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Arbitrage - Nicholas Jarecki interview (exclusive)

Arbitrage, Nicholas Jarecki

Interview by Rob Carnevale

NICHOLAS Jarecki talks exclusively to us about working with Richard Gere and the struggle to get his debut feature, Arbitrage, made.

He also talks about why anti-heroes make such good cinema, why he likes working in independent cinema, why he decided to become a filmmaker and why he thinks there are plenty of similarities between the worlds of movie-making and high finance.

Q. I always find Richard Gere is at his most interesting when playing things dark…
Nicholas Jarecki: I totally agree, I totally agree.

Q. I saw a few parallels with his performance in Internal Affairs, in that he’s playing someone doing what he does out of greed but also for his family…
Nicholas Jarecki: Well, in Internal Affairs I think that character is harder to identify with because ultimately he goes truly into the territory of villainy, where he’s a villain against the hero. Whereas here [in Arbitrage], he is the hero. He’s the anti-hero. So, I think you’re still able to hold onto some affection for him in this movie.

Q. How important was it to Richard Gere not to be a villain here?
Nicholas Jarecki: Right from the first meeting. I sent him the script, he read the script in a day and he called back and said: “I want to meet this guy.” So, I went up to see him… Richard owns a hotel in upstate New York. It’s like another hobby and it’s this incredible fine dining restaurant, so we meet there and his biggest concern was: “This is a good script but how do I know you can direct? What to do you know about it?” And I was like: “Well, I actually studied with Woody Allen and this person…” So, he said: “OK, we’ll see about that. Let’s talk about this character…” And so we started what became ultimately as a month-long rehearsal process, which involved a lot of conversations, a lot of drinking tea and right from the beginning he said: “When I put on a suit, I have an audience that knows my work and they know me in a certain way and they expect something from that iconography. So, what I’m interested in from this screenplay, what I think I could do with the character is to go a little bit deeper, a little bit darker, to show another side of this persona.”

I never thought about this but some people have said that, in a way, it’s sort of a sequel to Pretty Woman. But it’s sort of what would happen if he didn’t marry Vivian and he went to the dark side and things got worse and worse? But you see in this character he has still moments of light and he has this family and I believe that he loves the family and he loves his daughter, his wife and his disappointment son. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t have his mistress and he can’t have his toys and he can’t indulge his ego and his hedonistic pleasures. When we meet him, he’s in the worst week of his life. He’s made some terrible business mistakes and it’s about to get worse for him. So, we can really put the character through some paces and see his true nature revealed. What is it? Does he love more his power and his money or will he hang on to the last shred of his humanity? And Richard recognised that from the beginning.


Q. Would it be perceived as a risk to have a character that works in commodities, or the financial sector, being perceived as a hero, or even an anti-hero, given their current perception? And especially given what then happens to him over the course of the film?
Nicholas Jarecki: Well, I think that’s kind of why it works in a way because the audience is coming in there with such antipathy against these types of people… but this is not an apology, by the way. This is not an attempt to humanise… like some moron on the Internet wrote: “It’s a great movie… the director must have voted for Mitt Romney!” Like I’m like the most left-leaning member of the Democratic Party, right? I’m not trying to make anything good for anybody, I’m just trying to show something as I know it to be. I know this world and I know the people in it and I know that they’re human and I know that you don’t have to be a billionaire hedge fund manager to make mistakes… everybody’s got to fill out their tax return at the end of the year; everybody has to look their wife in the eye and say their whereabouts and everybody has to decide whether or not they’re going to steal something from the office. We’re faced with these decisions all the time – maybe not at the same high stakes level.

But this is the whole purpose of drama… first of all to have a good time but also to make you question yourself, your behaviour and how you feel about the world. I love hearing people coming out of the theatre. I’ll go to the theatre and stand in the back and stuff and people will be coming out and saying: “He’s such an asshole! I can’t believe that happened. They should have put him away for life!” But then others are like: “What are you talking about? He’s a misunderstood man! So what? He made a mistake… he wanted to do the right thing. Look at his relationship with Jimmy.” So, I like that spirited debate. My mum used to take me to movies all the time as a kid and we still go once a week and those were always the conversations we were having. So, to me that’s the fun of going to the cinema.

