Sympathy For The Money-Jugglers: A Conversation With ‘Arbitrage’ Director Nicholas Jarecki

At Sundance, I got a chance to see Arbitrage, the financial thriller from director Nicholas Jarecki that opened last weekend, that’s one of the first movies about the financial crisis to actually be about the financial crisis. The movie follows finance titan Robert Miller (Richard Gere) at a moment when he’s about to sell the firm he created from the ground up, even though he’s made what could be a disastrously bad bed on Russian copper. And as his daughter Brooke (Brit Marling), who has grown up working in the company and doesn’t want to sell, begins to figure out that the firm he’s selling is a house of cards, Robert crashes a car he’s driving, killing his mistress. As he struggles to cover up her death with the help of a young man (Nate Parker) whose father worked for Robert, a detective (Tim Roth) desperate to nail Robert starts closing in on him. I spoke with director Nicholas Jarecki about growing up in a family of commodity brokers, not wanting to just tell Bernie Madoff’s story, and why we love financial bubbles. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I wanted to actually start by asking you sort of where the concept–not just for the film as a whole–but for having it be sort of a prediction algorithm at the heart of the movie, instead of pure Ponzi scheme. We’ve seen so much of Bernie Madoff in the pop culture response to the financial crisis, but I was curious about the decision to have that be at the center.

Well, I thought a lot about Madoff: when I started writing the story he had just been caught and I was reading all this wonderful financial journalism in Vanity Fair, of all places. Greydon Carter had commissioned these pieces, which he collected into a book called The Great Hangover. It was all this wonderful financial journalism from great writers like Michael Lewis, and real inside stuff. And I was pretty familiar with this world because my parents were commodity brokers, and still are. And so I know a lot about business and was around it all my life in New York. But Madoff was less interesting to me because I read something he said in jail, “Fuck my victims. I carried them for 25 years and now I’m doing 125 years.” So to me, that was very sociopathic, and the idea of a Ponzi scheme also too simple. I felt like I’d seen that movie, even 25 years ago. Even 25 years ago I feel like I’ve seen that movie, you know?

So what I was more interested in was kind of a man, once good, after many years of success perhaps read one too many of his own press releases, and down the slope he goes. And for that story, I needed a financial crime that was less overt, a little more of a slippery slope, if you will, you know, something that he could get into, make this illiquid investment and you know “Okay we need a little more time”…That’s the thing he never really saw coming, and he says that to his daughter. He says, “It’s like a plane crash–it just happens.” So, even the most brilliant minds in the world–I know from personal experience–can make mistakes like this, and the world can turn upside down, and the South Pole is north.

Well, it also struck me that while Bernie Madoff could have happened at any time and place, and the fact that he was exposed in the middle of the financial crisis, his crimes have been conflated with the crisis, even though they don’t seem to have the same root symptoms. You seemed to find something actually much more symptomatic of the economic trouble we’re in–that sense of certainty that the market would always go up despite past lessons.

Well I’ve lived now, personally, through three bubbles. ’87, [the] ’00 tech bubble, and now the housing bubble. And I’m 33 and I think I’m just starting to conclude that we like bubbles. It’s something that we do. We like to build and get really enthusiastic and “Let’s go get that house, flip it, it’s no money down….The sky’s the limit!” And it’s not. And that’s when people get carried away. I think that’s kind of a common human thing. So in a way, I understand Robert Miller – he was trying to make a good deal. He was trying to make money. It was too good to be true. Unfortunately it was too good to be true. But it could have gone the other way…These brilliant hedge fund guys, they took some HUGE gambles. And what if those gambles hadn’t work? They easily couldn’t have. So we see in Cosmopolis, a film that just came out that some friends made, the main character and he’s made a big bet on the Yuan, the Chinese currency, and he loses his whole fortune in one day. And it can happen. And I know people it’s happened to.

I was really struck by you said about how people “like” bubbles. Do you think that we enjoy popping bubbles as much as we enjoy the lead-up to them? If only because they gives us a chance to judge people and lay blame. I wonder if we enjoy both halves of the cycle, you know, culturally.

