By John Lichman | The Playlist January 27, 2012 at 11:01AM
Last year at Sundance, “Margin Call” premiered to an unprepared audience who were greeted by a fantastic ensemble in a gripping drama that gave an insight to the 2008 financial crisis and resulting recession. That film went on to become something of a sleeper hit, and last week, picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, but there's certainly much more to be said about the subject matter.
Nicholas Jarecki tackles the other angle of the crisis with “Arbitrage.” Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is a self-made hedge fund titan about to see his entire world crumble around him because of his own hubris and a bad investment. He tries to juggle his wife (Susan Sarandon), his daughter and COO of his company (Brit Marling) and mistress (Laetitia Casta) as his personal and professional life threaten to crash. The Playlist caught up with Jarecki the day after his film had been acquired by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, to talk about "Arbitrage," the process of casting and how his Bret Easton Ellis penned adaptation of "The Informers" provided a cushion for this production.
Your premiere was sold out.
It was crazy, we couldn't even get tickets for our friends. We had to sneak them into the back.
You mentioned during the post-Q&A that [“Arbitrage”] was a long-time gestating project, but filmed quickly [April/May 2011]. Can you describe what that entailed?
“Arbitrage” began in May 2009. Basically, I was working on something else, and it just wasn't there. So my producer Kevin Turen called me and said, “C'mon. We gotta get going, let's do something. Why don't you write something and we can shoot in one house and do a lot with a digital camera.” I said, what's that, and he said, “it's a bunch of people in one house. Something goes wrong, you know.” I said, that sounds terrible. He said, “Well, you're a fucking writer, figure it out!”
I had been reading about the ins and outs of the financial crisis and that's an interest of mine. At the same time, Graydon Carter, who's the editor of Vanity Fair and who (thanks for his friendship with our producer Laura Bickford) plays Mayfield in our movie—the banker who is buying Robert Miller's company—had been publishing a series of essays there, which he collected into “The Great Hangover.” That was some of the best financial reporting about the crisis, featuring ["Moneyball" author] Michael Lewis and all kinds of great writers. It really focused on the personal lives of these players and at the same time all the Bernie Madoff stuff was going on with interviews about what the wife knew, what the kids knew. It was a fascinating and heady time. I have a good business background. Both of my parents were commodities traders and I owned my own computer business at one point; so it's an area of interest and fascination.
I began thinking about a character. There's all these great mansions in New York from the Standard Oil days on the Upper East Side. I was thinking, who's the guy inside the house? Well, he must have a lot of money, but he must have a lot of problems. It would be an interesting character to follow. I wasn't doing the Bernie Madoff story because [he]'s boring. He's a sociopath [saying] from jail, “fuck my victims, I carried them for 25 years and now I'm doing 125.” So I had limited the character to his core; who was more like a goodly king who has a little ill intention, read too many of his own press releases and become filled with hubris. [Miller] thinks he's invincible and can have anything he wants. He begins to take liberties and what happens when that happens—that's where the character came from.
That's how he's referred to in the Forbes Magazine, so as he's closing a deal he tells the other guy, “No, I'm the Oracle of Gracie Square. I'm the Oracle, not you!” That was a play on Warren Buffet, as the Oracle of Omaha.
As you're fleshing out this script and going against a “Bernie Madoff” character, but someone from his background. Is that what brought on the other parts of the story—the thriller, the tragic event and the merger?
Well, another character that we cast quickly was Jimmy Grant, played by Nate Parker. It was easy enough to figure out Robert Miller's role: he's got the beautiful wife who has been with him since the beginning, they came together from humble origins. You've got a minor son and a beautiful, brilliant daughter, and then he has a mistress, and she's an art dealer. It was there I had to figure out how to make those characters real. Jimmy Grant came early on. The script went through many early incarnations, but I wrote the initial version in three days in this rambling outline. I thought, if this guy gets in trouble who's he gonna call? It has to be someone outside of his orbit, and I loved [Akira] Kurosawa's “High and Low,” these films that have these great contrasts between a strict, group of elites that play by one set of rules and then there's everybody else. I thought what if there was someone outside that orbit that's as smart and as hungry as Robert Miller; and he could be a great entrepreneur himself, but the circumstances are completely different. And he's not in [Miller]'s pocket the same way that everyone else is bought and paid for. He can speak - what some call - “truth to power.” And therefore he gets the phone call while Robert's corrupting everybody around him. What an interesting kind of clash to see these two worlds intersect with each other: the world of the street, the police, and the real world [that] take Robert Miller out of his bubble and put him into this predicament. When we first meet him in the movie it's either sell the company or ruin his family and go to jail for a thousand years.
