It was Adam Waldman who first contacted Rolling Stone about writing a story about the injustice being done to Depp's reputation and bottom line. He pointed to what he perceived to be an anti-Depp story in the Hollywood Reporter, where the Mandels were cast as eminently reasonable men who repeatedly tried to warn Depp about his precarious financial positioning. Nobody from TMG was quoted, but Waldman was convinced its fingerprints were all over the story.
Waldman made it clear he was doing an end-run without the involvement of Robin Baum, Depp's formidable publicist of many years. I started looking into the case and Waldman to see if he was legit. There was stuff about him being Cher's lawyer – the singer is godmother to his daughter Pepper – but the first hit was a Business Insider story that read "Here Are the American Executives Who Are Working on Behalf of Putin." Waldman was the first on the list, which detailed his service for Oleg Deripaska, an aluminum magnate and Russian oligarch with strong ties to the Russian president.
According to Business Insider, Waldman has been paid more than $2.3 million for his work on behalf of Deripaska. Meanwhile, Deripaska became a bit player in the Russian-collusion scandal when it was reported by The Washington Post that then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort offered to give Deripaska private briefings on the campaign shortly before the GOP convention. Waldman had his own cameo in the Putin-Trump meshugas. In February, none other than Trump would accuse him in a typically factually distorted tweet – without naming him – of trying to broker a meeting between Trump-dossier writer Christopher Steele and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner. In April, Deripaska was placed on Trump's sanctioned list, making it exceedingly difficult for Deripaska's holdings to do business in the United States.
Waldman joined the game in October 2016, having been told by a client that Depp needed help. TMG had just slapped the foreclosure notice on his L.A. homes for failure to make payments on a $5 million loan from the company. TMG had filed it as a nonjudicial foreclosure so there were no public filings. The public at this point had no idea of Depp's financial situation.
Waldman was about to change that. He says he joined Depp for dinner at the Bel Air home of Ed White, Depp's new accountant. Waldman says that White mentioned that he believed TMG had taken a cavalier approach to Depp's accounts. Waldman listened closely and said he'd investigate the situation.
Waldman and Depp quickly became compadres. When Waldman would find a friend he thought was on the Mandels' side, he'd call the star and just say, "Tessio," after the Abe Vigoda character who betrays the Corleones in The Godfather. Depp instantly understood and would mutter back, "f***ing Tessio."
Two months later, under Waldman's guidance, Depp filed his lawsuit against the Mandels. The suit claimed that Depp wasn't given monthly financial statements and often was presented only a signature page to sign for transactions. The suit further alleged that – in addition to the $7 million given to his sister Christi – TMG had cost Depp $6 million in tacked-on fees by paying his IRS taxes late for 13 years straight. Depp accused TMG of taking out $34 million in loans in his name as a result of mismanagement, with the final straw being a $12.5 million "hard money" loan engineered by his longtime attorney Jake Bloom in 2014, at 10 percent interest. The loan stipulated Christi's, Bloom's and the Mandels' fees would be paid before loan repayments and definitely before Depp saw a dime of residuals from his Pirates of the Caribbean series. (Depp eventually filed a separate suit against Bloom.) Depp's lawyers argued that the hard-money loan, taken through the financial firm of Grosvenor Park, was an illegal inside deal because Bloom had a prior relationship with Grosvenor. Of the original $12.5 million loan, according to Depp, $1.2 million was immediately disbursed to the trio before the loan was officially processed.
Depp and Waldman believe his lawsuit will change Hollywood forever. The suit swings for the fences and claims TMG owes Depp more than $25 million in ill-gotten five-percent commissions because, among other reasons, they claim TMG had acted not only as financial managers but also as lawyers, meaning it needed to enter a new agreement with Depp for each movie deal. (The same charge would be eventually levied against Bloom, who has filed a countersuit, denying all the claims.) Since this didn't happen, the suit alleges, Depp is entitled to recoup millions in commissions. The TMG suit points to this as being among the most ridiculous of Depp's claims, that they never acted as attorneys since he already had high-priced Hollywood lawyers Bloom and Marty Singer on retainer.
