Following the Money

Following the Money

August 30, 2023

The Director’s Chair

Award-winning film director Xavier Giannoli discusses his first move into television with French drama D’argent et de sang (Of Money & Blood), a series based on the true story behind one of the biggest financial crimes of all time.

A familiar face at the Venice Film Festival, director Xavier Giannoli has previously had three films nominated for the glitzy event’s Golden Lion prize. Superstar  was nominated in 2012, Marguerite in 2015 and Lost Illusions in 2021, while Marguerite won the festival’s Padre Nazareno Taddei Award for the feature best reflecting authentic human values.

Giannoli now returns to Venice for this year’s event, which begins today. But this time, he is presenting his first ever television series. Screening out of competition, D’argent et de sang (Of Money & Blood) dramatises the real-life “scam of the century” that took place in France in 2009 when a gang of small-time crooks partnered with an upper-class trader to carry off an epic swindle involving carbon tax fraud.

The 12-part French-language series, which debuts in Venice today, is produced by Curiosa Films for France’s Canal+ and distributed by StudioCanal. Giannoli directs the drama and co-writes with Jean-Baptiste Delafon, based on Fabrice Arfi’s book of the same name.

Here, Giannoli discusses his move to television, adapting the source material, his role writing and directing the series and why he never rehearses before shooting.

Xavier Giannoli

Introduce us to Of Money & Blood.
Of Money & Blood is inspired by the investigative book by journalist Fabrice Arfi, who is in charge of investigative services at online news organisation Médiapart. It tells the shocking story of what has been called the ‘scam of the century,’ the embezzlement of carbon quotas by a clever gang of conmen in 2009.

Carbon quotas were originally created by the state to combat global warming. But ultimately, billions went up in smoke. The gigantic venture was too big for the conmen’s boots, countries were powerless to stop them and organised crime became involved. Money, blood and human passion… while the planet burned. In the drama, a stubborn magistrate creates a new investigative service to put an end to the financial, human and environmental catastrophe.

Why did you want to move into television for the first time – and why was this the perfect project?
While reading the book, it became obvious that this amazing story was too long for a movie, even a very long one. The rich plot, the technical sophistication, the number of characters to explore, the narrative twists and turns, all the countries involved, the many social milieus… All of that implied a longer series format.

While writing it, I just thought of the dramatic tension from one episode to the next, but it was actually no different from the way I think of the dramatic tension in a film. Those were my primary obsessions: dramatic tension, the way of looking at the characters and their milieus, and the authenticity of each dimension of the story. The scale of the project required intimate and spectacular scenes, a spiral and a crescendo. I found in this story many of the themes I include in my films: deceit, religious beliefs, scams, the perversion of fundamental human values for money – and especially the descent into madness and obsession.

Who are the main characters and how do we follow them through the series?
Vincent Lindon plays the main character, Simon Weynachter. He is a magistrate who creates a new investigative service to combat modern white-collar crime. He accidentally discovers the case of the carbon quotas misappropriation, a scam that became an exhausting obsession.

His antagonists, a strange group of crooks, are two thugs from the Paris slums and a trader from the posh side of town, Jérôme Attias. As the story proceeds, Simon’s attention eventually focuses on Attias, who becomes the key figure of his investigation, as if Simon has found his evil double. He – a man whose entire life has been spent defending law and order, pondering faith, good and evil – is up against a ruthless adversary, the decadent product of our modern society devoured by self-destructive passions.

Niels Scheider’s performance as Attias is extraordinary. As the story goes on, we see him consume himself, become Simon’s obsession, the incarnation of the evil Simon is hunting down in himself and across the globe. Simon does his best to demonstrate Attias’s guilt in the embezzlement and the murders that follow. Simon, the detective, has reason to feel guilty himself. There is blistering tension between the two characters, the two actors; a mutual obsession that galvanises the entire narrative.

Of Money & Blood stars Vincent Lindon as magistrate investigating carbon tax fraud

Why were you interested in adapting Fabrice Arfi’s book for television?
Arfi’s characters are real people tormented by human, moral, political, financial, religious and social issues. The story shows how human passions collide with casino capitalism against the backdrop of an environmental scandal. The characters are complex, unpredictable and from very different social backgrounds. I filmed dive bars in Belleville, the real offices of the Minister of the Economy, the wild casinos of Manila and the headquarters of major banks in Hong-Kong, Israel and Cyprus.

The idea was to explore a world in which crooks embezzle funds laundered by cynical banks, stolen from the taxpayer’s wallet having been supposed to help in the fight against global warming. But above all, the story explores human passions, and that was what lured me. Because ultimately, this kind of scam reveals the characters’ secret lives, their thirst for revenge, their emotional flaws, their madness and their social backgrounds. Money is only a vertiginous pretext, meant to be looked for or lost.

How did you pitch the series to Canal+? What notes did they have?
The pitch was quite simple: a magistrate investigates the scam of the century, the misappropriation of carbon quotas. I gave them Fabrice Arfi’s book, along with some press clippings, and I explained that the story would be treated from the point of view of the investigator, with no concessions for the con artists.

I talked about a spiral, a crescendo, as we probe the characters, and an international government scandal set against the background of a planet on fire. Canal+ was very respectful of our fictional approach, sharing our desire to avoid easy outs and clichés – all the claptrap that reduces the work to industrial entertainment. We needed to try something never seen before. Like us, Canal+ wanted a unique series with complex characters and a unique view of the world. Those expectations sparked our authorial freedom.

How would you describe the writing process behind the series?
Fabrice Arfi’s investigation was our starting point. Jean-Baptise Delafon and I structured our episodes around major events inspired by the true story. There were key landmarks in the investigation, and we respected their chronology, more or less. Arfi’s investigation was the score that provided us with all the right notes, but we were free to modulate the rhythm and to play the notes higher or lower as we wished.

