Wednesday 28 September 2016

Bonnie and Clyde: Aoife Madden's Landscape Of Lies

Aoife Madden was young, talented and very well-connected, but when she became embroiled in a huge tax scam she earned for herself a perverse place in film history. With a documentary about to air on the BBC, Donal Lynch looked back at her extraordinary story

Donal Lynch

Published 25/01/2016 | 02:30

Elaborate tax scame: Aoife Madden was jailed for almost five years for her role in multi-million pound movie scam with Bashar Al-Issa.
Elaborate tax scame: Aoife Madden was jailed for almost five years for her role in multi-million pound movie scam with Bashar Al-Issa.
Hollywood tax scam: Bashar Al Issa
Tricked: Andrea McLean unwittingly starred in the scam movie Landscape of Lies

The beautiful red-haired actress fixes the camera with a steely glare and begins: "I will lie to you from day one. And use you and screw you and break your heart, because you broke mine first."

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The clip is part of Aoife Madden's showreel and, as with much of her output, the words in the script seemed to apply almost as much to her life as to her art. In the year that the film was uploaded to YouTube Madden was training as a primary school teacher in London, but in her heart she felt her talents lay elsewhere.

Since moving to London from Northern Ireland she had studied acting and had a string of notable theatre credits to her name. She had gained the lead role in Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore with the RSC and had starred alongside Holly Hunter in the West End in Marina Carr's By the Bog of Cats.

Despite these early successes she never quite gained a foothold in the acting big leagues, even if she was attractive and well connected - her uncle is the Sinn Fein MP Conor Murphy and for a time she dated the presenter Chris Evans. Her acting career foundered through the late noughties, however, and by 2009 she was 32-years-old and at something of a crossroads in her life. A career in teaching beckoned but what she really wanted to do was produce movies. That was when she met Bashar Al-Issa, an Iraqi-English property developer and entrepreneur. It would turn out to be a most fateful meeting of minds. "If Aoife is our Bonnie, Bashar is our Clyde," Chancers, a documentary, to be screened today on the BBC, tells us.

Al-Issa was a well-connected and brash Londoner from a wealthy Iraqi family who, like Madden, had big ambitions that hadn't quite worked out. In 2006 he was set to finance construction of the largest skyscraper in Buffalo, upstate New York, but the plan never went ahead. Another property scheme in Manchester had also ran into serious trouble. By that stage Al-Issa's property empire was perilously close to bankruptcy - he had debts of some £45m - and he had decided to try to make a fresh start as a movie bigwig. He was studying finance at the university of East London when his lecturer, Taiq Hassan, introduced him to Madden.

Their first meeting -in 2009 - was in the salubrious confines of the Dorchester Hotel in London, where Aoife had brought along her younger sister Maeve, a model and former dancer who, (according to her website) has performed with Michael Flatley. Al-Issa tried to impress the women with his wealth and connections, name dropping Bill Clinton, whom he claimed to have met, and claiming that he had also worked with Robert Evans, the producer of Chinatown and The Godfather (although some doubt has been cast on this claim). He reportedly managed to get Maeve's phone number at that meeting and they began seeing each other. They later became engaged and Al-Issa naturally also became closer to Aoife. The following Christmas, he came to stay with the Madden family in Northern Ireland. It was then that he suggested that Aoife should make a film with him. He would take care of the financial aspects and she could concentrate on the artistic side.

The move made sense to the deeply ambitious Aoife, who grew up dreaming big - she once described herself as "an extremely lively teenager with a lot of drive". The Belfast Telegraph reported that growing up she would tire out her classmates in Holy Faith in Newry with her "boasts of how she was going to be famous." She was also described as "driven", "charming", "a great self-promoter" and "her own biggest fan." Al-Issa offered her a second chance to make it in showbiz and she eagerly took it.