This alleged violation of Section 6147 of the California statute particularly jazzes Waldman and, in turn, Depp. Waldman says when he first contacted TMG, Joel Mandel kept muttering that Depp's situation was all about "Hollywood math," where the star spends what they think they've made, not taking into account taxes and agent and manager fees. (TMG denies this conversation ever happened.)
Waldman is Depp's self-styled avenger. "No one challenges the monster of Hollywood and survives," Waldman tells me. "Everyone is too afraid. Johnny's not afraid."
Mandel's camp says he learned of Depp's lawsuit when a reporter called him asking for comment, a rarity since it is common in legal circles to contact opposing counsel before filing a suit.
The two warring sides met a few days later in a conference room for a settlement meeting at the law office of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, the law firm that employed Ben Chew, one of Depp's litigators. Waldman was on the phone from Europe, and Chew was on video conference from Washington.
To Mandel's side, it wasn't clear why the meeting had been called: If Waldman had wanted to try to work out a settlement, it would usually be attempted before dropping a legal bomb on the opposing counsel. Mandel eventually spoke up.
"You didn't do your diligence," he said, and cited mistakes in the initial filing, including statements that Depp's finances were being handled by a CPA-in-training, when in fact they were being covered by an accountant with 30 years' experience.
"The facts are there, you can read them," Waldman recalls saying via speakerphone from Munich. "You're welcome to respond to them."
Mandel lost it, according to two people in the meeting.
"You've cost me tens of millions of dollars," said Mandel. "Now it's my turn. I'm gonna destroy Johnny. They'll know everything." (Both Mandel and his attorney, Michael Kump, adamantly dispute that Mandel ever said any of that.)
The Mandel team got up to leave, but in the hall, they say they could hear Waldman's voice questioning the rest of his legal staff if they had carefully gone over the complaint.
Asked what he thought about all the legal shenanigans, Depp shrugs. "I'm just a small part of this," he says. "It's the f***ing Matrix. I didn't see the movie, and I didn't understand the script, but here's what it is."
Unfortunately for Depp, TMG filed a thermo-nuclear complaint last summer. The lawsuit described the actor as a spoiled brat with no impulse control. Kump noted TMG had never been sued by any of its other clients and that "Depp lived an ultra-extravagant lifestyle that often knowingly cost Depp in excess of $2 million a month to maintain, which he simply could not afford." The suit claims Depp did give millions to Christi and other friends and family, but that the star knew all about it and still employed those who benefited from his money.
Kump pressed on, arguing that "Depp has also spent millions to employ an army of attorneys" – in addition to his longtime personal attorney Bloom – "to bail him out of numerous legal crises" and pay "hush money." Some of the charges seem like cheap shots. TMG offered no specifics about the hush money and legal crises. His taxes? The suit alleges that they were paid late because Depp was chronically cash poor.
The purchases listed by TMG read like Depp gave his wallet to a tween with ADD. There was $75 million for 14 residences. He spent $3 million to shoot his pal Hunter S. Thompson's ashes into the sky from a cannon. A mere $7,000 to buy his daughter a couch from the set of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. He bought some 70 guitars and 200 pieces of art, including Basquiats and Warhols, owned 45 luxury vehicles and spent $200,000 a month on private air travel.
Then things got personal. According to the suit, Depp kept a sound engineer on the payroll so he could feed him lines through an earpiece while filming. This Depp does not deny, saying the sounds fed to him made him act with just his eyes.
"I've got bagpipes, a baby crying and bombs going off," says Depp. "It creates a truth. Some of my biggest heroes were in silent film," Depp tells me, lighting another cigarette. "It had to be behind the eyes. And my feeling is, that if there's no truth behind the eyes, doesn't matter what the f***ing words are."
But that didn't explain the 12 storage facilities for his Hollywood memorabilia, heavy on Brando and Marilyn Monroe. Mandel alleged Depp spent $1.2 million to keep a doctor on call and another $1.8 million a year on round-the-clock security, including for his elderly mother. (When asked why his mom needed security, Depp responded that it was in case she needed an ambulance, according to sources with intimate knowledge of the conversation. TMG tried to convince Depp a nurse would be cheaper, but he couldn't be persuaded.) Kump suggested the source of Depp's problems was psychiatric: "In retrospect, it appears that Depp may suffer from a compulsive-spending disorder, which will be proven in this action through a mental examination of Depp."
