'The timing was a bit unusual' - Ex-U2 manager Paul McGuinness says he bears no ill will towards Neil Jordan over Riviera comments
Yachts, Ferraris, priceless artworks and billionaires behaving badly… France's real-life playground of the rich and famous provides boundless inspiration for his TV drama, says Paul McGuinness. Here, Shilpa Ganatra joins the former U2 manager on set to discover how the other half really live
It's an obscenely beautiful summer's day in the south of France. On an ivy-framed upper terrace of Chateau Diter, an Italian-style estate not too far from Nice's coastline, the view is of rolling hills for miles and, on the ground, the shoot for Riviera season two. In front of a semi-circle of cameras, a crew member studiously arranges flowers in the fountains on the chance they come into shot. The main cast - from my vantage point I see Julia Stiles and newcomer Will Arnett - are basking in the sun, while mentally readying themselves for the scene: It's the birthday lunch of Roxanne Duran's character Adriana, but it's going to be far from a drama-free celebration.
A crew member with a fistful of A4 paper and a headset clears his throat. "Silence s'il vous plait!", he says, but he barely has to go above speaking voice to deliver the command. The flower-arranger scurries out of shot, the crew take their positions, and the cast take deep breaths, ready for the cameras to roll. As an introduction to Riviera season two, it's unnervingly pleasant.
If the first series came and went, Riviera is the post-U2 project of their former manager and 'fifth member', Paul McGuinness. A sometime Rivera resident, he dreamt up the concept of wealthy families "behaving badly on yachts, art, fraud, money laundering, auction houses, beautiful women, great clothes, did I say Ferraris?" in the south of France - as he describes once the scene is wrapped.
On screen, this location is Villa Carmella (a sly reference to Carmela Soprano from the TV series). It's the centre of action for the extensive Clios family: new wife Georgina (Julia Stiles), ex-wife Irina (Lena Olin) and their variably troubled kids - though they're now without the patriarch Constantine, whose yacht explosion/femme fatale-related death caused the dramatic run of events in the first series. "We looked for a very special kind of house because it had to be big enough for the family to live in it as adults and this is perfect," says McGuinness as he surveys the scene. "Have you met the owner, Monica Diter? She's very glamorous, she's like a character in the show. She would fit right in."
McGuinness leads me into a wing of the villa where we take a seat and chit-chat about our mutual connections. Although kind, he remains reserved. I wonder how much of it is because he's the quiet self-assured type, as powerful people often are, and how much is because I - a woman whose idea of glamour is wearing contact lenses - am not the usual company he keeps.
In the 2019 Sunday Independent rich list, released last month, his worth was estimated at €195m - though he spent preceding years selling off many of his assets, including Ardmore Studios (to Olcott Entertainment) and Principle Management (to Live Nation). Nowadays, he's spending more time at his villa in Éze sur Mer, where he's been privy to the high-moneyed, high-stakes lifestyle of ultra-high net worth individuals - which is more in tune with the company he keeps. High-profile people from Roman Abramovich to Joan Collins are residents, as well as a host of billionaires with varying levels of shadiness.
"The things we put in Riviera are not far-fetched when you compare them to real life here," he says. "It's a place of excess, and when people are exposed to great quantities of anything, they behave badly.
"The art world in particular is the last big-money, unregulated market. I mean, a Russian oligarch, who lives in Monaco and also owns the Monaco football team, sold a Da Vinci a few months ago," McGuiness says, referencing Dmitry Rybolovlev and the Salvator Mundi - the most expensive painting ever sold at €395m.
"He's been having a row with his former dealer with hundreds of millions of dollars involved. People say you couldn't make it up; the reality is even more extreme than the show." Reading up on the prolonged dispute between Rybolovlev and art dealer Yves Bouvier, which involves claims of billion-dollar fraud on one side and allegations of corruption and bribery on the other, it appears that McGuinness has a point; the real lives of the rich and powerful makes the dramatic lives of the Clios clan seem believable in comparison.