Her company, Evolved Pictures, would make the movie. Selva Ramasamy, her lawyer, would later say that the actress had been "motivated to follow her calling in the arts." On her Twitter account Madden described herself as "a free-spirited she-wolf always looking for adventure". She hungered for all kinds of experience. On being asked what advice she would give a young actor, she replied: "Get involved in anything you can because you will always learn something new." The lack of strong roles for actresses of every age rankled Madden. "I am keen to work on projects which allow women to explore exciting, challenging and dangerous characters. There's not enough out there for women regarding these types of roles", she added.

Even if Al-Issa and Madden's reasons for getting involved in the project were quite different, the time seemed right for both of them to go into movie making. During the 1990s the then-Labour government had brought in tax breaks for the film industry, and financiers, who had previously ignored British movies, began to pump what became known as "funny money" into film investment schemes. It was widely acknowledged that many of these films were financed with a view to gaining tax benefits for financiers rather than winning any serious artistic plaudits.

Shadowy backers strategically availed of these new measures by factoring in tax deferrals for casts and crew, the figures for which generally dwarfed the budgets for the movies themselves. That film industry money could be made quickly and easily was an open secret and there were murmurs in the media about it. Reports appeared claiming that some £5bn in tax had been avoided by canny investors who were still technically operating within the law.

Al-Issa and Madden hoped for their own slice of this action. Neither had any money to put up or any experience in producing films but these did not seem like deal-breaking details at the time. They enlisted the services of Paul Knight, a scriptwriter, who in his youth had been convicted of shoplifting, car theft and breaking and entering. Knight later told The Guardian, the film industry looked like, "a business that had even more crooks in it."

In February of 2011, Knight learned that a company called A-Z Consortium was looking for a screenwriter. He met a representative from A-Z, who told him that the company was producing a 3D animated movie based on the story of Robin Hood, with a budget of a whopping £130m. There had been some issues with the script however. Knight was asked if he would do a short rewrite for the film - as a sort of intro to working with them. And he was also enlisted for another project, which was called A Landscape Of Lives, a fast-paced crime drama set in Los Angeles.

Knight did a short draft for Robin Hood and then met for the first time with Al-Issa and Madden. Knight told them that he thought that the script for A Landscape of Lives was atrocious but he agreed to rewrite it completely so that it revolved around an Iraq war veteran, who gets involved with London gangsters.The name of the film was also changed to A Landscape of Lies. Al-Issa and Madden seemed impressed and they soon asked him to become involved in the production of the film. The budget was to be only £100,000. "This time," Knight recalled, "Bashar just turns round and says, 'How much to make the damned thing? Do everything for us. We have no idea what we're doing.'"

This might have been enough to set alarm bells ringing, but Knight, like Madden and Al-Issa was looking forward to a second chance. He'd made one film for a few thousand pounds and it hadn't done well. This was a much bigger project and gave him the opportunity to make a name for himself, or so he thought.

He was told that the fight scenes in the new movie were to be redolent of The Hurt Locker and that Al-Issa and Madden wanted one or two A-List stars to become involved. Gerard Butler's name was thrown into the mix, although he was never involved. Madden told Knight that they'd been in talks with agents representing Liam Neeson, Brian Cox and Michael Caine. Omar Sharif was approached but his fee was going to be £65,000 which, out of a budget of £100,000, would not have made sense.

Madden herself had been in touch with Colin Teague, a former Doctor Who director with whom she had worked before; however, like the other bigger stars, he did not want to become involved. They had to lower their expectations and instead secured the services of Eastenders hunk Marc Bannerman and Loose Women presenter Andrea McLean, who had never acted before.

Knight put £20,000 of his own money into the production and got seriously creative in making sure that the film would not look too low budget; he secured loans of luxury cars and deals with sportswear companies to use their products.

Madden was on set most days, with Al-Issa making the odd appearance. As far as anyone making the film was concerned, things were going well, and when it came in a few thousand pounds under budget that was seen as a bonus. A website was created for the film, a trailer was put together and some promotional work was done. A poster was made depicting a chessboard with blood pouring across it.

Initially the promotional work paid dividends. The film did the rounds of the festivals and won an award at the Las Vegas film festival, an incredible coup given its relatively paltry budget (the award was later rescinded). All that was left to happen was for everyone to get paid for their involvement.