Back in London, I'm sitting with Waldman, going over the jabberwocky of the case for a few hours, when Depp emerges after sunset – I never saw him in daylight – dressed in his pirate-homeless attire: tattered jeans, an oversize white shirt festooned with a series of handkerchiefs. His mood is equal parts maudlin and swagger.
There are a few things Depp insists TMG got wrong – for example, the $30,000 a month the Mandels claimed he spent on wine.
"It's insulting to say that I spent $30,000 on wine," says Depp. "Because it was far more."
Depp says they got the Hunter S. Thompson cannon story wrong too. "By the way, it was not $3 million to shoot Hunter into the f***ing sky," says Depp. "It was $5 million."
Depp elaborates. He says the cost of the rocket launch increased when he decided he wanted Thompson's arc to be at least one foot higher than the Statue of Liberty's 151-foot height. That part could be true, but I checked around about the price tag and Depp seemed to be bullshitting. Multiple reports said that the cannon stunt did cost $3 million, but perhaps Depp wanted the number to be even bigger, taking a cue from Thompson, who could never resist taking a good, true story and juicing it up with imaginary details.
It doesn't take a psychiatrist to figure out that Depp has been greatly influenced by Brando and Thompson, two father figures who did not give a f*** about what the world thought about them. Depp and Brando had been friends since the 1995 film Don Juan De Marco. When Depp bought an island in the Bahamas, it was Brando, owning his own Tahitian island, who advised him to make sure his house is above sea level.
His connection to Thompson was more visceral, spanning 'ludes and literature. Depp had been a fan of the gonzo journalist for years and courted friendship as he played Thompson in Terry Gilliam's 1998 adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. During the filming and afterward, the two became drug-taking companions.
Waiting for dinner, Depp tells a story about Thompson picking Depp up at the Aspen airport. Doing a dead-on impression, Depp mimics Thompson's mumble: "Uh, there's something I want you to try when we get to the house."
Thompson had a pipe filled with a sticky resin waiting for him. Depp did a hit, and the room spun. Hunter was shocked, says Depp. "He was like, ‘Damn, some kids brought that over, and I took a hit and puked my guts out.' "
Depp says he never found out what was in the strange concoction. They also bonded over an encyclopedic knowledge of pharmaceuticals. Later that night, Depp laments the passing of quaaludes from the drug scene. He reminisces about the bootleg 'ludes he used to take.
"They're made with just a little bit of arsenic, or strychnine," says Depp. He stands up and a grin spreads across his face. "So the high was far more immediate." Once, Depp asked a Florida bouncer to punch him while on 'ludes just for kicks. "You either wanted to smile and just be happy with your pals, or f***, or fight," he says.
Depp is evangelical in the uses of narcotics and thinks they could have expedited the capture of Osama bin Laden.
"You get a bunch of f***ing planes, big f***ing planes that spray s**t, and you drop LSD 25," he says. "You saturate the f***ing place. Every single thing will walk out of their cave smiling, happy."
With the deaths of Brando and Thompson, Depp lost the two people who could understand his fantasyland existence.
Here in London, he turns melancholy, musing about going through his recent travails without them, a fucked-up genius missing his fucked-up genius fellow travelers. As Depp's life unraveled, he no longer had his closest confidants. Depp goes glassy-eyed thinking about his loneliness. "Marlon and Hunter," he says. "I needed my guys."
For more than a decade, what was good for Johnny Depp was good for Joel Mandel, and the financial manager took many steps to keep it that way. He installed an extra phone line in his Los Angeles home that had a special ring so Depp could reach him at any point, day or night. On the occasion of his wife's 40th birthday, Mandel had a hundred people over to his house. Still, he reached out to Depp and told him he would excuse himself from the party if Depp wanted to talk about his latest financial adventure.
