Following a screening of The Wizard of Lies at the 92nd Street Y, the film’s director Barry Levinson, producer Jane Rosenthal, book author Diana Henriques, and cast members Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Hank Azaria and Alessandro Nivola spoke on a panel moderated by The Hollywood Reporter’s Marisa Guthrie. The panelists spoke sincerely about the challenges of working on the material and how the historic fraud is still relevant today.
The family tragedy is central to the film.
Director Barry Levinson explained the film gave him room to explore the family dynamic which was less fervently reported. “That’s the key to it: How Bernie dealt with his boys and his wife. You begin to understand how the boys don’t know certain things because Bernie was so dominant; he was in control of the things he wanted to talk about and the things he didn’t.”
Bernie also saw Frank DiPascali (Hank Azaria) as a son. “You can see where Bernie lines up with Frank,” explained Levinson. “The boys are outside of that.” Diana Henriques concurred: “It’s important to know Bernie was a self-made man and in a sense disdained the fact his sons had been born with a silver spoon in their mouth that he put there. Bernie saw Frankie as this go-getter, unpolished kid not so different from the kid who came out of Queens and started trading stocks in 1960.”
Bernie Madoff was a source of Diana Henriques’ before he was arrested.
“I sometimes say that I knew Bernie in the wild before he was in captivity. He was a sometimes source, not a major source, but there were aspects of the Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde story there,” recalled Henriques, who was a financial reporter for the New York Times at the time of Madoff’s arrest. “The day he was arrested, I knew who he was and not a lot of people in the newsroom at that point did. I sometimes wonder if that’s why he agreed to talk with me. Because I didn’t just know him as Bernie Madoff the crook. I had known him as the Bernie Madoff he was proud of being.”
The actors were determined to faithfully represent their real-life characters.
Ruth Madoff is one of the more complex characters in the film, and Michelle Pfeiffer noted she gleaned a lot about Ruth from meeting her: “She was really, really funny, fun-loving and childish. She’s got that ‘thing.’” Pfeiffer explained one of the challenges of playing the part was nailing Ruth’s accent. “We’d been shooting already, and I’d been working on the accent with a dialect coach, trying to find that right balance. After I met her, I came back and said, ‘Barry, Barry -- I’m not worried at all about going too heavy on this accent!’”
Madoff’s victims weren’t greedy -- Bernie was a master of his con.
Henriques feels it’s important that to dispel the notion Madoff’s victims were done in by their own greed: “It was absolutely rational to trust Bernie Madoff based on what the world knew of his stature,” explained Henriques. “He was seen as a conservative choice. There were many many years in the run of the Madoff fraud when his investors would have made more money in the Fidelity Magellan fund than they made with Bernie.”
A modern con man, Madoff “manipulated large numbers of people by creating a false narrative,” mentioned Levinson. “Once upon a time the con artist was a slick-talking guy. Bernie Madoff was reserved. His con was ‘I don’t know if I want your money. I don’t know if I can handle that. I’ll see what I can do.’” Henriques added that Bernie’s con never sounded too good to be true: “One of my favorite lines is ‘if it sounds too good to be true you’re dealing with an amateur.’ Bernie never did that.”