Of all the buzzed-about films picked up at Sundance this year, financial thriller “Margin Call” was the one no one really expected to break out. Sure, it had the starriest cast of the bunch (Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons and Paul Bettany are among the ensemble), but early reviews were lukewarm and the subject — the dawn of our latest financial crisis — seemed somehow dated in the wake of “Inside Job,” “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” and “Up in the Air.”
This was before Occupy Wall Street hit Zuccotti Park on September 17. A month later, with the protests in full swing, Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate opened “Margin Call” theatrically and on VOD, seizing the zeitgeist and reaping the rewards. At $5 million and counting, the film currently stands as the highest-grossing acquisition out of Sundance 2011. It lands on DVD and Blu-ray today and it’s our pick of the week.
We caught up with one of the film’s many players, Zachary Quinto, who also served as producer on the film written and directed by newcomer J.C. Chandor, to discuss the indie success story and how he assembled that cast.
The film got decent buzz out of Sundance and landed distribution, but many didn’t predict it would eclipse films like “Like Crazy,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Another Earth” at the domestic box office. Why do you think it caught on the way it did?
Well, I think obviously the social movement of Occupy and the current climate of our financial system and government is completely in line with what our film is exploring. So I think in a lot of ways, the social temperature of our culture has a lot to do why people respond to it.
This marked your first feature producing credit with your production company Before the Door Pictures. What made you venture into producer territory?
I had reached a point in my experience where I realized I had the opportunity to play an integral part in the stories I was telling.
How did “Margin Call” come your way?
We were introduced to J.C. through a mutual friend. We met him and really took a liking to him as a person. I heard about his experience and heard a little about this screenplay and then we all read it at night. We agreed unanimously that this was the first movie that we wanted to get behind to champion.
Did the script come with a glossary so you could understand the money trading lingo?
(Laughs). No. I felt like the thing that threw me into it was that it was a really character-driven piece. I wasn’t so much daunted by the world in which it was set. Because for me it was much less about the world and much more about the people.
So obviously I learned about the specifics of the financial world during the time we were developing it and getting it cast. But initially, rather than being off putting, it was the thing that was sort of drew me into it.
It’s an ambitious piece for a directorial debut, but it also marks an ambitious project to launch your production company given the scope and nature of the film. What made you want to introduce yourself to the world as a producer with this movie?
For me it was a lot about engaging an audience in a dialogue. It was ambitious on a lot of levels, but I think any time you set out to make any film, it’s a risk. So for us it was really about trusting our instinct. It spoke to us on a very primitive level.
We wanted to get behind it for a number of reasons, not only creatively, but also socially. That was really interesting to us. The fact it scared us and the fact that there was a lot to tackle, made us realize it was the right project.
J.C. comes from a financial background. Was he always attached as the director, or did that develop over time?
It was always assumed that he would direct it. It wasn’t the kind of screenplay that we looked at and brought around to directors. His point of view on the material was always so crystal clear that I made sense that he it would be his project.
What gave you the confidence that he could pull it off, cinematically speaking?
I just think the way he talked about it. He grew up in this world, so his understanding of these characters and their environment was innate from the beginning. He was able to translate it to an aesthetic vocabulary that made us believe that he understood how he wanted this to look. He talked in very visual terms, so it was clear that he had spent a lot of time imagining how to make this world come to life.
I don’t think any of us could have really anticipated the nuance with which he captured this world, which is really just so impressive. I’m really proud of him and grateful for the experience.
How did this whole cast come together? I’m guessing you played a huge part.
It was definitely a team effort. I was significantly involved, but I think everyone signed on because of the quality of the material and his confidence.
How did J.C. acquit himself on set with these luminaries?
He’s just a really cool guy, really easy to relate to. He’s also really unflappable. So I feel just like he did his work. He never seemed intimidated, never seemed unsure. It was pretty remarkable to watch. Our first day of shooting was with Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany and Penn Badgley, so it was a really fun day for all of us to see J.C. step into his role as a director.
The film maintains this unrelenting thriller-type drive from start to finish. How did you maintain that swift sense of pace on set?
I think it was a lot about tracking where we were in the course of the night. That’s where the technical expertise of those actors really came into play. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges as an actor: Keeping track of emotional states and the progression of time.
With that, how would you characterize your time making this film?
It was great. It was only 17 days. It was like a flash mob of energy in the summer in New York City. We had all of the skylines of New York around us. For me, it was an incredibly inspiring time and I have nothing but the fondest of memories.