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Taking on Wall Street: Leslie Cockburn on “American Casino”

Taking on Wall Street: Leslie Cockburn on "American Casino"

EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. “American Casino” opens in theaters this Wednesday, September 2.

Leslie Cockburn’s “American Casino” takes on the Commodities Futures Modernization Act, which in 2000 was passed to call for less regulation on Wall Street and, according to a former director of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, “freed Wall Street to essentially shoot itself in both feet.” Eight years later, the US economy is crumbling, and Cockburn wants his doc to help people understand what has happened and why. indieWIRE interviewed Cockburn when the film premiered earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Please introduce yourself and what were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

My name is Leslie Cockburn and I directed the documentary feature “American Casino” on the financial meltdown. I started making little films with a 16 mm camera as an undergraduate at Yale. My first job out of college was “assistant editor” on a forgettable low budget feature. When I was at graduate school in London, I began working at NBC News, which had a thriving documentary unit. My mentor there was Stuart Schulberg, brother of Bud Schulberg who wrote “On the Waterfront.” I later moved on to CBS Reports in New York, where I learned film making from very talented people who had worked on classics like “Harvest of Shame” and the “Selling of the Pentagon.” My executive producer was Howard Stringer, who now runs Sony.

What prompted the idea for “American Casino?”

I have always taken on big, complex subjects, often with a financial component, like the inner workings of the Colombian cocaine cartels, the economic disaster in Zimbabwe or the heroin trade in Afghanistan. I get equally excited about radical fundamentalism in Pakistan and oil speculation in New York. The financial disaster that was unfolding in January 2008 when I decided to take on the project was so important that I dropped everything to do it.

Producer Andrew Cockburn and I could see that things were coming apart. I had been reading John Kenneth Galbraith on the Crash of ‘29 and was struck by the parallels: the insane “leverage”, wild excessive borrowing, on Wall Street, the banks flocking to the Cayman Islands to escape regulation on capital limits, the mad system of building structured investments on the backs of people who could never pay off their loans.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.

We started shooting almost immediately. The key to the film’s structure was finding people at every level of the crisis, from the blasted neighborhoods of inner city Baltimore to the inner sanctums of the Wall Street banks. This was not easy. It took months for us to persuade one of our bankers, an alumnus of investment bank Bear Sterns, to appear. We filmed the interview in shadow and distorted his voice. We were asking people who were losing their homes to let us into their lives, landing on their doorsteps with a camera after a foreclosure auction. It turned out that the people who were suffering the most were not just the most gracious but also extremely articulate. The film has no narration. There is no intrusion from a narrator’s voice. It is far more powerful that way.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

Editing the film was complicated. I opened on Wall Street because we are in Wall Street’s casino. I wanted the audience to have a good grasp of the intentions and mechanics of Wall Street and the central role of money, particularly the billions in fees from securitization deals. The winners were not investors but the people along “the value chain” as the banker says, taking their cut “with no skin in the game”. Only then do we descend into the hell of ravaged inner city neighborhoods, the real world inside the Wall Street computer screens. The music is raw hip hop from the streets, with Baltimore artists singing about the subprime loans and reverse redlining that has gutted their neighborhoods.

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals?

The great reward of documentary making is the unscripted surprise. We found that a high school teacher in Baltimore, in bankruptcy, his house on the auction block, had a loan that had been securitized by Goldman Sachs. We were able to track the loan through the Bloomberg screens to the office of the Secretary of the Treasury, who had been CEO of Goldman when the teacher’s loan was packaged.

In editing the film, I wanted the achieve a rhythm, moving between the arcane world of Wall Street and the real world that has been reduced to wreckage from Wall Street’s bets. The final scenes take place in Riverside California where the backyard pools of foreclosed houses have turned to black muck, breeding legions of mosquitos. A Ken doll is floating face down in an abandoned pool. The post apocalyptic images signal a catastrophic breakdown of the American Dream.

My goal with the film is to help people understand what has happened and why. In documentary films, the most difficult thing to achieve is to make something complex appear simple. One one level, anyone can understand the film. On another level, even the jaded bankers, the financial engineers and “quants”, who have quietly helped us throughout this project, are shaking their heads at the revelations.

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