What did you find most intriguing about fraudster Rudy Kurniawan?
Rothwell: He was always something of a mystery to us. Although we wrote to him to try and make contact many times, the only time we saw him in person was in the trial, when he seemed a little lost. The big question I think is whether he fell into counterfeiting wine– discovering he had a talent for it and then facing escalating debt– or whether he was part of a longterm, planned scheme. For me, what was intriguing was why people were so duped by him– what it was about the world and language of wine that made it vulnerable to his charms.
Atlas: I think he’s part Gatsby and part Catch Me If You Can. In Catch Me If You Can, I remember he kept changing who he was, and moving all over the place, whereas Rudy, I believe he was conning people, but he was becoming who he was as a man. Not everybody could do this. He was making interesting mixes of the wines. He knew his shit. I do believe there was an artistry to what he did. I also think he desperately wanted to be a part of the Hollywood American dream. When he got arrested, he was building a house next to Kanye and Kim in Bel-Air.
He was strange, to say the least. He was a flamboyant, fun guy whose friends described him as a guy who lit up the room. But at the trial, he would sit quietly, he barely turned his head. The one quirky thing he did was eat M&Ms during the trial. None of his family showed up. Psychologically, he was interesting. Some of his friends still can’t believe he was a fraudster.How did you come upon Rudy’s story?
Atlas: Right when he got arrested, there were a number of articles that came out, including one in New York magazine by Ben Wallace, who wrote The Billionaire’s Vinegar. It turned out that his trial was happening downtown in Manhattan. And so I went and everyone there was such a character. That’s also where I met Jerry. A French producer in Burgundy approached him [about Rudy’s story]. He was at the trial. There were tons of filmmakers, press. Any time anybody came off the witness stand, they were jumping up to talk to them. Jerry and I started talking and decided to work together.
Rothwell: I was contacted by a French producer who’d come across the story in relation to Laurent Ponsot, the Burgundy vigneron [who was suspect of Rudy’s collection]. I met Reuben at Rudy’s trial and we decided to work together on the film.Do you have any figures on how much he stole from people?
Rothwell: I think [billionaire] Bill [Koch] mentions in the film that he found $4 million of fakes and that 40 percent of them — around 200 bottles– came from Rudy, so he lost $2 million to Rudy. Rudy sold upwards of $100 million of wine over the decade, but by no means were all of these fake. Of the bottles the FBI found in his house, around 10 percent were destroyed as fake.
Atlas: He would go and drink at these fancy places in New York with millionaires and they would order expensive bottles, and Rudy would ask for the bottles to be shipped to him. So he had these bottles, and all he had to do was pour wine in them. When the F.B.I. arrested him, they found lots of bottles soaking in his kitchen sink. He had like a Breaking Bad lab.Did anyone who got duped get their money back?
Rothwell: [Writer] Jay McInerney says in the film that [Acker Merrall & Condit auction house CEO John] Kapon paid everyone back. He certainly paid some, though presumably a lot of wine either hasn’t been returned, or has been drunk. Bill Koch settled with Acker Merrall in 2014 and the agreement was that he was paid back.
Atlas: My mother was a documentary filmmaker, so the idea of making a film was always in my head. When I was in law school, I was making videos of people locked up under the Rockefeller drug laws. Then I was working as an entertainment lawyer, but stopped because I did not like it. This film is my third. There’s something about having a law degree that makes people take you more seriously. And now I’m just another bearded guy with a camera in Williamsburg.