Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Margin Call

Genre: Thriller
Premise: The 12 hours leading up to a corporate investment firm’s downfall.
About: Shooting in New York City right now, this film stars Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, and Stanley Tucci (talk about a cast!). Not much is known about the writer-director, JC Chandor, who, along with his producers, were able to secure funding for the film during the Cannes Film Festival. Before this, Chandor completed one short film and worked in the sound department on another. Welcome to what happens when you write a great script!
Writer: JC Chandor
Details: 92 pages – July 13, 2009 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Quinto plays Peter

Now this.

Is how.

You write.

A script.

Hit us hard at the opening bell and keep on punching.

Margin Call is a script that takes the financial crisis and actually DOES something with it. We’ve seen other writers take a crack at this subject matter, like Allan Loeb with Money Never Sleeps (Wall Street 2) and John Wells with The Company Men. But while both those scripts had nice moments, this proves that with a little ingenuity and good storytelling, David can top Goliath.

This is a movie about money. About what happens when you’re in charge of all the money in the world. About being dependent on that money. It’s about greed. It’s about realizing that no matter how smart you are, sooner or later someone smarter is going to come along and break up your party.

When that happens, what are you left with? Who are you without your money? Who are you without your “things?” We never see ANY of this in Margin Call. But we can see it in every one of the characters’ eyes as they assess the way their world’s going to change tomorrow.

Peter Sullivan is a 27 year old risk assessment analyst, which is gobbledy gook for “good with numbers.” Peter works at one of those giant investment firms you see Jim Cramer screaming about on that weird Seasame Street-inspired show of his on MSNBC. I don’t know a lot about trading but I know that when you trade billions of dollars a day, the decisions you make affect every person in America.

The script starts out with a brilliant bang as human resources systematically weaves through the trading floor like stormtroopers, tapping traders on the shoulder and letting them know that their services are no longer needed. Stinking rich one second. Checking pizza delivery jobs the next. When the slaughter is over, only 30% of the company remains. Sam Rogers, the elder statesman of the company, gives what will soon be compared to the Alec Baldwin speech in Glengarry Glen Ross. He tells them that they are survivors, and that he’ll need every one of them to save this company.

Unfortunately Peter’s boss, the eternally stressed-out Eric, didn’t make the cut. And when he’s leaving, he hands Eric a jump drive. Something he’s been working on. “Check it,” he says, with eyes that imply a hell of a lot more.

Peter does. And what he finds horrifies him.

The drive contains an analysis of the firm’s financial model - the equation they use to buy and trade everything in the company. I’ll spare you the details because I don’t know what I’m talking about but basically, the model is faulty, and if the company doesn’t sell everything they have by the end of tomorrow, there’s a good chance they’ll lose 1 trillion dollars. Not billion. Trill-eee-yan. If that happens, every single person who works in this firm will never work anywhere again.

There are lots of cool threads in Margin Call but the story comes down to a bunch of guys trying to figure out what to do. They have a doozy of a problem here. If they sell everything in a day, knowing it’s all bad, no firm will ever trade with them again. But if they try to sneak their way out of it over time, there’s a good chance the model will fail and both the government and the American people will no longer trust them. Damned if they do. Fucked if they don't.

This is what makes good drama. You put your characters in a high stakes dilemma and you make them choose. Choice reveals character, just like real life. Think about it. When do you really find out about people? You find out about them during times of adversity. You find out about them when shit goes wrong and decisions need to be made. Some wilt, others rise. But those are always the moments that reveal who a person really is. And movies are no different. Put your character in a difficult situation where they have to make a choice and the audience will watch with baited breath. I promise you.

I liked so much about this script. I liked how we went up the chain of command to deal with the problem. We start with the Nemo-sized fish and work our way, one boss at a time, to the whale.

I loved that it was a simple story, but how much bigger it felt despite that. I mean this is basically a bunch of people in suits talking. That’s it. You or I could shoot this tomorrow. But the context – with all the money and the firm - gave it the illusion of being much bigger. Very clever.

I loved the detail put into all the characters (making Peter a former rocket scientist was a nice touch). I loved the way the script built up to the final decision. I loved the disappearance of Eric (the guy found the glitch) and the escalating dilemma about what to do with him if they find him (there's a great ambiguous ending to this that has you wondering what indeed happened to Eric). And yes, I loved the ticking time bomb of having to figure everything out by morning.

But like all good scripts, it comes back to the characters, and all the characters here rock. Each one is fully invested in the problem, so there’s never any of those wasted scenes where we’re sitting with two characters going, “Who the hell cares? Get to the people that matter!” Everybody here matters.

Chandor could’ve pushed the envelope in a few places and really shocked us, but his restraint is what ends up making this such an authentic ride. I don’t know how long Chandor’s been writing but this was good page. Good page.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Each character has a lot at stake here (mainly their job, but also their future and their standing inside the company). This is why Chandor was able to nab such a great cast. When characters have something at stake, they’re alive. We CARE about what they want to do because what they want to do MATTERS. When they have nothing at stake, they just sit there. You can dress up a character in crazy antics, hilarious dialogue, and as much weirdness as you want, but unless they have a stake in the story, in the ultimate goal, they’re not going to be interesting, and they won’t be appealing to actors. Do all the characters in your script have something at stake?