Warwick Ross

Red Obsession is a terrific Australian-made documentary that looks at China's sudden fixation with French red wine and how, with soaring prices, wine has almost become too expensive to drink!  You can read my full review here.  I recently caught up with one of the film’s directors, Warwick Ross, to find out more…

Matt:  We don’t see too many Australian-made documentaries on the big screen in this country.  How easy was it getting a cinematic release?

Warwick:  It’s always a struggle for a documentary for a documentary to get up on the big screen.  The advantage that we might have had is that with the story we’re telling has global implications – it’s about the rise of China but through the prism of Bordeaux wines.

We decided early on that we’d shoot this with the best possible gear and so it has a “big screen look” to it including helicopter shots over Bordeaux and the same through China.  But yeah, it was the subject matter that got us the release in cinemas.

Matt:  I’m not a wine drinker myself but I find the subject matter very intriguing.  When did you decide this was something worthy of a feature documentary?

Warwick:  It was a couple of years ago.  I was on a plane to London and I bumped into a chap named Andrew Caillard who is a Master of Wine which is about the highest level you can get in terms of wine education.  He was telling me about these events that were taking place in France’s Bordeaux region where the wines had increased in value by 1000% in just a few years.

I thought this was extraordinary because it was coming out of the global financial crisis where stocks had crashed, real estate had crashed and yet, these wines had gone up by this incredible amount.  It turned out that it was the Chinese who were pushing these prices.  We delved into it a little bit more and realised this was a story about the economic powers shift from the West to the East and that was fascinating enough for us to dive in and do the film.

Matt:  We don’t see this too often but there are two directors on this film – yourself and David Roach.  How did that relationship work?  Did you split up the responsibilities or are you working together hand-in-hand?

Warwick:  It’s a little bit of both actually.  David and I go back to the film Young Einstein which we did together many, many years ago.  We’ve made 3 or 4 films since then.  We tend to work hand-in-glove.  It’s a relationship where if I’m not available on set because I’m setting up the next interview then David will be on set and vice-versa.  It helped lessen the load on each of us for a film that was pretty big – we were in Bordeaux 5 times and then in China 5 times including trips right out to the borders with Kazakhstan and Afghanistan.

Matt:  The film covers a breadth of material – the history of Bordeaux, the cultural revolution in China, soaring wine prices, the significance of brand name recognition, the role of critics – and yet it clocks in at under 80 minutes.  Was there consideration to making a longer film?

Warwick:  We actually shot something like 100 hours of material and we interviewed 89 people from the UK, France, the United States, China and Australia.  When you tell a story like this, you look for the narrative.  You have a pretty good idea where you want to go with it but the events that unfold as you’re filming really dictate the final story.  We ended up with a lot of people who didn’t make the cut but I would love to use them in some sort of extended 3 or 4 part TV version.

Matt:  Were there people you wanted to speak with but couldn’t get the chance to?

Warwick:  It happened like that in the beginning.  We had some difficulty getting through to a number of the top directors and owners of the chateaus in Bordeaux and also the incredibly wealthy Chinese wine collectors.

In Bordeaux, it was because they were a little “gun shy” as there’d been a couple of other documentaries that had not presented Bordeaux in the right kind of light and while documentaries always try to tell the truth, they felt some in the past had actually distorted things.  Andrew being so well connected in Bordeaux ultimately managed to persuade people that we were making something worthwhile.

In China, it was more about relationships.  The more people we got to know in the wine industry, the great access we had to those in the top echelon of wine collectors.

Matt:  You’ve got a couple of celebrities with Michael Parkinson and Francis Ford Coppola that talk about their love of wine.  Were they easy to get?

Warwick:  Michael Parkinson, yes.  He’s a great wine lover and we had a pretty good connection through to him.  He was delighted to speak with us and we actually spoke to him from his pub.  It’s called The Royal Oak and it’s about 80kms out of London.  He was very relaxed and we spent about 2-3 hours with him there chatting and filming and drinking.

