By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 17, 2011 at 5:38AM
This week Zachary Quinto came out in New York Magazine, as major studio production Star Trek 2 ramps up for a January start with him on board as Spock, who memorably romances Zoe Saldana in the film. Quinto has also launched indie production company Before the Door Pictures, which started off with film school dropout-turned-commercial director J.C. Chandor's $3.5 million Wall Street drama Margin Call, featuring a strong ensemble including Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore. The film debuted at Sundance, where U.S. rights sold to Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions for $2 million (here's TOH's Sundance story). The movie couldn't be more timely, with the Occupy Wall Street movement building steam and dominating global headlines.
Chandor, whose father was an exec at Merrill Lynch, wrote the film about a fictional mammoth investment bank (modeled more on Goldman Sachs than Lehman Brothers) 24 hours before the financial collapse in 2008. Producer Quinto kept the project on track through many twists and turns and support and packaging help from CAA. Because Chandor knew the world so well from the inside, he was always on board to direct his script. Cast members came and went; Ben Kingsley fell out at the last minute, replaced by Jeremy Irons, whose visa had expired. Never has anyone gotten a visa so fast. Quinto accompanied the film to opening night of this fall's Sneak Preview series before its October 21 opening. Our Q & A is below.
Anne Thompson: Were you concerned that so many Wall Street movies were coming and going and your movie hadn't come out? And how lucky are you with how timely it is now?
Zachary Quinto: There were always naysayers. There's always an uphill battle, especially when you're putting an independent film together. People were like, 'You know they're making Wall Street 2, right?' And we were like, 'this movie couldn't be any more different than Wall Street 2.' For us, it was always about the quality of the material, making the best movie that we could make, the best actors in the best roles, giving them opportunities and trusting ourselves and the integrity of the creative process. Because there might have been seven movies about Wall Street that have come out since we tried to pull this money together, but how could we possibly know that this movie would come out amidst a movement on Wall Street? Like those little things that are just clicks of the dial of fate one way or another. And it could put something in a whole other category, to a whole other level of exposure, to a whole other audience that would never have come to it. We're going to have so many eyes on this movie now because of what's happening, again, which is just a ripple effect of what happened in the movie to begin with. Here, in Europe and the world. I mean, like what the heck is going on?
AT: Was your character based on a specific person? JC's father worked at Merrill Lynch, and this is more based on Goldman Sachs?
ZQ: Yeah, -ish. The movie and the characters that are in the world are all a composite of people that really existed, that really participated in this catastrophe, and people that JC grew up around. My character is actually representative of a whole wave of brilliant minds, the best and the brightest of the scientific engineering computer world, these guys and girls that had such an intense capacity for knowledge, that could have been channeled in a way that would have better served our culture and our society and benefitted us. And they were lured by the money, because once these corporations realized that they could have these minds if only they paid them, I mean the money was limitless, and there was this whole swath of people that changed mid-stream and unwittingly contributed to what we're all dealing with right now. And what are they left with? It's like one of a number of the emotional and esoteric questions that the screenplay addresses and asks and is exploring.
AT: I can't believe you were able to do Margin Call for $3.5 million dollars.
ZQ: One of the jokes I made throughout the production was if we're going to make a movie about the collapse of the financial institution we might as well do it in a fiscally responsible way. You know, it's not a $65 million dollar motorcycle chase thriller, but it has another kind of pulse to it, which is partly what we responded to in the first place. And also we were raising money for the movie in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, in 2009, so it wasn't really much of an option. Our limitations ended up being incredible opportunities for us throughout the process.
AT: You were probably able to get the funding because you were able to land this amazing cast. Why was that script able to lure these actors?
ZQ: I think it humanizes this whole world and the people that inhabit it in a way that is surprising and compelling, and a little bit unexpected. Its point of entry is off center. It doesn't attempt to moralize, it doesn't rake anybody through the coals, it expects something from an audience and allows them to have an opinion. And those are the kinds of movies that we want to make, that's really a tenet of our company. I think it facilitates an opportunity for a kind of discourse in the context of what's actually happening in our world right now.
In a lot of ways this movie serves as a reflection to the audience as well, to allow them to gauge what their understanding is of what's going on. How deep does the knowledge of this audience really go? That's a huge question that I think our country should be asking itself. So for me, it's less about those details and more about an examination from an emotional standpoint of where these people, some of whom were blatantly responsible or complicit, and some only doing their jobs and only having one choice that they could have ultimately made, that it was either take this job or not, walk in the building and do what they're told to do, because that's what their job requires, or don't take the job and walk another path. And the path that everybody in this movie decided to walk was part and parcel with what led us to this catastrophe and so for us it's really about an exploration of that, and to not make it about understanding the jargon or seeing the numbers on the screen. We are never actually over someone's shoulder looking at the grids or graphs that they're looking at; you see glimpses of it. But it's also reflective of how most of our culture, myself included, understands the significant minutiae of this world.
