Equity premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The film, written by, directed by, produced by and starring women made a big splash for its portrayal of women on Wall Street. Anna Gunn plays Naomi Bishop, a top executive trying to recover from one bad call. Sarah Megan Thomas, also a producer, plays Erin Manning, Naomi’s assistant trying to work her way up. Alysia Reiner, also a producer, plays Samantha, a reporter investigating Naomi’s firm. Meera Menon directs.
We got to meet Gunn, Thomas, Reiner and Menon at a press conference in Los Angeles to discuss the film. The filmmakers shared some insights into the business of Wall Streets and parallels with Hollywood. Equity opens in theaters this weekend.
Q: With movies like The Big Short and now Equity, what is your view of Wall Street? Are they a necessary evil?
SMT: I would say they’re not evil as a whole. That was something that was really important to us and it goes back to a lot of the people I personally know on Wall Street. There are good and bad people in every profession and there are really bad Wall Streeters and there are really good Wall Streeters. Most of Wall Street is very boring. But I think the only press we hear about is the negative and the crooks and the financial crisis. That was part of the decision to make this a post-financial crisis movie where there are new regulations in place. A lot of the crooks have been weeded out. Going back to a broader idea we think everyone can understand, which is How far would you go in life to get what you want? What grey lines would you cross – whether or not you’re on Wall Street, or a lawyer, or a doctor? It was really important to us. One of the reasons we chose Meera is because Meera came into the interview and, not only is she a fantastic interview, but she came in and said, “I’m so fascinated by people and grey lines.” She didn’t come in and say, “Wall Street is evil” because I don’t believe you can tell a good story if you just blanket it with evil.
Q: It’s been 20 years since The Boom Boom Room lawsuit. Did you find in the research for the film that the bias against women in this business still exists?
AR: Absolutely. One of our investors actually is a very established woman on Wall Street. One of the things she said to us was when she started in the industry, which was?
SMT: I think 1979.
AR: She said, “I’m not leaving this industry until it changes.” She’s still working.
SMT: She actually said it’s worse for women on Wall Street post financial crisis than before the financial crisis because a lot of women’s heads were on the chopping block in high positions of power at that time. We felt like it’s very similar to women in entertainment, the statistics, and we want to change that.
MM: And it’s also a very selective, competitive industry to even enter into to begin with. You’re already entering a selective pool of people and to be fighting against those biases on top of that I think is what makes the situation that much more severe.
Q: The film really captures the double standards that exist in the financial industry, behaviors respected in men but condemned in women. How do you find those double standards paralleled in Hollywood with your experiences?
AR: Oh, there are no parallels. I think they’re quite obvious. Equal pay is something that is being talked about across the board for women and something that we wanted to explore obviously. We got very lucky in a way that the Sony hacks happened when they did because they showed that truth in a way, the disparity. And it’s really exciting to see how more and more, I think it was just Robin Wright-Penn who said she wasn’t coming back until she was paid equal to a man.
SMT: And the women in this movie made more money than the men which is really exciting.
AR: Yeah, yeah, great point.
MM: Yeah, I think it’s absolutely true. As a woman in this business, you have to work twice as hard to get half as far. I definitely feel like, I mean, I went to film school. 50% of the graduates were women, 50% were men. A lot of the men got representation and those basic things you need as a filmmaker right out of film school with their crappy short films. Some of them were all right. It’s a bit of a boy’s club. A lot of times, these guys get ahead because they find these mentor figures that see themselves in these young guys in baseball caps, and give them an opportunity. There aren’t many women at the top that have been doing this for decades in the same way that would do the same for younger women. So there’s absolutely a similarity.
AG: The other thing I found fascinating is that in a way there’s a game you have to play as a woman in both these industries. I found it really fascinating talking to Barbara Burn, talking to Candy, talking to all the women who were kind enough to share their experiences because so many of their stories and experiences fed into this movie and helped create and shape these characters and the story. Listening to them talk about having to massage a room, having to ride that very thin line between being tough and being soft. I remember one person telling me that when you get your performance review, what they were saying is when you go into a room and you’re trying to show that you’re not a pushover and that you’re not so sweet and you’re not going to be the girl who just nods and says yes, then you are perceived as, you’re kind of pushed out of the way. If you are on the other side and you come in and you have your own ideas and you have your own opinion and you’re tough about it, then you can be perceived as a bitch frankly. I think the same thing occurs when you’re trying to navigate sometimes your behavior or yourself in a room or on a set in Hollywood. You know that you’re riding a line that men don’t have to really think about. If you have an opinion and you want to voice it and you feel strong about it, you have to be careful in terms of how you present it. That was something that they talked about a lot. Those similarities really helped me in terms of creating the character of Naomi. She knows how to handle the boys in essence and she also knows how to handle the women that she works with. That’s a real fine line.
Q: What do you hope for this movie to say to men who may be ignorant about the challenges facing women?
AG: I think that’s why the three women and the interactions they have and the intentions and the motivation they have, and then the personal situations and the kind of personal lives that they have to balance with work is something that I don’t think men — it’s not to say that men don’t have, if you’re married and you have children as a man you’re not worried about if you have a job that takes you on the road a lot or you’re working incredibly long hours. That’s tough as a man but as a woman, there still is a gender situation going on where women really feel guilty when they are working these kinds of jobs. On set in Hollywood you’re sometimes working 15, 16 hours if it’s a really long day. Your kids are waiting at home and sometimes you’re not there to put them to bed. Sometimes you have to leave at 5:30 or 4:30 in the morning to hit your set call and you don’t get to say good morning to your kids. And I think that wears more heavily on women than it does on men. It is something that women have to think about as they’re going along. If I have a baby, if I take time off, if I’m not pushing as hard as I feel I need to, will I lose my career? Will I not get the next promotion? Will I not get the next step up? I think it’s similar. We all have children and it’s something that I know we all talked about and thought about when we were filming. It’s a balancing act that is something I think that men don’t necessarily have to deal with. Would you agree with that?
