Mark Jenkins on ‘Margin Call’ — Quoting Me

Posted on October 27, 2011 at 8:00 am

Many thanks to my friend Mark Jenkins for including me in his insightful piece for the Washington Post about the timeliness of the new movie, Margin Call.

As the Occupy Wall Street protests continue and expand, “Margin Call” might seem the right movie at the right time. The psychological drama, which observes roughly 24 hours at a crisis-rocked New York investment firm, is strongly evocative of the 2008 money-quake that shattered major banks and brokerages. But the movie, which opened Friday, may not be set in 2008.

“The actual film has absolutely no time-stamping,” cautions writer-director J.C. Chandor. “The company is unnamed. There are no dates. For me, it was really important that this could have taken place in 2004, in 2005, in 2003. … “Margin Call,” Minow says, “comes at a teachable moment. The Occupy Wall Street movement has reminded people that the perpetrators of the financial meltdown are still doing the same things.”

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Media Appearances

Interview: J.C. Chandor of ‘Margin Call’

Posted on October 21, 2011 at 8:00 am

J.C. Chandor wrote and directed “Margin Call,” a sharply-scripted thriller about one night at a never-named Wall Street firm.  The top executives discover that they are at risk of catastrophic failure and have to decide before the markets open in the morning whether they or their clients will take the losses.  The movie stars Jeremy Irons, Keven Spacey, co-producer Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, and Demi Moore.  It is specific enough to make some very pointed commentary on the financial meltdown but universal enough that its themes of betrayal and externalized costs could be set in any industry or indeed in any organization.

How did you come to write about the financial meltdown?

I had written several different things in several different capacities but had never done anything even sort of remotely topical let alone completely topical.  This was being written for myself to direct so it was from a very personal place, not a Hollywood script to go out and sell.  A lot of what has become the strength of the project and drew people to it came from an odd place, from production restraints I placed on myself to keep the budget realistic.

I’m a total real estate junkie and took time off to set up a partnership to renovate an old building and it happened to be on the other side of the real estate bubble.  The godfather of one of my  partners was a very prominent investment banker, a ground-breaker, an intellectual, invented the concept of a real estate hedge fund, a whole new model.  He intervened in his godson’s life and about halfway through our project came to him and said, “Those offers you’ve been getting to buy the project half-completed — take them.  I’ve been leaving millions of dollars in deposits on the table because it is time to get out.”  We took his advice, mostly because we were having trouble with one of the other partners but also because we had the feeling things were not going well in the markets.  We just broke even and felt like a defeat at the time but a year and a half later I felt I had a new lease on life.

As things really started bubbling to the surface I thought back to that man and what it was like to be walking around — you never know for sure, but he felt pretty strongly things were bad enough that he had to take a financial hit to avoid a worse one and warn us.  I thought it was an interesting issue to look at it from the inside, and do a small character-driven story about investment bankers as they see what they thought their lives were about changing in a deep way and what their responsibility was, all those things that were a little bit unsaid in the film but that the actors and I knew were all there.  I have only so much time, so much energy, this skill set, and this is what I’ve used it for.

It has the setting of a drama but it feels like a thriller.

To be there on that day was an interesting limited view into a wide problem.  It’s a ticking time bomb structure, which is a thriller by its very nature.  The one total deviation is that 45 minutes into the movie you know the bomb can’t be defused.  The drama is who will they hand the bomb to?

Do you see them as villains?

What most people would choose to do in this scenario is what these characters do — to look out for themselves.  To look at it in the macro viewpoint, they made the decision when they walked into the door coming out of Harvard or wherever they were to use their time and skills and very intense intelligence and education and have the big majority of those people get siphoned off into this world.   People who have already made that choice when they walk in the door it is unrealistic to expect them five, ten, fifteen years later to make a different choice about who to take care of.

Your father worked on Wall Street, at Merrill Lynch.  Did he guide you at all on the script?

For superstitious reasons I didn’t show the script to anyone in my family.  I’ve had a lot of false starts if you know what I mean!  I didn’t really tell my family I was doing this until we were really at the point of no return.  But what I learned from my father and from friends over the years is the toll that it takes on the people who stay behind and keep their jobs when others are let go.  It’s one of the only businesses that even in their best years still culls 5-10 percent of the workforce every year purely for motivation.  The people who last are the ones who play the game correctly.  For certain characters like Spacey’s it’s not about greed; it’s about survival.  For others like Simon Baker’s and Demi Moore’s it is about ego and the way you define yourself.

I originally wrote the scene when it wasn’t the big dramatic day, yet.  It was supposed to be more run of the mill, but as things developed in real life by the time we shot it, it became too subtle.

The way it was revised though, gets Stanley Tucci’s character out of the building, and that is important for the plot.

