Director's Chair: Michael Winterbottom — <I>Greed</I>
Issue: March/April 2020

Director's Chair: Michael Winterbottom — Greed

Since he made his feature film debut in 1995 with Butterfly Kiss, British writer/director Michael Winterbottom has helmed a wide variety of acclaimed movies, including Welcome to Sarajevo, Wonderland, 24 Hour Party People, Jude, A Mighty Heart, A Cock and Bull Story, The Wedding Guest, The Emperor’s New Clothes and the ongoing travel series The Trip.

His latest film, the aptly titled Greed, tells the story of self-made British billionaire Sir Richard McCreadie (Steve Coogan), whose retail empire is in crisis. For 30 years he has ruled the world of retail fashion – bringing the high street to the catwalk and the catwalk to the high street – but after a damaging public inquiry, his image is tarnished. To save his reputation, he decides to bounce back with a highly publicized and extravagant party, planned with his ex-wife Samantha (Isla Fisher), celebrating his 60th birthday on the Greek island of Mykonos. A satire on the grotesque inequality of wealth in the fashion industry, the film sees McCreadie’s rise and fall through the eyes of his biographer, Nick (David Mitchell). Greed opened in New York and Los Angeles on February 28th, and everywhere on March 6th.

Winterbottom assembled a behind-the-camera team of collaborators that included his Wedding Guest DP Giles Nuttgen, and editors Liam Hendrix Heath, Marc Richardson, and his frequent editor Mags Arnold.

Here, in an exclusive interview for Post, Winterbottom talks about making the film and his love of post.

Greed seems especially timely given all the current talk about the growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots. What sort of film did you set out to make? 

“The idea was to make something farcical and slightly absurd, a look at how the world has changed over the past two or three decades, and how globalization has accelerated that change and all the inequality in the world today. I’ve done films before about inequality, but I felt this’d make a really entertaining look at the way retail fashion works, and the more I read about it, the more I realized that it’s a brilliant lens for looking at the world. It’s this huge global industry with tens of millions of women working for it and making all the clothes in places like Sri Lanka and India, for hardly any money, and at the top there’s a few men who are worth billions. And it’s a fascinating world as there’s also a lot of celebrity and glamour around it, and we all take part in it and it’s in everyone’s lives.”

You also wrote this, so fair to say Sir Richard McCreadie is loosely based on the notorious British fashion billionaire Sir Philip Green?

“Yes, he was the starting point, but the film’s not about him. He was the inspiration, and he’s famous for throwing extravagant parties, he’s very flamboyant, the king of high street fashion, and when one of his brands went bankrupt he was hauled before a Parliament committee to answer questions about his business practices. And I was talking to this business journalist who told me a lot of funny stories about his encounters with Green and how he’s called him in the middle of the night and yelled at him about what he’d got wrong in his stories, and I thought it’d make a great satirical comedy, although I’m not sure it is a comedy. There’s funny stuff in it, but it’s a serious subject.”

You reteamed with the great Steve Coogan. What did he bring to the mix?

“I love Steve and we’ve worked together many times over the past 18 years, and the character he plays is someone who does lots of bad, unlikable things, and I wasn’t really interested in ‘Let’s find the humanity in him, let’s show the terrible things a billionaire has to face to become one.’ I needed it to be entertaining, and Steve brought all that, and he’s so good at doing what he does. He does a lot of improvisation too, though not as much as on some of the other films we’ve done.”

How tough was the shoot?

“It was very complicated more than hard, as we had a relatively small budget and we had to recreate a lot of different worlds – from Sri Lanka and all the women workers to Monaco and all the flashy yachts, and all the flashbacks to how McCreadie got his start, and then Mykonos and the big luxury party scene. The big challenge was that a billionaire’s world is full of very expensive toys, so he’s meant to have a $100 million yacht in Monaco, and even renting one for a day is a huge amount of money.” 

Why did you decide to shoot this digitally?

“I don’t think I’ve shot on film for the past nine or ten years now, and I’m a big fan of digital and started shooting like that quite early on with films like 24 Hour Party People. We shot this with Arri Alexas, which seems to be the norm now, and I like the fact that you have the same camera setup every time.”

