Last year, director Richard Linklater discussed the often shady realities of dealing with private equity funds and random producers to secure film financing, “There are so many people – I don’t know how they live, or what they do for a living – but they sure put themselves out there as real […] Only in Hollywood, in the arts, can you kind of just b.s. your way through. And you don’t know what game they’re really playing because they’re like, ‘Oh, well, if I get you to commit then I’ll go raise the money, or I’ll fake it like I have the money but if you can get this star then I’ll run out there and hope I can actually get the money.’ It’s so crazy.”
And sometimes those financiers are illegally draining money out of a foreign government and become subject of one of the biggest asset seizures in U.S. history once they’re caught.
Actually, that seems like a pretty extreme example, but it’s exactly what appears to have happened with Red Granite Pictures, the company behind Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Wolf of Wall Street. In the film, DiCaprio, playing real life 80s Wall Street fraud Jordan Belfort, turns to the camera and joyfully explains, “Look, I know you’re not following what I’m saying anyway, right? That’s… that’s okay, that doesn’t matter. The real question is this: was all this legal? Absolutely fucking not. But we were making more money than we knew what do with.”
Little could DiCaprio have known that he was also speaking on behalf of his financiers, who now stand accused taking part in a widespread campaign to drain billions out of a Malaysian government fund (1MDB) which was supposed to help the country’s economy. Instead, the money was funneled into New York and Los Angeles real estate, Swedish banks and film development fees.
But, wait, how did Red Granite pulls this off? Simple: The company was co-founded by Riza Aziz, the son of the Malaysian Prime Minister. Along with his business partner Joe McFarland, Aziz established Red Granite in 2011, and produced 2012’s Friends with Kids, 2013’s Out of the Furnace, The Wolf of Wall Street and Horns, 2014’s Dumb and Dumber To and 2015’s Daddy’s Home.
It’s a little more complicated than “these two bastards did this to poor Malaysia.” According to Variety, there have long since been allegations of widespread abuse of the 1MDB fund by the Malaysian government, and those who have reported on it in the country have found themselves the targets of the Prime Minister’s considerable wrath. Only around $64 million of the $7 billion which is thought to have been embezzled and laundered actually went directly to Red Granite productions, although Aziz received a total of $238 million personally.
If Red Granite is guilty of illegal activity it probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In 2013, the company was sued by two of the original Dumb and Dumber producers for trying to screw them out of their contractually-obligated right of first refusal and profit participation. One of the original Wolf of Wall Street producers was forced to file a similar suit and was ultimately granted an Executive Producer credit on the film.
Such lawsuits are common, but it was the language used by Hollywood veterans against Aziz and McFarland which gave the impression that something wasn’t right. The Dumb and Dumber producers had particularly harsh words, arguing, “Red Granite will not succeed with money alone because McFarland’s and Aziz’s experience producing motion pictures during their short tenure in the industry consists of cavorting at nightclubs with Paris Hilton and making dinner reservations at posh nightclubs in New York and Los Angeles.” In fact, according to Variety Red Granite’s first action as a company was to host a lavish beach-side party at the Cannes Film Festival with supermodels a plenty surrounding DiCaprio and other invited guests to watch performances by Kanye West and Pharrell Williams.
That’s Hollywood for you, baby. One minute you’re on a beach with supermodels watching pop stars perform as you toss bags of money at all of them, the other minute the FBI is filing civil suits against you for the allegedly illegal ways you got that money in the first place.
As Richard Linklater said, the creatives behind movies often have no idea where the money is coming from. If the FBI is right, the money for Wolf of Wall Street and a handful of other recent movies was coming from Malaysia.
Um, sorry about that, Malaysia. We’re also really sorry if you actually made it all through Wolf of Wall Street. That movie is a real freakin’ chore to get through, huh. But in the real life Wolf of Wall Street playing out behind the scenes at Red Granite we might have reached the final chapter where the government finally comes down on the greedy heroes. That ended up working out okay for the real Jordan Belfort. Maybe Aziz and McFarland will be just fine.