Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wall Street 2

In November 2009, Oliver Stone literally put me in the picture. I was seated at an oval table
under an eerie light in what purported to be the office of the Chairman of New York Federal
Reserve Bank. As the meeting continued throughout the night, people around screamed about
the “moral hazard” of saving a failing investment bank. At one point, there was even a call from the White House dooming the bank in question. The frenetic scene is no more than a consensual hallucination directed by Oliver Stone for the movie Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. (A sequel to his 1987 Wall Street.) The magnificently wood-paneled room is actually the executive conference room of an insurance company, Metlife, which is serving as a location for this part of the filming. The eerie glow comes from powerful lamps lights ingeniously suspended from helium balloons above us. The shouting is coming from actors Frank Langella, Eli Wallach, and Josh Brolin. Although I had only a bit part in this drama, it provided me with an opportunity to see how a Hollywood is made from the vantage point of the set.
The project was initiated in 2005 by Edward R. Pressman , the producer of the original Wall Street, after he saw the fictional villain of Wall Street Gordon Gekko (portrayed by Michael Douglas) on the cover Fortune accompanied by a headline about the return of greed to Wall Street. Pressman reasoned that if 18 years after the movie, Gekko was still the media’s icon for greed on Wall Street, Pressman, a sequel was in order. He owned the rights for the sequel but sought to interest Twentieth Century Fox, which had distributed the original Wall Street. Getting a movie made in Hollywood when the hero is not a comic book character was not an easy task. Just getting a script that was acceptable to Fox took four years– and 3 different (and very expensive) writers. Even then Fox’s approval was conditional on the stars and director, as are almost all movie deals. Pressman persuaded Michael Douglas to again play Gekko, a role for which he had won the Oscar in 1988, and Oliver Stone (who had dropped out of the project earlier), to again direct Wall Street 2. Fox then agreed to finance it.
Part of this $67 million budget could be retrieved from New York State and New York City’s tax credits (which effectively reimburses 35% of the production budget spent in New York.)
The Federal Reserve meeting scenes were filmed over a long weekend about midway in the
11 week shooting schedule. Through the seemingly endless retakes in which actors repeats
virtually the same lines while extras behind them– each of whom is called by a number rather
than a name– moves to the exact same “mark” ,or position, Stone gradually perfects the illusion.
Between each take, the time on the grandfather clock in the office is reset to the exact time at the start of the previous scene. The process is not unlike the never-ending day in the movie
Groundhog Day. But surrounding the illusion-in-the-making is an envelope of reality. It is
peopled by a small army of technicians, including make-up artists, hair stylists, script
supervisors, technical advisers, continuity girls, stand-by carpenters, wranglers, costumers,
sound boom men, camera operators, film loaders, set decorators, and electricians. They work
ceaselessly, rushing onto the set between takes, to maintain and repair the illusion. One of the
advantages of a top director such as Stone, is that he can get the best of the below-the-line talent, in this case such Oscar nominees as Rodrigo Prieto, the Mexican-born Director of Photography whose credits include Frida, Brokenback Mountain, and Babel, Kristi Zea, the production designer, whose credits include Revolutionary Road, Goodfellas, and The Silence of The Lamb,and Tod Maitland, the versatile sound technician who won the Oscar for Sea Biscuit.
Stone him self is constantly moving around the set, viewing scenes from different angles and talking to the actors and extras, often in whispers. At other times, he confers with technical advisers, including Brian Cartwright and Alex Cohen, two former SEC lawyers who had actually attended the Fed meetings, asking them about such details as how
coffee cups would be placed on the table or how precisely a phone call from the White House would be answered. When any unexpected difficulties arise, such as the camera dolly creaks audibly on its tracks, he jokes with the cast, having a gift for putting actors at their ease. But even with the amicable atmosphere, he has to keep the movie running on a tight schedule. Just the below-the-line expenditures for Wall Street 2, which does not include the compensation for the stars, writers, producers, or the director, is running about $220,000 a day for interior scenes (exterior and crowd scenes can be much m ore expensive.) So unless he shoots the planned number of script pages a day, he will run over budget. While Hollywood players are often depicted in the media as profligate spenders, the opposite is true when it comes to studio executives supervising a movie that they are financing. Before
Wall Street 2 went into production, Fox went through the budget line by line, squeezing every penny it could out of the budget., even attempting to reduce the fees of major actors (all of whom have a “quote”, or established price per movie.. If the shooting ran over budget, Fox could ask that plans scenes be cut out of the script to get it back on track or use money from the post-production budget, which includes putting in visual effects (which are crucial in Wall Street 2 since some scenes are shot with blank backgrounds), adding sound, and editing. So Stone manages to adhere to the schedule, even when it requires him– and his assistant directors-- working grueling 14 hour days (as in the Federal Reserve
Bank scenes). And, as it turns, out he completes the movie within a day of the targeted end of shooting.
When I arrive at the wrap party at the club Spin, the cast, crew, and friends are huddled around
plasma TV screens, watching clips from the movie. For most of them, it is their first opportunity to see how Stone actually realized the scenes they had worked in or on. As they watch, visibly impressed, they often cheer with the sort of gusto one might expect at a Superbowl party when a touchdown is scored.
Everyone embraces Stone, the hero of the evening, as he passes through the room. Spin is owned by Susan Sarandon (who had acted in the movie) and features ping pong tables (where Josh Brolin and Mel Gibson(who was not in the movie) engaged in wild game. ,The calibration continued into the early hours of the morning.
Unlike independent movies, which usually take years to reach the theaters, studio movies have a built-in release date from the moment they are green-lighted. Wall Street 2 was scheduled to open at the multiplexes across America on April 23, 2010. However, in March, after getting the competition report showing what other movies would draw the adult audience away from Wall street 2, Fox pushed the opening back to September 12, 2010. Even so, Fox's marketing department is already working on the advertising and marketing
campaign, which will require a huge investment in spots ads on cable and network TV in mid-April. The worldwide P&A budget will probably exceed $40 million, which will bring Fox’s total outlay to about $100 million.
The original Wall Street did far better in earning critical acclaim and buss than
money. Fox’s share of the American box office was only $20.2 million– and it fared far worse in foreign markets. The problem Fox had then, and faces again now, is that movies that involve complex issues, such as a financial crises on W all Street, did not necessarily draw the teen-age audience conditioned to expect the action heroes and fast tempo of the studios’ comic book sequels. The $100 million gamble for Fox is that it will be able to find an
adult audience for the multiplexes.