For any first-time director, it would be a dream if the cast of your first feature film was to include KEVIN SPACEY, JEREMY IRONS, DEMI MOORE and STANLEY TUCCI. This is exactly what happened for the director J.C. CHANDOR. ‘Margin Call’ is a fictionalized account of the financial crisis in 2008 that features this stellar cast. Chandor, the son of an investment banker, also wrote the script and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. 

The script has an affinity with the style of the DAVID MAMET school of writing. Mamet, the American dramatist, has written dialogue-driven plays and screenplays, most notably, ‘Glengarry GlenRoss’, ‘Wag the Dog’ and ‘House of Games’. JOHN GAPPER (Financial Times) once described what characterises Mamet’s characters: “Confrontation is often present in Mamet’s work, in which characters with opposing views argue with often unbearable intensity, trying to settle their differences by pounding each other’s personalities”. ‘Margin Call’ has a high concentration of such characters; egotistical men who verbally fight each other in the board rooms, letting no one stand in their way for the survival of the fittest.

In one scene, the executive of the investment bank, Sam Rogers, delivers a motivational speech, in a nearly empty trading floor, to the remaining quarter of the employees who were not ‘let go’:

SAM ROGERS: You are all still here for a reason… eighty percent of this floor was just sent home… forever. We have spent the last hour saying good-bye… they were good people and they were good at their jobs… but you all were better. Now they are gone. They are not to be thought of again. This is your opportunity. On every floor of this building and in every office from Hong Kong to London the same thing is happening. Before this is all done three of every seven guys who were standing between you and your boss’s job are now gone. That is your opportunity. I’ve been at this place for thirty-nine years and let me tell you that this will not be the last time you go through this. But you all are survivors… And that is how this firm over 107 years has always continued to grow stronger. So hold your heads high… and get back to work.

Many of the scenes occur in either the trading floor or the board room, as you witness a lot of fireworks between the characters. It’s a sheer joy to see the actors bringing Chandor’s dialogues to life making the viewer sit on the edge on their seat.

The actor, ZACHARY QUINTO, whose production company also produced the film, was the first person to come on board. He plays Peter Sullivan, the character who discovers the financial disaster into which the investment bank, Goldstone Sterns, has gotten itself having over-leveraged in mortgage-backed-securities. When Kevin Spacey came on board it helped to secure the finances of the film.

Spacey is made for the part of Sam Rogers, the 63-old executive of the company. The American actor has experience in how a character like this survives in an environment of sharks. In ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ he played John Williamson, the office manager who leads a team of real estate salesmen who use dishonest tactics to make sales. In ‘Swimming with Sharks’ Spacey portrays a ‘shark’ himself; an abusive sadistic Hollywood producer who treats his assistant like a dog.

Demi Moore gives a startling performance as Sarah Robertson, the chief risk assessment officer of the bank. It seemed like the sexually aggressive boss Moore played in ‘Disclosure’, Meredith Johnson, who had to resign after she lost a sexual harassment case, changed her name to Sarah Robertson and persued her career at this bank but who will find her Waterloo again as she becomes the head to feed to the traders and the board of the company.

SIMON BAKER, renowned from his role in ‘The Mentalist’, gives a powerful performance as Jared Cohen, and is completely credible as Sam Roger’s boss, although he is 20 years his junior. Cohen is a cold-hearted, calculated Wall Street business man who makes sure that his ass is not on the line as aptly demonstrated in a gripping elevator scene where he and Robertson are having a discussion about the strategy to present to the CEO of the company, John Tuld.

Tuld is embodied by Jeremy Irons who has experience with playing power-mad characters in the TV Series ‘The Borgia’s’ and ruthless characters showing no moral conscience, like Simon Gruber in ‘Die Hard: With a Vengeance’.

The film shows that not every Wall Street trader is without a moral conscience. Sam Rogers shows his doubts as to whether he can motivate his staff to pull off a fire sale that will destroy the market. He finally decides to do so but, at the end of the film, shows that he is in denial about his responsibilities and actions.

We spoke with J.C. Chandor on working with the cast; writing the script; if the actors improvised from the script, and whether it was his objective with this film to humanise bankers.

200%: Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons have played cold-hearted, calculated men in previous roles, whereas Simon Baker, who delivers a powerful strong performance, hasn’t done before. How did you have the confidence that Baker would portray his character with the requisite gravitas?

J.C. Chandor: That role was very crucial. It was the person who came in before Jeremy’s character, John Tuld, and it was the person who was actually making a lot of the decisions that affected a large portion of the company. The character was so driven towards one thing. I have been a fan of Simon for a long time, ‘L.A. Confidential’ was one of his first roles in the US, and he was also working with Kevin then. I can’t say at the time that I was even thinking that far ahead, but I was going with my gut and I felt like that Simon could embody that character. I haven’t seen that many episodes of ‘The Mentalist’, but of the one or two that I have seen, he is a happy go-lucky character, playing the nice guy who is smarter than everybody. Simon runs that show. In real life, Simon is actually quite close to the character he plays in ‘Margin Call’ [laughs]; he is a very serious guy and very driven. His success did not come to him through luck alone. He really killed it [the role].

200%: With the scene in the elevator between Sarah Robertson and Jared Cohen did you want to address the male/female dynamics within a financial company?

