Havana Marking is back in the director’s chair for her new film Smash And Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers: a movie that has been met well be audiences and critics.
The movie takes us into the world of the most successful jewellery thieves in the world; the story has already been picked up to be turned into a live action film.
We caught up with Marking to chat about the film, meeting members of the gang and picking Danny Boyle to helm this new movie.
- Smash And Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers is released later this month, so can you tell me a little bit about the documentary?
I directed it, with funding from the BFI and the BBC - amongst others. It tells the story of this gang The Pink Panthers: they are a Balkan mafia who steal high-end diamonds and Rolexes from jewellery shops.
They began properly in about 2000 and they have been on a crime spree ever since. From about 2007, the global police forces finally came together and have done an incredible job: there are over 150 of them in prison. It is a story of a gang’s golden period really.
- The movie sees you return to the director’s chair, so where did this project start for you? In addition, what was it about this story that first sparked your interest?
I first saw an article about The Pink Panthers in the New Yorker magazine, and it was the first time that all the dots had been connected. You realised that it wasn’t just these few thieves by this huge gang with all of these global networks. It also had this incredibly history and complex genesis that came from the Balkans: it began with the fall of Yugoslavia and the death of Tito.
Not only was it a gripping story of contemporary crime, but it also has a socio-political context that is fascinating for me. It was also a great way to look at the fall out from those Balkan countries in the nineties.
- I was wondering how much you actually knew about this story before you started work on it? And can you tell me a bit about your research period and how you decided which areas to focus on - as you say this is a gang with hundreds of members?
From the beginning to end, it has been about four years. The first year was just research, I went back and forth to the Balkans and met people and talked to people. Finally, I met a few people from the gangs and then their associates: they are not Pink Panthers but they are in the chain. You have to trust them and they have to trust you and it take a bit of time to get all that in place.
You then have work out which angles you are going to tell this story from - ultimately you don’t have that much choice of who you are going to interview, as you are lucky to get any of the members of the gang to talk to you. It was an evolution that happened because I was in the right place at the right time.
- The movie focuses on Mike and Lela who tell their story, so how did you get in contact with them? And how keen were they to take part in the film?
I worked with some really good local journalists, who were able to put me in touch with some people. Once I spoke to them and they had decided to trust me, they would then put me in contact with someone else: it was Mike who put me in touch with Lela.
Everyone has different reasons for wanting to be in a film, and nothing is entirely predictable. Mike is a professional thief, and he is really happy that people want to recognise them as the world’s most successful diamond thieves. Therefore, for him, I think it was ego.
For Lela, she just wanted to talk about it. She just really needed to talk and she is not able to talk to her friends and family about it. She has retired from the gang but she has clearly had a breakdown and various things associated with being in the gang. I think that was one of the reasons why she wanted to talk about it.
- That does lead me into my next question. It is quite unusual to see a woman in a gang like this, so how much was Lela and her role within the group an interest for you?
I think it is unusual to see women because no one ever asks about them. Actually, women play hugely important roles it’s just that male journalists and male police officers are not interested in it. Lela was hugely important. The people that I spoke to said that there was usually one woman in ever team: so there is a team of five or six and one of them is a woman.
She does the scoping out, the casing of the joint, finding potential targets and working out the weaknesses. She will go into a jewellery shop dressed to the nines to try on necklaces or buy a necklace - in that time she will record where the cameras are, where the doors are, where the locks are and where the safe it. Therefore, she is a crucial part of the gang.
- I suppose during the research period you do form an opinion of those involved but having met Mike and Lela and heard their story how did your opinion of them and what they did change?
It’s an interesting thing. You can only speak of the people that you have met - I can’t say that all of the Panthers are like that. I have to say that I got on with Mike and Lela really well. You have to understand that they come from the Balkans and a place that had a terrible period: people were genuinely starving.
You can turn to crime during that period - what kind of crime that you turn to is where it starts getting interesting. They specifically turned to this kind of crime because, in their minds, it had the fewest victims. It wasn’t guns, heroin or the sex trade. Lela could have been a prostitute and Mike could have been a drugs smuggler, but they weren’t.
As you went up the chain - I spoke to the courier and to the fence, you realise that the money they make is more and they have much darker pasts and much darker histories. It came clear that, even though I liked Mike and Lela, they were part of these bigger networks that were dark and scary, and the world would be a better place without them.
- How did the animation element of the film come about? What sort of challenges did that pose for you as a filmmaker?
I had to find a way of telling this story without showing their faces. There are various ways to do that, but there seemed to be a big arrow pointing to animation: first of all, the name Pink Panther is your key way in.
Secondly, I knew that this isn’t really a documentary this is a film noir: it has everything you need for a really good heist film nor thriller. If you look at film nor at the moment it is not really playing out in the cinemas, but it is in animation and graphic novels. That in the end became my inspiration.
- The film is released this week but how have you found the early response to the film so far?
Overall, it has been fantastic as the reviews have been brilliant. We released in America in the summer and the reviews - especially from the LA based press - have just been fantastic. So we are feeling good.
With the animation, you have made a stylistic decision and there is always going to be someone who doesn’t like the style that you chose, and you are just going to have to live with that. On the whole, we have had amazing reactions.
- It has been revealed that this documentary is going to be made into a live action feature film by Danny Boyle, so how has all that come about? Boyle is not the only director who was interested in this project, so why did you decide to go with him over the Hollywood offers that you had?
It was interesting and we have had just a crazy couple of weeks. We have made our mind up and chosen Danny and his producer Christian, based here in London. As soon as the LA reviews came out, the phones basically didn’t stop ringing: you realised that the people that were calling you up were massive big shots. It was all a bit intimidating and scary, but really exciting as well.
In the end, we went for less money but we really respect Danny and Christian, and we really like their films. What was also really exciting was that they totally understand and value Lela as a character and as an important part of the network. She is a really crucial thing and her voice is a voice that you haven’t really heard before.
Every time I spoke to people in LA, they just seemed to want to make it into another Fast & Furious, where it is all about the cars, all about the noise and all about the blokes. Danny and Christian seemed to understand that they need a very strong writer and a very strong actress who can carry off the Lela and bring that complexity to the piece.
- Are you going to be involved in this project in any way? Or are you just going to hand it over?
A bit of both. Ultimately, all decisions will be made by them. I am a consultant and an executive producer, which is hugely exciting. I will probably work with the writer a bit. I will hand over everything I have - I download my brain basically - and they will do with it what they want. However, I do have faith that they will do something amazing with it.
- Over the last couple of years you have enjoyed a lot of success with documentary film, so what is about this genre that you seem to enjoy so much?
I love real people, and I think real people are far more interesting than actors and actresses (laughs). I was going to say that it is much harder to make a documentary than it is to make a drama. When you are making a documentary, you are restricted by the truth and by the people that you are talking to.
Some things are hard and some things are easy, so you can’t say one is more challenging than the other. The challenge is to craft the really good story that is interesting to everyone and is going to have meaning and resonance out of the truth. It really is a wonderful challenge.
- Finally, what is next for you? Are you sticking with documentary or is live action something that you would consider taking on?
A bit of both. One of the things that I am really excited about is working with a writer so I can see how scripts are written and that kind of stuff. I do have some ideas up my sleeve for my own films, so that is exciting.
The thing I am doing next is a documentary that will look at the murder of a Lebanese popstar in 2008, which tells the story of the build up to the Arab Spring. Therefore, that is going to be gripping I think.
Smash & Grab: The Story Of The Pink Panthers is in cinemas 16 October and on DVD 28 October.