone of authenticity really. You'll feel that this could be also, in terms of a lot of gangster films and gangster tropes, there's always been a sense of, as Hos says, some sort of otherness, a sense of closed worlds. If you look at a wonderful TV show and movie, Gomorrah, you're inside, or you look at The Sopranos. What we're trying to say is this is all happening all around you. They could be sat at the next table and they don't necessarily look like gangsters. In this globalized world where the criminal has become corporate and in some sense the corporate has become criminal, the overlap between the underworld and the overworld and the sort of invisibility of crime within that world is what we wanted to capture really.

Does this modern Mafia use technology or stay off the grid?

Amini: Episode four is all about technology and the use of hacking. I think too, the other thing is it now includes intelligence agencies, politicians. Its reach has spread.

Watkins: And enablers as well, whether it's law firms.

Amini: Lobbyists.

Watkins: There's an expression they use a lot in London where people come to London not only for money laundering but for reputation laundering. You move to London and you become, through various ways, ingratiate yourself into the establishment, wash your background and acquire legitimacy in some way. It's law firms, banks, PR agencies.

Did you ever think of McMafia as a movie?

Amini: I pitched it years ago. It was owned by a film company and I tried to pitch for it as a movie, and really struggled with just the scale of it. It takes in so many different countries. You're trying to tell a story of the globe, the whole world and it's very hard to do in a two hour movie.

Watkins: We were both aware of it as a movie. I said to Hos, "Remember that book, McMafia? Such a patchwork quilt." We said, "Yeah, they'll never make it as a movie." And we started getting interested in television and said, "Maybe that's a place where we can use it as a jumping off point to try and explore all these worlds and things." Then we sat down and started digging in.

Is it eight episodes and done, or could there be more seasons?

Amini: I think there's certainly scope to do more. The world of global crime is so enormous that you could follow the storylines, the characters we have or just start in a different country. I'd love to explore the Far East which we haven't really done.

Watkins: I think we can dip our toe in America a bit more as well.

Amini: We were even told that, for example, the Balkan Mafia were very upset that they haven't been included in this series. There's a lot of opportunity.

Do some families embrace the perception of being gangsters?

Amini: What I was told was the Balkans were saying that they taught the Russian Mafia everything it new. That's why they were slightly annoyed that we hadn't included them. I think it was true when The Godfather came out. Obviously a lot of Italian-Americans felt uncomfortable with being portrayed that way, but apparently the gangsters themselves started quoting The Godfather.

Watkins: People like to see their lives mythologized in some way.

Having adapted novels before, were there any similarities in adapting McMafia?

Amini: There was no story. It was nonfiction.

Watkins: It's less of an adaptation than an inspiration.

Amini: What's exciting though is the book gave us a wonderful world and a tone. That sort of made it easy to write. When we were discussing story, it was very easy to break down. I did a Henry James adaptation where there were no scenes really. The way he drew characters was so extraordinary it was very easy to invent scenes that felt true to the tone of the book. It was the same with this.

Are there any limits to what you can show with the violence on AMC?

Watkins: Also limits in terms of what we want to show. The philosophy behind it was violence in this world is only used really strategically.

Amini: As a last resort.

Watkins: Violence brings attention and brings the police. So these mobsters are much more subtle than that and they'll use it if needed to send a message. But also when violence explodes in our world, you want it to be short and sharp and shocking but not gratuitous. We don't want to rub people's face in violence. That kind of defined the aesthetics of the approach.

Amini: It's used as a last resort but it's often used as a message as well.  Or to set an example. The murder in episode one was something we took directly from an Iranian exile politician who'd been killed by the Islamic regime, the current government in the' 90s. They came in and used stuff they found. It was almost taken beat for beat from that. We've tried to be as authentic as we can about the violence. It's not heightened. It's based on the research.

Are the episodes going to be around 55 minutes plus commercials?

Amini: We're not taking material out so I guess it will be longer.

In this age of binging, did you design McMafia to air week to week, with a cliffhanger at the end of each episode?

Amini: It's got cliffhangers in every episode, and what we've been very careful to do is to build it as an eight part story.

Watkins: It's slow burn and slow build.

Amini: And to make sure the payoffs in the end are very, very strong and emotional.

Did developing McMafia keep you out of film for a while?

Amini: Yeah, for a long time. Now I feel, as someone who does a lot of adaptations, is that it's the material that best suits. What's great now is there are certain books, there was a book for example I always loved that had nothing to do with this. The Black Dahlia, the James Ellroy, for me that's so clearly a TV series because it needs a sense of time. It was the same with McMafia. We need length. Some movies can't do that but there are other things where you need to be stuck with an audience for two and a half, two hours and you don't really want to ever leave because you know that story's just contained in there. It's kind of exciting that now both are equal.

Watkins: It's very interesting because I had to shoot for 150 days. We started in October, we finished in June. Then post, so that's a couple years out of movies.

Did you know there was a Bollywood version of Drive?

Amini: I think I've seen a poster of it. Have you seen it?

No, I just saw that it exists.

Amini: That's pretty flattering.

When The Snowman came out, the director said they didn't even finish filming the script. Had you written pages that did not get filmed?

Amini: I was one of several writers on it but certainly there were scenes that I think were not completed. I sort of checked out at that stage.