Movies

‘Greed’ Stars Steve Coogan And Michael Winterbottom Tell Us Why Vanity Is God’s Curse On Billionaires

Greed may be jarring for those of us who know Michael Winterbottom (director) and Steve Coogan (star) through their work together on The Trip movies (which are actually shows in the UK). These a simple films with idyllic settings about the joys of casual humor.

In Greed, Steve Coogan plays Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie, a torn-from-the-headlines billionaire scumbag (a composite largely based on Philip Green, a retail tycoon) who is in the midst of planning a lavish, Roman-themed birthday party on the island of Mykonos. The absurd comedy of McCreadie’s present (his ex-wife, played by Isla Fisher, attends with her Eurotrack fuckboi boyfriend; their daughter is shooting a “scripted reality” show) contrasts jarringly with flashbacks to his past, including views into the lives of the exploited garment workers who make McCreadie’s wealth possible.

Which is to say, Greed has a message that it isn’t shy about. Looking past The Trip movies, this actually isn’t much of a departure for Winterbottom, one of the prolific directors of the modern era whose movies (about one a year) have included A Mighty Heart (about the wife of Daniel Pearl) and The Killer Inside Me.

When I arrived to interview them at the Beverly Wilshire, there was a package just arrived on the publicist’s desk that said “STEVE COOGAN’S TEETH,” which he was planning to wear for a Conan taping. When I met them in their room, Winterbottom was slightly built in his plaid shirt, buttoned all the way to the top, with an affable face, who spoke in a kind of animated semi-stammer. Meanwhile, Coogan had the precise elocution and flouncy hair common to almost all of his characters. It can be hard to separate Coogan the person from Coogan the character he plays in The Trip.

He does have a kind of upright theatricality, not pomposity exactly, just a kind of stagey self-regard that makes you wonder whether it’s a bit. His apparent self-regard seems mostly a joke, and he certainly turns it into a joke a lot, but I also felt a twinge of paranoia any time one of Winterbottom’s answers went long — a guilt that I wasn’t paying enough attention to Coogan and he would be sad. Maybe that’s another kind of “star power.”

So how many times have you guys worked together now?

STEVE COOGAN: Greed is the seventh sort of thing we did, but we’ve done eight things. We did something after Greed. Another one of The Trip things we did. And so if you count The Trips, which are movies in America, there’s four of those, so say eight altogether.

MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM: The next one is the last one. It’s set in Greece.

Do you see this as connected to The Trip at all?

MICHAEL: Not really, to be honest. Apart from I’m directing it and Steve’s in it.

STEVE: And they’re both in Greece.

MICHAEL: And they’re both in Greece. So yeah, there’s certainly quite a lot of similarity actually, now you mentioned it.

STEVE: But the subject matter is totally different. There is just a little overlapping in the movie. Kareem [Alkabbani] is this guy, one of the sort of leaders of the Syrian refugees (in the film). He plays himself in the movie Greed, but he crops up also in The Trip To Greece, where I bump into him with Rob and say, “Hey, I did a movie with that guy.” Referring to–

MICHAEL: No, actually what happens is Kareem says to Steve, “Do you remember me? I did a movie with you,” and you struggle to remember.

STEVE: I struggle to remember. I, as Steve Coogan, the character, struggle to remember his name.

So how did you guys meet with him?

MICHAEL: So it was before either The Trip or Greed. I’d been visiting a couple of Greek islands to meet with Syrian refugees. And what happened was that when we started to film Greed, we contacted an NGO that supports refugees in Athens and we said, “Can we organize a casting to meet people?”And Kareem organized the casting. He’s a refugee himself, but he does a lot of work within the Syrian refugee community in Athens doing cultural work to try and give people things to do. Because the biggest problem for refugees is there’s a lot of hanging around without anything to do.

To have that refugee element of the movie, was that always the plan or did that kind of grow out of the setting?

MICHAEL: It wasn’t the plan right at the beginning. The beginning thing was retail fashion, the tycoon, and then obviously the workers who make the clothes for the tycoon. And then the idea of a big lavish party on the Greek islands where it’s Rome themed. He’s throwing this party to show he’s still sort of the King of the High Street, even though he’s had some problems. He’s going to get with all his celebrity friends. That would be the present-day strand of it. Meanwhile there’s the idea the women who made the clothes are sort of invisible. And I kind of felt with the Syrian refugees it’s bit of the same. We all know, that a million people are trying to get into Europe. A lot of them lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean and still about 70,000 are in Greece. And in Europe we’re all saying they can’t come in. Then when you go on holiday to Greece, we want them to be invisible there as well. So I thought that was a parallel.

How was it acting around those big teeth?

