At Sundance Film Festival 2016, ScreenPrism spoke with director Meera Menon and screenwriter Amy Fox about their Equity (2016), which calls itself the first female-driven Wall Street movie.
Equity 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 clashes with the other two female leads of the film: loyal but ambitious VP Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas) and former school friend/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 inspire mixed feelings in the audience.
We asked the director and writer how they created these characters in a realistic Wall Street environment.
ScreenPrism: How did the concept for Equity first come about?
Amy Fox: Our producers, Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner from 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. So this concept was something they came up with, and they brought me on to write the script pretty early on. And I worked with them figuring out the story and writing the script for about ten months [before director Menon came on].
SP: Did you research women in the Wall Street environment?
AF: Yes, absolutely. Sarah [Megan Thomas] and I did a tremendous amount of research interviewing women and men on Wall Street, using a ton 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. I didn’t have a finance background, so I had to first understand that world, but then also understand specifically what it’s like for a woman.
Alysia Reiner in Equity (2016)
SP: What did you find in your research that you wanted to highlight?
AF: For me, I think a few things. I feel like 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.
SP: The film plays with our expectations about character likability. We don't always like or approve of the characters, but we're drawn to and fascinated by them, even when we have mixed feelings. How did you explore that border between likability and unlikabilty or between fascination and aversion?
Meera Menon: I feel like it was a bit of kismet that Anna responded to the material as much as she did and wanted to play the part. She had had such a depth of experience as an actress experiencing audiences’ mixed reactions towards a somewhat controversial character 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 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 that 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 I feel like 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 Sarah and Alysia as well. And of course, because [Sarah and Alysia] developed the script, these were the ideas they wanted to explore as storytellers.
Anna Gunn in Equity (2016)
SP: Can you talk about the interesting relationship between Anna’s and Sarah’s characters?
MM: That’s going to be one of those relationships that different women, especially, that different people, react [to] differently depending on how they feel and who they relate to — issues around pregnancy and the choices that women make in the workplace and how women conduct themselves in business and all of those things. 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.
AF: 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.
Sarah Megan Thomas
SP: Can you speak about the ending? How did you decide to end with Alysia Reiner’s character deciding to work for a big bank and echoing the words of Anna Gunn's character about wanting to have money?
AF: I’ll speak about the writing, and then I would love to hear Meera talk about the ending of the film on that scene. Originally, that scene was in the film, but it wasn’t the actual last scene. 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.
MM: The film had a couple of options for endings in terms of where we ended Naomi’s character. 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. 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 and kind of almost Rubix Cube, rotate a piece and create a really kind of cool effect and 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.
SP: Do you intend for us to come out of the movie with a sense of ambiguity about the characters, to not have clear-cut feelings about whether they're doing the right or wrong things?
MM: For sure. I think that’s what’s cool about the movie. It’s exploring a genre and a tone that we don’t see women occupy the central roles in very often. That was the intent, absolutely.
AF: And for me I really want to give some credit to the producers, Alysia [Reiner] and Sarah [Megan Thomas], 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.