When producers Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas cooked up the idea to make the first female-driven Wall Street movie, their mandate for the feature was clear: It would be written by female screenwriter, directed by a female director and lead by a very strong female cast. The duo put years of work into researching the feature, shoring up investors and making sure that what would become “Equity” retained their original vision from top to bottom.
The film follows hard-driving investment banker Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn) as she embarks on the biggest deal of her career – shepherding a rising Silicon Valley company that smacks of Facebook and Snapchat to its initial public offering – a task she’s made her speciality during a mostly successful career. Burnt by a previous deal that went awry and newly passed over for a major promotion, Naomi is dedicated to doing her job flawlessly. But while Naomi’s motivation is clear, many of the people around her are not so transparent, and as the tension of the financial thriller ratchets up, various forces scheme to take Naomi down. She’s not having it.
Women Of Their Word
Amy Fox topped both Thomas and Reiner’s lists of potential screenwriters, and she quickly let them know she was interested.
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“It was a very quick meeting where they said, ‘This is what we’re doing, this is our premise, what do you think? Do you want to come on board?,'” Fox remembered. “I almost immediately said yes. I loved the premise, and I knew them and I knew that they were women who really were women of their word and who were going to really get this done.”
Director Meera Menon’s experience was similar, and the fact that Thomas and Reiner were so aggressively courting other women for the project was something the deeply appealed to her.
“They were looking for female director as a mandate for the project, which I think is applause-worthy in and of itself,” Menon remembered. “It could single-handedly change the whole conversation if more producers just did that. I read it, I was instantly in love with the writing and the tone and desperately wanted to do it.”
The film might seem like an odd pick for Menon, who last directed the coming-of-age comedy “Farah Goes Bang,” but the director sees parallels between the projects.
“They’re genre-driven movies that take characters that have traditionally existed in the margins of those margins and they bring them into the center as the narrators of that genre,” she said. “I think that is a connective thread I’d like to continue to seek out, to find different genres to play in as a filmmaker, find those fresh perspectives.”
“A Hallelujah Moment”
If Fox and Menon were happy to sign on for the project, Gunn was ecstatic. The actress classifies reading the film’s script as “a hallelujah moment” in her career.
“After something like ‘Breaking Bad,’ which feels like it’s a once in a lifetime experience, it felt to me like I’d kind of reached a pinnacle,” she said. “It’s been hard to find a really rich, good role like this in film. I was wondering if it was ever going to come along, frankly.”
Naomi is a complicated character that’s often very hard to read – as Menon notes, she reads as “cold” on the page – and required an actress that could turn a so-called “unlikable” character into something more relatable.
“Anna brings such a red hot warmth to her screen presence,” Menon said. “Her screen presence has that flickering between vulnerability and strength. I think she dimensionalized the character in a way that only the perfect actor meeting the perfect role can do.”
Gunn wasn’t afraid of taking on the role. After all, she’s done the “difficult woman” thing before, particularly with her turn on “Breaking Bad” that often saw her divisive Skyler White having to make choices that angered some sections of the show’s audience.
“You’re admiring of her but you’re also slightly turned off,” Gunn said of her character. “As a person, and as a woman, I found it to be a revolutionary kind of idea that I wanted to embrace and learn from through the process of making this movie.”
In order to get further into her character, Gunn had to double down on research – “I’m a research junkie” – a feat made all the easier by the work that Thomas and Reiner had previously done in preparation for the film.
“They gave me all the step by step in terms of how they came about the story, why they wanted to focus it in this area, who they talked to, the variety of stories that they heard,” Gunn said. “I took bits and pieces from everybody I talked to.”
“Razor Sharp Intellect”
Gunn spent hours on the phone with co-producer Barbara Byrne (an investment banker by trade who was the first and only woman to achieve a vice chairman position at Lehman Brothers) and even spent a day at Goldman Sachs. After the workday was over, she went out to dinner with some of the women whose work she was shadowing, and was further impressed by their camaraderie and passion.
“They had this incredibly razor sharp intellect, razor sharp wit, humor and, frankly, a really supportive sisterhood,” she remembered. “They’re not afraid to disagree with each other, they’re not afraid to put their opinion out there. That was so important to me, because that’s so much of what these women represent in this movie.”
That Gunn would be touched by the sisterhood she saw unfolding in real life speaks to one of the greatest strengths of “Equity”: The fraught relationship between Naomi and a character that Thomas herself plays, Erin, a rising star in the financial world who finds herself at odds with Naomi, her mentor. As the women work their way through the IPO process, each striving to get ahead personally, their bond takes a serious beating.
“The takeaway is not that women will stab each other in the back or do anything to each other in order to get ahead,” Gunn said. “But, frankly, as you get to high and higher positions, there are fewer and fewer positions for women, so the competition is fierce. It’s a really complex issue, because I think women know that we need to support each other.”
Sisters Doing It For Themselves
The relationship between Naomi and Erin – arguably the most important one in the entire film – was also essential to Fox and Menon and one they knew the audience would find compelling.
“People really project their own experiences with mentors and mentee relationships onto it,” Fox said. “We always intended it to be a very complicated relationship, which I think that it is. I think people have very strong reactions to it, which says a lot about them as well as the film.”
Those kind of complicated, fraught relationships don’t seem to have made much of an appearance on the female-dominated set.
For Gunn, working amongst women to tell a story about women was revelatory. “I think it was so important for all of us to band together, and to tell the story, and to know that there were female producers around the monitor, that there’s a female director, that it’s been written by a woman,” she said.
The unique creation of the film allows for a vantage point that Fox feels audiences rarely see.
“I would say that the nuances of it would have been very different in the hands of men,” Fox said. “I do think that we have seen that men can obviously write about women. One of my mentors always said the whole endeavor of writing is to claim that you can imagine a life that is not your own. He said for me to judge who is allowed to write what is to attack the premise of writing, which is that I can imagine myself anywhere.”
“Equity” opens theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on July 29, with more cities to follow.