Francis Ford Coppola was a different matter.  He was in Hong Kong and we happened to be there at the same time for a wine convention.  He’s a wine maker himself and we’d knocked on his door a few times and found it difficult to get a hold of him.  Ultimately, with enough perseverance, we finally got through and had a terrific interview with him.

Matt:  You could have narrated this yourself but instead you’ve gone with the star power of Academy Award winner Russell Crowe.  What’s the reason behind getting someone like Russell on board?

Warwick:  For me, it’s always a creative decision.  Russell’s voice is superb and we all remember Gladiator.  In the back of my mind when I was doing this film, the voice that kept coming to me was that of Maximus.  I always had Russell on the top of the list and luckily, he was a very good friend of a friend of mine.

Then it was a question of showing him a little bit of the footage from the film which he loved.  It also helped that he’s a big wine buff himself.  Russell agreed to do it immediately but the problem was he was finishing up being Superman’s father on Man Of Steel and he was being Noah for Noah’s Arc and he was also finishing off Les Miserables.

He had an incredibly hectic schedule and the only time he could do this for us between 2am and 4am in New York because Hurricane Sandy had come through and forced the filming on Noah to shut down for a day or two.  It gave him a little bit of time for him to be able to do this for us.

Matt:  So he did it all inside of two hours?

Warwick:  Yep, two hours.  That’s the kind of professional he is.  He did the voiceover via a link that we’d set up between Melbourne and New York, he uploaded the files and then we downloaded them in Melbourne so that the film could be completed.

Matt:  The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and then I heard it got a great response from Robert DeNiro at the Tribeca Film Festival.  Did you actually get to talk to Robert De Niro?

Warwick:  We did get to meet him but there wasn’t a lot of time for talking.  There were probably 300 people in the room that were all trying to schmooze with Robert DeNiro.  We were really pleased that he nominated Red Obsession as one of his two favourite films of the Tribeca Film Festival and we’re heading back to the States soon for its limited release on September 6 in New York City.  I think he’ll be attending that screening as well which is fantastic.

Matt:  It’s great to see the film getting a release overseas.  Have you had a chance to show the film to vineyard owners in Bordeaux or to the influential wine connoisseurs in China?

Warwick:  Yes, we did, particularly in Bordeaux.  My heart was in my mouth because we’re not entirely complimentary about Bordeaux and the people that run the chateaus. The film follows an almost Shakespearean like arc of greed and hubris that they certainly had at the beginning of 2010 when they were pushing their prices into the stratosphere.  The feeling was that the road to China was paved with gold and so they could set the price at whatever they wanted and the Chinese would pay.  That ultimately backfired on them and we show that in the film.

When we screened the film, we were kind of toey but after the screening, we had a small party and there was a stream of the Bordeaux chateau owners coming up and saying “well look, we thought the film was absolutely beautiful and although we didn’t like everything you said about it, it was the absolute truth.”  I felt good that at least they acknowledged that.

Matt:  There’s an interesting epilogue that brings us up to speed about the bursting of the wine bubble in 2011 and 2012.  Did you have any idea that would happen so quickly when you started making the film?

Warwick:  No, not at all.  We were very lucky.  When you set out making a documentary, you have a rough idea where you want to go but you’re never sure how the events are going to unfold during the period of filming which for us, was about 14 months.

It was 8 or 9 months into filming when all of a sudden, everything backfired on the Bordeaux vineyards.  The prices in China crashed by the largest amount since the global financial crisis.  The Chinese were simply turning their backs on these wines. 

One of the main reasons this happened was the level of fakery in China.  As we all know, the likes of Nike and Louis Vuitton are faked in large quantities in China.  The same thing is now happening with the wines.  The most famous chateau is called Chateau Lafite Rothschild and when the crash in prices happened, we were told that at that stage, 9 out of 10 bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild in China were fake.  That figure was as high as 99 out of 100 according to some anecdotal evidence.  That also helped the spiral of prices downwards.

Bottles of wine are often given as gifts.  After all the fakes flooded the market, that brand really wasn’t trusted any more in China and so if you handed a bottle of Lafite to someone, you were basically saying there’s a 99% chance that this is a dud.