STEVE: Because I play lots of characters, I’m no stranger to props and teeth. I’m well acquainted with sticking in top and lower sets of teeth. In fact for Stan Laurel, I put it in the lower set of false teeth. With Rich McCreadie. I like to mix things up a bit so I decided I was putting in a top set of teeth. I think it did help, having these stupidly white teeth that various billionaires do sport thinking it makes them look cool, when in fact it makes them look like dicks.

Speaking of that look, did you guys see Uncut Gems? What did you think when that guy Wayne Diamond came out? He’s got like the super deep tan and the haircut and then the super white teeth. And we found out he had also made his money in the garment industry, oddly.

STEVE: I’ve still not seen it.

MICHAEL That first day Steve wore them, everyone on the set, the other actors and the crew were like, “Shit, they look kind of crazy.” We got used to them after a few days. It’s the same with… There’s lots of famous people that have got very similar kind of looks. You just get used to it.

STEVE: Yeah. And it’s quite good cause he looks different. Like there’s something odd about him. He’s indulged, his behavior looks indulgent and it’s good if you can have something physical like that that becomes a signifier of excessive wealth and exploitation. It’s almost like God curses those people with that kind of vanity. Make them make really bad decisions despite all the money, which is why he looks so stupid.

In The Trip you guys sometimes make a joke about Steve being much more famous in the UK than in the US. Do you think there is an American Steve Coogan where the gulf is the same in the opposite direction?

STEVE: So who’s famous here and not in the UK? I don’t spend much time thinking about that. That’s an interesting question to some extent, but I’ve not sat down and thought, “Who’s the opposite of me?” I don’t do that. But I’m sure there is someone. There are definitely people who I guess can’t walk down the street in the US… I don’t really know.

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With all the streaming services, it’s still weirdly hard to get some British TV shows, I don’t understand why that is.

STEVE: It’s very frustrating. I think it’s to do with the lethargic the nature of possibly the BBC because you can’t get the iPlayer outside UK, can you? A lot of stuff would be available on that so I don’t know whether they have another plan for it but it’s an opportunity definitely for them.

Were there specific people that influenced the character of Richard McCreadie?

STEVE: Yeah, Philip Green. Sir Philip Green in the UK is a sort of well-known business, retail tycoon who made his money in the clothing industry. He was sort of the basis for the basic character. The look is actually from another businessman called Richard Caring, which is where I got my tan and teeth.

MICHAEL: Lots and lots of billionaires have elements of that though, don’t they. Richard Branson has elements of that. Donald Trump has elements of that.

STEVE: Yeah, the slightly vain hairstyle that’s slightly high maintenance, that requires a lot of Elnett hairspray. That seems to be it. Paul Raymond was like that too. It seems to be a direct correlation between billionaires, too much hair and a lot of Elnett hairspray. So make of that what you will.

When I watch movies that are primarily a UK-based cast I notice the slightly different accents in them, and I always wonder how much of the social nuance that I’m missing. Is there any way to describe Greed‘s accent nuances?

STEVE: Yeah, yeah. Well, Rich McCreadie is a slightly different person, an odd person so far as he actually did have a slightly privileged background, but sometimes these businessmen to me seem street smart, like they try rough up their accent up a bit. It’s like a sort of privileged New York businessman who might try and make himself sound a bit more New Jersey or something, to make himself seem like a more like a street fighter. It’s not my accent. I mean, I’m from the North, so I’ve got slight Northern lilt to my accent. Rich McCreadie is more sort of London, the sort of unreconstructed sort of London-ish.

MICHAEL: For Rich McCreadie and Philip Green. They went through posh schools as children and no doubt have quite posh accents, and then adopted a kind of a slight Barrow boy accent. So more kind of like an East End London thing, but more they just you want to be able to give an image of being rougher and tougher than they are.

STEVE: And then lot of the other accents are really what you’d call “received pronunciation,” BBC English.

MICHAEL: It’s like, we’re both from the North, we don’t have massively Northern accents. A lot of the more regional accents in England tend to be when you’re from sort of the working class. But when you’re not so working-class it tends to be less.

STEVE: The more part of the upper-class structure you are, the less strong your accent is, which I think in America is probably the same way.

Would you say that was the focus on the garment industry specifically? Or were you trying to use that as a microcosm of larger issues?

