SXSW 2022 Interview: Drea Cooper on Wagering on Originality in “Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallStreetBets”

“Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallsStreetBets” takes itself about as seriously as one would expect of a film with a central character who appears online with the nom de plume of “Sir Jack-A-Lot” and appears onscreen in a knight’s helmet with spectacles laid over the top, albeit with no practical use. The cosplay is appropriate when he and the amateur Gordon Gekkos at the Reddit forum “WallStreetBets” found the stock market to be a giant game, taking advantage of the newfound ability to invest in businesses no one but the well-connected could before the commission-free Robinhood app removed the barrier to entry, but it’s bound to stiffen the spine a bit when he adds that the anonymity is necessary for the fact he made millions of dollars off betting big on the seemingly moribund GameStop, shorting the stock with hundreds of others and reaping the benefits.

While their behavior could be considered reckless by some, the crazy tale of WallStreetsBets is wrangled into a wry, irreverent narrative with sharp insight by Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper, who make as much of a gamble as their subjects by completely immersing an audience in the frenzied feeling of the Internet where power can seemingly come from any corner and savvy stock tips can arrive as ridiculous memes. Moving a mile a minute as it channels the adrenaline rush of a quick financial score and the quicksilver pace of online life, “Diamond Hands” still doesn’t lack for arresting moments as those who outsmarted the system describe the generational frustrations that led them to wager against major financial firms, taking advantage of a unique set of circumstances but rooted in all too familiar economic concerns.

With the film set to premiere this weekend at SXSW, Cooper, who along with Canepari, first came to Austin with their triumphant 2015 boxing doc “T-Rex,” is set to return with a vengeance and shortly before the bow of “Diamond Hands,” he spoke of embarking on a project that could stand out among the various projects to take on the irresistible against-all-odds true story and pulling audiences into the hyperactive virtual realm in an engaging way no other film has, as well as allowing the unbelievable ensemble of real-life characters take center stage.

What got you interested in this?

This story, when it hit in January [of 2021], cemented the idea of just how surreal the previous year of our lives had been. We were coming off an election that was tumultuous to say the least, and then the insurrection hits on January 6th. Then three weeks later, we are hearing and seeing stories about people making millions of dollars in the stock market and taking down gigantic hedge funds, causing them to bleed billions of dollars. It was just mind-boggling. So it certainly captured my attention and of course I wanted to know, “Well, who were these guys that did this? How did this community on this subreddit come together to figure this out?” I was just taken by it. And then Zack and I got approached by MSNBC and the NBC News Studios team and they had been tracking the story for a while. One of the in-house development members there already identified a handful of subjects a year previous, when the rise of the retail investor was starting to take shape and that is when they started tracking WallStreetBets. But there really wasn’t a big story there yet. Fast forward some nine months [later] and this perfect storm comes together, so we decided to jump on board and figure out how to make a film about this wild, wild world and wild story.

Was the formal challenge exciting? It’s a riveting film about stock trading and the internet, neither of which is traditionally cinematic.

That was it, right? I used to roll my eyes, but I think what is fascinating about being a filmmaker today is that increasingly our stories of our lives are being experienced online, so more and more these stories that exist are coming from these internet experiences, and the big challenge is how the hell do you make a movie that happens inside the internet? For us, it was really about trying to work within the language of the subreddit. We always saw this film as a cultural story first, like WallStreetBets is a subculture, so we really wanted to focus in on the people who make that community tick and [it became a question of] how do we speak in that voice? What are the tools and mechanisms that they use to communicate?” Memes, emojis, sarcasm, profanity, you name it. It has got the best and the worst of the Internet all in one place, so it was exciting for us to figure that out.

It was a lot of trial and error. There is a tipping point where that stuff can get too overwhelming, and the Internet is kind of messy and not very aesthetically pleasing. It is a hodgepodge, so we were trying to thread the needle a little bit so that we could take the viewers inside the Internet when we needed to be there for the story and then we could step back and get some perspectives and kind of try to understand, “Well, who are these people themselves?” Mark Kelly, who has a family and wants to buy himself time with his kids, or Alisha [Woods], who is filled with this generational angst, feeling like she can never crack it by working hard, but then it doesn’t pay off in the end. Meanwhile, there are all these major calamities happening around her, so we were trying to figure out how to be inside the Internet for our story, and then figure out how to step back a little bit so that an audience could kind of go on this ride with us and not get too overwhelmed.

