The Director Of Margin Call Explains What’s Really Going On In The Movie

This article originally appeared on the Business Insider website and was written by Jake Bernstein.

The genesis of Margin Call occurred in 2005 when the film’s writer and director J.C. Chandor and some friends dabbled in New York’s red-hot real estate market. To their surprise, a bank lent them $10 million, with few questions asked, to buy a building on the edge of SoHo. The plan was to renovate the property, but they quickly found themselves in over their heads. In 2006, the godfather of one of the group — a former investment banker whose unease about the market was growing — told them, forcefully, they should sell. What seemed like a defeat at the time proved to be a blessing when the market collapsed.

“That was the first nugget,” Chandor says. “That idea of the guy who is walking around and thinks he knows what is about to happen but the rest of the world is pressing the accelerator button.”

The son of a former Merrill Lynch banker and visual art consultant, Chandor grew up in banker communities in New York and London, which afforded him insights into the world at the epicenter of the crisis. With a background in commercial and documentary filmmaking, he wanted to write a movie that was cheap enough that he could convince someone to let him direct it. The budget would require it to be confined in place and time, and probably a character study.

“I came up with this conceit of locking these investment bankers in on the night when one of them thinks that he has found out that the world is coming to an end,” he says.

After carrying around the idea for the movie in his head for more than a year, the actual writing came quickly. “I wrote the thing in four days under tremendous duress, frankly,” he says. “I was doing job interviews to go to work in a totally different field.”

His goal of a small movie ended up being a boon rather than a constraint for the type of story he wanted to tell. A short shooting schedule of 17 days and the complex characters in his script attracted a stellar cast.

“What I did was essentially say, let’s just take a limited place and time where these characters are so paranoid about this piece of information getting out that there is no new information,” he says. “There is only one piece of information, and they know that they are the first people to have it, so in a weird way they don’t care what the rest of the world is doing for that 24 hours. They just care about what they are going to do.”

We caught up with Chandor for an interview last week to discuss the ideas behind the movie and the challenges of making it. What follows are edited excerpts from that conversation.

JC: The film for me was supposed to be a tragedy, not the horrible tragedy of someone dying but a tragedy of lost potential. These are the best and brightest that we have. We don’t tax our universities because they are supposed to provide society with a service, which is educated youth ready to come out and work. The abuse that I’ve seen over the last 14 to 15 years since I’ve graduated from college, the manipulation of that system, that training ground, essentially leading toward making money for money’s sake as opposed to banking that is actually serving a purpose was the heart of the movie for me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a capitalist. Some wanted this film to be more of an indictment of these people, and that’s not where I come from, obviously. A misuse of tremendous potential is what I wanted the film to be about, in a sort of sad way.

JB: What was so striking about the movie is how there is no hero who comes and saves the day at the end.

JC: In the summer of 2009, we had a largely different, but great cast. It was one year closer to the initial disaster, but it was very difficult to raise money to go make a movie. We had a chance to go out and shoot this movie. If Zachary Quinto’s character had stood up and called in the SEC, and [Kevin] Spacey’s character had been perp-walked out of the building à la Wall Street I, [then] I had a check to go make the movie. It was a very simple change at the end of the movie. It’s often what happens with financiers that come on.

My personal belief was that what drew the actors — which was the only reason that person was offering me the money to make it — was the gray area in which the whole thing takes place. Actors love to play — and they don’t often get the chance to do it, obviously — conflicted characters who don’t always do the quote-unquote thing you think they are going do. So there was the practical part of me that was like, I don’t know if all of these actors will stick with me if I did that.

Then there really was the main reason. I strongly, strongly felt that you did not get a systemic collapse where the tip of the sword of capitalism had to be socialized — which was of course what had just happened, where the government basically had to come in and take over the banking sector — you don’t get that happening just on individual failure.

JB: What is a 17-day shooting schedule like?