No, I don’t think so. I think the bubbles burst because reality exists. It’s like trying to deny gravity – if you have enough fuel, you might be able to gift lift to stay aloft for a while. But ultimately, the principles of physics are such that you must crash. So, personally I was never looking forward to a crash….In our culture I feel like we chase all this stuff – the luxury lifestyle, the jets, the great hotels. We’re sitting here in a luxury hotel.

Well if you’re a journalist, you chase the ability to pay your mortgage.

Well of course. But culturally, if you look at television, it’s all this manufactured consumerism.

Aspirational lifestyles.

I don’t even know what that means, but I agree with you – that’s the term. Whereas 99 percent of Americans, or maybe 90 percent, are struggling to just get by…It’s absurd. But it’s also the American way. It’s the American dream. So we talked about–Richard [Gere] and I–when we were formulating the film talked a lot about this character. Invented himself like Gatsby. He comes from nowhere. He just is. And so I think that makes people in his orbit comfortable. It’s interesting to see him do it. He did a really terrific job I thought.

I wanted to talk about the women in his life because I just loved Brit Marling’s performance, and was wondering if you’d talk a little about the genesis of those characters because it’s so nice to see a young female character whose primary attribute is the fact that she’s smart. She’s in this relationship, but that’s not the most important thing about her in the context of the story. She’s brilliant. And her relationship with her father, is and I thought it was fascinating how he completely respects her, but to be found out by her seems to be one of the most devastating things that Robert experiences.

Well, I’m happy that you pick up on that. When I thought of this situation, I thought right way it was much more interesting to have it be his daughter than his son be in the business with him. So we made the son kind of weaker, and the daughter stronger…I think Britt played well, she had a little bit of that hustler spirit from her father…I also wanted her to be very beautiful so that, you know, we assign value to beauty in our culture. So I wanted to be clear that she had chosen to work in this business. It wasn’t that she had no other options and she was the nerdy daughter. I wanted to be like, “She could have done anything and she chose to go with her dad.” And that she is brilliant and determined and obsessive and you see those qualities in the parents…And from what I read about the Madoffs, he hadn’t told them, and he called everybody together, and that’s when it was game over. You know, so, certainly she could have turned against her father. Richard had this view that it was silly: that the daughter would be back next week, Sarandon was never leaving, and he adopted this, like, Clintonian perspective where he said, “These guys always get back in. We always find a way back in.”

And now – cynically- I think with his daughter maybe that’s true because he’s the only father she’s got….In my mind I see Sarandon on her way out, that she’s been reaching out to him, kind of offering him a lifeline. You see that in the scene when she says, “What do you want to be the richest guy in the cemetery?” she says. You can see she’s like,” Let’s go away.” That’s something Susan and I developed in the character. Let me be talking about changing our life. “What do we need all this for? How much jet fuel do we need to burn?” I liked that very much, so I’m not as convinced she’s sticking around. I think she’s on her way.

I thought that scene, particularly where she just is blunt with him about how stupid he thinks she is, or how sort of doggedly loyal is really striking. That sort of shattered a myth for me. You know, the idea that there’s a real condescension towards her in Robert’s behavior. He sort of has a mistress he figures she won’t find him out. He almost assumes an incuriosity on her part.

It’s a very sexist world, especially in this financial realm. How many Fortune 500 CEOs are women? One? Two? So, it’s a boys’ club, and definitely in these characters’ age range, a certain, almost like a Goodfellas mentality is promoted or adopted. And I’m not making any judgments on that, other than to say that I think, like most areas of this guy’s life, he’s running on borrowed time. And so his desperation has caused him to neglect many areas of his life and to take for granted that he can charm his way back in with all these different players.

I chose the name Arbitrage because it means to buy low and sell high with special knowledge, and in so doing, exploit a price difference. And so I thought that he was the emotional arbitrager. He exploited the relationships in his life by getting them cheaper than they are worth. So no surprise to me that he’s not picking up on the signals that his wife is sending and that he’s just too caught up in the delusion that he can make it all last, but maybe he can.

