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July 26, 2016

Making a female-driven Wall Street movie

Film Celebrities
Equity Producers and Director Scott Weiner/for PhillyVoice

Alysia Reiner, Meera Menon and Sarah Megan Thomas at the Philadelphia premiere of 'Equity' on July 19.

What's it like to be a woman on Wall Street? With "Equity," Broad Street Pictures founders Alysia Reiner ("Orange is the New Black") and Sarah Megan Thomas (a Haverford-native actress) set out to offer at least a partial answer.

Shot partly in Philadelphia, "Equity" follows the tough-as-nails Naomi Bishop (Anna Dunn, aka Skyler White from "Breaking Bad"), an investment banker on Wall Street tasked with handling a major IPO launch while out to prove to her good-old-boy boss that she's earned her next promotion. Naturally, nothing goes as planned, as outside forces align against her, including: the media, her own protegé (played by Thomas), her two-faced Wall Street lover and an old friend turned white-collar crime investigator Samantha (Reiner). 

Here, Reiner, Thomas and Director Meera Menon sit down to talk about making the film, how it unfolds and what it means to make a Wall Street thriller driven by women — all ahead of the film's July 29 premiere to the general public in New York and Los Angeles, and its Aug. 12 premiere here in Philadelphia. (Warning: Some spoilers are ahead.)

One thing you’ve mentioned in the past is creating a film that’s not just an honest portrayal of women on Wall Street but is by women. Is that something that continues to be a problem in Hollywood right now? Stories being told about women, but not by them?

Alysia Reiner: I had an insight just now when you asked that, and that is — I will say 'Orange is the New Black' is written mostly by women and created by women and has so many women, and so much diversity included as well. And isn’t it interesting that when you have women written by women, like a female-driven show with so many females behind and in front of the camera, you have this beloved thing. And maybe that’s no coincidence. And I think there’s a magic and honesty and authenticity when women create women’s stories that can’t be denied. And there’s nothing wrong with men telling women’s stories and I love everyone telling women’s stories, but there is that magic and authenticity that can’t be denied.

Sarah Megan Thomas: Well, there’s also that advice you get when you do your first project, whether writing a book or whatever you’re doing, to write what you know. Because you can relate to it. So I think women relate to women more and men relate to men more, just naturally.

Did you accomplish what you set out to do, creating that realistic image of women?

SMT: Yeah, I think what we accomplished [what] we set out to accomplish from Day One which was really exciting, was creating a movie both men and women like. Our goal was to create this fun, entertaining Wall Street movie you watch and enjoy, and then afterward talk about the fact that there were more women in front of and behind the camera than usual, but it wasn’t just a movie for women. It was a movie that men like, too. And that’s the point: We can make movies for everyone.

You had also talked before about creating characters that weren’t two-dimensional, that have flaws. Which you certainly did. It was interesting, because not only are the characters here flawed, but when you boil it down, very few are good people. They’re all kind of out manipulating and playing the game, and in the process of trying to make the film, I wonder if it was hard to create these characters who aren’t all that likable?

SMT: Well it’s funny because Alysia and I, they’re likable to us. As actresses. When I play Erin, to me she’s very likable — she’s ambitious and I do relate to her on so many levels. She wants it all, she wants a baby, she’s concerned that will hurt her upward mobility at the firm. She doesn't think her boss is pushing for her. Those are things I think many young women can relate to. Yes, there are circumstances throughout the movie that may not be likable, but I think it’s important as an actress playing a role that you really have to think your character is fantastic.

Reiner: Through the process of making [the movie], I have had a lot of moments of looking deep inside myself about how I feel about money. How I feel about ambition. What are my experiences of success and what does that mean to me? It’s my hope audiences go through that same process.

AR: And I think for me, art is a really personal thing both as an artist and to create art for others to enjoy. And we’ve been on a press tour and were just at the San Francisco MOMA, saw so many pieces that spoke to me, and my point is to say that art, hopefully, makes people think about who they are and who they want to be. And that certainly is my hope with this piece — that it makes people, that people are super entertained, and like when you see a piece of art and it’s beautiful, but it also makes you think and feel and stare at your navel a little bit. And I, through the process of making it, have had a lot of moments of looking deep inside myself about how I feel about money. How I feel about ambition. What are my experiences of success and what does that mean to me? It’s my hope audiences go through that same process. I think that’s always the goal: How can you help people experience life more deeply?