JC: It is very unpleasant. It was a union shoot, so there are rules. It is a 12-hour day, which means you are actually active on a set for 12 hours. And it was a 6-day week. These are all things that make things cheaper… Your crew is actively working 12 to 13 hours a day, sometimes more pending overtime. Your average studio movie is anywhere from 45 to 90 days. And your average independent film is 35 days. Again, though, we would never have gotten the cast if I had asked them to come 35 days — two months of the summer and spring, which is the prime shooting time when they are being offered studio movies.

We were constantly rolling. The major, major upside to that — again, embracing your weakness — I had classically trained, unbelievably driven, hyper-, hyper-talented and hyper-experienced actors. The least experienced person on my movie was Penn Badgley, who has been a professional actor supporting himself and part of his family for 10 years. So everyone there was a professional. So the neat thing is I threw those people, who in their profession are very similar to the people that the movie was about: these type-A, very driven, unbelievably trained, never-supposed-to-show-anyone-that-they-are-panicking people on the worst day of their lives. Not that the shoot was the worst day of their lives, because it actually wasn’t at all, but from a challenging standpoint — to be doing 12 pages in a day is not something that Jeremy Irons is used to doing. As I was editing, you started to see moments of underlying panic in the performance at times. The performances felt very alive.

JB: Paul Bettany’s performance is fantastic. In an odd way he is the purest character.

JC: For people who have been in that world or know that world, he is the character that people from a performance standpoint are so drawn to because — sounds sort of silly to say — because the character is supposed to be on the surface a kind of jerk, but it really is most subtle. As a key trader on the floor, your life and your job are very simple. It is a very simple set of tasks. It’s not simple to be good at it, but aspects of it are very simple. He is sort of the assassin. He requires that those behind him, the generals, are making the right choices, and that is all he ever expects for himself. It’s neat because audiences are kind of drawn to him in a way that you would never think for the way that character is. If you actually read that part, it’s a despicable kind of character, some of the things he says, but the way he humanizes it — not even humanizes it but made it real — was a great performance.

JB:You really captured the tribal nature of Wall Street where the only value besides greed is loyalty.

JC: Spacey came a couple of weeks ahead of time. He is a very liberal guy, Spacey, so his original take on the character was far less empathetic than the one I ended up trying to get him to give me. For a couple of days we went to visit exactly that guy in a bunch of banks. At that point, when we went and visited them, they were in total lockdown on their salaries because of the government coming in. They were literally not there for the money. They could have been making a lot of money somewhere else. But it was that they had convinced all their guys and gals to stay, and it was that tribal element that really ended up being what hurt them the most when this whole thing went down. I think Spacey embodied that — hopefully in a way that isn’t as overt as Bettany’s character. But the whole thing with the dog is essentially a diversion for him — in my mind, it’s probably not the way Kevin actually sees it — the whole thing with the dog is supposed to be this sort of absurdist human thing that we do when you are just totally grabbing on to an abstraction to not be thinking about what is actually the problem.

JB: I’m wondering if these insights into how Wall Street operates are only available through fiction?

JC: I can’t tell you when we were trying to raise the money for this movie, how many people came and said, “Isn’t this better served in a documentary? Isn’t someone else going to tell this story?” The main question I was getting at Sundance when we introduced the film was, “Do we need another Wall Street movie?” The first question I got at the press conference when I landed in Berlin was, “Why has there not been more American arts oriented on this topic?” This is something that has affected so many people in your country and around the world. Why aren’t there like 6 movies coming out of different facets?

My belief in doing this film was that out of fiction you actually get — maybe — these guys to sit and watch the movie. The movie obviously doesn’t have a lot of ER type details in it [such as numbers and figures]. And that was for a reason. There were more details in the film. As I was editing it and showed it to a couple of people, and thinking about it myself, that sort of Greek, so to speak, meant nothing to the average audience. You didn’t need it. It just made them feel dumb, basically, and potentially they stopped paying attention because of it. And interestingly, the insider audience started running numbers. They were running my math. They were cross checking what I was saying, and that was not where they need to be either.