But as the story progresses, now he gets into even more of a pickle making it worse for him after the disaster. So he's got to get out of it and that's where he needs Jimmy. How they know each other is it's an interesting development I don't want to give away, but how he exploits their relationship and ultimately if he cares about this kid or not, and if he'll let him down.
You bring up the class contrast of “High and Low,” but are they the positive attributes to each end of the spectrum compared to Tim Roth's detective character and Miller's lawyer? Was that way of creating a balance between the characters?
It's not so pragmatic. I really just tried to get into the story and heads of the characters and then it's always what happens next. And to try to say, if I was in that situation what would I do? Thank God I don't have to be in that situation, at least not yet. But if I were that lawyer, how would I advise my client if my job was to protect him? If I was the detective and my job was to get him, how far would I really go? A lot of this film is about people doing the wrong things for the right reason and facing that question within themselves. The theme we tried to really explore—we did a month of rehearsals. Richard came over for a month, and Stuart Margolin who plays Syd, the lawyer, came—and we all talked about this contrast between power and humanity. Will you give up your power that you love to hang on to your last shred of humanity? We're dealing in shreds, so when his lawyer advises him how to act within the system or how to protect himself, the lawyer is an element of capitalism and self protection. He's there for his client and he's willing to bend the system to achieve what he wants. They're not necessarily playing by conventional, normal rules: what are the limits you'll go to for the right thing?
It was a lot. You lose track. I had half of the script pretty fast. And then it took a while to get the other half, because moments were just missing, plots were unresolved, behaviors weren't real and the characters weren't round. I had a wonderful writing mentor, Nicholas St. John ("King of New York"), who said, “writing a script is like you're making walking sticks. The thing is, at the walking stick factory, there's a quality inspector and he takes each stick and he checks it, he inspects it, he bends it, does it stand up? Because if it doesn't, the guy who's using it will fall over. With a script, you have to be your own quality inspector and you've got to check. Because if you don't, the critics and the public will do it for you once it comes out and that's no good. You've got to look at that thing over and over again. Turn it upside down, now the North Pole is the South Pole. Now the South Pole is the North Pole. You keep doing that until you've looked at it from all angles, inspected it and said this is as good as I can get it now.”
Now people say the great advantage of being a director is once you get half there, it all changes yet again. That's what was so great about this rehearsal process, to have the opportunity through the month of the rehearsal to explore the characters, explore the script, get to know them, go to the Stock Exchange, go to the DA's, hedge fund guys, the street guys and then change the script. So we'd sit in my apartment and go, “does this make sense? would you say that? No? Well, how else would we do it?” A wonderful script was born out of there. I always use this as the example, Brit Marling plays the daughter and—I hate to even say this—but in the original draft of the script, there's somebody talking in the end of the movie about Robert Miller, and it was just an extra. And it was Stuart Margolin who plays Syd, who said, “why don't you have his daughter doing that?” I hit myself in the head because it was such an obvious, brilliant idea and I just said, “Yes! Thank you.”
So really when you have a cast with you to make the movie, what could take a week alone in a room could take an hour with all of them. You get it as good as you can get it and then you go. If you have the right team, you'll have everything you need.
You have a fantastic cast and I have no idea how you got the stars to align for Susan Sarandon and especially for Brit Marling, who just last year was in “Another Earth” at Sundance and now she's got this gigantic, meaty role as Miller's daughter.
