“No Wall Street movie has ever had a bad box office,” Sarah Megan Thomas, the producer and star of indie thriller Equity, says. “If we do a good job, it means we make money.”
Thomas did the profit-margin research. She and her producing partner and co-star Alysia Reiner (Orange Is the New Black) are hedging their bets on the film's financial success, which in the indie world could simply mean recouping the film's budget. But there are other factors to consider that still make Equity a risk.
It's a tense Wall Street thriller, and tense Wall Street thrillers are difficult to pull off on an indie budget; authentically re-creating the imposing decor of flashy conference rooms and the high-powered people who work in them takes either cash or ingenuity. Luckily, Thomas and Reiner nabbed production designer Diane Lederman, who worked on Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010). But the film's risks transcend its aesthetics; lurking in every scene, in every unsaid word and every downed cocktail, Equity sneaks something so groundbreaking into the story, without ever referencing it, that you have to wonder why this particular angle hasn't been done before: From the auxiliary characters of doctors and lawyers to the three big stars, women are everywhere.
If the magnitude of this doesn't quite set in, imagine you're watching Wall Street, but Michael Douglas is a badass Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) grooming a female Martin Sheen (Thomas) and being threatened by a lady U.S. Attorney (Reiner), who also happens to be married to a woman (Tracie Thoms).
While this kind of stacked female cast isn't necessarily new for indies — I get a Kickstarter email from friends doing the same thing every week — the genre is unusual. Indies with women leads have been stalled in a self-fulfilling prophecy of the “quiet personal drama” (Sarah Polley) or “quirky art comedy” (Miranda July), which are all fine and good, but they do not make money, and this is one of the most cited reasons we're given for why women can't lead or helm high-budget blockbusters. What's most remarkable about Equity is that it's a high-stakes thriller so good that the actors' genders matter not at all.
“One of the greatest review comments was, 'These could have been male characters,'” Thomas says. “And that's a compliment to us.”
“One of the greatest review comments was
Thomas had worked up the idea for Equity by chatting with her finance friends in New York City. “These aren't the women we see in typical Wall Street movies,” she's quick to say. In The Wolf of Wall Street, one of the few female characters' big scenes was lighting a candle in Leonardo DiCaprio's ass. In this movie, the women act and look like investment bankers. Thomas chopped her hair into a neat, blond bob. She and Reiner got sophisticated Prada from the second-hand store Rachelle, outside Philadelphia, and the key word in costuming was “classy.”
“Bankers are in sales, and they're selling to men,” Thomas says. “So they still need to be sexy, but they're balancing sexy with corporate, and style with corporate. We tried to find a few places where my character crosses the line, using too much feminine effort to make the sale, but her being sexy isn't her defining trait.”
In fact, her defining trait — as with all the banking women in the film — is depicted in a glorious scene in which a manicured Naomi Bishop (Gunn) stands up in a sea of Naomi wannabes and says frankly, “I like money.”
“We wanted it to be Glengarry Glen Ross or Neil LaBute but all women,” Reiner says. “Make it about people talking about work — not about boyfriends but [about] having ambition and having money and wanting money. The importance of women wanting money, I mean, that's huge. Why does that have to be a dirty word?”
In a time when women are still shamed for their ambition and desire for a fair share of the wealth, the film's a well-crafted statement piece. Both Thomas and Reiner are, first, artists who want to make money, but their art supports their activist streaks. This was the first time the two had complete control of everything on set — a blessing and a curse when you have to produce until 3 a.m. one day and be ready to act at 5 a.m. the next. The two were largely supported by husbands and family and a particularly generous line producer, Brian David Cange. And in the end, Reiner was able to influence every detail big and small, including changing all the makeup to eco-friendly brands, something she'd never been able to do on other people's sets.
And if being produced by and starring women weren't enough, the film is also written and directed by them. Scribe Amy Fox came primarily from the New York theater scene, where she was writing taut ensemble dramas and character-driven pieces. Her 2005 script for indie darling Heights earned critical acclaim. Thomas and Reiner had tapped her immediately for their project, but Fox had just had a baby and couldn't fit it in with family life. After another year of financing rounds, Thomas approached her again. “I said, 'Have you had enough time with your baby?'” Thomas says with a laugh. “'Because we have a movie to make.'”
It's both serendipitous and a little disconcerting how much the behind-the-scenes making of Equity mirrors exactly what the movie is exploring. A high-powered investment banker maintains the façade of success and excess after the 2008 financial crisis, managing a troubling tech IPO and acting as a mentor for the ambitious women under her. This is a movie about making money that is made specifically to make money, but all of it is really about the song-and-dance of appearing successful until you are. For women, that often means staving off pregnancy. Fox deftly navigates that world in her script, with a few scenes that appropriately address the anxiety of having to hide that you're expecting. A writer who herself had to turn down projects due to motherhood, Fox was the perfect fit to tuck these particularly feminine horrors of career setbacks and paranoia into the milieu of Wall Street.
The worlds of investment banking and indie filmmaking overlapped with eerie familiarity for director Meera Menon as well.
“When you're in these pitch meetings with the bankers, it's a play of sorts,” Menon says. “There's a meeting when Anna's character is leading a pitch to bring their bank onto the job, and that presentation felt so very similar to the meetings as filmmakers we all have to take. When we're presenting an idea, we're selling it. That's what all this is — selling ideas to people.”
Menon worked with one of the filmmakers' mentors, Barbara Byrne from Barclays, to develop how each character would go about selling her ideas, and she ended up taking away some lessons for her own pitch meetings.
“She told me that there's a very specific way to understand your personal strengths when you're in the room,” Menon says. “She was dealing with tech guys in their mid-20s, and she found that being an older woman, she could adopt a maternal position toward them that she could use to her advantage. Anna and Sarah and I talked a lot about that. It's all about figuring out what your style is in that particular moment and giving people what they need to relate to.”
The ability to adapt and be what someone wants you to be is an advantage in real life, of course, but it's also crippling. Reiner and Thomas say that in the early drafts of the script, it felt nearly impossible to keep the focus on their female characters. The men developed into well-formed archetypes with solid storylines, while the women somehow adapted themselves to the point that they felt devoid of strength; a character who's trying to be everything can also read as nothing. Thomas and Reiner seem in awe of their own unconscious biases when they relay the story of reworking that early script.
Despite all these mirroring worlds of investment banking and filmmaking, there is at least one place where the two are at odds. “I was shocked by how women don't help other women in that world,” Reiner says. “It deeply upset me.” So Reiner and Thomas went and hired a bunch of women.
Equity's doing a rare thing by blatantly flaunting its ambitions, but it's also getting returns. The film premiered at January's Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews, and Sony Pictures Classics bought it on the spot. Now it's working its way through the festival circuit, playing at the Los Angeles Film Festival before its theatrical premiere on July 29. There's so much hype and so much riding on this movie, the thought of it even existing makes me nervous; if it really does make money, does this change everything? But Reiner reminds me there's only one way to make this happen.
“Go to the theater,” she says. “If you want to see women making movies. You have to support them with your dollars.”
Just like on Wall Street, money is, unavoidably, everything.