When there is bad news, no one ever rushes to call me to tell me that I have been passed over for a job. That is not the first call my agent is looking to make. The minute there is any good news, you’ve got six voice messages on your machine and everyone wants it coming out of their mouth. So I tried to use that human nature kind of trick. This is obviously the worst news that all of these people had ever come across in their professional life, and so there was this total reticence to take any kind of ownership for it. Quinto’s character is the only guy who actually gets bullied into laying it out there, because it’s the CEO doing it to him. It was my out in not having to have all the math, to have all the details in there. Hopefully that allows the people in that world to get lost in the movie.

That line was what I was trying to walk. The only number in the entire movie [beside a brief trading scene near the end] … is at one point Simon Baker says $8 trillion. That [number] wasn’t potentially what they had on their books, that was a more systemic representation of what was moving around the world – so that is the only number in the entire movie, which is of course kind of funny because it is a movie about numbers. But if you kept the movie moving forward you never had to go there.

JB: I wish we could do that!

JC: That’s where the whole fiction thing comes in. That was an experiment. The original script does have some numbers in there. And it actually felt sort of important to the actors. The actors were all a little taken aback — not when they saw the movie, interestingly — but when I told them after what was missing. When they were delivering their performances the number lines where ones that they in their minds had sort of given tremendous depth and worth to. But when they actually saw the movie they realized that it wasn’t necessary.

Margin Call Is The Most Insightful Wall Street Movie Ever Made

This article originally appeared on the Business Insider website and was written by Jake Bernstein.

Spoiler alert: This article discusses key scenes from the film.

J.C. Chandor has embraced Rahm Emanuel’s dictum “never let a serious crisis  go to waste.” The 37-year-old writer and director used the financial crisis as a  springboard to create the most insightful Wall Street movie ever filmed. Margin  Call captures a day in the life of a Lehman Brothers-like bank as it scrambles  to avoid falling into the first cracks of the financial crisis. Briskly paced  and marvelously acted, the movie reveals how large financial institutions  operate and the motivations of the people who work within them.

Margin Call should not be confused with journalism. It is not a precise  overlay of the financial crisis. You’ll never hear the words collateralized debt  obligations uttered in the movie. As the  reporting I did with my colleague Jesse Eisinger showed, the Wall Street  behavior that helped create the financial crisis was often much worse than  what’s depicted in the movie. Chandor isn’t looking for villains or lengthy  explanations. He’s mining deeper truths than the intricacies of credit default  swaps. The societal costs of high finance, the power of self-rationalization,  and the easy embrace of personal corruption is his terrain.

As reporters covering the beat know, Wall Street is a reluctant participant  in introspection. Journalists investigating the Street have to pierce a code of  omertà, borne of the fear of lawsuits and federal investigations. No one wants  to have the reputation of being a snitch in an industry where hiring and bonuses  are based on relationships as much as quarterly results. The truth is even more  tightly held when it hides the origins of financial disaster, but even in the  best of times, these are not, by nature, navel gazers. Traders and market makers  are like sharks, always wanting to move forward, onto the next deal. There is no  percentage in looking back.

All you need to know about the moral universe Margin Call inhabits is on  display in the opening scene of the movie. The downturn has begun. The firing  squad — represented by two women in identical business suits — arrives on the  trading floor trailed by underlings carrying cardboard boxes to cart away  personal effects. When they come into view, a series of swift reactions plays  across the face of Will Emerson, a senior trader acted brilliantly by Paul  Bettany. First fear. Then dismay. And finally, relief and dismissal. After 80  percent of the floor is axed, Emerson’s boss, Sam, a wan Kevin Spacey, gives a  pep talk to the traders left standing. “They were good. You are better. Now they  are gone. They are not to be thought of again.”