That was when Knight had a visit from investigators for the UK taxman. It would eventually emerge that A-Z Consortium had been under investigation for some time and that earlier that year Al-Issa, Madden and Taiq Hassan, the lecturer who introduced them, had been arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit fraud. It was then that the truth about the movie came out.

As far as Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs was concerned, the film was a £19.6m movie, with several big stars. Under rules designed to support the British film industry Madden and Al-Issa were entitled to a 20pc rebate on that amount.

Their submitted travel expenses which ran to £400,000. Their 'talent liability' was costed at £2.6m and included Welsh acting legend Richard Burton, who had passed away in 1984.

All of the companies which were supposedly funding the movie were fake and created by Al-Issa.

It turned out, after an investigation into their dealings began, that Madden and Al-Issa decided to try to pass off their £100,000 effort A Landscape of Lies as a £19.6m blockbuster called A Landscape of Lives and hope that tax officials would be none the wiser.

This also explained why Al-Issa apparently wanted people credited on the film who hadn't worked on it at all. He wanted the paper trail for the fake film to correlate as closely as possible to the real film, which was completed.

Neither Knight, nor Bannerman and McLean, or any of the others involved in the movie had any idea what was really going on. Madden's sister, Maeve, was also not involved in any way in the scam.

The net was closing on Madden and Al-Issa but there was one more chapter left to write in their own real-life drama: Sarah Clarke had been hired as a production assistant on A Landscape of Lives. She would say that Madden had claimed to be related to the actress Sinead Cusack and had spoken of getting Cusack's husband, Jeremy Irons to appear in the movie.

The story of the budget for the film changed constantly she recalled. She recalled meeting Madden along with a Turkish man named Tariq, who aggressively tried to negotiate the rights to a children's story she was working on. This person turned out to be Al-Issa in disguise and Clarke reported them to Crimestoppers.

The game was already up for Madden and Al-Issa, however. UK authorities proceeded with the prosecution against them and the details, which came out at their 2013 trial, were extraordinary.

The business office in fashionable Harley Street, central London, turned out to consist of a single empty room. Madden claimed that Paul Knight had received some £350,000 in fees; in fact he'd only gotten £5,000.

The investigation gave an illuminating insight into Madden's motivations for the scam: Prosecutors produced a handwritten document found at her home which listed her short-term goals as getting VAT refunds and tax credits and buying property in London and Ireland.

Her long-term aims were having her own film studio and producing Bafta and Oscar-winning movies. The court was told that the gang received £796,318 of the £2.78m claimed in VAT and film tax credits.

Most of the money was sent to Jordan, where Al-Issa had been living with his family, and has never been recovered. Al-Issa was jailed for six-and-a-half years in March 2013,for his role in the scam. He was ordered to pay back almost £500,000. Madden pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiring to cheat the Revenue before the trial and was jailed for four years and eight months in 2013.

Another character reference from Knight helped to reduce her sentence. During the trial, Rebecca Chalkley, prosecuting, accepted that Madden had intended at the beginning to make a film. "There came a point, however, when that changed. This was not a film production. It was a charade."

Knight eventually gained control of the film rights for A Landscape of Lies and in 2013 said that he still had plans to release the film (no word on that yet.)

Meanwhile Madden is said to have been using her cell time to "cash in on her downfall"; it has been reported that she plans to make a movie based around the drama surrounding A Landscape of Lies.

The BBC documentary will put her case back in the spotlight, but her own versions of events would certainly shed more light on this incredible story.

Whether she succeeds in writing a third act for herself remains to be seen, but perhaps in her description of her most famous film there was a clue as to her feel for a good narrative as well as the malleable boundary between art and life: "This is a psychological drama that will challenge society's notion of what is acceptable and normal. It's a messy film but then life is messy. There are so many twists and turns. I want people to come away saying 'Wow, I didn't see that coming!'"

Chancers - The Great Gangster Film Fraud airs today at 10am on BBC4

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