(Image: Nick Wall/BBC)
James Watkins’ globetrotting TV series McMafia filmed entirely on location for 29 weeks, shooting in places many producers fear to tread.
The desire to shoot vital opening sequences on the Arabian Peninsula for James Watkins’ sweeping organised-crime drama McMafia for the BBC and AMC nearly pushed the filmmakers to breaking point. Budgeted at close to $2.8m (£2m) an episode and starring James Norton, Juliet Rylance and David Strathairn, the eight-part series was inspired by Misha Glenny’s bestselling non-fiction book. The only problem was the book had been banned in Dubai.
Centred on a Russian family living in exile in London, McMafia tells a story linking money launderers in Dubai, cyber criminals in India, black marketeers in Prague, drug smuggling in Colombia, Russian oligarchs in London and Bedouin smugglers in the Negev desert.
Dubai — the United Arab Emirates’ biggest city — blacklisted the book, putting the project’s backers on the back foot at the planning stage.
“James [Watkins] and [writer] Hoss [Hossein Amini] were adamant they wanted to open the series with that new world, new global structure and landscape found only there,” says Paul Ritchie, who produced the series with Cuba Pictures’ Dixie Linder, Nick Marston and Ben Hall. Ritchie, who has a longstanding working relationship with Watkins on films including Eden Lake and The Woman In Black, has filmed all over the world but never on the Arabian Peninsula.
“We then looked at [the Emirati state of] Abu Dhabi and [Qatari capital] Doha,” says Ritchie. “The permissions from beginning to end took us seven months to get to shoot in Doha. There is a competitive edge between the Emirates and the Qataris, so the minute we got Abu Dhabi, literally 24 hours later, our Qatari permissions came through.”
McMafia opted for Doha, shooting several days in the city (this was before an ongoing blockade of the country came into force, led by Saudi Arabia and including the UAE, which bans travel between any participating countries).
The production’s next challenge was to overcome initial misgivings about filming in Russia. “The perception is that it is really hard to shoot in Moscow but the reality was it was straightforward,” says Ritchie. “We had a great service company [Vodorod Pictures run by Olga Kashirina and Michael Kitaev].”
The crew and the main cast, including Norton and Russian stars Kirill Pirogov and Merab Ninidze, spent around a week shooting in the capital, staying at the Metropole hotel, right next to the Kremlin. “It was a piece of cake, with no difference to shooting in Croatia, just a little more work in getting the visas,” Ritchie says.
Corralling some of the biggest actors in Russia — Pirogov, Ninidze, Maria Shukshina and Aleksey Serebryakov — to keep to the schedule proved a challenge throughout the shoot.
“Kirill is basically the Kenneth Branagh of Russia and runs his own theatre. We’d have to fly him in from Siberia to Belgrade and move the entire schedule around,” says Ritchie. “He was the headache of all headaches but very apologetic about it.”
Ritchie says the producers have subsequently been contacted by Moscow Film Commission to encourage a return. However, a second series of McMafia has yet to be commissioned.
To stand in for Tel Aviv (considered too expensive), Ritchie says he was inspired by USA Networks’ Dig, which shot the Croatian cities of Split and Dubrovnik for Jerusalem. Split became the lynchpin for McMafia’s extensive Tel Aviv sequences and other locations in Croatia also doubled for eight further places including the south of France, Cairo, Istanbul, Moscow (interiors), Prague, Mumbai, Pakistan and even London (interiors of the Norwegian Embassy).
“We bounced around the Balkans,” Ritchie says. “Croatia did a bit of everything for us and we also went to Serbia and Slovenia.” Zagreb-based Mainframe Film Production chief Igor Nola is a co-producer on the series.
The producers accessed the UK’s high-end TV tax break and the tax incentives in Croatia and Serbia too. The show’s 14-strong core UK crew, including heads of department, went everywhere, with local crew hired at different locations.
When it came to scenes set in India, only India would do. Ritchie reunited with local service company India Take One Productions, which he had worked with in his role of co-producer on Slumdog Millionaire. “India can be an extremely stressful place to work if you don’t know the foibles of the local way of working,” Ritchie notes. “But I know the local crew are brilliant.”
Looking back, Ritchie reveals it was a cold January day in London that threw up the shoot’s only truly unexpected scene-wrecker. With Norton’s character deep in conversation with a Czech gangster, a real-life Serpentine swimmer, sporting only a hat, goggles and speedos, bobbed up in the centre of the shot and stayed for the entire scene. “We went again. No one had seen this chap coming,” Ritchie laughs. “It was freezing.”