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Wed 19 Oct 2011 07:28 PM

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Wall St panic turns $3m ‘Margin Call’ into thriller

Small budget film draws big names as spotlight falls on corporate greed

Wall St panic turns $3m ‘Margin Call’ into thriller
Occupy Wall St protestors camp in New Yorks Financial District

J.C.
Chandor, writer and director of the new Wall Street thriller ‘Margin Call’, got
an early warning about the looming financial crisis.

In
2006, Chandor and several business partners were converting a New York City
commercial building into apartments. Midway through the project, the godfather
of one of his associates - a former investment banker who had started a real-estate
hedge fund - told them to sell as quickly as possible.

“He
was already walking away from big real-estate deals because he saw what was
coming,” said Chandor, 37.

Chandor,
then a TV-commercial director seeking to break into feature films, took the
advice and broke even. He remembered that moment during the financial meltdown
in November 2008, when in a four-day creative burst he wrote a script about an
investment firm fighting for survival.

“The
crisis was happening while I was writing,” said Chandor, whose boyish face and
long, thick hair make him look like a graduate student. “I wanted you to feel
like you were right in the middle of it.”

“Margin
Call,” which opens Friday in the US, covers 24 roller-coaster hours as the
investment firm tries to stave off financial ruin. The film follows a wide
range of characters in the corporate food chain, ranging from the young numbers
whiz (Zachary Quinto) and rah-rah sales boss (Kevin Spacey) to the hard-nosed
risk officer (Demi Moore) and enigmatic chief executive officer (Jeremy Irons).

So
how did a first-time director with a minuscule $3m budget manage to attract an
impressive cast that also includes Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, Paul Bettany and
Penn Badgley?

“I
think it was mainly the story,” Chandor said. “And also the fact that I wasn’t
asking them for a big time commitment. We shot it in 17 days, all in New York.
So they could do it quickly and then get back to whatever else they were
doing.”

Though
Chandor never worked on Wall Street, his dad was an investment banker at
Merrill Lynch for almost 40 years.

“I
grew up around that world and I absorbed a lot of it,” he said. “I also had a
lot of friends who worked on Wall Street, so I picked up stuff from them too.”

The
Occupy Wall Street demonstrations currently taking place in New York and other
cities around the world have cast an unfavourable spotlight on the masters of
the financial universe.

In
“Margin Call,” however, the characters aren’t neatly divided into heroes and
villains.

“I
didn’t want to demonize a whole group,” Chandor said. “There are good people
and bad people on Wall Street, just like everywhere else. But I think the
financial crisis was the result of a bad system more than bad individuals.”

“When
you point the finger at individuals, you lose sight of the larger problem - that
the system is out of whack,” he said during a joint interview with Bettany.
“Looking back to 2008, it’s pretty clear that we put a Band-Aid on a gaping
wound that is still bleeding.”

Bettany,
a UK native now living in New York, said he sympathizes with the Occupy Wall
Street movement.

“You
don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to realize you’ve been taking it in the seat,”
he said.

The
movie has already paid off for Chandor, who lives in a New York suburb with his
wife and two young children.

He
has a two-picture writing deal with Warner Bros - the first script is an
international thriller that may star Leonardo DiCaprio - and is preparing to
direct his second film, which he describes as a “one-man story that’s not
dialogue-driven.”

“I
feel very lucky,” Chandor said. “I’m doing something I love and getting paid
for it.”

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