I don't know either. I attribute it to dumb luck. I don't think there's one false performance in the film and that just speaks to the quality of the performers. With Brit, one of my producers had seen “Another Earth” up here at Sundance and he said, “had you seen Brit Marling,” and I said no. So I checked it out and instantly was extremely impressed. We got on a Skype call of all things, and right through Skype I could feel her energy. She started telling me about her life, and it was another example of luck: she went to Georgetown and majored in Economics, then went to work for an investment analyst at Goldman Sachs, and gave it up to become a movie actor. The idea that I would find in that actor somebody who had actual life experience who was totally immersed in this world is really just a beautiful accident. After the Skype, about ten minutes in, I thought it was working. She was in LA, and I was in New York and said, “can you come and meet me and Richard?” She said, “when?” I said, “Now.” She said ok, left the Skype, and went to the airport to be in New York the next morning. We sat around the table in my loft, Richard and I, and we sat there for ten minutes, read a scene and looked at each other: “Yeah, you wanna do it?” “Yeah! I'll do it!”
When you're editing the film, you use a temp track. So you're putting music in there for a rough cut to keep track of what's going on. It can be a hindrance if wrong, it can be an enormous asset if you get it right. My editor had worked on “Traffic” and other movies Cliff had done, so he really likes him and started putting Cliff's work in temp. So the more I heard, I said, “where'd you get that? Put more of that in.” I think 60 percent of our temp music was Cliff's. When I was trying to find a composer we wondered who we should get. I said, “Why don't we get Cliff, who we've been using all along.” Luckily again in one of those happy coincidences our producer Laura Bickford had also made "Traffic" with Cliff, so she called him up.
By that point had you been hearing about the praise for “Drive” and “Contagion's” soundtrack?
At that point, no one really knew about “Drive” or “Contagion.” He had done “The Lincoln Lawyer,” which is another beautiful soundtrack. Our big production issue was timing, so we called him up and said, “Hey, what's happening?” It looked like he was really into it, but he had an obligation to another movie, so no Cliff. Then the other movie fell through during the editing phase, or something, so we had a short window to use him. I would go over to his studio in LA and he has this incredible Baschet crystal instrument that's hundreds of thousands of dollars where the strings are made of crystals you run your fingers across for those incredible bass sounds. It made those beautiful sounds you can hear in “Arbitrage.” He's a genius. I didn't understand how difficult it was to score a film and somehow he had an instinct to do it. I play some music myself, a little jazz piano just for fun, so I had a little vocabulary to talk to him about. Ultimately I think I drove him crazy trying to talk about music. In the end we had a really wonderful collaboration and I hope he'll do all my films.
Well, you have to understand I wasn't there with “The Informers.” [That] was originally something I was going to direct. At the last minute, the financier found another director and he basically threw Bret Easton Ellis and I out of the process. He went on to make his own movie, rip 50 pages out the script and give his interpretation of the movie with that director, which had no relationship to what Bret and I wanted to achieve. I really feel it wasn't my film and wasn't invited to Sundance with it or do anything. That was a very difficult experience because, frankly, I thought that film was not good. It just wasn't what we wanted. The movie, if we made it, may have been terrible too, who knows?
I'm really glad it worked out the way it did because it gave me the opportunity to do something personally. The way we made “Arbitrage” was we made it with friends; [“The Informers”] had a $20 million budget, so we didn't do that. And being the writer and director, I was able to retain creative control over the script. In many cases, the group I was working with here were so supportive and intelligent that I didn't need to exercise that control all the time. I thought, “Great, I'm taking the credit for it.” What was really terrific about “The Informers” was leaving the project, I was paid five times what I was supposed to be paid to have written and directed the whole thing. So I put that money on the side and I knew I'd need it some day. When this project came around and we needed some extra things, I had that really nice little vault to draw upon and put it back into [“Arbitrage”] to make it better. In a way, the experience with “The Informers” is sad, because there's so much work into that film and so many talented actors working on there—Amber Heard, who I became friends with, gave a tour de force, brave performance of smoldering sexuality and no ego. And she felt, “What the hell is this?” That was kind of a bummer for me and Bret. But in a crazy way it helped this project come to life.
As far as Sundance is concerned, I consider this to be my official check-in and the festival has been a wonderful experience. It's a brilliant selfless act from Robert Redford who's given 90 cents off every dollar he made to a money-losing operation for 25 years. It turned a corner, no matter how many people told him he was crazy, he created something brilliant and a place for the free flow of ideas. I was honored to participate in it.
Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions will release "Arbitrage" simultaneously in theaters and on VOD later in the year.