AT: It's refreshing to see a movie with people actually talking. But it's also hard to do that well.
ZQ: It is, and it's to JC's credit as a first time feature director that he was able to surmount the obstacle of getting actors of this calibre to believe in his ability to execute his own vision. As first time feature producers, we recognized that our job was to both do everything in our power to create an environment in which these actors could feel that they could do their best work.
AT: One of the hazards of assembling indie projects is that people fall in and out.
ZQ: It was all a balancing act, at every point. There's a quote from Christine Vachon's book that talks about how you need the actors believing that the money is in place, and people believing that the actors are in place, until one of those things is actually true, and then you can move forward. I'm glad my partner Neil Dodson and I read that chapter because it really helped us in putting this movie together.
AT: Didn't you have Ben Kingsley on board?
ZQ: Yes, Ben Kingsley was attached to an early version of the script, and Carla Gugino was originally involved as Sarah Robertson. And as these things happen--we were very cavalier at the beginning -- once we read the script we were like 'Let's go after Kingsley! He might do it!' And he was like, 'Yes, I like it,' and asked, 'What's the money situation?' And we were like 'We'll figure it out,' but we didn't have any money. That was maybe not the most smooth version of trying to convince the actor that the money was there, because it wasn't. And then his schedule became problematic.
AT: But the actors were really not making much money on this.
ZQ: Um, no. No.
AT: One of the ways you got away with this was One Penn Plaza.
ZQ: I have fond memories. Between 7th and 8th, right above Madison Square Garden. The 42nd floor, which was a lot of square feet. It was occupied by a financial firm that folded and so we rented the space. Our production existed on one floor in a high rise, half of which we used as a training floor, Bloomberg came in and outfitted us with all these state-of-the-art monitors and computer systems and then the other half was actually like our dressing rooms. So it was really cool because we were all in the same place. It wasn't like when you're shooting a studio feature and everybody takes 30 minutes to get from their trailer back to set. It was a really condensed shooting process so the fact that we were all in the same place really facilitated camaraderie and collaboration. We did this movie in 17 days.
AT: And you shot with the RED camera, which helped to get you that 17 days?
ZQ: Yeah, for sure. Frankie DeMarco, our director of photography, whose done all of John Cameron Mitchell's movies [Shortbus, Hedwig, Rabbit Hole], this amazing DP whose got a lot of experience and fluidity with the RED camera, had a great dialogue and relationship with JC the whole time, and with us on set.
AT: You almost didn't play your role either.
ZQ: Well yeah, there was a period of time that I was attached to another movie and we had Joseph Gordon-Levitt attached for the role that I was going to play, and then he dropped out to go do 50/50, and then my movie got postponed and I was able to do the thing that I was really hoping to do in the beginning.
AT: So CAA helped you put this together?
ZQ: CAA was really instrumental, yeah. At the time that we shot the movie, six out of the eight principal actors were CAA clients. I was not one of them and now I am. So if they were trying to impress me, it worked. But yes, they were very instrumental in helping us package the film, getting actors involved -- they were very supportive all the way.
AT: And so you took it to Sundance and there was this bidding war.
ZQ: Yeah, we were one of the first two movies to get sold at Sundance. It was before I even got there, because I was doing a play [Angels in America] in New York, and everyone was like 'Well, we'll do an advance screening on Friday, but don't worry about it, just come on Monday.' The movie sold on Sunday and I was in New York like, 'Did you sell it, guys?' You know, my first movie. But yeah, we sold it there and premiered it there, and went to Berlinale with it and it opened the New Directors New Films series at MOMA this past May. And now we're actually releasing this bad boy October 21.
AT: Was starring in the recent reprise of Angels in America in New York a satisfying experience for you?
ZQ: It was the most challenging thing I've done as an actor since I graduated from college, which was twelve years ago. And the most rewarding as well. It was incredible, I'm so glad I got to do it. I was so hungry to get back on stage.
AT: So you did Angels in America and you start shooting Star Trek in January, but you're invested in doing more of this independent production. Why is that important to you?
ZQ: Well it's important to me to have some control over the stories that I tell. As an actor, it's very easy to open one self up to the industry, and whether or not the industry says yes to you, basically, you know, what value the industry places on you, what they tell you you can do--they being the monolistic studio system--you know, it works sometimes, it worked for me with Star Trek, that's how I got to this point in the first place, but I realized in that process that it doesn't work forever. And so I wanted to have an outlet to being part of stories that I want to tell, and also to give opportunities. We've made three feature films so far, this being our first and two others that we have in post-production right now [including The Banshee Chapter] all of which have been directed by first-time feature directors--that is really important to us. We're now actually in the mid-stages of producing JC's second movie. This is a relationship we invested in and we really put ourselves on the line for, because this really could have gone a different direction, we could very easily not be sitting here talking to you about the movie. But because of the strength of that collaboration and what we were able to accomplish through supporting JC and working so well with him, we're really eager to stay involved with his process and be a part of what he does from now on.