His own life began in more modest surrounds. Born in Rinteln, Germany to a Liverpudlian father in the RAF, McGuinness grew up closer to his mother's family in Co Kerry. He studied at Clongowes Wood College, a boarding school in Kildare, then Trinity College. In the former, he met Bill Graham, who would later write for Hot Press and introduce him to U2, and in the latter, he met Kathy Gilfillan, who would later become his wife, and director at Lillput Press.
He still spends time in Ireland, but McGuinness is also a frequent visitor to the States - with a film director daughter in LA and a son in academia in New York. But the Cote d'Azur is increasingly home since he gave up managing U2 four years ago after 35 years, 130 million album sales and record-breaking ticket sales. Given they live down the road, they're still in close contact: only the previous night, he was socialising with both The Edge and Bono at an art event in Chateau Lacoste, near Aix en Provence.
"It's a wonderful place, with a sculpture park and vineyards and a hotel. It was built by an Irish guy called Paddy McKillen. Do you know Paddy?" he asks about the property investor (his frequent network-linking is part of the reason why McGuinness must be a good person to know).
As he mentioned at the time, the reason he stepped off the good ship U2 was to move on at the "musically relevant age of 64", when their 10-year age gap finally caught up with him. "I still see U2 all the time. It was extremely amicable. We grew up together, I've known them all most of my life," he says today.
Ask the right people, and they'll say U2 owe their enduring popularity to McGuinness. It was he who, as a canny 28-year-old, took them from their first gigs in McGonagle's and Dandelion, and elevated them well above any other act of the era, both in Ireland (see Neil McCormick's novel-turned-film Killing Bono for starters) and later, internationally. "We didn't know the music business at the beginning, but we had some instincts," he recalls of those early days. "We didn't want to end up like other bands who did bad deals and were bankrupted by not paying attention to business. We were never going to be victims."
From this premise, the deals McGuinness struck were as confident as U2's albums. They earned the highest known royalty rate for any band, and own all the masters of their recordings, a circumstance that's almost unheard of.
"Today they're not beholden to anyone," he reflects. "They have achieved creative success but also financial success, so without being smug about it, there is some satisfaction to having achieved that."
Lest we forget, their recent popularity has run parallel with image-related issues, from the less well-received decision to move a U2-owned company to the Netherlands, to Apple-gate. And then there's Bono, just generally.
Has McGuinness found that taking a step back has given a more objective view of the U2 machine?
"I think any artist is always vulnerable," he says. "For example, some writers like Agatha Christie have a large, loyal following, but other people are not going to enjoy her work. But U2 are pretty much the biggest live attraction in the world, and while the industry has changed, their records are still very ambitious and successful. I think they can carry on doing what they do.
"They have effectively two careers: a career as a live act, and also as a recording act. Bono probably has a third career as an activist. Some people find him irritating, I'm well aware of that and so is he. But he has always felt that if the light is shining on you, you can redirect it to important political and moral issues, so he does that."
McGuinness doesn't seem too interested in the music industry today. He shrugs when I ask what shape the business might take in the future. He's intrigued by audio and visual platforms merging, with both being consumed on YouTube, for example. He's less concerned with the bugbears of music fans: shows that sell out in the midst of a 9am Friday panic on Ticketmaster's website, and high ticket prices that cause a dent in a monthly pay packet. "I mean, there's a shortage of Dom Perignon, if you want to look at it that way. Should they make so much Dom Perignon that everyone in the world should get some?"
These days, apart from the odd investment like in the personal safety wearable Run Angel, he's firmly returned to his first career of TV production. Before he went to check out U2 at the Project Arts Centre in 1978, in a move that would change all of their lives, he was an assistant on John Boorman's Zardoz, then worked on commercials. Now as an executive producer of Riviera, he and his producing partner Kris Thykier (also the husband of Claudia Winkleman), are "the two drivers of the project".
