While the stakes always seem high during a game of Jenga, those little wooden blocks were making “Equity” director Meera Menon particularly nervous.
“Amy [Fox, the screenwriter] had her finger on that early on as a metaphor for fragility, how one wrong move or one wrong statement in front of the wrong person at the wrong time can make decades worth of a career crumble,” said Menon of the game played by investment bankers Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn) and her boss Randall (Lee Tergesen) as a way of blowing off steam. “And when we were in the editing room, and Jenga’s used as a metaphor in ‘The Big Short,’ and all of us had this soul-crushing moment of, ‘Oh no, are we going to come off as imitative?’”
Menon didn’t need to worry, either as a point of direct comparison or otherwise, because frankly you’ve never seen a film like “Equity” before. Triumphantly (and somewhat regrettably at this point in time), the Wall Street-set drama is the first to flip the script on the boys’ club tradition of financial dramas, setting its sights instead on Gunn’s steely preparer of businesses for their IPOs, chagrined from a past public offering that went awry at the last minute and eager to redeem herself with Cachet, a privacy-first social network that looks to launch on the stock market in the billions of dollars. She carries not only the weight of the fortune that awaits should she successfully execute the IPO, but the constant scrutiny of her rapacious male colleagues including her boyfriend (James Purefoy), the heightened suspicions of a college classmate and now-federal agent (Alysia Reiner), and the increasing fear that her second-in-command (Sarah Megan Thomas) might undermine her to serve her own ambitions.
The gender swap in front of the camera adds a new level of intrigue to the proceedings, but so does the one in behind it, particularly Menon, who last directed the scrappy and irreverent “Farah Goes Bang,” in which a young woman’s quest to lose her virginity and elect John Kerry during the 2004 Presidential election were intertwined. In taking the reins of a production largely financed by women and produced by Reiner and Thomas, whose Broad Street Pictures banner was born out of their frustration as actresses to locate strong and complex roles, Menon literally finds new angles to apply to a good old fashioned thriller, with every scene dynamic in its energy and visual style. After creating buzz at Sundance earlier this year, the film arrives in theaters this week as a refreshing respite in the summer and to mark the occasion, Menon spoke about depicting a world of wealth on a tight budget, having her main cast be producers on the film, and bringing the cinema out of scenes in conference rooms and four-star restaurants.
I met a bunch of people as a result of “Farah Goes Bang,” including this producer [Mark Stolaroff], who runs this thing called the No-Budget Film School in LA. We had worked with him as consultant because we had made that movie for $75,000 dollars and he was approached by Alysia Reiner, who produced this movie, to give him a recommendation on a female director because they had thrown a pretty wide net looking for one. He recommended me for the job, so they reached out to me and I read the script and loved it. I loved the world — it was one that I had been interested in for a while and the writing was really strong. Then I met with Sarah and Alysia and instantly got what they were going for, and they got what I would do with it, so we just clicked creatively, and they had developed the project and were [already] in the final stages of development, so by the time I stepped into it, it was a moving train.
Did you immediately see the cinema in this?
No. [laughs] Amy’s an amazing writer, and she has a background in playwriting, so the script really read like a play [with] a lot of scenes that involve two people sitting in a room, talking to each other. It was very segmented and episodic that way, so to really lift it off the page and make a visual experience out of it was the challenge. That had to be invented and drawn out of the material.
So how did you develop that distinct visual language to convey the always-shifting power dynamics?
Part of what the story was about was an increasing level of suspense as to who’s going to do what to get what they want, but also an increasing sense of paranoia and self-doubt within the main character [played by Anna Gunn] about whether or not she’ll be able to accomplish this thing she had sacrificed everything in her life to achieve. Eric [Lin, the cinematographer] and I talked a lot about ‘70s thrillers, like “The Conversation” or “All The President’s Men,” and the techniques those films used to amplify and create that almost abstract sense of paranoia and intrigue around a set of situations or circumstances, like overhead angles, zoom lenses and certainly the score.
Eric and Diane [Lederman, the production designer] both worked really sharply with me to define what the color space was going to look and feel like when we were shooting. I don’t think we actually did much tweaking of color and tone in post. We did have these really precious three weeks before we started filming where we talked about both of those things, color and tone, in pretty great detail, specifically the color green, obviously, which is a thing in the movie.
You’ve got that great scene in bed that’s completely dialogue-free, but may be the most suspenseful in the movie where James Purefoy’s character Michael tries to figure out the password to Naomi’s Blackberry.
