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.”