JC: Yes, this world is, in real life, 75% men. If you get into the upper echelons that percentage [25%] becomes even lower of women. To me, the fact that she became the scapegoat was really more a matter of her gender, she became the traditional scapegoat. Most of these scapegoats are let go usually in very public ways to make sure that everyone realises [in the company] that someone is held responsible.

200%: Why did you film most of the scenes in close-up?

JC: It was an editorial decision that I made in the edit suite. We had wide shots, but the film sorted out the way it went. The thing about the close-ups, I hope, is the foreground became the background. In a wide shot what is between the camera and the actor takes some significance, in this case it was the background. We were shooting out on the trading floor with all these computers, a ‘ghost’ of some sort, that are looming over the character’s shoulders, figuratively and literally. I just went with the close-ups and the film seemed to move faster, you seemed to be inside the character’s heads.

200%: In terms of writing the script, what aspects are you most pleased with?

JC: That it was a good movie. It might sound like a weird answer to the question, but when I write anything I try not to write just a script, I’m actually trying to write what will become a movie at that time. For me, many scripts are written to be ‘read’ as documents, and you have to do that as well, you got to keep people engaged, but almost the best way that I found to do that is to actually write it just as the movie will go. The film became for the most part, the film I wanted to make when I sat down and wrote it.

Also, it was a joy, frankly, in a more broad sense, to have the film be relevant in the way that it was. In the US the film came out at the end of 2011 and there was a sort of explosion of uprising about this very matter. I wrote the script in 2009 and when the film got released in the theatres two years later to experience to have written something that gets part of the conversation, culturally, that was very fortuitous.

200%: Did you draw on David Mamet type of dialogues for inspiration?

JC: I guess, although I wasn’t aware of it when I was writing it. I was relying more on the way that people speak in that world which is very succinct. They can be very verbose, go into things when they want to, but for most of the time people are fairly short and that provided a challenge but also an opportunity in an all the dialogue of the film.

200%: Your father worked as an investment banker so you knew a lot about the characters working in the industry from an emotional perspective. Do you think you could have written this script if your father would not have been an investment banker?

JC: My father’s occupation has had an impact on my ability to write this script – it was the world I grew up in. When writing a script you should draw on every strength that you have and all your knowledge base. Very luckily, I had also worked as an amateur real estate developer and this played a tremendous amount to writing the script. Certainly I have a deeper and empathetic view of these people and the issues in their lives. My dad wasn’t a CEO of a company, but I knew what that world was like.

200%: Did the actors improvise at all from the script?

JC: Not very much. I would say there are five or ten one-liners with which PAUL BETTANY, who played Will Emerson, and I riffed. The rest of the movie, and mostly 95% of Paul’s performance, was from the script. A lot of these actors are classically trained, very experienced actors, who know how to take the words from the page and inject life into them. Not that they are not great improvisers if that it what a movie requires. The movie is quite procedural and also quite technical in a weird way. Also, we shot the film very quickly – 17 days, so there wasn’t a lot of time for hanging out.

200%: You say technical. Technical in terms of investment bankers jargon?

JC: I don’t mean it in the sense that the audience has to understand everything what the characters are saying, but in the way how the actors are delivering their lines. In some films the actor is emotionally able to understand how a line should be delivered. In this case, however, the actors are using very specific terminology from within a specific industry and I wanted that to ring true. They stuck to the book for the most part of it.

200%: Bankers are portrayed in the media as the ‘baddies’. With your film, was it your objective to humanise bankers and to show that they do have a moral compass?

JC: Yes, when ‘Margin Call’ came out in the US, the film was critiqued as it humanises bankers. We’re talking about an industry in which three or four million of the most well educated people all over the world work. Of course they are not all evil, not even close to it, but within that are judgements being made, that are not in their own best interest, not even literally claiming the greater good. It was a critique of looking at this world and how it skews people’s believes and motivations. I was absolutely trying to show a more nuanced view of a huge sway of educated people in the Western and Eastern world.

200%: Did you put this humanising aspect in the scene where Kevin Spacey’s character buries his dead dog in the garden of his ex-wife?

JC: That wasn’t really put in to humanise him, but some people might think that, which is fine. In my mind, though, it was almost absurd that he was using the death of his dog to be in denial about his responsibility or his actions. I thought it was absurd that he was taking a while to come to grips with the decision he was about to make and he was using this 17 year old dog, as an excuse not to face the consequences. Millions of people are losing their jobs, their self-worth being destroyed, and all the things that happen when the economy turns destructive on itself – obviously this should not hold a candle to a guy having to put his dog down because it has lived a long and satisfying life.

200%: Your next film ‘All Is Lost’ features ROBERT REDFORD  in a film about a journey of one man’s fight to survive. You seem to be interested in ‘survivors’ as the bankers in ‘Margin Call’ also had to undergo some form of survival?

JC: ‘All Is Lost’ is a very simple story that touches on the basic human elements of wanting to live. It’s an older actor who is playing the part. It’s a simple study on why one wants to keep going and what you’re willing to do to get there. There is certainly a connection between the two films as they were written within two years of each other and I was in a similar place in my life. It is, however, a totally different movie; there is no dialogue, one actor, so it’s a very different exercise for me as a filmmaker.

Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers. 

MARGIN CALL is out on DVD & Blu-ray 12 November.