During the good times, Mandel told Depp his goal was to make him financially secure enough that he would never have to take a part just to pay the bills. They never got to that point. According to TMG's lawsuit, Depp never had more than six months of savings in the bank. This grew exponentially worse after the Pirates of the Caribbean series began, earning him approximately $300 million. Depp had always been critically acclaimed, but it was Jack Sparrow who turned him into a global brand with action figures and $30-million-per-film paychecks coming in. But Depp's tastes grew wilder, and daily conversations between Mandel and Christi revolved around either trying to stop Depp from buying another house or finding a project that would pay for the new house.
Except for Christi, Depp couldn't count on his actual family for guidance – they seemed at the core of many of his financial fiascoes. Over some tuna-fish-and-corn sandwiches – Depp's favorite – he talks of the money pit that Betty Sue's farm in Owensboro had become. Soon after its purchase, he tells me, Depp's other sister and her husband moved in and were hired to manage the property. Eventually, their son joined the payroll. (Meanwhile, Depp was supporting his ex-partner Vanessa Paradis and their two children, Jack and Lily-Rose, in their own French villa that Depp bought for them.)
According to Depp, after years of keeping him in the dark, Mandel communicated to him that the Kentucky branch of his family's spending was out of control. So Depp asked him to send a file with all their expenses. He was in makeup on a Pirates of the Caribbean movie when the file arrived, and he asked his assistant to print it. His assistant said he couldn't do it.
"It's over 200 pages," the assistant said.
Depp called Mandel and asked him what the hell was going on.
"[My sister] was buying handbags for my mom, who was bedridden," Depp recalls. "Jewelry, f***ing this, that, everything."
In 2013, Depp was told that Betty Sue had terminal cancer. He moved her up to Los Angeles and rented her a $30,000-a-month house that was far enough away from his spread that they could coexist. Somehow, Betty Sue got better with treatment, and Depp informed the Mandels that the lease should be ended and Betty Sue could head back to Kentucky. But the house kept running up $30,000-a-month charges because, according to Depp, the Mandels forgot to cancel the lease. (TMG says that Mandel simply renegotiated the house's lease as directed, which required giving the landlord four months' notice.)
Betty Sue died in 2016. I ask Depp if he has sold her farm. He tells me his family still lives there.
"Their thinking is that I'm going to take care of them forever and that the farm is now theirs," he says. "I didn't make that promise."
I then ask what seems like a logical question: Why didn't Depp just pick up the phone and read his family the riot act and cut off their credit cards?
Depp furrows his brow and looks confused. He's convinced that was TMG's job: "That's why I'm paying them."
Ironically, the Mandels argue that nothing would have made Joel Mandel happier than cutting up the Depp family's credit cards, but Johnny couldn't pull the trigger. Back at my hotel, I look at Depp's court filings. Among the pile of charges against the Mandels, there is no mention of the Kentucky farm.
Depp's case centers largely on the claim that he was kept clueless until it was too late, despite the fact that, besides himself, the only person who had the power to authorize new expenditures was his sister Christi. The Mandels have produced a series of e-mails and notes that undermine Depp's argument. In 2008, Depp was intent on purchasing a house adjacent to his property in the Hollywood Hills. Mandel suggested it wasn't a great time to buy the house, but it could happen if other cuts were made. Depp wrote back, "We must buy this house."
In the same e-mail, he simultaneously chastised Mandel for sending him hefty packets with too much information and expressed complete confusion at how his finances were run.
There are more signs Depp knew his situation was chronically precarious. Mandel wrote to him again in 2008, as the Great Recession was hitting, about his financial shortcomings. In the same e-mail where Depp insisted on buying the Hollywood Hills house, he said he would talk to his agent, and Bloom, his lawyer, and rectify things: "I will call Tracey and Jake and prepare them to make some ludicrous deals to refill the glass and make it f***ing overflow."
A TMG staffer was tasked with trying to moderate Depp's spending on his various homes. In January 2009, Depp contacted Mandel and demanded that the staffer be taken off his account immediately because he was restricting his spending. Later that year, according to Mandel's notes submitted into evidence, Mandel suggested they meet to discuss his financial situation that had further deteriorated because Depp had taken much of the previous 12 months off. But Christi called Mandel back the next day and said Depp didn't want to discuss it and knew what needed to be done.
