|WHERE TO LOOK
The world of high finance might be, as David Molner puts it, “arcane and somewhat impenetrable,” but it’s also a world that desperately wants your money, so there’s no shortage of Web sites that’ll tell you all about it. Generally, your best bets are the big ones such as Bloomberg, Kiplinger, and The Wall Street Journal.
However, to truly understand the real-life Gordon Gekkos of the world, Molner recommends reading books that discusses how risk takers tick, such as Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk by Peter L. Bernstein and What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg. “What makes that book great is what ought to apply to other financial thrillers,” explains Molner of Schulberg’s incendiary story of an overly ambitious movie producer. “It puts finance in a context a screenwriter might understand because the screenwriter understands Hollywood.”
But sooner or later, you’ll probably end up talking to a real money person, and when you do, it’s not as important to know your bottom line from your pork barrel as it is to know your Warburgs from your Rothchilds, which is why Molner suggests reading a biographies such as The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family by Ron Chernow. “Understand the family dynasties of merchant banks” he says, “because when you go to interview whoever you need to interview, it’s good conversational fodder for whoever will actually help you with the script you’re writing.”
Written by Denis Faye
When Oliver Stone approached David Molner to advise for his new film, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps [Written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff], the last thing the film financier wanted was cash. “I said, with respect, that’s not what I do,” explains Molner, the former Senior Vice President of Worldwide Corporate Business Development of Paramount. “It’s not how I spend my time or how I make money.”
How Molner does make money is as head of Screen Capital International, which specializes in “structuring and facilitating cross-border tax-advantaged financing for major motion picture producers.” In the 10 years the company has been around, it’s organized financing for over 125 films, including Stone’s film W [Written by Stanley Weiser]. Given Molner is one of a select few who have one foot in both the film and the finance worlds, it made complete sense that Stone would want him to advise on a film about the return of Gordon Gekko, so after a little cajoling, he finally agreed – but not for a paycheck.
“I said I’ll do it for free if you credit me as the financial advisor,” Molner admits, “because in my world, that’s actually fun bragging rights.”
Molner talked to Technically Speaking about his work on the new Wall Street sequel, and about financial thrillers in general. His big advice? If you’re writing a movie set in the world of finance, don’t get lost in the details. Focus on character and story and leave the cash talk for the background. Money makes the world go round, but it shouldn’t do so for your script.
What does Hollywood get right with financial thrillers?
They get the dynamic about greed right. But the problem is, the truth is too boring to put on the screen, and it’s generally too complicated to explain in the time involved. With Wall Street, the biggest challenge in sitting down with these guys was figuring out what to leave out.
But one of the things that I said to Oliver that was interesting was when we were at the Greenwich Hotel in New York having dinner, and he said, “Who’s the bad guy?” And I said, “You know, I think that scale itself is the enemy.”
I mean, one of the really fun things about the movie, is that when you look back to the first one, Bud Fox [played by Charlie Sheen] gets a million dollar check from Michael Douglas – and he’s sweating. In many ways, we look back at that today, and it’s like the scene in Austin Powers [Written by Mike Myers] where Dr. Evil demands, “One Million Dollars.” It’s so out of context for the numbers. And the thing about the collapse of the financial system that people don’t appreciate in its simplicity is just how much wealth has been created in 20 years. The problem is that number still needs somewhere to go and so it’s very hard to get an edge. You can’t do a trade with that much capital without everyone figuring out where you’re heading.
You wanna know which funds to take your money out of? See who opened an office in Singapore. You don’t need an office in Singapore. Just stop. Just make money with what you have. The belief that scale is infinite and that ambition is proportionately infinite is any human being’s undoing.
What does Hollywood get wrong?
I guess most of the Hollywood movies about money are basically about stealing. A heist movie is a great genre, but a financial thriller has to be about something else. It’s a cop-out just to make it about stealing. In Wall Street, they just made it about bad decisions. This movie was about bad decisions, which is what made it intelligent and still entertaining.
So Hollywood focuses too much on larceny?
Yeah, I think they’re afraid to color outside those lines because the heist dynamic can pace an audience, whereas if you try to elevate the action above that, you risk losing the audience, being seen as self-indulgent, starting to bore people.
What other movies have worked well like that.
Michael Clayton [Written by Tony Gilroy] is a good example of that. It was so interesting because the indictment was of what the corporation had done to the morals of the man. That’s a standout.
What would you like to see in a financial thriller, just once?
I’m reading a book about the central bankers of the World War II era. There are stories about what central bankers do in crisis that determines the fate of nations and whether they go off to war. I would enjoy seeing one that was about the question of who had more power, an elected official, or a central banker? Very often, it’s the central banker. I’d love to see a thriller where that power play was examined. The Vatican apparently shared bankers with the Nazis. Central bankers just wield enormous power.
Financial thrillers are right up there with medical thrillers, crime thrillers and law thrillers, yet they’re different in that lives are rarely on the line. Why do you think they still have such appeal?
‘Cuz money makes the world go around. That’s the simple answer. Look at a pop song from today like [Travie McCoy’s] Billionaire. There’s a song that wouldn’t have been written 10 years ago, yet there is, now, both an illusion and a reality of wealth that make people more interested in the topic.
Any advice for a writer embarking on a financial thriller?
My advice for anyone writing anything is to first understand who the audience is that you’re writing for.
The second thing is to figure out the bits of the story that don’t have to do with finance. Don’t think you have to master finance. Most of the world of finance is arcane and somewhat impenetrable. It doesn’t always lead to answers that are useful for the task. You have to make sure you have the master and slave rules here. The master is the storyteller. You’re telling the story and the other is a trope that you have to make conform to your task.