Equity (2016), marketed as the "first female driven Wall Street movie," follows high-powered businesswoman Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn) while she leads a tech IPO in the post-crash financial world. As Naomi is caught between the rising tensions of intense public scrutiny and the pressure to bring in big money, she begins to clash with the other two female leads of the film: Naomi's loyal but ambitious VP Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas) and her former school friend, now-prosecutor Samantha (Alysia Reiner), who is poking around in Naomi's personal life for evidence of insider illegal activity at her company. The narrative is centered around three women, but, more striking than that, all three characters are flawed and multi-faceted. They make ambiguous choices, inspire equal parts admiration and disapproval, and evade clear-cut moral categories. The storytellers also don’t dictate whether we should like these people.

At Sundance 2016, where the film premiered, ScreenPrism spoke with Equity director Meera Menon and screenwriter Amy Fox about how they crafted the complex characters with the actors.

Amy Fox and Meer Menon at Sundance Film Festival 2016, Photo Credit: Getty Images, Matt Winkelmeyer

According to Fox, the stars and producers Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner championed the project from its inception through their production company, Broad Street Pictures. "They had formed the production company with the goal of creating more complicated roles for women as actors and also putting more women behind the camera," Fox told ScreenPrism. Thomas and Reiner came to Fox with the concept, and the three worked on the story for about 10 months before Menon came on to direct.

During the script development, "Sarah and I did a tremendous amount of research interviewing women and men on Wall Street," Fox said. They used a range of material, "but mostly interview, mostly talking to people, trying to get a sense of the themes that kind of repeated from conversation to conversation about Wall Street." Since she didn’t have a finance background, Fox set out to "understand that world, but then also understand specifically what it’s like for a woman."

Through that research, Fox arrived at a few things she wanted to highlight in the story: "It’s such a high pressure, high stakes world, especially after the financial crisis, the opportunities are fewer and far between. The competition is so fierce that it doesn’t really bring out the best in people. It was really interesting to take these women who are ambitious and really want to succeed and really want be recognized for their work and put them in that circumstance and see what it brings out in them."

Anna Gunn in Equity (2016)

The film’s protagonist, Anna Gunn’s Naomi, vacillates in the audiences’ eyes between likable and unlikable, fascinating and repulsive, vulnerable and formidable. We’re never sure of whether we "approve of" Naomi, nor of Erin or Sam, because they are complex, talented, ambitious characters operating in a ruthless environment that requires trade-offs and breeds some unpleasant behaviors. Menon said navigating that unusual territory of the characters’ mixed likability was possible due to the acting talent. "It was a bit of kismet that Anna responded to the material as much as she did and wanted to play the part," Menon said. "Because she had had such a depth of experience as an actress experiencing audiences’ mixed reactions towards a somewhat controversial characters because of Skyler White on Breaking Bad (2008-2013). People either loved Sklyer or they hated her. Anna was very sensitive to what that meant and what kind of power not only character-wise that could have on an audience but [also] that power she wields as a screen presence and how that affects audiences. Because she’s incredibly strong, and she has this kind of steely fiber as a presence, but she also has this innate vulnerability and an emotional presence, [so] you see all of those layers flickering and beating up against one another — just in her screen presence, let alone meeting a role that requires that. It was the case of Skyler, and now there’s a lot of that going on with this role as well. She and I talked a lot about what that meant. But at the end of the day, there’s only so much you can control how an audience responds to strong female characters. A lot of the themes we are exploring in the movie: how women are either perceived to be too nice or too bitchy. When they are too toxic, they are perceived to be a bitch, and when they are too soft, they are perceived to be too nice, in the business world. That’s a theme that’s explored in the movie, and I think all of those ideas do wrap up into how we experience strong female roles on the screens. So these are things we absolutely talked about with the actresses. Not just Anna, but Sara and Alysia as well. And of course, because they developed the script, these were the ideas they wanted to explore as storytellers."

Fox added, "I really want to give credit to the producers, Alysia and Sarah, because generally speaking writers, we always like ambiguity, that’s where we live, and generally speaking producers are always pressuring the writer to oversimplify and have a happy ending. They were so supportive of wanting this to be a film to be about the gray areas, to be complicated and not have easy answers."

For the filmmakers, the ambiguity and lack of clear-cut good or bad characters is one of their core achievements. "I think that’s what’s cool about the movie," Menon said. "It’s exploring a genre and a tone that we don’t see women occupy the kind of central roles in very often."

