Robert Miller (Richard Gere) has it all. His hedge fund is a massive success. His wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and daughter Brooke (Brit Marling) love him. As you probably expect, a man who has it all always wants more. This gets him into a lot of trouble: he’s in danger of being arrested for vehicular manslaughter after a car crash kills his mistress, and the books for his company are not as clean as they seem. Arbitrage, the new film by Nicholas Jarecki, is about how Robert tries to elude the police and salvage his family. It unfolds like a high-stakes thriller, and underneath its slick sheen, there is a cynical message about how business elites are untouchable. With terrific performances, including Tim Roth as a cop and Nate Parker as Robert’s accomplice Jimmy, Arbitrage uses a formula to get us thinking bigger questions. I recently chatted with Jarcecki about his cast, his writing process, and the state of our criminal justice system.
*MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD*
What inspired you to make this film?
I had been reading the newspapers in 2008 and 2009, watching my savings decimate. At the time, the hedge fund magnates were dominating the paper. [Bernie] Madoff had just been unearthed. Bit by bit, we were seeing crazy things happen. I started to think, “Who is involved? What would a personal story be of one man who was charming, powerful, and in charge of a lot of his money?” I envisioned a good guy, basically, who had read one too many of his own press releases.
You think he’s a good guy?
I think he was until he became corrupted. Perhaps money is the root of all evil, I don’t know, but [money] has definitely gone to our guy’s head. Mr. Miller has taken liberties and risks that he had no business taking. He does it throughout the movie – not only in business, but personally with the people around him. I like the title “Arbitrage” because I felt he was buying low and selling high with other people’s lives.
Was it difficult to weave a story about financial corruption with a police procedural?
That’s kind of the trick. If the movie is just numbers, it can get a little too academic. I like Movie movies. A human crisis is what [we need to] get us interested. And Tim Roth does such a good job playing the detective, in this bizarrely entertaining way. He raises the stakes and tension, which makes the crime those of blood. It puts a human price on the excesses of Richard Gere’s character. His victims are hurt in two different ways.
What do you think is the solution to prosecuting powerful elites since they sometimes seem to squirm their way free?
It’s a challenge. While working on another script, I became friendly with a police detective, a very smart guy. I asked him about evidence tampering, and he replied with, “It happens a lot. Cops have a good case, and then they try to make it a little better.” We need honesty and straightforwardness in our criminal justice system, which is pretty hard to come by. I’m actually a donor to The Innocence Project, where we try and get DNA testing for people on death row. We actually got 200 people exonerated. A lot of those cases involved evidence tampering. It’s despicable. But regarding financial criminals, we don’t even have laws to deal with it. [Their system] is too sophisticated, and government enforcement could really be beefed up. I mean, we had Harry Markopolos writing to the SEC about Madoff for years! They never called back.
Midway through the film, Robert is talking about Jimmy and says, “He’s not one of us.” To me, it seemed like the line could be interpreted in a lot of ways. Was that deliberate?
Absolutely! Remember that in response, Robert’s lawyer responds with, “Is that a good thing?” I knew it was funny, but I didn’t quite know what it means. I guess Robert is saying he’s better than us, and that they lawyer is saying he can’t be bought. It’s a funny joke, and Nate Parker handles the Jimmy role well. Brit [Marling] once said to me that Nate radiates integrity.
That’s funny. I interpreted the line differently than you.
Oh yeah? What did you think it meant?
I thought Robert was suggesting that Jimmy is from a place where it’s a matter of honor not to speak with the police. I guess the line could be interpreted racially, but I didn’t think that’s what Robert meant.
Interesting. Man, Robert and the lawyers are such scumbags in that scene.
Wow! Ok, well that was a huge inspiration, so you flatter me. Flattery will get you everywhere. By the way, the actress who played Holden’s wife got an Academy Award for that scene. My goal is have the audience think they’ve misjudged Ellen. She’s supposed to seem like this meek, long-suffering wife for most of the film, but it turns out there’s much more going on. When writing that scene, my thought was, “Don’t mess with the Queen.” She may take a while, but ultimately, she’ll move [ed. Note: he’s making a Chess joke].
Wasn’t it a little naïve that Ellen thought she could protect her daughter from all this corruption?
Yes and no. I wrote the film three years ago, back when the words “hedge fund” weren’t synonymous with Ponzi schemes and fraud. That’s a pretty recent phenomenon. If I’m out of step with time, it shows just how insanely all this stuff is moving. Just a few years ago, people would think, “Oh, that guy works in a hedge fund, he must be brilliant! He must do such interesting things.” Credit derivates were popular once, and now they’re a bad joke.
Did you do a lot of research to see how hedge funds function?
Quite a bit. But I also know a lot since I used to own my own business, and both of my parents are commodities traders. I was always around this stuff, and knew people deep in the business world. To get a better understanding of financial prosecution, I did some tremendous reading. I read all the stuff Graydon Carter published in Vanity Fair. His series of articles about the topic were terrific. Then Richard, Brit, and I went to the New York Stock Exchange. We met with different hedge fund people. Richard would always ask them more about their personal lives, their wives, and how they treat their children.
What did Brit ask about?
Well, you know she used to work at Goldman Sachs and studied economics at Georgetown? She knows the business world quite well. Still, she hung out at Goldman offices for a couple weeks to refresh her memory about how they think. She did a great job.
I think so, too! I interviewed her last year, and my first impression of her was very different from the character she plays in your film.
Right?! Yeah! She disappeared into it. For rehearsals, all the actors would come to my house and sit around the kitchen table. I rehearsed with her and the other actors for a month, which is a real luxury. When we were working on the scene where she and Richard meet in the park, we kept going through it and she would rewrite her lines. She and Richard would improvise, so I’d sit at my computer, typing away. I kept shouting things like, “I like that! I like that! Say it again!” It’s wonderful working with actors like her because it takes them an hour to solve the writing problem that would take me a week on my own. They’re going to play the characters, so they can immediately tell you, “This feels right, this doesn’t feel right.” How do they know? I’m not sure, but questioning them is at your own peril.
How was Richard involved with this process?
He would come to my house every day. You know, in an early version, I managed my main character as some sort of math genius. Richard made it so human. He’s so charming, so seductive. He ropes you in; I could see him [as Robert] in some other incarnation of his life. Maybe he wouldn’t know all the jargon, but he would somehow know people, and how to connect the dots.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me!
Thank you! I enjoyed these questions.