"We have a lot of discussions as we choose writers, we choose directors, we confer about cast. Sky are quite involved in that too," he explains.
The bottom line of the first series spoke for itself: it was Sky's most-watched original commission with over 20m downloads and views. A sweet relief, given the budget is reportedly €2.3m per episode (to put it in context, that's double how much Downton Abbey cost when it aired). Still, it arrived on our screens to mixed reviews, perhaps because the names of Oscar and Booker Prize-winning Neil Jordan and John Banville - both no longer involved with the project - set a very different expectation. "There is probably a half-decent feature-length one-off drama in there," wrote The Guardian of the 10 hour-long episodes. "In art terms, it feels like an expensive frame, plonked on a finger painting," wrote Empire magazine. The Irish Independent Review's TV critic John Boland billed it as "a case of Stiles over substance".
The harshest critic, though, was Neil Jordan himself, who washed his hands of it as the series aired. "The two episodes we wrote together were reworked by others, after I pulled out," he told the Sunday Business Post. "They were changed, to my huge surprise and considerable upset. There were various sexual scenes introduced into the story and a lot of very expository dialogue. I objected in the strongest terms possible. It's being described as Dynasty sur mer. It was quite distressing for John and for myself, the way it proceeded."
Today, McGuinness insists he bears no ill will to Jordan for these comments, but admits "the timing was a bit unusual".
"You know, television is not for the auteur," he continues. "It's more of a team game, I think that became very clear. Neil was certainly there at the beginning of the project. The way it went was that I made a list of things I wanted to be in the show, and I approached different writers. Eventually Neil wanted to do it. He gave us the outline and wrote the first two episodes. Many other people have been involved since then. He made a valuable contribution, there's no doubt about that, and some of the characters were created by him, [but] we moved on."
The attempted diplomacy is deafening.
How much did it irk McGuinness at the time?
He shrugs his shoulders again. "That was what he thought, and it didn't do us any harm. The show was still a big hit. So I think that will be his last involvement. I wish him all the best. I've known him for many, many years."
Side-stepping to the wider critical response, I wonder if the team took learnings from the first series to the second one? "I think, as it happens, series two is better," says McGuinness. "I like the new scripts very much and our story editor and script editors have contributed a great deal. We have four different directors, and finding the right ones has been really interesting."
Aside from new crew members arriving, other changes are afoot in the next series. We'll be introduced to Poppy Delevingne (sister of model Cara), Jack Fox (Kids in Love) and matriarch Juliet Stevenson (Truly, Madly, Deeply) as the Elthams, English aristocrats who bring dark secrets with them.
Meanwhile, Georgina's uncle Jeff, played by Will Arnett (Arrested Development), joins her from the States, and Noah (Grégory Fitoussi) enters her world too. "I hope season two is as big or bigger a hit than season one," says McGuinness. "And I hope there'll be a season three and season four; it'll be interesting to develop the story over the years."
Though the second season is still being put to bed, McGuinness is already busy with another idea that he's hoping to put into production, which takes place in a different world entirely. And while he's saying very little about it at this early stage, he does reveal: "I'm certainly thinking about something in Ireland. And I'd like to work with Sharon Horgan. She's a brilliant writer and a brilliant actress, and I've met her and she's really cool. I've seen a lot of her work: Catastrophe is wonderful, and its predecessor, Pulling, was so funny. Then she wrote this show for Sarah Jessica Parker called Divorce, which is darker and more serious. I think she's a bit of a genius. And she's Irish."
Who knows, we ponder as powerful sun creeps onto our laps from outside, it may come true. Certainly, stranger things have happened on the French Riviera.
'Riviera' features in a Sky showcase event taking place in Dublin on Tuesday, February 12, featuring Paul McGuinness, Juliet Stevenson and other stars from Sky programmes. Season two returns to Sky Atlantic and NOW TV this summer