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In Equity, Women’s Greed is Good

An interview with the film’s director and screenwriter about female ambition, Wall Street, and Hillary Clinton.

Sony Pictures

The particular blonde ambition of Equity’s Naomi Bishop is one audiences haven’t quite seen on film before. A senior investment banker bouncing back from an underwhelming IPO, Naomi is fluent in the language of power, hungry for her next big win, and fends off attacks from every side. In Meera Menon’s new film, Naomi drives 100 minutes of nearly continuous screen time—the unique pleasure of watching a woman over 40 for this long this cannot be overstated—without a husband, children, or a casual repose in lingerie. The diamond earrings she’s wearing? She bought them.

The Wall Street financial thriller has been Hollywood’s favorite sausage party since Gordon Gecko launched a thousand careers by declaring, “Greed is good.” (Naomi, when asked by a young woman “What’s that thing that really makes you want to get up in the morning?” has a Gecko-esque response: “The simplest answer is…I like money.”)

Equity’s nuanced consideration of how major money feels in a woman’s hands performs a skillful and difficult subversion of the financial thriller, a reinvention by infiltration. The film comes by its feminist authority honestly: Equity was helmed entirely by women. It was directed by Meera Menon, written by Amy Fox, and produced and co-starring Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas.

Equity could hardly be called as optimistic a portrait of female relationality as Menon’s feature directorial debut Farah Goes Bang (which I co-wrote and produced). But both of these films reflect an acute attention to female ambition, political capital, and the woman in the master’s house. As they prepare for Equity to open in nationwide September 2, I talked to Menon and Fox about their influences, the complexities of disrupting power, and The Hillary Question.

Laura Goode: Equity is a classic thriller. We’ve seen thrillers centered on women before, but usually there’s a dead woman setting off the action. What were your influences in the genre?

Amy Fox: The original Wall Street was already one of my favorite movies, so that was definitely a reference. Also, I love mysteries. I spent my whole adolescence, really, not watching movies but reading Agatha Christie novels obsessively.

LG: There’s an ominousness to this story, a sense of pieces being put together in order to fall, which translates itself so visually. I thought about David Mamet, David Cronenberg, and David Fincher, especially House of Cards and The Social Network.

Meera Menon: In the construction of a contemporary digital noir, Fincher is a great person to draw visual references from, not just with The Social Network, but Zodiac. Michael Clayton was another film [Director of Photography] Eric Lin and I talked a lot about in terms of lighting.

When I first was trying to crack the code of what kind of suspense movie this was, it took me a while to find the right reference. The Conversation actually is the first movie that clicked into place. This opened up for me the idea of the psychological suspense movie from the ‘70s, where the mystery is drawn out from an increasing sense of paranoia from the point of view of the main character, and the suspense is located in her increasing sense of anxiety about getting what she wants, and whether or not people are obstructing her.

LG: Meera, you’ve now made two films with strong ties to election years, and it’s particularly interesting to me to regard Equity against the backdrop of our current presidential election.

MM: There was literally an article that came out on Bustle, the headline of which is “How Anna Gunn’s Character in Equity Is Like Hillary Clinton.”

LG: I also really enjoyed that Business Insider headline that was like “Equity’s Such A Good Movie You Almost Forget There Are Women In It.”

MM: Yeah. There have been certain headlines that have been…really precious.

LG: Well, do you think Naomi Bishop bears comparison to Hillary Clinton?

MM: I don’t know if I had really thought about it that way until Anna Gunn was brought on. We were so fortunate to have Anna express interest in the role, because she brings that same quality to the screen that links this conversation directly into what we talk about when we talk about Hillary specifically as our first female presidential candidate, in terms of their comfort level with how likable she is. This is something that was on the page with Naomi—there’s a scene where her boss tells her that she’s rubbing people the wrong way. That’s an intangible thing to criticize, and a few scenes later, she’s talking with her boyfriend about how she’s not sure what went wrong on that deal—but according to Twitter, she was wearing the wrong dress.

Those kind of allusions were in the script, but with Anna the connections became much clearer to me because she had gone through it in a deep way with the reactions to Skyler on Breaking Bad. Her relationship to that conversation was so personal, so deeply experienced, that it all kind of clicked into place for me, how much this movie was about these exact issues.

AF: For me, it was not something I consciously thought about at all while writing, but once the campaign started, the very first time that I read an article about why people hate Hillary, and how much of it is because she’s a woman. I felt this incredibly visceral response, as if they were writing about me, or my daughter, and I realized it was because I was so protective of Naomi. I think I always would have been a Hillary supporter, but I immediately became this really passionate Hillary supporter from this really visceral place, because I was like, oh my god, this is what happened to my character.

Even just last weekend, I was at a Q&A, and the very first question was “Why did you have to make your lead character so unlikable?” I had such a defensive, visceral response—I said “Tell me a single thing that’s unlikable about her, because I don’t find any.”