In the script, that’s one scene heading, “Interior – Michael’s Apartment – Night” and just one line of action: “Michael takes Naomi’s Blackberry from the nightstand and types in passwords to try to unlock it. It is unsuccessful,” something like that. And that’s what lifting something off the page is — it reads as a very small, not inconsequential thing, but you realize it’s all building his character to try different things or go through different doors to get what he wants. In terms of how we filmed it, it was really just two angles. The most difficult part was we had to do it really quickly, and it was at the end of the long shooting day, so James got into bed and we started to film it, and he took the Blackberry and was like, “What am I even supposed to type? What would I even begin to think would be her password?” That was probably the most complicated thing to figure out — how his mind would actually work to figure out what her password would be. We didn’t come up with anything brilliant. He just typed up a few random things, but we realized there was so much more in that moment than it necessarily seemed on the page.
Throughout the film, you can also feel the gaze from one person on another, particularly with Sarah and Anna’s characters. Was it important to build those beats in, where you might linger maybe a moment longer than you would ordinarily?
That’s how you make something so dialogue-heavy — scenes that are just two people sitting in a room talking, cinematic. You play on the reactions more so than you do on the dialogue. Behavior is cinematic. I don’t think dialogue is, so thinking about whose reaction shots to linger on and when was a good chunk of the editing process for us.
Was it an interesting experience having Alysia and Sarah as actresses and as producers?
Yeah, it was. There was no model for me to understand how that would necessarily work, so I was nervous about it at first. But we had to finish the film on such a condensed timeline and and we were doing everything under such tight constraints, so it actually gave me a bit of a relief valve to be able to trust that they understood these characters deeper than I ever did because they created them. It felt like what it must feel like for Mike Leigh or maybe Christopher Guest [where] they work a lot with improv with their actors, but they work with their actors from a very early stage in the process to be writing and developing the characters with them. When I was in doubt about a certain moment or how to play this or where this came from, [Alysia and Sarah] invariably had the answer.
Were you able to bring anything you learned on your first film to this?
I really believe in the power of improv, and even though this wasn’t a comedy, we did a lot of improv on “Farah Goes Bang” — I feel the most honest and interesting scenes we actually ended up shooting were largely improv-based. While none of the improv made it into the cut in “Equity,” maybe a line or two here or there, I did allow the actors to often improvise specifically at the beginning of a scene and at the end of the scene, to allow them to have a new and different experience every time we did a take. Then nothing ever became stale. Even in drama, there’s power in using improv to inject life into a performance, and energize actors and keep them on their toes.
Anna Gunn and James Purefoy are very, very sharp, smart, and funny people and I think they really appreciated being able to have some authorship over the material, like being able to suggest a line or a tweak here or there, or introduce this whole other element of blocking, or add a whole kind of element of dialogue to the end of the scene. Maybe we wouldn’t end up using it, but just to give them material to play with, especially in terms of building their relationship with each other and [be] in an environment that not only gave them authorship but just let them play a bit more and have a bit more fun, just let the material be looser, it was really nice for them.
It was really, really tough because we just had no money or resources. We only had one day to shoot every scene at the tech company [in the film, Cache] that was in that location, and Anna had unfortunately injured her foot the day before. A lot of the scenes were those conference-room scenes, where the bank is pitching to Cachet, and [Anna] had to get an MRI that morning, so she could only be there for half the day, but she’s in all those scenes, so we had to shoot a lot of coverage without her and stitch her into it. There was a lot of concern editorially whether or not it would work, but we made it work.
With limited resources, was it a challenge creating this feeling of great wealth around the world these people lived in?
That was probably the biggest challenge and it’s a credit to the creative team, first and foremost our production designer Diane [Lederman], who was a seasoned veteran who production designed “The Americans,” “The Leftovers,” and maybe most importantly Oliver Stone’s sequel to “Wall Street,” so she really knew the detail work that would go into communicating through an interior design choice or an object, what that kind of wealth feels and looks like when you work in that world.
Sundance was definitely a game-changing experience for a filmmaker. Not only is it a great place to find a community of filmmakers — I feel plugged into a different community now — but just the visibility you get as a filmmaker out of that festival is above and beyond what you can expect out of anything [else]. It’s definitely been a whirlwind. I feel exposed to another level of the business that I hadn’t been exposed to before, but that being said, most days I don’t feel very different from the way it was after I finished my first film, which was a matter of wrapping your mind around this process. Closing it out and figuring out what the next thing is, which I don’t know yet, it feels like starting from scratch with a little more access.
“Equity” opens on July 29 in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and the Landmark and in New York at the Angelika Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. A full list of theaters and dates is here.