How Oliver Stone Got the Greed Right
Standing on the Manhattan set of his latest film, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Oliver Stone was surrounded by a fictitious who's who of banking. His actors were sitting at a wooden conference table in a dark-paneled room intended to resemble the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The scene was an interpretation of the late-night negotiations that took place on Mar. 14, 2008, as Bear Stearns teetered on the brink of collapse. Frank Langella was in character as Louis Zabel, the head of proprietary trading firm Keller Zabel Investments. In plot time, it was about 1:30 a.m. on the worst night of Zabel's life. His firm's stock had plummeted amid rumors of its multibillion-dollar debt; Zabel was trying to persuade the surrounding bank presidents and government officials to bail him out, but there were few takers. Then Stone yelled out, "Where's the china?"
According to Vincent Farrell, a veteran Wall Street investor and one of Stone's consultants on the film, the men assembled that night would have eaten steaks from the Palm restaurant, just like JPMorgan Chase (JPM) executives had at a similar meeting. Hours after eating, the remains would have been stacked up in the background. However, Farrell noted, the New York Fed doesn't have paper plates or Styrofoam. It uses fine china. That was the problem—there wasn't any. Stone was miffed. "So they went out and bought it," Farrell recalls. "It took a couple hours, but they sent five or six guys out and they came back with boxes of this stuff."
The china didn't end up being visible in the film, but that it could have been underscores Stone's obsession with nailing even the minutest details of the financial industry. For the sequel to his 1987 film Wall Street, he recruited dozens of consultants to help. "We went to all levels, anyone who would speak to us," Stone says. "We must have talked to 25 or 35" Wall Street experts. In the spring of 2009, Stone presented an early idea of the movie to short-seller James Chanos, the president of Kynikos Associates. According to Chanos, the version revolved around a short-seller who was bumping off CEOs. Chanos says he pressed Stone to abandon the plot and instead tie the script to the financial collapse of 2008. "Wall Street covered the first era of greed and criminality in trading," Chanos says. He told the director: "We just had the financial crime of the century, and you're writing about short-sellers trying to murder CEOs?" Stone doesn't recall this lethal subplot but confirms that the script originally focused on a short-seller. The final product, out Sept. 24, centers on the wreckage of 2008.
The director also spoke to former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who led investigations into investment bank Goldman Sachs (GS) and insurer American International Group (AIG) while Attorney General; Michael Novogratz, a director at Fortress Investment Group; and economist-superstar Nouriel Roubini. Stone even picked the brain of Donald Trump—because, he says, "the way he thinks and talks, the optimism, the implied arrogance—all these things come into play." Stars Shia LaBeouf and Josh Brolin were sent to observe various Manhattan trading firms. Michael Douglas, reprising his role of Gordon Gekko, sat down with Samuel D. Waksal, who served jail time after offering Martha Stewart tips about the stock of his company, ImClone Systems.
Stone, however, was equally concerned with the finer points. The traders in Money Never Sleeps are outfitted in Armani and Ralph Lauren suits with Etro ties. They're often shown guzzling caffeinated drinks like 5-Hour Energy as they stare into endless rows of terminal screens. The phrase "You vindictive prick!" was changed in the script to "You vindictive bastard!" after one adviser noted a bank executive's language would be accordingly softened in the presence of high-ranking government officials.
Stone's "attention to detail and getting it right was astonishing," says Farrell, who served as the on-set fact-checker. The 63-year-old had originally been cast for a cameo as a talking head on CNBC—a role he regularly fulfills in real life as the chief investment officer of New York-based Soleil Securities. Stone was so impressed with Farrell's insights that he offered him a job as the film's technical adviser, which Farrell accepted. He offered his services for free, but the director insisted on paying what Farrell describes as a "generous" sum.
"Most of my day was just spent sitting," Farrell says. "They gave me a monitor, and my job was to look at what the camera saw. If I had any comment, I was simply to get it to Oliver. Everything I mentioned, he did." During filming at the Jersey City (N.J.) offices of Knight Capital Group (KCG), Farrell says, the actors were becoming too animated in rehearsals. Farrell made the point to Stone, who subsequently told them to tone it down. "Imagine I'm a trader on the line," Farrell explains. "I might be screaming into the phone, but I'm not gonna be gesturing wildly like you would on the floor." Likewise, during Keller Zabel's meeting at the Fed, Farrell said the actors looked too unkempt. "These guys wouldn't be sitting there with their jackets off. That would come after several days. And they would absolutely not be sitting there with a bunch of papers in front of them," Farrell says. "The Secretary of the Treasury wouldn't have a whole bunch of papers at a meeting like this." Stone took his word for it: The table was cleared and the jackets went back on.
Alex Cohen, a former Securities and Exchange Commission attorney, was present for the 2008 Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers emergency bailout meetings that inform two scenes in Money Never Sleeps. He and fellow former SEC counsel Brian Cartwright worked closely with Stone to make both as accurate as possible. "Did they drink out of paper cups? How many people were sitting at the table?" asks Cohen. As to the larger issues that affected the actors' performances: "How heated did the conversations get? How tense was the environment?"
At one point during the scene, Stone stopped filming and asked Cohen and Cartwright to explain to his actors, in specific detail, the magnitude of the moment they were recreating. "It drove home to me how skilled these actors are," says Cohen. "This was not their world, but when you see them on the screen, you can really feel the emotion of what was going on."
Anthony Scaramucci, managing partner of investment firm SkyBridge Capital and author of the financial advice treatise Goodbye Gordon Gekko, received the film's script in July 2009, read it, "took copious notes," and suggested a number of ideas to Stone. In particular, he helped refine the mentor-protégé relationship between Brolin and LaBeouf's characters. "On Wall Street," Scaramucci says, "the older man often tries to crush the younger. This helped Josh create the necessary tension."
Scaramucci also spent hours explaining the complicated motivation of Bretton James to Brolin. "What I said to Josh was, you're the CEO of [fictitious firm] Churchill Schwartz, let's say it's the Goldman composite. You should be on top of the world, yet you have a feeling of hollowness, because there's a guy out there called Joe Hedge Fund Manager who's making $500 million a year and you're only making $70 million. So what are you gonna do? You're gonna do something dramatically stupid."
Although Stone has no plans for a third Wall Street film, Scaramucci and his ilk may not have to return to their day jobs just yet. The film rights to Michael Lewis' latest best-seller, The Big Short, have been sold to Brad Pitt. Andrew Ross Sorkin's blockbuster, Too Big To Fail, has been optioned by HBO—as has All the Devils Are Here, by Joe Nocera and Bethany McLean, which won't even be published until November. Stone's consultants insist his movie's veracity will be hard to top. "There's nothing in this film that's bulls—t," says Farrell. Well, almost. Asks Chanos: "Do you think anybody on Wall Street is as good-looking as Josh Brolin?"