’Arbitrage’ director looks inside the one-percent
Hedge-fund magnate Robert Miller (Richard Gere) seems to have it all. He is the poster child of the Wall Street one-percent, with a beautiful and loyal wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and brilliantly smart daughter Brooke (Brit Marling) by his side. He even has a temperamental French mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta) to distract him from his picture perfect life. On the eve of his 60th birthday, as he tries to sell off his trading empire, a shocking accident sends him down a destructive path, threatening to wipe out his lifelong achievement. With an agile detective (Tim Roth) hot on his heels, Miller has to find a way to prevent his world from collapsing, dragging down those around him as well.
Behind this story of "Arbitrage" is the son of two commodities traders, Nicholas Jarecki. Author of "Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start," Jarecki followed one of the subjects of his book, James Toback, and made the documentary "The Outsider" from it. He then helped produced "Tyson," James Toback’s documentary about the iconic heavyweight boxing champion. For his feature directorial debut, Jarecki wrote about the financial world he was pretty much born into. If there was an underbelly to the seemingly glamorous polished financial cosmo where inhabit top movers with questionable morals, Jarecki tries to show us in this glossy cat-and-mouse pursuit.
Variety’s Peter Debruge calls the film "incredible accomplished for a first feature, demonstrating production values on par with those of full-blown studio pics" and applauds Jarecki for his ambition that "is rewarded with a professional, morally thorny thriller that gives us all the more reason to resent those responsible for the current financial mess." Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman describes "Arbitrage" as a "vital emotional workout" and sees Jarecki as a young director with "the talent to make shrewdly pleasurable Hollywood movies."
EDGE talks to Jarecki about his thriller set in the bubble of the one percent.
Financial Crisis 2.0
EDGE: This is a topic that you are familiar with.
Nicholas Jarecki: I was reading the papers in 2008 like everyone else, hedge fund magnates were dominating the headlines at that time. I’d like to think of it as a kinder, gentler financial crisis 1.0. I feel that we are now at 2.0 where it is much more cynical, If I were to tell you someone had absconded with $5 billion this morning, you’d go, well, no big shock, it’s business.
We were not thinking this way two or three years ago. I started thinking what happened. How had the economy gone downhill so quickly and how had everybody just woken up from a terrible dream to a terrible reality. That was what inspired it, then I think about a character, Robert Miller (played by Richard Gere in the film) who was a man of wealth and power. A good man, but had gone wrong. What it would be like to be with him in his journey down the rabbit hole?
EDGE: Miller is a very flawed character. As you were writing him, what qualities did you give him to make him relatable?
Nicholas Jarecki: I think you can relate to anyone as long as you sense a striving for a goodness. The theme we tried to infuse into the film was will you give up the power that you love to hang on to the last shred of humanity. Richare Gere personifies that very well. He is incredibly charming as a person, as an actor. So he brings that to the role, and his physical grace. He is extremely handsome. It is said that he has the best walk in the movie business. But you see him fighting himself. There is an old movie maxim that says there are only three kinds of stories: man versus man, man versus nature or man versus himself. For me, the most interesting films are always man versus himself. It is that inner struggle for humanity that I find fascinating.
A universal theme
EDGE: There was this element of redemption toward the end of the film that allows us to see the last shred of humanity that does come through.
Nicholas Jarecki: I am glad you felt that. That was something that I struggled to show that Miller was not rotten to his core, that he had some blood left pumping through the heart. You say that you see his humanity. I think you do but it is only for a split-second because his money and his intelligence allow him to maneuver around the direct cost to himself.
EDGE: There are a lot of such characters like Miller around us that in a way we aspire to be, but we also do not want to be that person because you do lose your humanity along the way.
Nicholas Jarecki: That is an astute comment you made. My main teacher was Aristotle, who lived 2,400 years ago. He wrote a book called ’The Poetics.’ It was a manual for the screenwriters of the time who were making plays. In it, he showed the classic paradigm which I tried to follow. You have a good man. You made him even greater than the great leaders. Then, you see him make an error and go downhill, one step after the next. Through this, we can identify with him, but we can pity him at the same time.
These are the stories that let us learn about ourselves. When I think about these characters, I think about myself. I think about the darker parts of myself, the things that I do not want to confront. That is what the audience is paying their ten dollars for. I tried to give that as much as I can and to face the questions of myself that I am bothered by.
It is a universal thing. We know that our greed can get the better of us. Our selfishness can cause us to neglect the people that we love. It is going on and will be going on. In the broader context of the financial world, I hope this film will now encourage people who now read the papers lazily and say, I know there are billions missing. I hope this encourages them to at least learn more about our financial system because education is the foundation of change.
EDGE: Was this character based on anyone you know?