According to Mandel's notes, Christi called and said, "He realizes he needs to work his ass off" to maintain his lifestyle and that he wanted Mandel to do whatever was necessary to get him through the current rough patch.
That November, Mandel and Christi communicated about a loan that needed to be taken out to cover obligations until Depp got paid for his next film. Christi replied that it was hard to get Depp to sign the loan papers: "He left before I could get his signature . . . always had someone in the room and never able to have him alone. . . ."
Mandel e-mailed Depp again, asking him to watch his holiday spending. Depp e-mailed Mandel back on December 7th, 2009:
"Dear Joel, First, thank you for dealing and getting me through. Secondly, I am doing my very best on holiday spending, but there is only so much I can do, as I need to give my kiddies and famille as good a Christmas as possible, obviously within reason. But, regarding the plane situation . . . I don't have all that many options at the moment. A commercial flight with paparazzis in tow would be a f***ing nightmare of monumental proportions. . . . What else can I do??? You want me to sell some art??? I will. You want me to sell something else??? Sure . . . what???"
By January 2010, according to court filings, Mandel was still requesting that Depp sign loan papers. He told Christi that "we are almost $4,000,000 overdrawn." Depp eventually signed.
Depp was stubborn even when his friends tried to save him from himself. In 2010, he started Unison Records, his own label, but by 2014 it had lost between $4 million and $5 million. His friend Bruce Witkin, the label's president, apologized for the losses and suggested it was time to call it quits, addressing Depp by the pet name Baha. Depp wrote back to Bwoosie, a.k.a. Witkin, telling him to keep going and that it took the world 20 years to catch up to his genius. The label was finally closed a year later.
Depp's spending didn't change as he aged. In what court filings by TMG call a "come to Jesus moment," Mandel set up a meeting in 2012 between himself, Depp and Bloom at Depp's Hollywood Hills compound, where Depp had purchased five homes that he had knitted together into an urban estate. It was deliberately planned by the Mandels to occur in the late afternoon, when Depp was clearer headed. Joel Mandel presented Depp with a one-page summary of his situation and stated flatly that something had to change or the financial futures of Depp and his kids were in jeopardy. Depp grudgingly agreed to sell his yacht but would consistently whinge about the sale to Mandel until the end of their relationship.
The "come to Jesus" meeting was actually the beginning of the end, though the relationship teetered on precariously for three more years. According to the countersuit, in 2015, Mandel made another plea to Depp about his dire circumstances, and Depp responded by text: "I am ready to face the music, in whatever way I must. . . . I know there's a way to dig ourselves out of this hole and I'm bound and determined to do it." Things didn't get better. In August 2015, Mandel told Depp's staff that there had to be new rules on controlling expenses on travel, car rental and town-car services.
Later that year, Mandel and his other advisers told Depp he had to make two movies and sell Hameau, his St. Tropez estate, and he had to do it quickly in order to cover millions in loans he had taken out to cover previous debts. The message got the actor's attention. Depp responded by asking Mandel if he was broke.
Depp seemed to come around. He initially agreed on selling Hameau but then reneged after receiving a crying phone call from his daughter, Lily-Rose, begging him not to sell her childhood home. A conflicted Depp took his frustrations out on Mandel: "Listen, you and I are going to have to f***ing sit down and you're going to have to explain this s**t to me because I don't appreciate a phone call from you in the 11th hour," Depp recalls telling Mandel. "If you're going to call me, call me in the third hour."
It wasn't out of the ordinary for Depp to send an apologetic text or e-mail a few hours after an outburst. Depp vacillated about Hameau, and the property was briefly listed for $13 million and then jumped to $27 million, a sign that Depp was in no hurry to unload it. He broke promises to make the house available for potential buyers. Around the same time, he bought $108,000 in suits while on a trip to Singapore, according to communication from someone who was there.
By January 2016, Mandel was informing Christi that they had 30 days of liquidity left. Things got so desperate that Mandel told Depp staffers to stop spending money on houseplants. A frustrated Depp said he wanted to review his accounts. The Mandels didn't have a problem with that. Depp still professed he trusted Joel Mandel, texting him in late February that he had great love for him. But then communication suddenly ceased. Depp fired TMG 10 days later, in March 2016, and the legal war began.
