Interview: Nicholas Jarecki of “Arbitrage”

Posted on September 10, 2012 at 8:00 am

Documentary-maker Nicholas Jarecki wrote and directed his first feature film, “Arbitrage,” with Richard Gere giving one of his best performances as a hedge fund manager hiding massive losses who gets caught up in an even bigger cover-up when he and his mistress are in a car accident and she is killed.  Susan Sarandon is superb as his wife and indie darling Brit Marling plays his daughter and CFO of the hedge fund.  Gere and co-star Nate Parker give two of the year’s best performances.  I had a chance to interview Jarecki following a screening of the film in DC.

What could you say in a feature film that you could not say in a documentary?

I think they are actually pretty closely related arts. What you can do is create a world, whereas in a documentary you document a world.  In a documentary you shoot for a year and a half and you have got to find the story as you go along, but with a film you design the story in your mind first, and then you work with the group to unlock which you could not see alone in a room, and make it all that more sweet – so there is a real collaborative element to it. You get to make use of many different, exciting, artistic disciplines — set design, performance, music, staging, lighting, you combine all of those things. In the documentary you document reality, though to an extent you bring a stylistic component to any documentary (the good ones do in my opinion) so it is fake. Documentary is fake, too, but maybe less fake.

The music was extremely well-chosen in the film.  Tell me a little bit about it.

We have for the score the wonderful Cliff Martinez, who I did not know before I began working on the film.  We would put in temporary music,  contemporary score pieces.  Every time I would say, “What is that?  It is great!” it was Cliff.  He had been Steven Soderbergh’s composer, “Solaris,” which is just a beautiful score, “Traffic,”a lot of great film scores, and he had just done “Drive.”  It was just amazing to get to work with him and we worked very closely together, I played some piano so I drove him nuts pretending that I knew something. He was very tolerant…he said I made him write more cues for this film than his last three films combined.

I think that’s a compliment!

I’m not sure he meant it as a compliment by the end.  Then for the other stuff, it was finding the right feeling for a scene, so I just thought, “What would be in these characters’ world? What would his mistress listen to?” I love Stan Getz and that kind of stuff. So I put some of that in there, and in the car crash sequence. There is this wonderful Billie Holiday song from the end of her career.  That one was not easy to find.  My music supervisor had evaluated 1100 songs, scores, and he actually said at one point “the song doesn’t exist, you are insane, no song will satisfy you.” And I said “no, we have to keep looking,” and so we did, and I must have listened to four or 500 of them and it was the last one he found. It was number 1100. That is kind of how I operate.  Billie was expensive, so we ended up getting a great deal on that because it was one of her lesser known songs, which I even like more, it was a bit of a discovery.  We wanted something romantic, nostalgic, kind of cocoon-ish feeling of embrace, and yet had some lyrics that resonated with what was going on. Bjork does the closing credits song, and she is one of my favorite artists forever, never licenses for music for film. I just wrote her a letter and she said “yeah, go for it…” So it was great.

You cast two of my favorite young performers, Nate Parker and Brit Marling.

For both of those parts. I saw 40 or 50 people over the course of a year and Brit I met really towards the end. I met Nate very early on and then I had to do a silly process where I did not realize immediately that obviously, the part was his, so I had to go all around the world to come back and understand that it was Nate, but he would write me these great e-mails.  He would give me a book to read, I would read it, I would say, “Hey, have you read Pictures at a Revolution?” and then he would write me some five pages about the book and it was really great. Brit we met through Skype, video Skype and she told me very quickly that she had gone to Georgetown and been an economics major and then was offered a job at Goldman Sachs, so once I heard that I was like, “Really? Okay, well, can you come to New York and meet me and Richard,” and she said “when?” And I said “now.” And she left that night and showed up the next morning and we went to my loft and we rehearsed for about 15 min., the three of us, and we all kind of looked around and it was “Yeah, okay, let’s do it!” That was it. So, they were just a joy to work with. I think they’re both really gifted, emerging people, unique, you know? They have something…Britt’s got a look like she kind of looks like everybody else, but not at all, so it’s kind of the movie-star quality, and then Nate has an intense physicality, strength…Britt said about Nate that he radiates integrity.

He does, that’s what’s so unusual. You don’t expect that in his character, and that’s what keeps you interested in him.

Yeah, he brings some humanity to it.

All the other people are very compromised and in his own way he’s the most honest person in the movie which I think is great. How do you continue to make us root for Richard Gere when he keeps doing so many terrible things?

Well, it’s a combination of, obviously, Richard’s incredible performance and his incredible charisma, you know? He’s so charming…what did my mother used to say? He could talk a dog off of a meat wagon, but I think also the design of the film helps.  I’m a big fan of Aristotle, he wrote a book called The Poetics a couple of thousand years ago, which is pretty much a  manual for dramatists, and I try to follow his paradigm of a tragic hero. It’s not a Madoff where, excuse my language, but he said from jail “f*** my victims.” That to me was a sociopath, and I wasn’t interested in exploring that character but I thought, “Can we do in the Aristotelian way, a good man who was great and got a little carried away?”  And then bought into a kind of irresponsibility, but because you can sense that he was good at one point, I think you want it to work out for him.

What’s next?  Do you want to do more documentaries, now? You want to do more feature films, you want to do both?

I would say everything. I might actually even make a commercial, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. So, I like that format, the 30 second idea, to do something beautiful, find an emotion in 30 seconds. That’s interesting to me.

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