Well, it’s a movie about masculinity. It’s often about the fact that he assumes he has knowledge or insight or understanding that he doesn’t actually have a lot of the time.

I think that’s a common mistake my gender makes. And it’s also a great film troupe. That’s Jake in Chinatown. He always thinks he’s five steps ahead, but he really knows nothing. So it was just wonderful to watch, to see them play with these themes.

One thing, I also wanted to ask about Nate Parker. That scene where Robert asks him what’s at Applebee’s was so funny, and also just really sort of biting about we assume the rich have access to these things that we don’t have, which is true. But they’re also fundamentally cut off from certain categories of the American experience. I just thought that was very sharp, very funny.

You know, actually, I made that up, but I got in a big argument that the scene should be cut, that it was too unrealistic. And then I heard a story about Nate Parker’s agent, who is a great man, but who has passed on. But I think Nate or one of his friends was registered for their wedding and so his agent said, “I want to get everything in the store just get it all, whatever’s left. Find out where it’s registered and get it.” And so his assistant comes back and says, “I found where he’s registered.” And he goes, “Where?” He goes, “Target.” And he goes, “What’s Target?” So, when I heard that story, I left it in the edit.

That’s really what this film is about in a way. You become isolated in these cocoons in the seats of power, traveling by private jet, by private airport–you don’t even go to the same airport. You’re in a limo, it’s hermetically sealed, isolated from the noise of the streets. That’s something we played with, with the sound and only a bit of the city could peak through. You know, living in mansions with servants…By the way, film directors can run into the same problem. I think I heard a cold-blooded Quentin Tarantino describe it as the “limousine problem,” which is once you’ve directed a couple movies and you’re making some money, how can you then relate to people because you’re looking at life through a limousine window?…Tennessee Williams wrote about this in “The Price of Success,” a great essay about his life after writing Glass Menagerie, when he lived in hotels and the maid pushing the cart and wheezing down the hall, and the clock ticking and wasting his life away.

It’s a common theme, but I think that it’s certainly possible to stay in touch, especially if you’re running a business. All the people you’re working with: what are their lives about? You can just walk around your office and find out. So I think where it happens in the worst way is it becomes a defense mechanism. By disassociating and compartmentalizing you no longer have to confront those things that bother you. Like Jimmy. Like Jimmy Grant’s life. Where’s Jimmy? In the back story of this movie, Richard’s almost supposed to have like a godfather role to this kid…[which] he’s sort of abandoned. And so, I know why – his business wasn’t going well, shit was all fucked up. And so we discussed again this Clintonian idea. Richard said it was almost like he would see a group of people suffering, different groups and he’d be like, “Listen, I know you, the low income problem in Harlem, I know you guys are in pain and it’s all fucked up and we’re definitely going to address that, we’re going to get to that, but I’ve just got to do some other things over here so just bear with me and I’ll be back.” And it’s like how long can you play that stall? And so that’s when we meet our guy. I think he’s been doing kind of a lot of that when we run into him.

Since you sort of grew up in this milieu, said you’re not judging at various points. How do you feel about this set of people? Are you sympathetic? Are you frustrated with them?

I’m certainly sympathetic. I’m empathetic…I don’t think it’s arts job to judge. I think it’s the viewers’ job to make theirs judgment. It’s my job to present an emotion reality that you can feel and some truth that you can identify with. And for me, the best stories are the ones where I connect with the hero or the anti-hero or the players in it. Going back to Aristotle, who’s my model for how to try to do something, he said the whole point this thing is someone watches to go, “Ahh: that’s me. I can see myself there.” Because then…you can actually realize something about yourself or notice something in yourself. This is not like an SAT to go to this film it’s a good movie to get your popcorn. If you leave the theater with something I think it’s to see the human face of, or as Tim Roth said, of “money jugglers.”