Where did you do the post and how long was post?

“All in London. We did all the editing at my office. Dirty Pictures did the grade, and I love every aspect of post and editing.”

This isn’t a huge action film, but you used multiple editors. Why? Tell us how it worked.

“Marc Richardson was actually the main editor, and Liam Hendrix Heath was his assistant on The Wedding Guest, and basically what happened was that Marc wasn’t available originally, so Liam began cutting it and then when Marc became available they carried on working together, and then at the end the studio brought on Mags Arnold, who I’d worked with before. Liam was on set for the first four weeks of the shoot while we were on Mykonos, and then the next three weeks we were in London, so he was close by. When we just did The Trip to Greece, Marc was on the set, but it’s the same thing as normally we don’t do much cutting as we go. It’s more that the editor’s there with me so we can watch dailies together at night and see if we need any more coverage. Then we do the assembly back in London, and then I sit down with the editor and we start cutting in earnest. And on this, Marc, Liam and I all had our own edit suites, and we’d divide stuff up and then watch it and discuss it.”

What were the main editing challenges?

“There’s a lot going on, and the big one was, ‘How much of each storyline do we need and when do we need to cross-cut between them? And does that work in terms of tone and pace?’ I wanted it to have a lot of energy and to keep it quite fast-paced, and the original plan for the film was to just improvise the whole thing, but then we had to write a script to get the money. So the whole idea was to have all the party preparations and then the actual party where it all goes wrong, and then you can spike out from that to all these different strands. And you know as you’re writing you can write in all these strands and the order, but then after the shoot you get to the edit and you can change it any way you want. That’s the key – finding the sequence of scenes that work best for the story and the rhythm, and it’s always tricky. And I quite like the abrupt change of tones. The harder the gear change, the better.”

A lot of directors swear by test screenings, especially when it comes to refining the edit. Do you do them?

“I hate test screenings. We did do some on this, and I think it’s good to watch it with people, but I’m just not a fan of test screenings. When we did do them, the most popular bit was the end captions, which were very dynamic, with all the cross-cutting between billionaire fashion owners and the women workers who are making $4 a day. And we also had bits about various celebrities who’d endorsed brands, and so on, and it was very punchy, and I really liked all that and the way it made you feel a bit angry and that maybe we should change things. But then, ironically, Sony didn’t want the bit that scored the best in the test screenings.” 

How many visual effects shots are there in the film and who did them?

“There are a lot more than you’d think, and the really big one was the lion for the party, which was done by Outpost, and I think they did a brilliant job. But all the VFX started quite late in the process, and that made some of the editing a lot harder as we only had a 2D lion to work with. I quite like working with VFX although normally I don’t have very complicated stuff. The big limiting factor is always the budget, and we had a small budget but we had to create big set pieces like the party, and we also had a lot of clean up to do.” 

Talk about the importance of the sound and music to you as a filmmaker.

“As they say, it’s half the film – but often it’s even more. When you have the first screening of your film, I’m always far more worried about checking the sound than the picture. With picture, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on, so even if there’s a problem, people get it and understand. But if you have a problem with the sound, it’s a far bigger deal. So just the basic thing of how loud it should be can be very tricky. One screening can be way too loud, another way too soft, and that’s really annoying as it makes a huge difference for the audience. And sound is so subtle in that sense, and audiences are often not even aware of the problems. You can have a dialogue-heavy film, and if the dialogue’s in your ear a bit too much, you’re not aware of that, but it affects even the rhythm of the film. So it’s huge.” 

Did it turn out the way you hoped?

“It did. Part of the original pitch was, ‘Very few films have supermodels and Monaco lifestyles alongside sweatshop labor, but they’re all really connected – though we try not to think about it,’ and I feel we got all that. Things changed along the way, but they always do when you make a film.”

How’s the UK film business these days?

“All the studios and stages are booming, doing a mixture of big international film and big international TV, but indie film isn’t enjoying the same sort of boom. On the other hand, I look back to when I made my first film, and there were only 15 made in Britain that year, and there’s loads more now. But indies are still really hard to make in Britain. America’s much better in that area.”