And I’ll also say that this is an independent film. I never even went to the studios with this film because I knew it wasn’t going to go anywhere. So, we made the film on a lower budget, independently, streets of New York precisely because we could talk about topics you don’t necessarily have the freedom to talk about in a big franchise film with this more simple black and white approach. Here we can be in grey. I like being in grey. Grey is a good colour and Richard wears it well.

Q. Did the film change much from the time you were initially getting it together with Al Pacino to the finished product we see now?
Nicholas Jarecki: The Pacino thing was really kind of a different movie. Al and I had met and he’s such a wonderful, wonderful person. We met through a documentary. Believe it or not, he directed a documentary about Oscar Wilde and so I had worked on this film about Mike Tyson, which he liked. So, we met randomly and we started working on documentary stuff together and then we were talking about the idea of a Wall Street film but it was sort of in a different incarnation. Ultimately, he went off to do a Shakespeare play and I went back and sort of tinkered with the screenplay and changed the conception to a younger character.

And Richard was sort of instrumental in that because you think about Richard and once I’d met him it’s clear he has this vitality… it’s not King Lear. He’s like: “What’s my next score? Where’s the next merger? Where’s the next company to raid?” I think that’s coming back to the sequel to Pretty Woman idea… A friend of mine and I came up with a little in-house name for this movie – we called it ‘Murders and Mergers’. So, it’s like he’s onto the next ‘murders and mergers’. He’s never stopping this character. And so Richard has got the vitality to convey that. And once we started working together in rehearsal, I would say to Richard and the other actors collectively we changed 25 to 30% of the screenplay just in the rehearsal process, so we’d sit around the computer.

I remember Brit Marling, Richard and I sitting there and we’re doing the scene in Central Park and we just kept doing it. She’d come up with a great line like ‘my name’s going to be in every paper’ and then Richard just came in with some improvisation and said: “You’re not my partner, you work for me! Everybody works for me!” And that was it… that was in the film, and he wrote that one. Tim Roth wrote great stuff. You know, the phone call he makes towards the end of the film, screaming at the wife, I didn’t have that – it was his idea. That part of the process is really fun. You see with actors who are really on stuff that can take you or I months alone in a dark room, it comes to life really fast.


Q. So, how much would you say you learnt from this experience?
Nicholas Jarecki: A lot, a lot. I mean I was chomping at the bit. I’ve been trying to do this for 10 years. It’s really hard to become a director… just to get to direct one film, forget about a career. I don’t think people contemplate how difficult it is. I was a defendant in Federal law suits, I was sued for this movie, I had all the financing collapse three months before we started making it, so I had to go and raise millions of dollars from strangers. Everything was going wrong but there was a core group of people that started to expand as things started to go right again that just wanted to see this idea happen and wanted to see this thing come to life. And that faith, seeing it through, was a big lesson for me. One of my producers, Laura Bickford, she taught me that you have to hang in there. It’s like this game of Wackamole, the carnival amusement game with the mallet and the mouse that comes out of the holes. You have to keep hitting it until they’re all down and [clap] that’s when you roll film!

So, within a film it doesn’t naturally want to exist, so everything is going wrong. I was frantic. I remember my producer, Kevin Turen, the night before we started shooting was the night we had the money in the back account. The night before the unions were calling and saying ‘don’t go to work’, this movie… these people are liars, they don’t have any money. But when we finally got on set the next day and we were ready to go, he turned to me and said: “OK, we did all this, now no compromises and no gimmicks. We’re going to make this film the way it’s meant to be done.” And so we did and that was really fun.

Q. Did you notice any parallels between the world of finance that you depict in the film and the movie industry itself?
Nicholas Jarecki: Yeah, they’re both run by crazy people [laughs]! Well, films are a business. I mean, it’s a business that deals with harnessing artists. I think what we were doing more in terms of independent filmmaking and trying to make a movie because we wanted it to be good and because we liked it… that’s probably more the anomaly than the rule. Mostly films are these tent-pole constructions, comic books… and there’s nothing wrong with that. Christopher Nolan has used them to make beautiful cinema. But the dramatic film, the thriller, the character crime film, these haven’t exactly been in commercial fashion and there are reasons for that – because there’s a limit to how good0 they can do. A 16-year-old kid isn’t going to necessarily understand this movie or want to see it. So, that’s a huge profitable audience and the studio wants to make as much money as possible; that’s their job, that’s their corporate charter and so they make these bigger and bigger films.