The fun thing about Stanley’s character, Eric Dale, is that I have a hard time naming characters and I usually use names from people in my life.  Eric Dale just worked and it is amusing for him because every character says the name through the film as he becomes the symbol of the paranoia that the information will get out.

I won’t give it away, but I wanted to tell you how much I liked your ending — you took something of a risk and it paid off.

The ending and the music are the things most people feel comfortable having an opinion about.  For me, the movie started with the ending and then you figure out how you get there.  Kevin Spacey would say something different but for me the most important thing is what’s behind him, the house.  It became very important to understand that in his mind, he did need the money.  No matter what you make, the way people rationalize their connection with money is almost identical.  As Paul Bettany says in the film, “You learn to spend what’s in your pocket.”

 

 

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Directors Interview Writers

Margin Call

Posted on October 20, 2011 at 6:50 pm

A
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Constant profanity and bad language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations, job loss, betrayal
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 21, 2011
Date Released to DVD: May 1, 2011
Amazon.com ASIN: B005FITIGO
Copyright Roadside Attractions 2011

Investors can make bets by promising to buy stock at a higher or lower price than the current day’s valuation.  If all goes well, they never actually have to buy the stock.  They can keep buying and selling the bets with borrowed money without ever having to buy the underlying securities.  But if it does not go well, the investor gets what is known as a margin call and has to come up with the cash.

The financial meltdown of 2008 was like a margin call for America, and we will be paying off that debt for a long time.  This movie, as tightly wound as a thriller, takes us through a fictionalized version of the night when it all tipped over from going well to not going well at an enormous Wall Street company, and it was time to pay the piper and a lot of others as well.

“You guys ever been through this before?” asks Will (Paul Bettany), as some serious looking people in suits start tapping people on the shoulder and saying, “I’m afraid we have to speak with you” to the people in cubicles  “Best to ignore it, keep your head down, go back to work.  Don’t watch.”

“The majority of this floor is being let go today,” says the serious woman in a suit.  She speaks of “certain precautions that may seem punitive.”  She glances down at the paperwork when she speaks of “your — 19 — years” with the (never-named) company.  And then we see people carrying cardboard boxes of belongings out the front door of a shiny skyscraper, their eyes blinking in the unaccustomed sunlight.

This is nothing new, as Will’s comment informs us.  It is a routine, if brutal pruning of the staff.  This is a cutthroat business and periodically some throats get cut.  And periodically Will has to speak to those left behind: “These were good people and they were good at their jobs, but you are better.  We will not think of them again.”  Back to work watching all those screens with all those numbers.

But one of the departed has left something behind.  There is evident irony in the name of the division that has been gutted.  It is the Risk Management group.  And the 19-year veteran who has been shown the door has been working on a new analysis of the firm’s position.  He turns his thumb drive over to the young colleague who has been kept on, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a literal rocket scientist with “a PhD in propulsion,” who plugs a few holes in the formula that reveal that the firm is in their terms, “projected losses are greater than the current value of the company.”  In other words, on the verge of collapse.  That is when it gets interesting.  Sullivan has proven that there are going to be some devastating losses.  The question is who will pay for them.

The rest of the long night will be devoted to answering that question.  It is like a long game of musical chairs, except that these people get to decide when to stop the music so they can get to the chairs before everyone else.

The guy at the top is John Tuld (Jeremy Irons).  Given a choice between reputation and money, he has no hesitation in choosing money.  He tells the head of sales, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) to sell the ticking time bomb securities by assuring their clients that they are solid investments, even though Rogers points out that no one will ever trust them again.  “You’re selling something you know has no value.”  “We’re selling to willing buyers at fair market value so that we can survive.”

Rogers is not the only one who raises concerns, moral and financial.  But writer-director J.C. Chandor lets us see when and how each of them topple, and what makes them topple, which turns out to be money.  Dale repeatedly says there is nothing that can get him to go back inside the building and yet there he is, back in the building.  Rogers says he will not sell these risky securities to clients because “you don’t sell anything to anybody unless they’ll come back to you for more.”  But he does.

This could just as easily be set in the scuzzy world of the real-estate salesmen of “Glengarry Glen Ross” or the “leave the gun, take the cannoli” world of “The Godfather.”  Chandor keeps enough of the real story to keep things vivid and meaningful but does not get mired in jargon.  Crisp performances by everyone keep things taut until a surprising detour at the end.  For the first time we leave the world of glass and concrete for an intensely personal moment of loss and grief.  “Our talents have been used for the greater good,” one character says, reminding us that the very selection process that takes people who are capable of more tangible contributions are unable to resist the big money that pays them a many-times multiple for financial engineering over mechanical engineering.  And reminding us, too, that if we let people who care only about money make the decisions they will make decisions that are only about money for them.

 

(more…)

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