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Wall Street Panic Turns $3 Million ‘Margin Call’ Into Thriller

Wall Street Panic Turns $3 Million ‘Margin Call’ Into Thrill
Actor Kevin Spacey plays an executive at a troubled Wall Street investment firm during the early days of the economic meltdown. Photographer: Jojo Whildon/Prodigy Public Relations via Bloomberg

J.C. Chandor, writer and director of the new Wall Street thriller “Margin Call,” got an early warning about the looming financial crisis.

In 2006, Chandor and several business partners were converting a New York City commercial building into apartments. Midway through the project, the godfather of one of his associates -- a former investment banker who had started a real-estate hedge fund -- told them to sell as quickly as possible.

“He was already walking away from big real-estate deals because he saw what was coming,” Chandor, 37, said in an interview at Bloomberg’s New York headquarters.

Chandor, then a TV-commercial director seeking to break into feature films, took the advice and broke even. He remembered that moment during the financial meltdown in November 2008, when in a four-day creative burst he wrote a script about an investment firm fighting for survival.

“The crisis was happening while I was writing,” said Chandor, whose boyish face and long, thick hair make him look like a graduate student. “I wanted you to feel like you were right in the middle of it.”

Margin Call,” which opens Friday in the U.S., covers 24 roller-coaster hours as the investment firm tries to stave off financial ruin. The film follows a wide range of characters in the corporate food chain, ranging from the young numbers whiz (Zachary Quinto) and rah-rah sales boss (Kevin Spacey) to the hard-nosed risk officer (Demi Moore) and enigmatic chief executive officer (Jeremy Irons).

Big-Name Cast

So how did a first-time director with a minuscule $3 million budget manage to attract an impressive cast that also includes Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, Paul Bettany and Penn Badgley?

“I think it was mainly the story,” Chandor said. “And also the fact that I wasn’t asking them for a big time commitment. We shot it in 17 days, all in New York. So they could do it quickly and then get back to whatever else they were doing.”

Though Chandor never worked on Wall Street, his dad was an investment banker at Merrill Lynch for almost 40 years.

“I grew up around that world and I absorbed a lot of it,” he said. “I also had a lot of friends who worked on Wall Street, so I picked up stuff from them too.”

The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations currently taking place in New York and other cities around the world have cast an unfavorable spotlight on the masters of the financial universe.

‘Gaping Wound’

In “Margin Call,” however, the characters aren’t neatly divided into heroes and villains.

“I didn’t want to demonize a whole group,” Chandor said. “There are good people and bad people on Wall Street, just like everywhere else. But I think the financial crisis was the result of a bad system more than bad individuals.”

Spacey agrees.

“When you point the finger at individuals, you lose sight of the larger problem -- that the system is out of whack,” he said during a joint interview with Bettany. “Looking back to 2008, it’s pretty clear that we put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound that is still bleeding.”

Bettany, a U.K. native now living in New York, said he sympathizes with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“You don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to realize you’ve been taking it in the seat,” he said.

The movie has already paid off for Chandor, who lives in a New York suburb with his wife and two young children.

He has a two-picture writing deal with Warner Bros. -- the first script is an international thriller that may star Leonardo DiCaprio -- and is preparing to direct his second film, which he describes as a “one-man story that’s not dialogue-driven.”

“I feel very lucky,” Chandor said. “I’m doing something I love and getting paid for it.”

(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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