‘Margin Call’: Calm Before the Storm of 2008 Financial Crisis

BY Paul Solman  October 21, 2011 at 5:16 PM EST

The 2008 financial collapse is a complex phenomenon to fathom. It’s an even harder phenomenon to recreate in a cinematic narrative. ‘Margin Call,’ a film that opens in theaters Friday, takes on that challenge and offers a fictional account of the first 24 hours inside a Wall Street financial firm as it discovers that it’s over-run with toxic, essentially worthless assets.

The director of the film, J.C. Chandor, drew on his own experiences to build the story’s narrative and characters: His father worked on Wall Street for Merill Lynch for more than 35 years, which gave him a unique insight into the world of traders.

“I knew why these people made the decisions that they do, why they get hired, why they get fired, why they get promoted,” he said. Chandor himself had taken out a loan to invest in renovating a building in Manhattan several years back. Halfway through that project, he was advised to sell early. “I started to think back on what it must have been like to be an insider and actually really feel like the world was going to come apart but still seeing leaders of investment banks hitting the accelerator instead of the brake pedal,” Chandor said.

“Margin Call” is full of intensity, but it’s a quiet drama. Don’t expect any explosive face-offs between villains and heroes. Rather, most of the action unfolds through the dialogue of traders talking calmly on the phone at their desks and conversations between executives in suits in austere conference rooms. Chandor admits that he’s surprised that audiences are kept on the edge of their seats since the film is “essentially about information coming across fairly static forms like computer screens and pieces of paper,” he said.

The film is Chandor’s directorial debut. Despite the low budget, short shooting schedule (just over two weeks) and limited location (a single floor of a skyscraper in lower Manhattan), he managed to line up an all-star cast. He credits the film’s force to the performances of Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore.

I talked with Chandor earlier this week about his film:

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. In a time of “Occupy Wall Street” protests, spiraling home foreclosures, and a troubled global financial system, a new film drama takes us to one of the fictionalized early moments when things began to spin out of control. As an unnamed investment banking firm realizes it’s up to its eyeballs and beyond in bad assets. The film is titled Margin Call. Its stars include Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci and others. Its writer and director, and this is his directing debut, is J.C. Chandor who joins us now. Welcome to you.

J.C. CHANDOR: Thank you for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: So this of course is all very interesting to us here because we watched all this unfold on our news program but what about for you? What about it interested you so much that you thought there was a film there?

J.C. CHANDOR: I had never written anything remotely this topical, so frankly, it was a new subject matter to actually try and tackle something that was going on. I obviously was looking for a personal way in and I had actually gotten wrapped up in what for me was a big project: a little commercial building down in the lower Manhattan. So I had sort of seen this from the inside from the banking, the lending standpoint. You know I’d taken out a loan and bought a building and it was going to be my kind of get-rich-quick-scheme and then my father had worked in this world for you know going on 35-38 years, so I knew these characters. I knew why these people made the decisions that they do, why they get hired, why they get fired, why they get promoted, all the different things and how it affects their lives. So, frankly, I felt like I might be able to have a perspective on this situation that someone else may not be able to.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the notable things here is that a young fellow in the firm realizes that a catastrophe is looming but it’s a quiet catastrophe right? I mean the rest of the world doesn’t know. It doesn’t have the loud bangs, there is nothing of the normal film drama in a sense and yet you have to make a drama out of that.

J.C. CHANDOR: Yeah you know the core issue came from actually a Godfather of one my partners in that real estate deal which was he came to us in the middle of our renovation in 2006 and basically warned us to sell. We had been getting offers, the real estate market in New York City was still skyrocketing, so we were getting offers to sort of buy our project mid construction and we were having some problems on some other financial issues ourselves. So we ended up selling that building not primarily based on his advice but two years later the world really did start to come apart, I started to think back on what it must have been like to be an insider and actually really feel like the world was going to come apart but still seeing major investment banks and leaders of investment banks hitting the accelerator instead of the brake pedal. It just seemed to me that I was making this film for a very small budget. I originally wrote this to direct it myself I was not trying to sell a script to Hollywood. I wanted to make the film for under a million dollars. The nice thing about making a small film like that is you can concentrate on character development and all the things that sort of you’re interested in. You don’t have to worry too much about creating this sort of broad, broad palette. I think we created a kind of, almost by mistake, a very compelling thriller element which was not sort of obvious to the subject matter but it’s essentially a ticking time bomb movie.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well you know we’re in the middle of these “Occupy Wall Street” protests and you didn’t foresee that when you started this several years ago, but do you see this as a kind of social critique or is just a good story because your father had worked in it you knew these characters, you knew this world a bit?

J.C. CHANDOR: Hopefully both. I love a film that is about real people in one way or another. I think it’s dramatic. I think it ended up being far more entertaining frankly than I thought it was going to be. I’m surprised that audiences really are for the most part kept on the edge of their seat by the action here which I think to a lot of people is shocking when you are talking about a film essentially about information coming across fairly static forms like computer screens and pieces of paper. The performances I think had a huge, huge part of that. We have this amazing cast that really helped bring these words to life.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned making this for a small amount of money. I guess then you got a little more money, but still by Hollywood standards this is a relatively low budget. As I was watching, I thought: How did he get this cast?

J.C. CHANDOR: Yeah and the amazing thing is we sort of kept being able to add people. There are sort of eight prominent, prominent actors in each their own right in the movie. I’ve been at this a long a time. I had a film fall apart about six years ago that I’d worked for many, many years putting together and there is certainly a game to be played. you know have to have a script that’s compelling, you have to have a producing team behind it where the agent can actually believe that the film is going to get made and then the agent has to respond to the material. Then, most importantly, once you sort of get through all that gate-keeping, obviously the actors have to respond to the material. Amazingly, that was not our biggest problem. We actually in the summer of 2009 had an amazing cast put together and could not find the money to go out and make the film so it took us about another year to finally put the money together. I think the actors love to act, so we created an environment that the script having been written to be shot on a very minimal budget, we had planned to shoot it on a very quick schedule, which, to any young film makers out there, is a very smart way to do your first film so you are not asking for huge time commitments. We weren’t asking them to give up two months of their lives. They came in for a fairly limited period of time and were able to come and do what they like to do which is actually act. We shot most of the film on one floor of a beautiful skyscraper up on the 42nd floor so we were very, very disciplined in the way we shot the film and we spent most of our time shooting as opposed to sort of moving sets around.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new film is called Margin Call and the director is J.C. Chandor. Thanks for talking to us.

J.C. CHANDOR: Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.