Among the casualties is the risk manager for the trading group, Eric Dale,  played by Stanley Tucci. On the way out the door, Dale tells his young protegé,  Peter Sullivan, that he has been working on something important. As the elevator  closes, he hands Sullivan a zip drive and says cryptically, “Be careful.”

Sullivan, played by Zachary Quinto, who also helped produce the movie, waits  until the office clears for the night and then dives into the figures. To his  horror, he discovers the bank is massively overleveraged. If trends continue,  projected losses are much greater than the value of the firm. Upon learning how  dire the situation has become, the CEO John Tuld, portrayed by a scene-chewing  Jeremy Irons, says, “So what you are telling me is that the music is about to  stop and we are going to be left holding the biggest bag of odorous excrement  ever assembled in the history of capitalism.”

Sullivan is the questioning heart of Margin Call. He has a doctorate in  engineering with a speciality in propulsion — literally a rocket scientist. And  like so many of the best and brightest of his generation, he turned to Wall  Street, where Chandor clearly believes his gain is society’s loss. When one of  his superiors asks Sullivan why he has forsaken engineering, he responds: “It’s  all just numbers really, just changing what you are adding up, and to speak  freely, the money here is considerably more attractive.”

Sullivan operates in the constricted space of the Wall Street risk manager.  Risk managers and accountants are among the few who actually know what the  numbers mean. They see the whole picture. It’s a running joke through the movie  that Sullivan’s bosses, right up to the CEO, don’t understand the financial  wizardry behind the products they make and sell. When confronted with Sullivan’s  analysis, Sam says, “Oh Jesus, you know I can’t read these things. Just speak to  me in English.”

The risk manager is not in sales, which is the heart and soul of the  institution. He or she only offers recommendations. Throughout Margin Call there  are a number of references to warnings unheeded. And indeed, in the real world,  the success of investment banks at subverting their risk management rules  correlated nicely with how badly they fared when the crisis hit. In the ultimate  irony, when it’s time for someone to take the fall for the firm’s risk taking,  it’s the head of risk management, played by Demi Moore who is pushed to the  scaffold.

Sullivan and his side-kick Seth, played by Penn Badgley, are still new enough  to the system to be doubtful of its utility. Seth is enamored with the money  Wall Street offers and particularly impressed by his boss Will Emerson, who  pulled down $2.5 million the previous year. They briefly wonder whether that’s  “right,” but push the unwelcome thought away unanswered.

When Emerson tells the eager young men that “you learn to spend what is in  your pocket” and that most of his money is gone, they are incredulous. He  itemizes his expenses for them, including $76,520 for hookers, booze and  dancers. Their adulation only increases when he admits he claimed most of that  back as entertainment expenses.

Later when Seth bemoans the fact that normal people will be hurt by their  actions, Emerson’s ferocious response is shocking both for its amorality and its  kernels of truth.

“If you really want to do this with your life you have to believe that you’re  necessary. And you are. People want to live like this in their cars and their  big fucking houses that they can’t even pay for? Then you’re necessary. The only  reason they all get to continue living like kings is because we’ve got our  fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off and the whole world  gets really fucking fair really fucking quickly and nobody actually wants that.  They say they do but they don’t. They want what we have to give them, but they  also want to play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from.  That’s more hypocrisy than I’m willing to swallow. Fuck them. Fuck normal  people.”

Faced with the pile of excrement on the books, the archly named Tuld (Lehman  Brothers CEO was Dick  Fuld) decides the bank must unload it, and quickly, before customers wise  up. At this point, the movie could just as easily be called, “Damage Control:  When Greed Turns to Fear.”

Sam tries to talk Tuld out of his plan. “If you do this, you will kill the  market for years. It’s over. And you are selling something that you know has no  value,” he says.

Tuld responds with the excuse every Wall Street executive used when  investigators came calling after the shit hit the investors: “We are selling to  willing buyers at the current fair market price so that we may survive.”

In the real world, the buyers were not as sophisticated and the deals not as  transparent as bankers claimed.

