Writer Peter Gould on Making Financial Complexities Compelling
HBO: Was it difficult to translate Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book into something that could be filmed?
PETER GOULD: The project didn’t start out as an adaptation. We knew we wanted to do something about the financial crisis. So I spent time with our two consultants, Joe Nocera and Bethany McLean, and went to the trading floors and to Washington, D.C. We realized that the level of detail and granularity we wanted to convey would require some extraordinary reporting. That’s when we came up with the idea of using Andrew’s book. We were looking for a way to tell the story of the crisis in real human terms and that’s what the book does. When director Curtis Hanson came on board he gave it even more of a dramatic focus.
HBO: How did you explain the complex financial maneuverings at the center of the film?
PETER GOULD: It was difficult. There are characters like Henry Paulson and the people he works with, and they’re all experts. They use the language they’re used to, which is the language of finance. You don’t want to dumb it down for your audience. What we had going for us was that even people on the inside didn’t have an exact understanding of the crisis, so there was a natural unfolding of comprehension that we were able to use. When Lehman goes down and everyone is talking about it and wondering what the hell is going on, those conversations allow us to clue in the audience on what was happening. Still, our feeling was that we could be nuanced and sophisticated with this audience. It was made to be understood by lay people who were paying attention.
HBO: How did you feel about giving voice to some of the most well-known faces of Wall Street?
PETER GOULD: They’re all public figures and Andrew has spent a lot time with them, so we had a lot of information about something like, how would Dick Fuld feel about this. Someone like Ben Bernanke experiences the entire crisis in a vastly different way, from more of an academic angle. Then there’s someone like Hank Paulson who is focused and direct. All of these different rhythms going on add to the film’s drama.
HBO: Why use Paulson’s as the film’s center?
PETER GOULD: That was one of the biggest decisions when it came to framing the movie. Paulson was in a unique position, for better or for worse. He spent his whole career on Wall Street, without being of Wall Street. He’s a down-to-earth Midwesterner, not the designer suit kind of guy. But at the same time, he was the highest paid exec on Wall Street for a considerable amount of time. He leaves one of the key positions on Wall Street, the head of Goldman Sachs, and goes to work for the government for various reasons. One thing we had to leave out of the film was that his mother really disapproved of his decision to join the Bush administration.
HBO: Was it hard for him to go from one side to the other?
PETER GOULD: He was certainly part of this world that was pushing for deregulation. And then he comes in at the very moment when the tidal wave hits. He deals with the different heads of the Wall Street banks, many of which he knows intimately, and some of which are Goldman graduates. He’s tied in socially, professionally and ideologically, and he’s certainly not a guy who’d spent a lot of time in Washington.
HBO: Is Paulson the hero of the film? And are there villains?
PETER GOULD: That’s one of the intriguing things about this story. Some of the people you might go in thinking are heroes don’t act all that heroically, and some of the people you might think of as villains might have aspects that surprise you. I wouldn’t necessarily call Hank a hero. He’s a central character. It’s up to the audience to decide what the value of the results of what he did is.
HBO: How do you keep such a large cast of characters straight for the viewers?
PETER GOULD: Each character has their own point of view and agenda. But also, the brilliant casting plays a huge part. When you have Cynthia Nixon and Topher Grace in the movie, it’s not really difficult to keep track of who’s who and what their points of view are. We even had to narrow down the people we chose to focus on, leaving out some people who played a key role in the crisis. What’s good about this story is that the book is still there for people who want find out more about what happened.
HBO: Were you trying to tell the story from a neutral perspective?
PETER GOULD: I wouldn’t say neutral; I’d say honest. With a drama, we can go inside the room and show what people were thinking and feeling at the time. Hopefully, the audience can draw some informed conclusions. And not just about what happened then, but also what happens next.
HBO: What were you trying to say in the film’s closing moments, as secretary Paulson hopes that the bank’s will lend out the money?
PETER GOULD: It goes to the movie’s central question. We have a system that’s driven by individual ambition, which has produced this incredible economy, but every once in a while people have to band together to save themselves and their country. The question is, where does patriotism and mutual interest take over and supersede individual interest. It’s a question we hope the audience will walk away thinking about.