MICHAEL: I think it could have been one of many industries. It’s an example of what is a more general phenomenon. But I do think, which I didn’t know until we started making the film, researching and that — I do think it’s a particularly good lens to look at the issue of inequality generally. This is a multi-trillion dollar industry. In America, about 97 or 98% of all the clothes sold in America are made outside the US. It’s an industry in which people are working in places like Sri Lanka where we filmed, or Bangladesh and Myanmar, Vietnam, all these places that are big producers of clothes for everyone here and around the world. So you have this gap between the women making the clothes — 80% of the people making clothes are women — getting paid a quid a day in Sri Lanka, even less in Bangladesh, even less in Myanmar. And at the top of the brand you’ve got– the guy that owns H & M is worth $20 billion. The guy who owns Zara is worth $60 billion. And then also within that chain you have all these beautiful women who are used to make the clothes look glamorous. So when you go into the shop and you buy your $10 dress, you’re seeing a famous celebrity like Kate Moss or Beyonce advertising the clothes. And so you feel like you’re buying into a world of glamour and power, when what you’re really doing is buying the labor of someone who’s getting paid very little.

Do you think that British comedy has an advantage over American in that you can use the word “cunt” more?

STEVE: That’s interesting. But I think–

MICHAEL: In general you do use the word cunt very much.

STEVE: I don’t actually, no. I think I did in the film. I think that there’s a certain streak of Puritanism that runs through American culture that we don’t have in the UK. Because a lot of us didn’t leave on the Mayflower. We stayed behind so we could say the word cunt.

I’ve never heard it put so succinctly before.

STEVE: Well, there you go. Yeah. So there’s definitely a little bit of that, but then there’s other aspects of that word which are misogynistic and all that, which is why it’s best avoided. Might still be shocking if it’s said in a certain context. If you’re used to a working-class culture, they use that word all the time. And it doesn’t have really the same shock value that it has in other areas. This is not one to be used lightly. But any swear word actually can be delicious if it’s used as a way of sharpening the knife of a very funny line.

Right.

MICHAEL: I think in the film Rich McCreadie does use that word quite a few times. From my point of view, the first couple times it’s quite funny. And then the third or fourth time when he does it to an employee and he’s being very abusive towards her, actually, you know what? It’s not that funny.

STEVE: Yeah, that’s true. There are other times where I think, he’s a bully but he’s got some charm. Like with the guy outside the shop window and he’s telling him how to lay out the window, where he is super cruel but there’s certain funniness in his bullying that’s all sadistic. They’re still funny. When he insults the woman later on, it’s just unpleasant. That scene makes me wince in a way that’s not funny because there’s no charm in that whatsoever.

Do you think the prep school scenes are a context for McCreadie being sadistic? Is there a connection there?

MICHAEL: It’s not like, oh public schools are to blame for it. A bit more like there are elements that are already there, but also there’s a bit of a contrast. He’s actually a posh person. There’s quite a few people — thinking about Rupert Murdoch. He’s always a bit like, “Oh he built this newspaper empire.” But actually, he inherited newspapers from his dad. And that’s true of quite a few people in the fashion industry, a lot of (so-called) self-made men, where you feel like they built their empire, but actually, they inherited quite a lot already. So the idea was that it does sound like he’d left school at 16, is a market trader, like this ordinary geezer, but he actually had quite a privileged upbringing and was helped quite a lot by his background.

So, McCreadie’s daughter, she’s got her own reality show. Were there specific shows that you were mimicking there?

MICHAEL: Yeah, for a start there are quite a lot of rich and famous children who do seem to have reality shows. It seems it’s something that people like to see. Like we were looking at Bernie Ecclestone, his daughter Heather (Tamara). It’s a trope that seems to happen quite a lot. I met quite a few people who’ve got some program called Made in Chelsea, which is very famous in the UK, which is like rich people. It’s “scripted reality.” So they have scriptwriters, but it is rich people. And I was in Dallas and I met Ollie Locke who was in our films. We love the guy, and he was in Made in Chelsea for a long time.

But he and various other people I met, they were explaining how if you were breaking up from your girlfriend, you wouldn’t tell your girlfriend. You’d tell the producers of the show and they’d write various storylines and then they’d organize it, wait for your right moment. You then have them be filming, you telling the girlfriend, saying, “everyone else knows, they’re waiting for it.” Then you tell the girlfriend you’re breaking up and then it’s like, “Okay, can we just do it a couple more times to get better coverage?” So the most bizarre overlap between fiction and reality. And this went on these shows run for years. So for years you’re living in a world where it’s kind of real because this is your life, but there are scriptwriters, and when key moments happen, you want to make sure you make those moments happen when you’re in the right light for the camera.

Tell me about the lion.

STEVE: Well that was quite an action challenge cause I wasn’t in front of a lion. I was in front of a guy holding a sphere, which becomes a lion.

MICHAEL: Sometimes in green lycra, or silver. Little bit distracting.

STEVE: That’s probably the hardest acting job, to pretend you’ve got a lion in front of you and you’ve just got a guy in lycra are holding a chrome sphere.

‘Greed’ is in select theaters. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.

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