And not even just who you want to be, but who you are.

AR: Yeah, and sometimes that’s not pretty. [Laughs]

Naomi is interesting. I enjoyed watching Anna Gunn portray her, and how unhinged she got by the end of it. How did her character evolve? How did you develop her the way you did?

Meera Menon: On the page, she was kind of an enigmatic figure, and because we needed the right actress to plug into the conversation and fully dimensionalize her the way Erin and Sam were dimensionalized, with the producers having developed those characters in the script. And when I met Anna she had the deep connection and total sense of this person’s backstory before we even got into it — she just understood this woman through and through. And Anna has that really unique screen presence, which is this slow simmer to a boil. She brought that same kind of kinetic, magnetic thing to her character in 'Breaking Bad,' and I think that’s what we were able to use in this movie to make Naomi, to build her and create a dimensionalized version of her. As [Amy Fox] had written her [character], there was this — she held her cards close and withheld a lot from the audience and reader and I think what Anna brings to it, a raw emotion and presence and life that really only she can bring. She flickers between vulnerability, and strength and steeliness, and all these things so quickly. She’d give you a novel’s worth of emotion within a look. She’s that kind of actress.

Scott Weiner/for PhillyVoice

From left to right: Alysia Reiner, Meera Menon, Greater Philadelphia Film Office Executive Director Sharon Pinkenson and Sarah Megan Thomas.

What inspired the cookie scene?

AR: It is a story I heard verbatim from the trading floor. [Laughs] I was sworn to secrecy about who it is but it is a quoted story about someone’s experience. The giver of the cookie.

What kind of research did you all do? 

SMT: I have some friends who are women who work on Wall Street — also not in the investment banking world — who are fascinating people. They started telling us their stories and we all spoke to various people in putting tidbits into the movie.

AR: One thing I find important to bring up is our characters’ journey — and I do believe it's a hero’s journey because she is this sort of moral compass of the film. That story of a woman doing her best and getting sort of shut down by the bank is a story we heard over and over again. And most of these women leave and start their own thing. That’s the truth of what we heard and saw. We have a panel with the Hollywood Reporter next week and one of those women will be on the panel. But we decided not to put that so patly into the film because we wanted a sort of open-ended experience. In fact, in test screenings, when we tried that, it felt too pat to people and, in one test screener’s view, that she was ‘Going home to daddy,’ because she was going back to her mentor and that’s absolutely not what we intended to portray.

SMT: And the mentor storyline is actually true — so actually, all the fundraising started from a guy, on Wall Street, who introduced me to another [person] on Wall Street, who was a guy who mentored all these women. That’s an important point because a lot of — all the women [on Wall Street], to get even where they are, even though there are not enough women on Wall Street in senior positions, there were men who really picked them up and got them there, which is where [writer Amy Fox] put that storyline into the script. And as Alysia said, some of that got cut, but there [were more scenes] with her mentor on the golf course.

With the exception of her mentor, there weren’t many — a lot of the men were brutal. Not too many nice men shown in this movie.

AR: I’ll segue to the nice men because what Sarah brought up is important. I like to talk about the positive of things. And that there are these amazing men on Wall Street who do support women. I also love to talk about, in all three of our cases, we have amazing men behind the scenes who helped on the film enormously. [Meera's husband] helped us a lot, my husband helped us a lot, Sarah’s dad helped us a lot. My husband was an executive producer, her dad did all the law for the film [and Meera's husband] helped us with so many different things — he shot additional footage, effects, helped coordinate post-production. It's important for me to represent that, as powerful women changing the world, you can’t — I personally could not do that, it would not be possible without the support of my partner. Be that a man or a woman.

Carrie Preston in the movie was a surprise. How’d that happen?

AR: We had two Emmy nominees for 2016 in our film!

SMT: We shot with her the first day. She’s such a pro on 'The Good Wife' and it was just so nice to have the first day of shooting with her. It was the first day and she just walked in and did her job. Knocked it out of the park.

AR: There’s a perfect example of a spectacular actress because she gave us so many choices, but with a very serious take on it and such genius humor. We tease sometimes that we have the footage to make 'Equity the Comedy.' And she gave us some great footage that could have worked, but may have been a little too funny for this version.

