Interview: Arbitrage Director Nicholas Jarecki


The Jarecki family name has become almost as synonymous with documentary filmmaking as that of the Maysles and after making two well-regarded docs–directing The Outsider, a film about director James Toback, then producing Toback’s own doc Tyson–Nicholas Jarecki has followed his brother Andrew into the world of narrative features with the financial thriller Arbitrage, starring Richard Gere as hedge fund magnate Robert Miller, who is preparing to sell his company for hundreds of millions of dollars when a couple of incidents throw the sale into disarray.

The film marks another coup for Gere as an actor with Jarecki surrounding him with an amazing cast that includes Susan Sarandon as his wife and Brit Marling (Another Earth, Sound of My Voice) as his daughter, who works in the business and finds some questionable numbers. The film also includes a side story involving Nate Parker as a struggling young man from Harlem whose connections to Robert get him into trouble with the law, although he’s being used to try to get at the Wall Street fatcat.

A couple weeks back, got on the phone with Jarecki for a fairly long conversation about his movie, which received raves out of the Sundance Film Festival and continues to find fans due to the old school filmmaking techniques Jarecki used. You had directed a documentary about James Toback and written the book “Breaking In,” so what made you finally decide to direct a narrative film?
Nicolas Jarecki:
Well, I was always interested in narrative films. When I was 16, two fortuitous events happened, which was I got a copy of Sidney Lumet’s book “Making Movies” and watched all of his films along with classic ’70s films, “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Godfather”… that was my introduction to real filmmaking. Then at the same time, I was always very into computers. I was a computer hacker in my youth and as the results of that, I started a couple different computer businesses and I was hired to be technical advisor on the film “Hackers” starring Angelina Jolie, so my job was actually to hang out with the actors and director and particularly Angelina and tell them about computer hacking. So as a 16-year-old boy, I noticed that there was one person that Angelina gave respect and that was the film’s director and I said that would be a good thing to become and it’s all downhill from there. (chuckles) That’s how I first saw what a film director did, being around that set, but I was always interested in narrative filmmaking and I went to film school at NYU and wrote the book and I met these different filmmakers. I began with documentary both because it was something that also interested me and it was easy to do. All you needed to do was pick up a handheld video camera and you could make a whole feature length movie, which is what I did with “The Outsider,” my first documentary film.

Feature filmmaking is a different kind of complication as documentary comes in the editing room. It was wonderful learning that process for me because I edited the documentary alone and I was in a dark room for 4,000 hours by myself and that kind of served me well when I made the feature film because I knew something about editing and how to figure out what I needed. Feature filmmaking on a practical level is a lot more expensive and you have to have everything planned out where you have the ability with a documentary to take it as it comes and go back and reshoot. Shooting is not cheap on a movie so you have to figure it out ahead of time. But I had always wanted to make feature films. Those were the films I loved and they had a certain emotional resonance where you get lost in the reality within the world of film.

CS: It’s funny you mentioned that Sidney Lumet book earlier, because I’m sure you’ve heard the comparisons people have made between this movie and some he made. I don’t know what your budget was, but did you go into it knowing you’d want to shoot in film to get that look?
No, this was shot on 35mm and that was something that was very important to the cinematographer and myself. I had a wonderful cinematographer, Yorick Le Saux, and this was his first American film. He had gained my attention because I was looking at different actors and we watched a film called “Carlos” and we were looking at some of the actors in it and 20 minutes into the film, I said, “Who the hell is this cinematographer?” I had met 30 cinematographers by then because that film was just beautiful and amazingly striking and curious and has an intensity. It turns out that there were two cinematographers because it was such a long movie, and I asked, “Who are the two people?” and one of them was Yorick. “What else has he done?” “Oh, he’s also done ‘I Am Love,'” which was one of the most beautiful movies of the year before which was just rich and sumptuous. Then he had also done “Swimming Pool” so I was like “Oh my God” and then I ended up meeting him and he was this wonderfully warm, kind of cool film co-criminal, so we had this terrific collaboration on this film and he did a hell of a job. We talked a lot about what we were going for stylistically, and we both loved 1970’s American cinema and so we wanted the picture to be very beautiful and kind of dripping in trappings of luxury and about the age of innocence, the gilded New York, but at the same time we wanted it to be like a ’70s movie and we wanted it to have that grit and that deep contrasted look. It was very funny because that was a little bit the opposite of where some of the stylistic things have gone where they’ve tried to remove grain and make everything hyper-contrasted and music video. We were in the color correction ultimately going–he speaks with a thick French accent–“Eh, less contrast, more intensity.” We had to really push it to get that look, but in the end, I think we were extremely satisfied.

