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Wall Street insiders open up for 'Money Never Sleeps'

Oliver Stone's sequel, featuring the return of Gordon Gekko, has an authenticity provided by advisors recruited directly from the Wall Street elite.

September 24, 2010|By Nathaniel Popper, Los Angeles Times
  • Thomas Belesis, right, a financial industry executive, appears in Oliver Stone's "Money Never Sleeps."
Thomas Belesis, right, a financial industry executive, appears in Oliver… (20th Century Fox )

Wall Street is notoriously close-mouthed about its arcane wealth-producing ways, but when Oliver Stone came knocking last year, doors swung open.

Stone's new film, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," includes cameos by Warren Buffett and short-seller James Chanos. The filmmaker shot on Wall Street trading floors given over for the purpose. And he plumbed the wisdom of numerous kings of finance.

When Stone first asked financier Dave Molner to serve as an advisor on the film, Molner said, "That's not what I do, and you couldn't pay me enough to make it worth my while. But I'm happy to help you."

"If nothing else, it's fantastic bragging rights at parties," Molner said by way of explanation.

There were a few instances, however, when people and institutions ducked Stone's invitation for a little background help, the director said in an interview.

"When my name was invoked, sometimes it would strike fear into the hearts of the bankers," he said. "Certainly Goldman Sachs and [JPMorgan] Chase were not in the market to talk to us."

But Stone said he made sure to reach out to defenders of Wall Street as well as the critics.

"By talking to people like that, you have the right to question the big shots," he said.

The involvement of Molner and other Masters of the Universe underscores the continuing complicated relationship between Wall Street and its most unabashed cinematic critic, Stone, whose newest critique of high finance debuts nationally Friday.

The relationship began in Stone's 1987 film "Wall Street," which set up the main character, Gordon Gekko, as a cautionary tale about greed run amok but ended up creating a glamorous archetype for a subsequent generation of young traders and investment bankers.

In "Money Never Sleeps," Stone draws a scathing picture of how the entire Wall Street complex helped create the near-meltdown of the global financial system.

"The ones who run the show, at the top of the totem poll, they completely let us down," Stone said. "They should have been fired, and some of them should go to jail."

But the film itself was shaped from beginning to end with cooperation from among the biggest names in the industry — some of whom struggle to explain their affinity for the wily, often anti-capitalist director.

"I'm a registered Republican; I'm a fairly free-market person. But that doesn't mean I don't have a good relationship with Oliver Stone," said Anthony Scaramucci, founder of the hedge fund Skybridge Capital, who pops up in the film as a talking head on a news program. "Oliver Stone is taking a different opinion. He believes that the lower quartile of society is suffering in a megalomaniacal capitalist society — and you know, he's probably right on some of the stuff he's saying."

Vincent Farrell, the chief investment officer at Soleil Securities, had a much simpler explanation: "I'm like everybody else, totally star struck."

The involvement of Wall Street insiders in the new film began long before the first takes. At the very beginning there was Stone's father, who was a stockbroker all the way into the 1980s at Shearson Lehman.

"My father was the old school," Stone said. "Dad would always say things like, 'There should not be a profit without production,' and 'The engine of capitalism — Wall Street — should be geared to productivity.' "

Working from this upbringing, Stone created a script for "Money Never Sleeps" with Allan Loeb that he then circulated to financial bigwigs.

The original script involved a hedge fund-related murder, and the first thing Stone heard was that he needed a different plot. Even for ruthless traders and bankers, whacking one of their own was a bit over the top.

"If you are going to do a sequel, here you have one of the great Wall Street stories sitting at your doorstep," Chanos, the founder of Kynikos Associates, said he told Stone, referring to the credit crisis that hit in 2008.

"We switched it to bankers, because I realized that's where the action is," Stone said.

Some advisors say that as the project unfolded they were able to exercise a moderating influence on the director's view of financiers.

"He was convinced there had to be a single bad guy," Molner said. "I told him, 'It's not that simple. You can't point to any one person's actions. But it would be sophomoric to reduce it to one big bad wolf.' "

Soon enough Stone had a new script that told a lightly fictionalized version of the crisis, with a firm named Churchill Schwartz that looks a lot like Goldman Sachs, and a Treasury secretary with a bald head who bears an uncanny resemblance to Henry M. Paulson.

As Stone's actors began preparing for their roles, they spent weeks on the trading floor of firms including Knight Trading and John Thomas Financial watching the traders at their desks and then discussing the subtleties at drinks after work. Sometimes the conversation revealed common interests. When Chanos met co-stars Douglas and Josh Brolin for dinner, Chanos learned that Brolin was an avid day trader.

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