The House always wins, Emerson tells his young charges. The corollary is that  everybody is for sale. Indeed,  anyone who has qualms in the movie finds the right price for their acquiescence.  In this world, traders earn bonuses for screwing their customers. Tucci’s  character is told he can lose his health care and stock options — or keep them  while sitting quietly in a room for a day at $176,476 an hour. “It didn’t seem  like much of a choice,” he says.

Beyond the sheer entertainment value of the movie, Chandor’s biggest coup is  his willingness to indict a system rather than simply blame the individuals  within it. Ultimately, Margin Call is the story of a Wall Street that has  evolved from an economic helpmate to an economic predator.

New Film Appropriate for the Times

Actor and Director Talk about Their New Film by Jason Harris

Actor Zachary Quinto (2009’s Star Trek, Heroes) started his production company, Before the Door, in 2008 and its first film, Margin Call, is being released Friday.

The film is a thriller entangling the key players at an investment firm during one perilous 24-hour period in the early stages of the 2008 financial crisis. Entry-level analyst, Quinto’s Peter Sullivan unlocks information that could prove to be the downfall of the firm; a roller-coaster ride ensues as decisions both financial and moral catapult the lives of all involved to the brink of disaster.

Quinto said the script was “fantastic.” He also liked how the film “handled the subject matter.”

“I liked how it drew me in,” Quinto said. “I thought it was really compelling material.”

Margin Callis written and directed by J.C. Chandor, his first feature film. He doesn’t know if the timing of the film’s release during the Occupy Wall Street movement will help the film’s marketing efforts.

Zachary Quinto and J.C. Chandor on the set of Margin Call

“It’s certainly rewarding,” Chandor said. “It takes many years to make a film. To be able to introduce a film into that environment is very rewarding.”

Chandor said he has visited the New York City Occupy Wall Street site.

“It’s very inspiring that people are actually out in the street having their opinions heard,” Chandor said.

Chandor said he will have to wait and see if the movement helps the film at the box office.

“We wanted to give the viewer an entertaining look into this field,” Chandor said. “Hopefully it will give the viewer a greater understanding of who we’re protesting against.”

Chandor doesn’t think it will be a challenge marketing a film about an unsympathetic company taking advantage of people.

“You don’t have to like everyone in the movie,” Chandor said. This is about coming into a world where you really aren’t supposed to like everyone in it. Every character is human. In the same way a horror movie can be entertaining and fun, you are with these people in their every day professional lives. You see it from a different point of view.”

Chandor mentioned two reasons for people to see the film.

“I would say a reason to see Margin Call is hopefully it entertains you for an hour and a half,” Chandor said. “We tried
to make a compelling drama. The second thing is we tried to do is give the viewer insight into a world they are not normally privy; a world not normally available to them.”

Along with Quinto, the film stars Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, and Stanley Tucci.

“The cast was an unbelievably great surprise,” Chandor said. “These actors really believed in the project. It made it that much more rewarding.”

Chandor said the 17 day shoot helped the film land actors with very busy schedules. The shooting schedule was “very short in the world of filmmaking,” he said.

The performances turned in by Spacey and Irons were everything Chandor could dream of as a writer and director, he said.

“It was actually a bit of a risk at the time to cast Kevin in a role that is essentially for much of the film supposed to be quite empathetic with the audience,” Chandor said. “In the past, it might have been more typical to cast him as the CEO.”

Chandor said Spacey inhabited the character and made it his own.

Quinto in a scene in Margin Call

Quinto prepared for his role by shadowing some Wall Street workers at Citibank.

“The Citibank workers were really supportive and really available,” Quinto said. “They were able to help myself and the other actors.”

Chandor had several incidents in late 2006 through 2008 that inspired him to write Margin Call, which he started writing
three years ago, he said.

The movie will be available in theaters and on video on demand. Check out the film’s website,
for the theaters showing the film.