CS: Going back to the original idea for the movie, some comparisons have been made to Bernie Madoff even though it’s a different situation. Did you write this before that happened and it was a nice coincidence?
No, I wrote it in 2008 and 2009, and it was in many ways a reaction to what I’d been reading about and seeing. The hedge fund magnates were dominating the papers at the time. I liked to refer to this as “Financial Crisis 1.0” in the sense that it was a kinder and gentler kind of fraud. It was all very new. Madoff was just coming out, so I was reading a series of articles in Vanity Fair that Greydon Carter had assembled that were all about the financial crisis, so you had Michael Lewis on the implosion of the Iceland economy and the fall of Bear-Sterns and all these great articles about Madoff. What the kids knew, what the wife knew, what this delivery man knew so I was reacting to all of that. I wasn’t interested in doing the Madoff story because at the time I read something that someone overheard Madoff saying from jail, “F*ck my victims. I carried them for 25 years. Now I’m doing 125.” I thought, no judgment, but it was actually boring, since that reflected to me a sociopath, I thought, “Not a particularly deep character to explore in a film. It’s kind of one-note.” For me, those good films are the ones where you can really identify with the character, understand why he’s doing what he’s doing and even for a moment live inside his suit. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be more interesting to do that type of portrait of a man, of a good man who had really played the game of American citizen and maybe even believed in some of the loftier notions and then after a little too much success and one too many praise, perhaps reading one too many of his own press releases, he kind of forgets what it means to be a responsible citizen and takes these liberties with money and with his friends and family and exploits them?” You can really see how he’d gone wrong and I thought that was something very relatable. I don’t know about you, but for me, I make those kinds of mistakes, so I really wanted to do something where you could get behind the eyes of Richard’s character.

CS: I’m not sure if you read your Wikipedia entry but it mentions that you were doing this film with Al Pacino, which would have been a very different movie, so how did you end up with Richard?
With the idea for this movie, there really was no one else. I had worked on the film for a while in a different incarnation but when it was all said and done, the character took on a unique life. Once I finished the script and went through the process, I never went to anybody else except Richard. What actually had happened was Richard’s agent–who is now my agent as a result of our good experience together, Andrew Finklestein–had been tracking the project, and he knew about the script and he knew that the lead wasn’t decided, so he reached out to Brian Young, my manager and in turn my producer and he was quite interested. “Hey what’s going on? Do you guys have your movie together? Are you really making this movie? Because if you are, you should think about Richard Gere, because clearly the director wrote this part for him even if he doesn’t know it yet.” (laughs) We finally spoke and it took me about a year to get the financing, and 9 months to get the production in place to be able to raise the money and get all the logistics, and finally, I called Andrew and he said, “Okay are you ready for Richard?” I said, “Yeah, do you think he’ll consider it?” and he said, “Yeah, one way to find out. Send it over.” I sent it and literally 18 hours later, he called me back and said, “Okay, he’s read it. He digs it. He wants to speak to you tomorrow concerning this first-time director matter. So go see him and just be yourself.”