Now the financial industry operates sometimes in the same way. We see with the bubble mentality sometimes what happens is that people are not satisfied with making five, six or seven per cent profit, they want to make a 20% profit, they want to make a 50% profit and that’s really not sustainable. It’s Icarus. You fly too close to the sun and you go down. I’ve been alive 33 years and I’ve seen three bubbles in my own lifetime – I’ve seen 1987, I’ve seen 2000 with the Internet and I’ve seen 2008 with housing in America. And now I’m seeing ripple effects throughout the global economy, so what I think and what I tried to put in the movie a little bit is that it’s part of who we are. We like boom and bust cycles. We like to think big, dream big build big, and then ‘oh shit’, we get too carried away and it’s all fucked up and we’ve got to go and suffer to go back to normal. But then we get bored with that and we want to do it all again [laughs]. So, I think people are thrill seekers.

Q. So, will you stay in the independent sector now to maintain creativity and control, or if a blockbuster opportunity came calling would you take it?
Nicholas Jarecki: Well, I want to do the next film independently again. I have an idea for this film called Fuel. It’s a detective story about electric cars. And so I think… it’s going to require a little bit more money than Arbitrage but I think we can do it independently again. What I like about independent filmmaking is that it’s up to you to screw it up. There was no boss on the movie. There was just us – Richard, myself, the cast and crew – and what we felt worked or didn’t. And so collectively we could make those decisions. If you take a corporation’s money, you know $30 million, you have to respect that they might dictate how it’s going to be.

Now, the artist part of me just wants to make a movie, I want it to be entertaining and if I screw up, I want you to blame me. But then that means that I have to have had the power to make the film that I showed you and I don’t want it to be changed. So, long term… first of all the studios are amazing distributors. We’ve had some wonderful independent distributors on this film but the studio can give you a great reach of people. They really know how to market and how to get the film out there. So long-term I think they can be great partners. But I’m still a kid and I’ve got to prove myself a little more before I can stand up there and say: “No Mr Murdoch! We’re doing it my way!”


Q. Do you think that Arbitrage has opened more doors and given you more clout?
Nicholas Jarecki: Oh it really has, it really has. It shows… I think for any of those people out there who are interested in filmmaking and being a director or artists, it’s important to have some type of a calling card that represents who you are, no matter what the budget. It has to show your particular flavour and take on things because then you can show it to people and say: “This is what I’m up to. If you like it, let’s work together. But now you’ve seen it, it’s not so theoretical.” That’s why it’s so hard to get started because it’s just all a bunch of gobbledegook until there’s a movie. But then you can see it and have a sense of what that is.

Q. What would your 10-year-old self, who first started making movies on an 8mm camera, say to you now?
Nicholas Jarecki: You know, he would probably ask why I wasn’t working harder but he’d think it was really cool to have that 35mm camera.

Q. And what gave you the bug to get into filmmaking in the first place? Both of your parents are in commodities trading, aren’t they?
Nicholas Jarecki: Yeah but my mum long ago was in the art world and she always showed me films. When I was 14 she was telling me to watch The Godfather and I was like: “That sounds boring! Who’d want to see a movie about a godfather?” And she’s be like: “No, stupid! Watch the tape!” So, I did… and most of my good ideas come from her. And my dad loves the theatre He loves to go to plays. He loved David Mamet and he loved tough [plays] or some of the British playwrights. So, we would go to the theatre in New York and there was something special in that. And they’re both really smart and they’d rip everything apart and criticise it ad nauseum. So, definitely filmmaking has taught me to be kind to other filmmakers because of how hard it is. You really have to appreciate that anybody got anything done! But it’s just a cool thing to do.

Read our review of Arbitrage