Around the same time that investment advisor Bernie Madoff was on trial for his massive Ponzi scheme, lawyer and philanthropist Marc Dreier was facing sentencing for (among other crimes) wire fraud and money laundering. In this candid and intimate documentary, Dreier looks back on his life as he awaits sentencing while under house arrest, trying to explain the motives that fueled his greed and brought about his downfall. Other recent documentaries about financial misconduct have seethed with self-righteous anger, but Unraveled lets Dreier make his case without editorializing. It’s up to us to decide whether we’re watching a sociopath, a villain, or a victim. [Synopsis courtesy of the Los Angeles Film Festival]
[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Narrative Feature and Documentary Competitions at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]
Directed By: Marc H. Simon
Producers: Marc H. Simon, Matthew Brian Makar, Steven Cantor, Miranda Bailey
Editors: Alyse Ardell Spiegel, Christina Burchard
Cinematographer: Bob Richman
Original Music: Chris Hajian
Cast: Gerald L. Shargel, Ross M. Kramer, Mark S. Dreier
Executive Producer: Tony Tamberelli
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Responses courtesy of “Unraveled” director Marc H. Simon.
Your movie: In 140 characters or less, what’s it about?
Marc Dreier, my former boss, who I filmed under house arrest, while he awaited sentencing for orchestrating a massive $750 million fraud.
OK: Now tell us what it’s really about…
Just days before Bernard Madoff captured headlines as the largest Ponzi schemer in U.S. history, Marc Dreier, a prominent Manhattan attorney, was arrested for orchestrating a massive fraud scheme that netted hundreds of millions of dollars from hedge funds. Brazen forgeries and impersonations branded the white-collar crime spree remarkable. “Unraveled” is a documentary set in the “purgatory” of house arrest –– an Upper East Side penthouse –– where the Court has ordered Dreier confined until his sentencing day. The film weaves Dreier’s struggle to prepare for the possibility of life imprisonment with first-person flashbacks, which reveal his audacious path of destruction. Destroyed by his own hubris, Dreier attempts to grasp his tragic unraveling. With unprecedented access, “Unraveled” exposes a portrait of a man who achieved the distinction he so desperately craved, but not for his keen intellect or ambition, but rather as a “mastermind of criminal deception.”
From law to film to law…
I initially became a documentary filmmaker out of my desire to highlight the heroic stories of the exonerated — innocent men wrongfully convicted and proven innocent through DNA testing who return to society with little or no assistance to help their re-entry. My need to tell their stories arose from my experience as a law student working in the New York Innocence Project and my first film “After Innocence” has brought much needed attention and education to the issue. Over the last 10 years, I have made 3 films as a filmmaker (“After Innocence,” “Nursery University” and now “Unraveled”). I also have been fortunate to represent some of the most notable filmmakers/independent films as an entertainment attorney of the last few years, including “Winter’s Bone” and “The Kids Are All Right” and last year’s LAFF favorite “Make Believe.” I never could have imagined that my career as an attorney would intertwine with my work as a filmmaker as it has in “Unraveled.”
Unlike my first two films that I had to chase to make “Unraveled” to a great extent, chose me. When news broke of Marc Dreier’s arrest, I did not plan to make a film about my disgraced mentor. However, Daniel Laikind and Steve Cantor of Stick Figure Productions (which became my production partner) approached me about making a documentary about Dreier. Initially, I declined because I was preoccupied settling in at my new law firm Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams, & Sheppard and also launching the theatrical release of “Nursery University.” However, as good producers do, Daniel and Steven pursued me and about two months after our initial meeting, I knew that I would always regret not attempting to tell this story (which, based on my professional relationship with Dreier, I was uniquely situated to tell).
First, maintaining access to Marc Dreier was an ongoing challenge. We began filming on the day Dreier pled guilty to all criminal counts charged against him. Many legal experts speculated that Dreier’s bail would be revoked – this would mean that Dreier would be jailed and the film could not move ahead. When the judge continued bail under house arrest, I knew the next two months filming with Marc would be emotionally and mentally exhausting. We navigated both Dreier’s unpredictable emotions about filming and the management company of the luxury building where Marc was confined, which had no interest in granting us the access we needed. The next big hurdle was to create a narrative arc for the film’s structure based solely on the interviews with our subject Marc Dreier. This took many months to achieve and was extremely challenging. Finally, budgetary and creative constraints made our decisions regarding a “recreation” device a challenge. We knew that Dreier’s voiceover required visual support, but we couldn’t afford full animation or actor based recreations (nor did we believe these served the film’s creative vision). Thus, our decision to create graphic novel inspired panels with 2D and 3D effects represented an all or nothing proposition. If the device failed, the film would have failed. Fortunately, after a six-month “casting process”, we found a super talented artist in Jeremiah Wallace and our graphics house Edgeworx worked extremely hard to bring these images to life organically in the film.
I think LAFF audiences will respond strongly to Marc Dreier’s directness in confessing and rationalizing his crimes, as well as his philosophical views about how others view him. Audiences will likely never observe another white collar criminal express himself with the same frankness as Dreier about criminal motivations and repercussions, but at the same time audiences may very well question some of Dreier’s sincerity.
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