So I did. I went up to meet Richard. He lives in upstate New York and he and his wife own a hotel there, a bed and breakfast, and he literally has a whole separate life as a hotelier. It’s a Relais & Chateaux, highly sophisticated four star restaurant that seats about 40 or 50 people in this wonderful little enclave of New York. I swear to God, because I did some rehearsals up there, he’s like running around, (goes into Richard Gere impression) “Bill, what happened to the deliveries of the pastry truck?” It’s crazy. He and I go into the restaurant and there are all these cool-looking people eating there and he comes and we had that first meeting and right away, he sort of said, “I love this script, but you don’t really have too much feature films to show me. Can you tell me what we’re going to do and how you see it?” We ended up having this great three-hour lunch and at the very end, I said, “Well, we’ve talked about some of this character and a look at the darker side of this man, so would you have anything you’d like to explore?” He said, “The man has a girlfriend/mistress and that can always be a little flat on the page. I have this idea that maybe it can be played it a little more aggressive. Come here. Stand up.” So I stand up, and all of a sudden he said, “Yeah do it with me” so we start going into the lines, but we’re rehearsing right there in the restaurant in front of 40 strangers and it was a emotionally charged scene, “You’re never leaving your wife! No, you don’t understand, I’m leaving you! You’re not f*cking going anywhere!” All of a sudden he grabs me and throws me up against the wall of the restaurant and looks deeply into my eyes and I looked at him and said, “I would kiss you right now” and we laughed and he said, “Alright, well you’re as crazy as I am, so maybe this is going to work. Let’s give it a shot.” From that moment, boom, he was in the movie and we had this enormous comfort with each other and off we went. I worked for a month on the script, rehearsing with him and the other actors.

CS: That’s a great story. I really feel that Richard’s become an underrated actor and one I kind of appreciate more as I’ve gotten older and he seems to be getting better as he’s getting older.
He was just a delight because he is a phenomenal actor and I think we forget that because he’s given a number of iconic performances, but it seems like with this one, both because I did it with him so I know how much works he puts into it. I also feel that it really suited him well. In that first meeting, he said, “When I put on a suit of clothes, audiences that know my work may have a certain expectation. What I’m interested in is the darker side of that iconography. I want to know that other character that I haven’t really played yet and what’s in his head.” So I think that was a perfect fit for him because he’s got all the physical attributes to it, the charm, the patience, the incredible walk, like the way he moves, that was very important to me–the black coat, moving through the night of New York with its glinty lights. That appealed to me but then in his performance—because we spent a month of rehearsing—that’s not common, but he was totally into it. He was like, “You want to go a month? Let’s go a month? I’m here from beginning to the end. Let’s do what you want to do.” We went down to the New York Stock Exchange, and we met different hedge fund people, and we did a ton of research, then we sat around my kitchen table running through the whole script, meeting with each actor, spending a week writing, Richard and I we sat on my laptop. Again, no hesitation. We could be walking down the street and we would rehearse on the street. He was totally into it. When we met with the hedge fund guys, he was very smart about it. He didn’t ask about currency and derivatives. We did that research separately. I gave him his reading homework and I was very pleased to see that he was reading financial articles, and one day I saw them in his bag and they were all highlighted in the interesting places and I was like, “Thank God, he’s doing it!” It needed to be authentic but when we met with the people, he really asked them about their personal lives. “How do you talk to your wife?” It was about making those human connections and I think you feel that in his performance that he went into this man and he found the humanity in a pretty dark character. As I said, the ‘70s offered a great inspiration and I loved the classic anti-heroes, and I think he created a classic character here and it’s wonderful to me that at least early on, there’s discussion about awards because I think he doesn’t always get his due. He’s been working for 40 years and never been nominated for an Academy Award. Never been nominated! We’re not even talking about a win, we’re talking about a nomination. Whether anything happens here, I don’t know, but even at this point for me, the battle has been won because people are starting to recognize what a good job he did, and hopefully larger audiences will see it.

CS: I really like seeing him with Susan Sarandon and as I watched the movie I was trying to remember the last time they did a movie together, and it was “Shall We Dance” which wasn’t that long ago. Did he bring her up to play his wife or did you have her in mind already?
Actually, believe it or not, Susan was really the first person in. She was in even before Richard. What happened is that I knew her agent and also we had a mutual friend in New York, a musician, so he put in a good word for me. There was never anyone else for that part I could think of and again, she’s the type of woman I’d like to be married to (laughs). She has a beauty and a sexiness but this incredible warmth and you also know you can’t f*ck with her. I managed to get her the script when we had no money, no plan, no nothing and she read it and she sort of said, “Hey, listen. I’m into this. I’m going to assume you’re not a lunatic, so when you get it together, if I’m around, give me a call and I’ll help you get it together in any way you can.” So she really took a chance on me, again, and I think she does that a lot and she’s great.