In our conversations in London, Depp's ugly 2016 divorce from Heard is the subject that dare not say its name, but it is inextricably linked to Depp's troubles. Before Depp met Heard, his relationship with women was publicly chivalrous. When Penélope Cruz told Depp that she was pregnant right before the beginning of the shoot for the latest Pirates of the Caribbean, she wondered if she should drop out of the project. Depp told her that was ridiculous. "He protected me every day, and by the end, I was six months pregnant," says Cruz. "I'll never forget that."
Depp and Heard met on the set of The Rum Diary, an odd, unsuccessful ode to Hunter S. Thompson's early reporting years. Christi was apparently opposed to their marriage, and that opposition led to a strain on her relationship with her brother; Depp's last constant connection to the real world was severed. Depp, according to TMG's suit, spent $1 million on the wedding, held on his Bahamian island.
On May 20th, 2016, Depp's mother died. The next night, Heard reportedly called iO Tillett Wright, an artist and friend of the couple, and told Wright to call 911. Wright wrote later on the website Refinery29, "I could hear [Depp] saying, ‘What if I pulled your hair back?' "
Wright called the police, and photographs of Heard with a bruise on her face emerged. Wright also wrote: "The reports of violence started with a kick on a private plane, then it was shoves and the occasional punch, until finally, in December, she described an all-out assault and she woke up with her pillow covered in blood. I know this because I went to their house. I saw the pillow with my own eyes. I saw the busted lip and the clumps of hair on the floor."
Two days later, Heard filed for divorce, on the eve of Depp's mother's funeral. That summer, video was leaked to TMZ of Depp smashing cabinets and pouring himself a Big Gulp-size glass of red wine. When he realized Heard was filming the incident, he appeared to grab her phone and trash it. The couple settled their divorce in August, filing a joint statement that partially read, "Our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile but always bound by love. Neither party has made false accusations for financial gain. There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm."
Heard received a reported $7 million payment, and they both signed nondisclosure agreements. Before I arrived, Waldman had instructed me that Depp couldn't speak about Heard because of the NDA.
Heard's name was front and center that night in London because J.K. Rowling had released a statement -– in the wake of the #MeToo movement – explaining why she hadn't fired Depp from Fantastic Beasts. "When Johnny Depp was cast as Grindelwald, I thought he'd be wonderful in the role," Rowling said. "However, around the time of filming his cameo in the first movie, stories had appeared in the press that deeply concerned me and everyone most closely involved in the franchise. . . . However, the agreements that have been put in place to protect the privacy of two people, both of whom have expressed a desire to get on with their lives, must be respected. Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but are genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies."
Later that night, Depp tells me about the acute depression he entered as his personal and financial lives came crashing down simultaneously.
"I was as low as I believe I could have gotten," says Depp in a dead voice. "The next step was, ‘You're going to arrive somewhere with your eyes open and you're going to leave there with your eyes closed.' I couldn't take the pain every day."
He went on tour with the Hollywood Vampires and decided to write a memoir on an old manual typewriter, like his hero Thompson.
"I poured myself a vodka in the morning and started writing until the tears filled my eyes and I couldn't see the page anymore," he says. He wipes his eyes with the sleeves of his white shirt and continues his monologue. "I kept trying to figure out what I'd done to deserve this. I'd tried being kind to everyone, helping everyone, being truthful to everyone." He pauses for a moment. "The truth is most important to me. And all this still happened."
I have a harder time getting an answer on how Christi had received $7 million in unaccounted money, and his assistant Nathan Holmes nearly $750,000. Depp describes Christi as being the Mandels' "patsy," without going further into detail. Members of Depp's inner circle later tell me that Depp and Christi's relationship was badly damaged when he married Heard without a prenup. "He cut himself off from the only people looking out for him," a longtime associate tells me. The former insider also maintained the idea that Depp didn't know his sister was receiving payments from his account was ludicrous.
Depp also tells me that Holmes never really received the total $750,000. "He didn't get it all," says Depp. Later, Waldman tells me that Depp was confused and that Holmes had received all the money. (Both Holmes and Christi still work for Depp, with his sister running his production company, Infinitum Nihil.)
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