Nicholas Jarecki: It was a composite of many people I knew. My parents were commodities traders, so I was exposed to this world from five years old. My mother tried to tell me from her office in the World Trade Center what a ’swop" was. I’d be walking across the courtyard to my father’s office, he’d say, ’Your mother does not understanding anything. She has got it all wrong. Here’s how it is...’ That is in my blood. I was a businessman before I was a filmmaker. I had computer businesses. So I know that world, venture capital and investment world.
I did take from people I knew, as well as very famous people in the press, James Simons, George Soros. John Paulson. The cool thing is we just screened this movie for the hedge fund guys in the East Hamptons Cinema about a month ago, they call came up to me and said, ’Great film! It really bothered us. That’s our nightmare.’ And that’s very fulfilling.
EDGE: Did they tell you about their stories with their mistresses as well?
Nicholas Jarecki: That I have seen first hand.
Casting Richard Gere
EDGE: How did you get Richard Gere to come on board? Tell me about your experience working with him.
Nicholas Jarecki: It was a dream come true. I sent him the script and eighteen hours later, he called back and said he would like to meet. It was extremely lucky he had an opening and he saw something in the script and in the character. He said he saw a character he had not played before, with a darker side of a man that he had gone near in films but had never embraced. That was something that challenged and excited him.
Working with him was a wonderful process. We spent one month rehearsing the film. He would come to my apartment. He makes tea. He is a master tea chef, also owns a restaurant so he has a lot of food skills. I was a great beneficiary of these. We would sit and talk through the character’s hopes and dreams, what he is wanting in his soul quest. The film is very much about the fear of the unknown, the abyss. This is a character who is constantly in motion. There is an old proverb somewhere about why does the shark keeps swimming, because if it does not, it dies. That is this man. If Robert Miller were to slow down and contemplates his existence, it would bother him.
Richard really accessed that in a profound way. He was a great partner, did tons of research, went to the New York Stock Exchange. We met all these hedge fund guys. Richard always wanted to know about their personal lives, their wives, their children. At the same time, he would read this technical trading analysis articles I would give him. "What is the head and shoulder curve?" he would ask. Richard impressed me, as did the rest of the cast, with this tremendous dedication and preparation.
’Did we get it?’
EDGE: Was it intimidating for you as a first time filmmaker working some of the best talents in the business like Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon?
Nicholas Jarecki: I had some gifted actors that because we spent that month together, we really got to know each other. I had been building the cast for a while. Susan Sarandon and I met a year before filming. Some of the actors I got to know. Through the rehearsal process, we develop that friendship and trust. As far as working with the actors, it was never a concern at the moment, they supported me too, and gave me the tools to help them work.
All actors love direction if you like to direct and do it well, your actors will enjoy working with you. I was a little nervous the day before the first day on set, but I asked Richard, we had been rehearsing that Friday, he said, ’No, I’ll be nervous Sunday, maybe you will too.’
EDGE: Was there still a lot of direction on the set or was it clockwork after the month of rehearsal?
Nicholas Jarecki: It was a constant collaboration. I do not really see shooting was completely different from rehearsal because it was more of a conversation than a result oriented process. The movie in my head, I had already seen two thousand times. I wrote it, I think about it, I planned it, I did endless drafts, I am bored with that film. I already knew what that film is, I do not need to make that film. I need to make this film, the one in front of us now, where I do not know what is going to happen. It is going to be a surprise, it is going to be exciting.
My job as a director is to say, ’Did we get it? Is this good enough? Is this correct? If it is not, we have to stay here, irrespective of the cost unfortunately, or if we have got it, let’s go for the next one.’ That is where I am coming from. My energy is to feel what is right for the film out of what we are making now, not some plan we are trying to do.
A light moment
EDGE: For a movie with a serious tone, was there something funny that has happened on the set?
Nicholas Jarecki: We had rented a Mercedes Maybach for Richard Gere to be driven around in this big limo, made by Mercedes for about $500,000. What we did not know was these cars were not really well made, so Mercedes stopped making them. Richard drives a Prius. On the first day of shooting, he was supposed to get into the limo, the door did not open. We could not get the door open, we could not do any of the shots. It was day one. I was like, ’I’m sunk on day one!’ We were trying to call the technicians. Richard was freaking out, ’Why doesn’t this god damn thing open?’
I was talking to my assistant director, there was no road map to this, this is the nerve-wracking thing about directing. I was shooting in the limo and thought we just had to shoot something else. All of of a sudden, I was staring at the door and I kicked it. Boom! It flew right open. A talkie-talkie clip from a production assistant had fallen in the lock catch. We laughed. Thank God. We were back on. Let’s go! It was a great lesson for a director because there were 250 people there, if I did not kick that door open, we would not have gotten those shots. It was amusing and terrifying at the same time. From then on, I learn that there was no problem I was not going to get in the solution of. And I had luck on my side.
"Arbitrage" opens in theaters September 14, 2012.
Watch the trailer to "Arbitrage":