CS: It was also amazing that you got Brit Marling who just exploded last year at Sundance with her two movies. Did you get her right after that and she just happened to be available at the right time?
That’s precisely right. Actually, I met with tons of actresses… I saw maybe 50 people for the part and couldn’t really find the right fit and then my producer said, “What do you think about Brit?” and I said “Who’s Brit? And he said, “Have you seen the Sundance films?” So I started doing some research on her and I couldn’t get a copy of the whole movie so I could only see a little bit of it, and I was quite impressed. We did this video Skype right away – she was in L.A., I was in New York and she started telling me about her background. First of all, she’s incredibly beautiful and graceful and seductive and intelligent and all those things come through right away, but then she started telling me about her background where she had a Georgetown economics major and she went to work at Goldman Sachs as an intern and a senior analyst, and then she quit the whole thing to become a movie actress. They told her she should have her head examined, but she just said, “Well I’m going for it anyway” and then the only parts she could get were parts in slasher films, so she wrote, produced and starred in her own two movies that both went to Sundance and got sold to a major studio. If that’s not the f*cking bad-ass nature of Robert Miller’s daughter, that’s what that girl would be like in real life. She’d be killing it, so I was so impressed by the force of Brit’s personality and then how cool she was about everything. I just found out two weeks ago from reading an interview that she was Valedictorian at Georgetown. The difficulty of that achievement – I don’t think either you or I can comprehend it. (laughs)

CS: You’ve worked with two really eclectic creators in James Toback and Bret Easton Ellis and I was curious what you drew from them when you started writing and directing your own movie.
Well, Bret remains a close friend to this day. We had a difficult experience with “The Informers” where we ultimately were kicked off the movie and had zero creative input into it so we were not satisfied with what the film became, because it was really quite different. Almost 50 to 60 pages were cut from the script, whole scenes were changed, and it was just realized in a bizarre way, which wasn’t what we wanted to do. From Bret, I learned maybe more as a writer of how personal you should be and that you should always be questioning what you have and now North Pole is South Pole, turn it upside down, take a look at it. Is this true? Is this something of you that you’re putting down? With James, it’s very much the same thing. We’ve been on the same continuum. We had a very nice association with the documentary I made about him and then I went on to produce the film “Tyson” about Mike Tyson, so we remain in contact, and he’s another inspiring voice of somebody that attempted to make personal cinema, like Woody Allen and a lot of the directors that you love I’m sure. They try to go a step further than the theme park ride of it all. I think those types of people inspire me, as did the 20 directors from my book and people working to create personal cinema. Woody Allen was in my first documentary and I remember we talked about personal films and he said how hard it was and that’s coming from someone in his position who is doing better than many. I said, “Well, is it worth it?” and he thought for a while and he said, “You know, I don’t think I would be doing it if it wasn’t.” So you have to say it is worth it. The personal film is in short supply and good or bad, I’d like to see a film where somebody really went for it.

CS: Any idea what you want to do next?
Trying to write it now. It’s another tale of corruption, but on a more global scale in the electric vehicle industry. It’s a detective story set in L.A. and we’re going to see how it unfolds.

CS: Have you seen the two “Electric Car” docs?
Love them. I just drove the Tesla Model S last night, it’s a pretty amazing car.

Some may also be wondering about the title of the movie, “Arbitrage,” and why Jarecki chose that one, and while we forgot to ask during the actual interview, he was nice enough to let us know via Email a couple days later:

“I called it arbitrage because the definition I like is ‘making profit by exploiting special knowledge of a price differential in two markets.’ I felt that Robert Miller was not only a business arbitrageur, but an emotional arbitrageur as well, exploiting those people who loved him–buying them cheap and using them for maximum value–it was always only this title.”

Arbitrage opens in select cities on Friday, September 14.