LG: In his review in the New York Times, A.O. Scott says Equity “is not about the system in crisis. It’s about business as usual.” I thought that was an interesting comment because there’s a feminism that dismantles a power structure, and there’s a feminism that alters it from within. Equity very firmly falls in the latter category. How do you both regard that choice, and where might you place yourself in that discussion?

MM: One woman who specifically comes to mind is Barbara Byrne, who is just a powerhouse at Barclays and one of the investors in the film. She’s probably the smartest person I’ve ever sat across the table from. You’re drawn in, completely charmed and seduced by her, and you’re also completely intimidated by her in the very same breath. After talking to her, I walked away thinking that’s what it’s like to sit across the table from Naomi Bishop. That’s the level of conflicting or concurrent winds you’re wrapped up in when you talk to someone who’s been able to succeed at that level. I was really drawn to how much she loves what she does for the sake of what it is, for the business of what it is.

Naomi talks about liking money. She’s not just talking about the material value, or the material benefits that money brings to her life…she’s talking about money as an object in the world that she’s fascinated by. That’s why so many of the women that we met—and so many of the women who invested in the film—that’s why they stay in it. They really love the work. They’re also altering the system from within; they’re aware of their marginal status, and how they are disrupting the status quo by their very presence in that system. I think they want to move the needle forward, but at the end of the day, what makes them stick around, what makes them work 100-plus hours a week, is their love of the stuff itself…and that’s something that’s very intoxicating to be around.

AF: I think about it a lot in terms of Bernie and Hillary, the way people say, “Well, I want to vote for a woman too, but I wish we had a woman who wanted to dismantle the system, instead of a woman who’s part of the system.” I find that sentiment a little naïve. Some of the people we met during this project, when you see how brilliant they are, and you hear them talk about economics, you can understand how someone like Naomi fuels technological growth in the country by raising money for these firms, the role that plays in the global economy. There’s a level of sophistication to this discussion that I don’t hear when people stand around saying “close the banks!” I don’t know where I fall on this personally anymore. I think it’s very easy to consider yourself a revolutionary who wants to dismantle the system, but I met a bunch of people who work in the system and are really fucking smart. I’m very open to what it means to make the system better from within, having met those people.

LG: We’re talking about Equity in terms of the film’s diegetic world, finance, but of course we’re also talking about the world of filmmaking. How would you analogize those two worlds?

MM: They’re similar in the reluctance on the part of people in positions of power—the gatekeepers in the film industry—to trust women with large amounts of money, which is why Ava DuVernay crossing the $100M mark on the budget for A Wrinkle in Time is such a big deal.

But it’s funny, because Equity was made as an independent film. It was financed independently; it was made outside of the system. It was meant to dismantle the system from the outside, not from the inside.

AF: How a woman handles pitching—having the charisma to walk into a room and convince everyone that you have the best ideas—as opposed to a man is really personal to me. I also felt very deeply the idea of Naomi having a previous failure and trying to come back from it. I wouldn’t call it a failure, but after my first film, my career really slowed down for a bunch of years and I spent a lot of time questioning myself: How did I fail to navigate Hollywood properly to get to my next thing? Only within the past couple years have all these statistics started coming out about female directors and writers who had a festival hit and then weren’t able to convert that into their next job…All of that is very personal to me—how Naomi thinks it’s all on her shoulders, as opposed to something systemic.

LG: Meera, what do you think is Amy’s biggest strength as a writer?

MM: Jesus Christ, that is such a hard question! I think it’s depth. I think it’s subtext. I think Amy writes the kind of material—I know she does, because the reason Anna wanted to do this movie was because of the writing—that actors are completely absorbed by and drawn to and want to play. She writes scenes where it’s very clear that each character is playing a game, and that there are five games underneath the primary game. Cat-and-mouse is almost a reductive way of describing it—it’s the game that actors dream to play.

LG: Tell me a little bit, Amy, about what you think Meera’s biggest strength is, and what it’s like to work with her as a director.

AF: She has a very, very strong vision for what she’s making, but she doesn’t conflate it with her own ego in any way. I think that is so rare in a director. I started out in the theater, where there’s a very strong collaboration between writer and director, a very positive one, for the most part. People have tried to convince me over and over again that there’s something about the nature of filmmaking that makes collaboration between writer and director impossible. It’s a very common falsehood—the idea that there’s something about the singular vision of the filmmaker that means the writer cannot be anywhere near the set or the experience. I know Sidney Lumet didn’t think so.

It was such a gift to have Meera singlehandedly disprove that assertion. The idea that she could come in, with her strong vision, with her absolute ability to get this film made and let this film soar far beyond the script, without that necessitating undermining me, or getting me out of the way. That was a huge gift, and I’ve been kind of theorizing it for years, that that should be possible in film. I’m just so grateful that she proved me right.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited.