Tom Wright on Billion Dollar Whale’s Film Adaptation and Other Wild Stories He’s Got Up His Sleeve
It’s about 3.30pm in Singapore and the sky has suddenly gone dark. Thunder cracks like a whip every few minutes, shaking the windows and sending the dogs in my apartment building into a frenzy. It’s the perfect setting for some storytelling, and I’ve got one heck of a storyteller—Tom Wright—on the line.
Together with Bradley Hope, his close friend and colleague from their previous lives as journalists for The Wall Street Journal, Wright co-wrote Billion Dollar Whale, the true story of disgraced Malaysian financier Jho Low, who siphoned billions of dollars from Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd, or 1MDB.
Described as “thrilling” by Bill Gates and named a Best Book of 2018 by The Financial Times and Fortune, Billion Dollar Whale was also a tale of obscene wealth. Not only had Low used the money to finance elections and purchase luxury real estate, he had Gatsby-like aspirations to climb the social ladder by throwing over-the-top parties and giving extravagant gifts.
Low once gave Paris Hilton a US$250,000 chip at a Las Vegas casino, spent US$8 million on diamond jewellery for then-girlfriend Miranda Kerr, bought a US$325,000 Ferrari for Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries’ wedding, and gifted Picasso and Basquiat paintings to Leonardo DiCaprio. He even helped finance the Hollywood movie The Wolf of Wall Street, and received a personal shout-out from DiCaprio as he accepted his Golden Globe for his starring role in the film as former stockbroker and convicted felon Jordan Belfort.
In a cruel twist of irony, Low will find himself the subject of a biopic detailing his own downfall as SK Global Entertainment, the production company behind Crazy Rich Asians, has bought the film rights for Billion Dollar Whale.
It’s a development that prompted Wright and Hope to establish Project Brazen in January 2021, a company specialising in true stories told through podcasts, books and articles for adaptation for film and TV. In November 2021, The Hollywood Reporter reported that SK Global had tapped House Of Cards creator Beau Willimon and Jordan Tappis, his partner in production company Westward, to develop and produce Billion Dollar Whale. Screenwriter David Henry Hwang, a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and playwright behind titles like M Butterfly, will write and executive produce the series.
“There’s such a hunger for real stories,” Wright says.
The first release under Project Brazen does not disappoint. Launched in October 2021, it’s a thrilling nine-part podcast series on Leonard Glenn Francis, otherwise known as “Fat Leonard”. Fat Leonard was a notorious Malaysian entrepreneur who made a fortune as a US Navy contractor until 2013, when he was arrested on bribery charges in what is often described as the worst corruption scam in US military history.
“He hasn’t been sentenced yet,” Wright says, adding that he interviewed Fat Leonard remotely as he is currently under house arrest in San Diego. “He isn’t supposed to talk to the media, as part of the plea deal with the US government, but he agreed to talk to me, to rip up his plea deal.”
The series is rich with obscene indulgences, details of bribing of military officials, Leonard’s own childhood marred with domestic violence and, finally, his widely publicised detainment.
“A lot of people say that in the first few episodes, they start to feel for him, and compare his rise to someone like Jordan Belfort’s,” says Wright, who admits even he was seduced by Fat Leonard in the beginning. “He’s a charming guy. But by the later episodes, you start to question why you would ever like this guy: the way he treats women, and some of the mafia-like aspects of his fraud. You’ll see in the later episodes he shows extreme cruelty to women, including the mother of his children. I call him out on that, and that leads to a major breakdown in our relationship. Ultimately, some of the women he hurt play a role in bringing him down. That’s why the story is so amazing.”
The words “The truth is stranger than fiction” appear in large text on the Project Brazen website—a fitting motto for a company that has some extraordinary stories up its sleeve.
“We’re working on one project about a royal family that really looks into the power, the way [they] operate and the corruption you can get within the family,” says Wright, who adds that their focus is on stories related to current events.
“They aren’t historical: they’re happening right now, and the stakes are very high,” says Wright. Indeed, Fat Leonard is awaiting trial, and Low is a fugitive on the run. No one knows where he is; some speculate that he could be hiding out in Dubai, mainland China or Macau.
“There are far too many non-fiction stories that don’t affect anybody. We’re working on stories where the impact is a bit more obvious and widely felt,” Wright says. “We should all care about these stories because they’re about how we live our lives, how governments deal with powerful people.”
Wright is also lending his expertise to help with scripted projects. “Straight to fiction, helping to develop fictional podcasts, that kind of thing,” he says, adding that he kept himself inspired and entertained during the pandemic with podcasts like Serial and The RFK Tapes, and TV series like The Serpent, the Netflix crime drama about serial killer Charles Sobhraj who preyed on travellers exploring the “hippie trail” of South and Southeast Asia in the Seventies.
“As a kid, I had always been interested in Asia,” says Wright, who was born in London and grew up in Staffordshire and Birmingham. He recalls being particularly interested in the tales of Marco Polo and the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai in his youth. “In Form Six, someone came to my school to talk about Project Trust, which sent kids abroad for a gap year after high school. I applied, got accepted, and they sent me to Indonesia for a year.”
In 1993, Wright moved to the hills of Bandung to spend a year teaching English. It was his first trip to Asia, and to anywhere outside of Europe. “It was shocking. I remember waking up the first night there and thinking, oh God … what have I done? Why have I decided to come and live out here?”
That initial hesitation was short-lived and, after returning to England for university, he wasted no time in getting back to Asia, where he has spent most of his adult life.
Wright started his career in the Nineties with Reuters in Indonesia, as General Suharto’s military dictatorship began to crumble. He then joined Dow Jones Newswires in Bangkok during the Asian financial crisis of 1997 to 1998, before his 20-year career at The Wall Street Journal, where he was one of the first journalists to arrive on the scene of the raid in which Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden. He also produced award-winning coverage of the Rana Plaza factory disaster in Bangladesh in 2013 for the newspaper. That same year, he moved to Hong Kong in his role as Asia Economics Editor. It was there that he discovered the story of Jho Low and 1MDB that would one day become Billion Dollar Whale.
In 2015, Wright and Hope teamed up to break the story on Low. “In November 2015, at the Shangri-La in Kuala Lumpur, Bradley was warned by someone to tell me to get out of Malaysia. Apparently [former Malaysian Prime Minister] Najib Razak was looking to arrest me. I got in a taxi and drove to the Singapore border,” Wright recalls.
We should all care about these stories because they’re about how we live our lives, how governments deal with powerful people.— Tom Wright
Unsurprisingly, there were multiple attempts to scare the authors from publishing Billion Dollar Whale. Low’s lawyers had even threatened bookstores around the world, stating they could be liable to a defamation suit if they carried the title. “It was the Streisand effect,” Wright said of this in an interview with Pomp Podcast, referring to the phenomenon, named after Barbra Streisand, when an attempt to hide or censor information increases awareness of it. “The book just got a lot more attention because of that.”
The pair persisted, the book is now an international bestseller, and Wright and Hope are Gerald Loeb Award winners and Pulitzer Prize finalists.
In the midst of all this, Wright also started a family. He and his wife have a daughter who was born in Indonesia and a son who was born in India. The family moved to Singapore from Hong Kong in December 2020.
“Now, Asia is home and England seems like a foreign place to me. If you want to be a writer, a journalist, an author... this is a great part of the world to be in,” he says. “You go in whichever way the story leads you.”