Opposite Lindon is Niels Scheider as trader Jérôme Attias

How do you balance writing and directing on the same project?
I am the initiator and author of all my films. All my films are personal and I’ve never accepted a commission. It is while writing that I think the most about direction, and it is often while shooting a scene that I and the actors tweak dialogue or the construction of a scene.

I attach great importance to the actors’ exactitude, their sense of rhythm, their movements, their level of discourse, their attitude. The actor is the source of everything for me. Characters unleash the fictional energy of the narrative. So it is vital for me to both write and direct.

On this extraordinary project – 12 episodes shot in roughly one year! – I was lucky enough to have my friend Frédéric Planchon agree to direct certain segments of the story. He has an incredible eye and an infallible feel for the actor. His assistance was priceless. I loved our moments of sharing ideas about a scene, a set, or the casting. I would like to thank him for his dedication and generosity.

Do you have a particular directing style? How did you approach directing this project for television?
I never thought ‘television,’ I thought ‘cinema.’ I made this series like a feature film cut into 12 ‘moments’ that I needed to articulate in order to sustain the dramatic tension. I worked with my film crew and my DOP Christophe Beaucarne.

I like to start with a glance, a character’s glance, what lurks behind it, what it expresses, and what it conceals. That helps me find an introductory note, and then I look for movement and tension. I am passionate about the right rhythm and movement. What the actor embodies is the focal point of my direction. I like to film what characters say, but also what they conceal, especially in a story about deception. I draw a rough storyboard of each scene, to keep my bearings in terms of framing, movements and relations between the various spaces and time frames that will be edited in parallel. Those drawings are as silly as they are precious.

I believe in montage, in breaks in rhythm, in colliding frames, and the music that will carry it all along. One detective’s obsession unites all those elements in one movement. Our composer, Rone, has created an amazing electro score to sustain the tension and emotion of the series.

The series is produced by Curiosa Films for France’s Canal+

Is there a way you like to work with your cast before production and on set?
I never rehearse before the shoot. I think my screenplays are very precise and I keep working on the naturalness of the dialogue from one draft to the next. When the situation is dramatic and the casting well done, an enormous part of the work has already been completed.

On set, I may work with the actors, but we always remain very close to the script. I want my actors to feel free to take risks, to milk the craziness of a situation for all it’s worth, to break the rhythm to create surprise and amazement. I see the set as a studio where the actors and I search for the right way to play a dialogue as written, until we feel that things have gelled. Good stories have a subconscious, and you can see when that subconscious unleashes creative energy and things suddenly fall into unexpected place. You say, ‘That’s it… It’s come alive.’

Where did you film and how are the locations important to the story?
We shot in several countries, because the scam quickly took on international dimensions, with offshore companies, exotic banks and gangsters on the run.

My investigator is French, and his new department is located in the Paris suburbs. Two of the conmen come from a very peculiar working-class neighbourhood called Belleville, as if they were from Brooklyn or Little Italy. Belleville is more precisely a Little Tunisia, a historic neighbourhood for the many Jews who arrived in France in the 1960s. The other con artist comes from an upscale neighbourhood near the Champs-Elysées, the so-called ‘Golden Triangle.’

That ‘social geography’ was very important to film in order to understand the characters, their motivations and their backstories. How did money stashed away in a seedy bank halfway around the world end up as a wad of cash in the pocket of a Parisian conman?

Since we are talking about the laundering of billions, we had to follow the money trail to Asia and Dubai. I was fascinated by the international network of ‘straw men,’ the offshore financial deals sheltered by banks, where any crook or dictator can deposit tens of millions without ever having to declare it. My investigator is also up against this international system of laundering dirty money. Geography becomes a financial labyrinth in which Simon tracks down the money trail. The international circulation of the money scammed became a kind of dramatic principle: the pursuit of an invisible evil. In all these countries, we see that the law that is most respected is the law of money.

Finally, Israel is an important place in the story because many of the conmen make their Alyah, their return to the Holy Land, which allows them to change identities and escape justice. My investigator reflects on his own Jewish roots, and when his investigation leads him to Israel, it encroaches on the most intimate regions of his own private history. He says to himself: “It doesn’t matter if a crook is a Christian, Jew or Muslim. The law is the same for everyone.” Besides, the most scathing reactions that I encountered to these conmen came from the Israelis themselves.

Following the money around the world, you ultimately end up at the innermost core of individuals, while pondering questions about the pure and impure, right and wrong. Money is much more than just money. It is the intriguing source of the corruption that has poisoned the souls of men and nations, from the Golden Fleece to Bitcoin. In all those countries, what I filmed was an intimate fresco. And what a joy it was to meet with actors from all over the world.

The 12-parter makes its debut in Venice today

Why might the series appeal to international audiences?
With this story, I am looking for a human truth that I hope will touch people whatever their nationality. This is about family revenge, corrupting money, ecology, powerless governments, hunting down gangsters, religious issues… In short, these issues strike me as being universal and were already present in Arfi’s book.

What have you learned about making a TV series compared with your film work?
A series of 12 episodes requires constant dramatic tension. The length of the story precludes any slackening. You need to keep delving deeper into characters, move the investigation along, make emotions even more communicative and complex. The problem for me will be to return to a shorter movie format. I loved being able to explore all the dimensions of a story, from the most spectacular to the most intimate, from politics to psychoanalysis. And I have grown increasingly fond of long films that inhabit multi-dimensional universes. It makes for an overpowering cinema experience – and a series allows you to go even further.

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