I know you shot in Philly, and you shot at the Philadelphia Country Club, but where else here?

AR: The country club, the Pyramid Club, [one of] the Kimpton hotels, here at the aka Rittenhouse — all over town. Some of the parks around town. The civic building where we shot with Joe —— the German Society. So many restaurants, so many bars.

SMT: And Ballard Spahr … It was [all] free. All of the locations we all had different connections so we didn’t have to pay for locations.

I’ve had filmmakers quip about the things they can get away with in Philadelphia as filmmakers. Like flying a drone down South Broad Street. You couldn’t do that in New York. True?

AR: Philly is a very film-friendly city. I like to say it’s not just the City of Brotherly Love, but the City of Film Love. We so appreciated it.

MM: We had a lot of Temple University students on our crew, a lot of recently graduated students. It seems like there are a lot of schools here that foster a friendly environment for people doing things in a run-and-gun way.

AR: And filmmaking is such a team effort, a community you create. And having people up for that challenge is rare and amazing. And we had just an incredible crew.

So, we talked about being able to say ‘This is what I want. This is who I am.’ Is there a timeliness with this and the election? Hillary seems to be going through this struggle right now of being a power player but still having to do the whole 'grandma' thing and be perceived a certain way, so it’s kind of an interesting parallel.

AR: I was so fascinated with what happened in England with the two females up for prime minister, and there was the comment about her being a mother and the backlash on that and how she then left the race was really interesting to me. In reference to Hillary, from the inception of the idea, we had this dream of 'What if it were possible that we could finish this in time for the election? What if it’s possible a woman would run?’ I did not think it would be possible to make a movie so quickly — unless you’re working with Sarah Megan Thomas, that is not possible. [Laughs]. But if you are, it is possible and it’s so deeply exciting — mostly for our country that a woman is running — but exciting to be part of that conversation right now.

SMT: It’s important to talk about women in power. [People want to talk about] what they wear, how they talk, if they’re too nice, if they’re too sharp. I think all those things — motherhood, they’re in all businesses.

AR: It’s fascinating to me because there are some fundamental, iconic things being talked about on a very deep level.

Naomi is an interesting example because she’s not just a woman on Wall Street, but an older woman. She’s contemplative at times, talking ‘What ifs.' It’s a portrayal of a character not shown very often — she’s not the 20-something fresh on the scene. 

SMT: Totally.

Alysia: And we talked about going Anne Hathaway with it. And as brilliant as she could have been, we wanted a grown-up with gravitas and Anna brings it in spades.

MM: We talked about that a lot, and this is a character who has maintained a certain level of success and the anxiety she's confronted with at the beginning of the movie is how to sustain, if not continue, to elevate or escalate. But that climb, that anxiety about the climb never goes away — especially in an environment like Wall Street where it’s so competitive and there are so few spots at the top. That demand for recognition, that type of recognition is hard to come by.

What stood out to you by making this film?

MM: I think it was a complicated story to tell. There was only so much real estate, in a feature film, there’s only so much real estate you have and there was a lot of material in the script, a lot of storylines and characters and layers going on. The greatest challenge was in the edit — how to, in the real estate of a feature film, present all the ideas in the script. I think Amy Fox wrote, like, a novel — she definitely wrote at least a limited television series, if not an expanded TV series. And we had a feature film's worth of time to tell it. That was the biggest challenge.

So, it's been optioned for TV. How did that happen?

SMT: So the story is I wanted to make it a movie sequel because I firmly believe in making the most out of it, commercially. Alysia said ‘What about a TV series?’

AR: And we said that from the inception. ‘All these Wall Street movies have sequels. ‘Wall Street 2.’ And I’d have to be like ‘Back to our pilot.’ [Laughs]

SMT: And it was such a good idea. Because the way the script is, with all the home lives, you can’t get into that in a movie because it’s a thriller and there’s a plot you have to follow through, so it will be really fun to explore that in a TV series.

Anything to add?

AR: How important it is, if you’re interested in female-driven content and women making movies, it will only succeed if we support the movies made that get made by women, for women. And in this case, it happens to be outrageously appealing to men, too. Perfect date movie!