SMT: I would totally agree and just to add on to what you said, we are all mothers and it was really hard for us to be on set of an independent film and not get to see our kids, none of us did. The true story aspect of some of this stuff is we put into this script a pregnancy because so many women who work on Wall Street told us they had to hide their pregnancy in 2015 until they got to a certain level. For example, Naomi could have a kid because she’s super powerful now, but she couldn’t have had a kid at Erin’s age and Erin is pregnancy and hiding it because she knows she won’t get that promotion. It’s something that, again, men don’t have to deal with in their working lives.
AR: And many of the women that we interviewed experienced a very similar story to Erin’s. Where they hid their pregnancy or there were a lot of issues around their pregnancy, being fired because they’re pregnant. I was reading an article recently about women in the work force and a totally different work force but it was about stewardesses. When stewardesses were first created, they were all fired at the age of 32. It was a known and it was fine. This was in the ‘60s and it just was. On your 32nd birthday, you got a letter. That is where we come from. As a modern woman you’re like, “What?” But that’s where we come from and that’s what we need to change.
MM: It still happens all over the world, I’ll just say. Like in India, in Bollywood culture, actresses for example, it’s pretty much understood that an actress, once she gets married and definitely by the time she has a child, she’s out of the business. Aishwarya Rai is one of the most brilliant, beautiful Bollywood actresses of all time and her film career has significantly slowed down since the minute she got married, and then once she had a child. In places outside of America, this is very, very standard I think.
Q: Did you intend there to be a message that the women were corrupted by the dog eat dog financial world?
AR: I would say corrupted is a very tricky word. Our goal is this film is that nobody is necessarily corrupt. One thing we were really curious about was gray lines and moral ambiguity. In our first conversations with both Anna and Meera, that was something they were really interested in. That was something that Sarah and I developed from the minute we talked about this. One of the things we completely jibed with with both of these women is that they too were curious about that. So it’s my personal goal and I love to hear from everyone that people finish the movie and talk about moral ambiguity, that by the way is not about sexuality and is not about being a woman or a man, but the moral ambiguity in choices we make? When do you cross that line and those gray lines?
SMT: And why can’t women play these roles, which I think is the broader thing that we were interested in is complex roles for women. So it isn’t oh, women can be cutthroat too? It’s an obvious thing. We can play characters that you may or may not like and that’s okay.
AG: And I think also, it’s the idea of mentorship which you were talking about before. When I talked to, again, all the women who not only invested but invested their time in terms of sharing their lives with us. It was something that they really pointed out as being very, very important that women supporting other women and mentoring other women and helping to bring them up is very important. However, there are very few positions for women as you move up the ladder. So that cutthroat world exists and it exists in a way even more. And it also does, to me, say something that still occurs in the female culture sometimes because if there’s only three roles or three positions open, what are those gray lines that you’re talking about. What would you do to get where you want to go? What would you give up? With Naomi, she gave up that moment I think where she discovers hat Erin is pregnant. It’s not: how dare you get pregnant? It was more of: Oh, I could’ve done this. I didn’t do it. I chose the other path. What did I miss out on? For Naomi, her journey starts to become more and more about this has been my sole focus in my entire life. I haven’t seen my family. I don’t have friends. I have a fish. My fish is my closest friend. My fish is my child. There is that moment that she has of the road not taken, essentially.
Q: Anna, what sort of research did you have to do on the financial industry and how much time did you have to do that?
AG: Well, I didn’t have a lot of time and I’m a research junkie, but I had enough time. I first had a conversation obviously with Meera for a long time and I had a really good call with Alysia and Sarah before we met in person and got to know a lot about their development process and how they came about telling the story. And then again, they put me on the phone with Barbara Byrne who is a lioness. She’s sort of a legend in her own time in the financial industry. She spent two hours on the phone with me. Right before we started shooting, we went to New York and we had a wonderful day where we were taken around and shown the ins and outs of everything we were doing and talking about in the movie. My father was actually a stockbroker way back in Cleveland before we moved to New Mexico so he was able to help me as well, which was nice and he was very excited I was playing this role. It was very lucky to be able to talk to a variety of women both in the professional setting and then we had dinner all together.
So there were two different sides I got to see to everybody. I really relied on them to let me know if I was going down the right path with certain things in terms of how you present yourself professionally, how you pitch an IPO, how you take that to fruition, how you balance those things we were talking about before, how do you seduce the room without being too girlie. It’s that whole balancing act. That was tremendously important. And then watching each of their personalities. There are certain similarities they all have and there were differences in terms of how they each went about going through their journey and how they each found their way to the top because they were all at the top, all the women we talked to.
AR: It was neat. They actually did a mock IPO for us, which was really exciting. That evening, as Anna said, the difference between, like, the work persona and the more relaxed persona.
AG: And also listening to people’s stories about how they got into the industry in the first place. That was really important to me for the character because knowing that you’re going into a profession that’s dominated by men and wanting to go into that and the reasons for going into that. And they were very specific. Everybody was really specific about how they got into it. What’s interesting was I think one person said that generally there’s the person who came from very little and had not a lot growing up so that money speech meant so much because it is true when you grow up with nothing, that drive to have something is built into you and8 is a driving passion. There are other people who may have family members or legacy situation where they come into it, but I don’t think any of these people necessarily – especially Naomi – she came from nothing and had to support her family and so she found a way to do it.