You’ve got many subjects who seem like they were quite excited to be on camera, even if it’s Sir Jack-A-Lot, who wants to remain anonymous behind a knight’s helmet. Were you actually inviting as much activity on their part to tell the story or were they bringing that on their own?

It is interesting. Some of this is a function of the casting process. With “Fire in Paradise,” the interviews were some of the most emotionally charged I’ve ever conducted. The stories that people were recounting were so tragic and intense, but they lived through it and that is why they were good at telling their story. In this project the folks we spoke to were part of living and breathing this, they were impassioned. When we started the project, we must have interviewed 18 people knowing that we’d narrow it down, but what we found was this is the story of a community and it had an ensemble nature, so we wanted to talk to many people and tell the story with a handful of voices who were able to come at this with slight varying points of view to give us the most interesting picture. You talk to 18 people and a few of them can really fucking tell a good story, so those were the people that we settled on and naturally, they find their place in the film. It wasn’t that we were asking them to do things. We were just asking them about what they had experienced and they were just great at taking us through it.

Another connection with “Fire in Paradise” is how you’re diving into a project that has competition with a number of other films battling for the participation of key subjects and a unique angle for the story. Your films rise to the top, but has it been difficult to navigate that kind of situation?

With “Fire in Paradise,” I had a personal connection to Paradise and the timing of things just worked out, so Zach and I just hopped on the story and started working on it. We were there early on, and then when other projects started swirling, we were already in it and at that point it was like, “well, we are just going to go for it because we’ve created these relationships and we are really passionate about this story.” With this one though, we knew there were going to be three, four, five, six projects and we had to think that through, because as storytellers, you always want to have a unique story, so it does change the perception a little bit when you think about like, “Wow, is there going to be competition here for our actual characters, if you are the subjects in the film?” We felt that the story was broad enough that we could find unique subjects who would be unique to our film and it gave us a little bit of confidence, that we could try to make something that hopefully is unique in the space, but I’m still a big fan of various people telling a story. I think it is important in our cultural narrative space that we are getting different points of view on the same event. To me that is exciting. It is interesting, and [at times] a little uncomfortable, but that usually breeds interesting work.

Did this take any directions that you could get excited about and may not have anticipated?

At the end of the day, this is a collage film and it draws on all sorts of different primary source material and finding those elements, whether it is traditional news archive or discovering just the most random meme on the internet, or in some cases, we even created our own memes – it was like finding ways to almost be an active voice in the language of the internet. That part was pretty fun and I need to definitely pay credit to our tremendous editor Carter Gunn who really helped push the boundaries on some of those, and really pushed our thinking a little bit about how we could visualize this.

The other big surprise was using visual metaphor, similar to memes. For example, the ‘90s rave backdrop that plays behind WallStreetBets just felt appropriate for some reason. You are going into this space [on the WallStreetBets subreddit] and it has this weird underground feel, like a 90s rave party for some reason, whether or not the community agrees. I’m sure we’ll get some blow back, but we just thought it was funny and we thought folks would appreciate it. Or in the case of the skydiving scene where these guys are free falling, just like their accounts – they all started losing money when Robinhood shut down,so now everybody is just jumping. Using [all] that material in an interesting way was fun and we discovered that in the process of editing.

And you’re bringing the film to SXSW where I can recall standing in line for “T-Rex” years ago, knowing you were on the verge of a breakthrough. What’s it like to be back?

What was funny last night, [Zackary and I] jumped on some scooters last night and we were cruising down Congress and Zack was like, “My strongest memory of coming here with T-Rex is that next door Russell Brand was having his big film,” and the real buzz was over there and not with our film, so it was a little bittersweet for a moment. That said, we are excited to come back into a public forum with film. Last night I talked to a dozen people, more than I’ve spoken to in a social setting in two years and we are talking about movies and ideas and life. For that, it is special. We are excited to be back and we are excited to just share the movie with a live, public audience, and it is special that this event can even happen.

“Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallStreetBets” will screen at SXSW on March 13th at 7 pm at the SXSW Film Theater at the Austin Convention Center, March 15th at 2:45 pm at the Alamo Lamar A, and March 17th at 11:15 am at Alamo Lamar B. It will also be available virtually to SXSW Online badgeholders from March 14th through 16th.