When did you come across Baghdad Central?
I had finished lunch with a UK publisher and just as I was putting on my coat I heard him say: “Iraqi cop in Baghdad, 2003”. I sat down again pretty quickly! I then read Elliott Colla’s book Baghdad Central and thought: I’ve never seen this world through these eyes before. Khafaji, was very appealing, so we took the terrific central character and the great premise and pushed it further so we could make it our own. You’re normalising characters that are normally ‘Other’: they and their struggles are central to the story. In this show, Americans and Brits are the ‘Other’.
Why did you want writer Stephen Butchard to take it on?
I thought of Stephen right away. I was across House of Saddam, his Borgia-like portrayal of Saddam’s reign when I was running in-house drama at the BBC. He’s one of those writers who has this incredible ability to make really complicated worlds very accessible. He cuts to the human in the middle.
What made Alice Troughton right as lead director?
Alice has given us such a vision, aiming really high and hitting it. I thought we’d never be able to afford it; you want your finance team to look absolutely terrified at some point or you’re not doing your job! She’s been clever, cunning, aspirational but she’s shot and cut to achieve. There’s no wastage and the music is beautiful. I think we’ve created an amazing, truthful world.
Does it take a political stand?
Above all it’s about a father trying to find his daughter, endangering himself to protect his family and in doing so, solve a crime. Genre is incredibly useful – it can tug you through a world, so we have upped the crime element from the book while also making it more personal, focusing more on the women in the story. But it’s also about the way that one country can never really know another country. It doesn’t say the invasion was a terrible mistake, it says there was no planning or understanding and no one took care of the population – but also that Iraq isn’t so broken that we can’t find a human story in it.
How widely did you cast your net for actors?
We cast for 18 months with our casting director, the highly esteemed and tenacious Kate Rhodes James. Many of our actors play leads in their local film industries and often their roles were expanded by Stephen to accommodate that talent. Waleed [Zuaiter] is hugely experienced but a revelation in this lead role, Corey [Stoll] is top of everyone’s wishlist in America and Bertie [Carvel] is lauded in the UK and US. Leem [Lubany] was the lead in Omar which was Oscar-nominated, Tawfeek [Barhom] is the lead in Idol, July [Namir] was in Collateral, other actors were in Fauda or Homeland. Corey Stoll said to me, completely unprompted, that he’d never been on any set where every time he turned into a new scene there was yet another brilliant actor.
Much of the cast hail from the Arab diaspora. Are there Iraqi actors in the cast?
There are a few. For example, the character of Omar played by Thayer Al-Shayei and Maha, played by Nahar Ramadan. But there are very few Iraqi actors to draw from internationally, maybe because there doesn’t seem to have been an exported drama tradition. If you search online for top Iraqi actors the number one slot surprisingly goes to Saddam Hussein from his role in his own propaganda films... That said, all the actors were deeply respectful of the need for accuracy and worked hard on their usage and accents with our Iraqi dialect coach, Dr Abbas Abdulghani and with our associate producer, Arij Al-Soltan, who is from Baghdad, in a united quest for authenticity.
How difficult was it to recreate Baghdad in Morocco?
We couldn’t film in Iraq - there isn’t a big film set up there and security was a concern. We looked into filming in Jordan, Spain and South Africa but Morocco felt right every time. Our producer Jonathan Curling, director Alice Troughton and I had all worked there before. We knew how professional and talented the local crews were and how strong the infrastructure is.
In the end we found most of what we were looking for and the adjustments were surprisingly minor. For example, Ouarzazate, where the film industry is largely based, is full of buildings with a pink tinge whereas Baghdad is more sandy brown. That was easily adjusted in post-production. Other than that, we had to find ways of putting the River Tigris in and taking the Atlas Mountains out! In the end it was all about what we showed on screen and Alice and her DoP [Director of Photography] Christoph Nuyens were extremely resourceful. The most difficult element to get right was Saddam Hussein’s iconic Republican Palace, which the Coalition requisitioned after the invasion. In the end, it was pulled together from lots of bits and pieces: public buildings, side-rooms, offices…and the odd set build by our talented production designer Helen Scott. Morocco has been a great place to work – they’re used to making both big movies and smaller TV dramas and so are very flexible.
What do you hope viewers will get out of it?
I hope they’ll be entertained and moved by characters who live in a world they perhaps hadn’t thought about in this way.