AT: One of the things I noticed was how quiet the movie is. Can you talk about that decision? It's not manipulative.
ZQ: It was actually environmental. Nathan Larson, our incredible composer, actually took tonal sounds from our movie, and extrapolated them and fed them into musical sequences. Like the sound of the escalator, at some point the rhythm of the escalator becomes a drumbeat through that sequence of music. So the music was actually really specifically designed as a buoyancy; it doesn't come on top of the action, the dialogue or the scenes, it comes up from under them and helps them lift.
AT: You told me about something you just did for Leonard Nimoy?
ZQ: Leonard and I are very close from our experience of Star Trek and he just retired from the Trek convention circuit--I wonder how many autographs he's signed? He retired, so I emailed JJ [Abrams] and the entire cast of my movie and said we should put together a little movie for him, and that's as far as I thought, and everyone was like 'yeah, totally' and they all emailed me their videos, and I got them all and I was like, 'now what am I going to do? who's going to edit them?' I had to learn how to use iMovie and I actually edited this five-minute movie that we sent to Chicago to play for him, wishing him well and congratulating him on his retirement.
Audience member: Could you tell us more about JC?
ZQ: I can't say enough about him. He was so affable throughout, working with multi-Academy Award winning actors on a seventeen day shoot, on a budget. He comes from a commercial background. He works closely with Washington Square films, they represent him and produce his commercials, so they were supportive of his first feature endeavor. And he comes from this world, so there's a lot of personal feeling and perspective and intrinsic knowledge. He's very smart and an entrepreneur as well. We're producing his second feature which we should be ready to talk about with the release of this film in the next couple of weeks.
Audience member: Paul Bettany, when he's driving and talking to the 22-year old, he's talking about modern life and how it's essentially not fair. What was the point of that?
ZQ: He's basically saying that the same people who are going to eviscerate them for being responsible for this crisis were as complicit along the way by the lifestyles they were living. His perspective in that moment is basically talking about all the people who knowingly invested in homes they knew they could not sustain and maintain and afford, and so he's basically shining a light on our cultural implication in what happened from the perspective of someone who is about the get eviscerated by that very culture. It's unavoidable. What happened was a catastrophe that was unseen because people chose not to see it and people chose to engage in lives that were unsustainable. It is an unfortunate underpinning of capitalism that if people aren't careful, aren't employing some level of restraint, then there is a kernel of it that is made of shadow and that will rise up and undermine the many aspects of it that are rooted in integrity. I think that's what happened, and that's what the movie is trying to explore.
Audience member: Are you acting in the other two movies that you're currently producing?
ZQ: No. My company is one aspect of my work. There are a number of projects in development that I am attached to as an actor, but it's not why I started the company. I'd say 80% of what we're developing I am not attached to as an actor. I want to have as robust and diverse a career as a producer and eventually, hopefully, as a writer-director, as I do as an actor, so I can focus on that stuff through other channels and support the voices that we believe in whether or not they have a mouthpiece for me. I don't have to be in a film to be able to utilize the exposure [that I bring to it as an actor], that kind of power to get it done. The access I have isn't contingent on me being an actor in every project, so far anyway.
AT: But does it give you the opportunity to create roles for yourself that you might not have otherwise been able to get?
ZQ: Oh, absolutely. And that's another facet of it, of course; not waiting for Sony, or Fox of Paramount to say yeah we'll go with you -- because it's so arbitrary, and based on things that are not always about who's the best person for the job. So if I come up against that three times, and I get really tired of wanting to play a role that they're not giving me an opportunity to play, certainly this is an infrastructure for me to turn around and say, 'lets just make it,' and we're already doing that.
AT: Star Trek is a great franchise, but the studios are often developing material that isn't that actor-friendly.
ZQ: Well, they're also reflective of the modernization and globalization and corporatization that this movie is looking at. It's all pieces of the same pie. I mean, there's really not much difference between the movie industry and the financial industry. If you really bust it down, it's about bottom line. It's about how much can we get for how little we spend? And that is really not a good formula for creative integrity sustainably. There are times when I feel really proud to be a part of a massive, worldwide tent-pole franchise that happens to have an undercurrent of creative integrity--because it's J.J. Abrams and these amazing people--but that's not always the case. So I'm just trying to hedge my bets, I guess.