Alysia Reiner in Equity (2016)

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

The relationships between the women in the film are also complex, featuring strong positives and negatives. Naomi mentors and champions Erin as much as she feels she can in a year when HR is pushing for cutbacks and Erin’s promotion (which Erin has long felt overdue) is not in the cards. Yet when Naomi walks in on Erin replacing her cocktail with water during a business dinner, Erin knows that she has lost some degree of her mentor’s support. Naomi’s reaction to Erin’s pregnancy first reads as a cold moment for female solidarity, but her point of view later becomes clear as she converses with a former boss about how she would not risen to her current level if she’d had kids. We glean that Naomi sees Erin’s choice to get pregnant as a betrayal, given Naomi’s own sacrifice of a family life.

As the relationship goes sour between the two, we find it difficult to know which side is right. "That’s going to be one of those relationships that different women, especially, react differently depending on how they feel and who they relate to—issues around pregnancy and the choices that women make in the workplace, how women conduct themselves in business and all of those things,” Menon said. “It’s kind of exciting now that we’ve had been a few experiences hearing from the audience, to be hearing that there are such diverse sets of reactions, often based on how people feel about those choices themselves in their own lives.”

Sarah Megan Thomas and Anna Gun in Equity (2016)

Fox said, “Because that relationship between those two disintegrates over the course of the movie, it seems like audiences and reviewers are picking up on the negative aspects of that relationship, cause it does take a turn for the worse, but I think it’s important that it doesn’t start out that way. The scene in the restaurant is very important to me, when Anna’s character points out to her boss that Erin did terrific work on this deal. She is actually trying to mentor her. She’s limited in her own power, so that’s why she can’t guarantee Erin a promotion. But it’s important to me that she didn’t start out trying to sabotage her VP. It developed in a very complicated back-and-forth between the two of them.”

The film’s ending is, likewise, both ambiguous and realistic. Reiner’s Samantha, who has spent the bulk of the film building an investigation to prosecute disingenuous members of the financial world (including Naomi’s boyfriend) for insider trading, surprises the audience by deciding to leave prosecuting and pursue a high-paying job at a bank. Seeming to reverse a moral stance that appeared passionate and deeply held, she admits to her interviewer that, in the end, she wants money. She wants to support her family, and she doesn’t feel that money or the desire to earn it must be viewed as dirty or wrong. Earlier in the film, Naomi uses similar words when she unapologetically declares that she likes having money—the security of not needing it, but also the satisfaction and enjoyment of earning and having it. By the end of the film, the supposedly idealistic Alysia is echoing Naomi almost word for word.

 “Originally, that scene was in the film but it wasn’t the actual last scene,” Fox said. “For me in the writing, first in the research I interviewed a lot of prosecutors, and they told me that pretty much every single person who starts out prosecuting financial crimes moves over to a bank. And when they told me that, I was sort of shocked, because I said, like, isn’t it a conflict of interest or a conflict of your value system? And they all said No, ‘It’s just, like, we cannot make a living, we cannot support out families on the government-mandated salary, and so eventually everyone makes the shift.‘ So we knew from the beginning, that was something that character was going to do. But I think more interesting was to find the specifics of why that particular woman makes that choice and what that choice means to her. And the only thing I want to say about the writing is, when you’re writing something, for me, you do some outlining, some planning, and some of it is very structured, and and there’s another piece that’s just inspiration, and that literally kind of happens as you’re typing the words. An idea pops in your head. I never planned to bring that speech back about the money. It was something that spontaneously happened as I was writing the scene. I suddenly heard that character and Naomi’s words and I got very excited.”

Equity (2016)

Menon said that they arrived at that ending after screening different versions for test audiences. “The film had a couple of options for endings in terms of where we ended Naomi’s character,” Menon said. “At a certain point we had a test screening where someone said something kind of brilliant. It was actually our editor’s wife. She said she felt that at the end of the movie what happened was that Naomi was pushed out, and Erin took her seat, and Sam took her line. I think that really kind of stuck with us in terms of how the chess pieces on the board could be locked into a different arrangement, how we could take these ideas that had been sitting in the film the whole time,” almost like rotating one side of a Rubik’s Cube. Concluding with Sam’s speech allowed the film to “say something in the end that really spoke to the kind of ruthless quality of the experience that Naomi had through the course of the movie.”

As refreshing as it is to watch three female leads carrying a narrative about Wall Street, it is even more freeing to watch those characters escape our expectations that women onscreen will be perfect girl-power icons or victims of great wrongs. In Equity, we watch three actresses explore the flaws and contradictions of human nature in a world that makes us compromise.