By Mark Smith
'Rigged' creators, Ben Mezrich and John D'Agostino, talk about how black gold still represents golden opportunities for the UAE.
Dubai's spanking new oil novel Rigged has already been snapped up by Hollywood. Mark Smith talks to its creators Ben Mezrich and John D'Agostino about how black gold still represents golden opportunities for the UAE.
There's a photo on Ben Mezrich's website of the young author at a party, posing between the unlikely duo of Kevin Spacey and Hugh Hefner. There's no explanatory caption, but a moment's internet research reveals that one of the two has acquired the rights to turn Rigged, Mezrich's Dubai-set novel, into a Hollywood film. Given Mezrich's past interview declarations on the subject of his own output (‘I write books for people who don't read... "d**k lit"') you'd be forgiven for assuming it was the lusty old dude in the dressing gown. Fortunately for Dubai's moral guardians, you'd be wrong.
It won't be the first time Spacey has attached himself to a Mezrich project. The Oscar winner has already produced and starred in the big screen adaptation of the author's previous thriller Bringing Down The House: The Inside Story Of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas For Millions, due to hit multiplexes worldwide next month under the rather more ergonomic title 21.
‘I think Kevin has a really good sense of my books and how to turn them into movies. If everything goes well and the writers' strike ends next week, then the goal is to get Rigged into production within a year. Shooting in Dubai would be amazing, and I think this film will constitute the ultimate movie about the area and about oil'.
Bold words from someone who admits to knowing ‘nothing at all about oil, or the Middle East, for that matter' before setting pen to paper. But then Mezrich's unique brand of ‘narrative non-fiction,' defined by the author as ‘chronicling the real-life exploits of young people beating the system and making fortunes,' has always forsaken the writing-class adage ‘write about what you know' in favour of the more creatively fertile option of writing about who he knows. ‘It's more exciting that way,' says Mezrich, ‘I couldn't do any of the dangerous things I write about: I'm too neurotic and nervous.'
In the case of Rigged, the thrusting hero is John D'Agostino, an Italian-American kid from the streets of Brooklyn, New York, whom Mezrich first encountered when the former was at Harvard Business School: ‘When Bringing Down The House came out, John got back in touch with me and invited me to ring the opening bell at the Merc Exchange in New York,' recalls Ben.
For the uninitiated, the Merc Exchange is not a second hand car dealership - it is a financial institution handling billions of dollars worth of energy products, mostly oil. The prices quoted for transaction on these hectic, testosterone-charged floors are the basis for oil prices worldwide. If you turn on the TV and see the price of crude oil is 72 dollars a barrel, that is the price as settled on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It's a big deal.
That D'Agostino, a graduate of both Harvard and Oxford, was able to win acceptance amid the brutal reverse snobbery of the Merc's trading floors (‘like a casino on crack, where former garbagemen become millionaires overnight') is remarkable in itself, and Mezrich devotes his breathless opening chapters to charting his hero's rise, by his mid-20s, to Vice President of the New York Exchange.
That he could go on to play a vital role in the establishment of an equivalent Exchange in the Middle East - a supremely complicated undertaking involving the squaring of ancient Sharia law with the principles of Western capitalism - not to mention the cooperation of Dubai's Muslim elite with a bunch of New York money men - at an age when most of us can just about be trusted with the photocopier code, seems plain fanciful.
Add to that a state-of-the-US back story involving our hero's father as a 9-11 survivor, and you start to wonder: has Mezrich's ‘d**k lit' been given a sneaky dose of Viagra, à la James Frey's notoriously unreal reality novel, A Million Little Pieces?
Not at all, according to its subject: ‘We could have sold a lot more books if I had allowed this to become sensationalised,' says D'Agostino, ‘but we purposefully did not. My dad really was in the World Trade Center on 9-11 - he suffered a heart attack on evacuating the building, and my mother really did faint when I first told her I was moving to Dubai. Everything in the book has a very strong foundation of truth.'
There is one notable difference, however. D'Agostino is considerably more self-effacing than David, the swaggering hero of Rigged: ‘When Ben first contacted me, he tried to sell me on how cool it would be to have a book written about me - something I just couldn't care less about. But he's persistent and smart, and he soon learnt what my touch points were.
I'd grown increasingly disillusioned with how the US media was treating the Gulf - the Dubai Ports controversy, for example - so Ben set about convincing me that telling my story was an opportunity to portray the region positively, through a medium that will reach millions of people, versus me going on CNBC, talking about it, and reaching 10,000 people.'
It's a strategy which has led many to posit that the real hero of Rigged is Dubai, a city where anything seems possible: ‘Others seem blown away by the pace, the architecture. I'm from New York,' says D'Agostino, ‘we've got plenty of buildings there. It's the sense of opportunity and growth which makes Dubai unique - and I hope you get a sense of that in the book.'
Certainly, it's almost impossible to read Rigged without clocking its Grisham-like cinematic potential: something the novel shares with the ever-morphing Dubai skyline. Both Mezrich and D'Agostino are slated as executive producers on the upcoming movie: will they be throwing their combined weight around Hollywood's corridors of power? Faced with the question, Mezrich allows himself a moment of fantasy casting: ‘If we got Leonardo I wouldn't be unhappy'.
D'Agostino is more circumspect: ‘I have zero influence. I certainly don't need any more attractive women asking me to cast them in the movie: my girlfriend is getting very upset.' Don't expect to see this guy in a Heffner/Spacey sandwich any time soon.
Rigged is available to order from Magrudy's, Dhs77.