In 1987, the movie Wall Street was released two months after the stock market had crashed and had capture the zeitgeist of the very rampant greed of the go-go 1980’s that culminated in the crash. The film’s antagonist Gordon Gekko, in particular, a corporate raider who believed that “greed is good”, epitomized Wall Street’s most ruthless.
Over 25 years later in the midst of another economic crash and burn due to rampant greed, the film’s director, Oliver Stone, now at the age of 64, returns to helm Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. He discussed for us what he believed made the original film a classic.
“Wall Street, put it this way, came out of nowhere,” Stone notes, “There were no business movies being made since the 1950s, really authentic business movies. My dad used to bitch about that to me; ‘Why do they make businessmen into villains?’ Well, I made one that was with a villain. Me and Stanley Weiser co-wrote the script with me and it was iconic, it was different. We didn’t have CNBC, that came about afterward, and all the culture, the celebration of wealth, that’s all eighties, nineties. So it came out of nowhere and it was a modest success, it wasn’t huge, and then it grew and it hung in there. I think the lines are snappy, Michael [Douglas]‘s performance was noted obviously with an Oscar, but also he was very slick. Pat Riley, I think, was one of his models and who else? Milken to some degree. Asher Edelman.”
“Now Josh [Brolin] is doing it again in this version,” he continues, “I look at you as a new form of Gekko in his 40’s in a bigger sense because Gekko gets subsumed by the hedge funders of the nineties and then the hedge funders get subsumed by the bankers. This is institutional banking, the central banks of the United States become like Gordon Gekko. So the outsider works his way into the inside by the 2000’s. But I think the lines of dialogue and the pace of the film were new and different. Now we had the other problem; everyone’s familiar with that style because it’s all over the place. So our issue on this film was how do you go about it in a fresh way. That’s why Michael, I think, is very good to start at the bottom, in prison. We didn’t emphasize the style, it’s there, it’s slick, but we don’t have to emphasize it anymore, so we used another approach.”
Stone was asked what he believes Gordon Gekko would have been like as a teenager.
“I can’t answer the first one because I have no idea what he was like as a teenager,” Oliver says, “Ask Michael.”
He was also asked how he feels the new installment reflects New York today.
“I don’t know,” Stone replies, “I don’t know the answer to that. We made the film consciously with the idea that we were doing a story about people and those verities about the relationships of love and trust and greed, betrayal, they go on and they go on. They were equivalent in the eighties and they’re equivalent now. There was so much written about 2008, so many books, so many documentaries, we would have been stuck in a time warp if we would have been primarily focused on that. I think it was a backdrop and that was why it was effective.”
“Whether New York changes, whether there’s a lesson to be learned, I could not more give you an answer than I could in 1987, when I thought greed was outrageous,” he adds, “If we don’t learn something from 2008 I think we’ve got a significant heart attack, and the signs are very clear that America is living beyond its means, whether Americans pay attention. I heard that New York is booming again, or doing very well, so who knows? If the bankers go back to their habits, we’re junkies and we’ll keep borrowing money. I think China is going to reach a limit. Is there a new customer around? Is there a new country? Is there a new sucker?”
Stone also commented on why the film was altered after it had premiered at the Cannes Film Festival back in May and the changes he made to the film since.
“The movie at Cannes was very well received and we were very happy,” he notes, “For me personally, it was probably the highlight of my film life. I’ve never seen a red carpet like that in my life coming in and going out by the way. Going out was just as good as coming in. It was really beautiful. But that was a platform and I’m glad we took it. I’m glad we didn’t come out in April. I’m really happy to be here in September, really, really, because April didn’t feel right and we were rushing. We finished the movie on December 10 and then it was April coming out. It was just too rushed and I was happy with the film, I was okay with it, but I bought an extra three weeks work time in the editing room with that delay for Cannes. We fixed some things before and then when we went there we were looking. I thought we were solid but there were some things in the third act I thought could be better, more realistic, so we went back and did a little work this summer. I think we took advantage of that platform and I’m happier with the film now and I hope you agree.”
“Essentially, there’s an added scene with Gordon and Eli Wallach in London,” Oliver continues, “Which is very important to the idea that he’s doing very well, as well as has a lot more money than $100 million, that he’s actually monkeyed his way up to $1.3 billion hedge fund, which is quite doable in a few weeks, especially at the bottom there. He was at the bottom of the market; he is buying everything he can pretty much. That’s why he does so well. Eli Wallach, who’s the head of Josh’s firm, comes over to make a deal with him, then he gets very cynical and very real. Also you briefly see in this scene with a computer that he has much more money in his assets than just $100 million. So it makes his giving back to Carey Mulligan at the end and to Shia [Lebeouf] more within the framework. Not that he’s turned into an angel; I still think the character of Gordon Gekko is angel and devil, is a bit of both. He’s bad and good. So there’s a bit of that going on as well as some tweaks with this and that. There’s also a wonderful ending scene, which I always liked, and I put that back in, the rooftop scene, but it was altered and changed. It gives homage to the idea of bubbles, of the bubble theory of life, which is what this movie is ultimately about. It’s a very whimsical movie. I think it ended too abruptly at Cannes, so the bubbles and [film score composer] David Byrne give it a sense of this will go on. I’m not sure it’s fixed. The concept of American optimism, making money, being successful is an ongoing part of the American ethos.”
Oliver believes that a particularly significant cog into how the latest installment successfully works is the performance of Susan Sarandon, who in this film plays Sylvia, the mother of Jacob Moore, played by Shia LeBeouf.
“It’s a really important little section in this movie because it really sets where Shia comes from,” he believes, “If you look at the ’87 film, it’s much more centered in the neighborhood because Charlie Sheen in ’87, his father is a union figure. Part of the crux of the story is that Charlie sells out his father and the union in order to advance himself and Gordon Gekko’s interests in the movie. But when you look at the present landscape it really strikes me that there is no real union presence. There’s no point in putting one in because they have really, literally disappeared from our landscape as a factor.”
“Wages have flattened so much from 1973, they haven’t grown, the AFL-CIO is not what it once was, so the gap between working men and CEOs and stock holders has enormously grown, and this is the problem,” Stone adds, “So Susan is essentially the only working class source in this film and plays a rather lesser role because she isn’t a union. She is actually a nurse who becomes a realtor, which became a lot of the ’80s, ’90s activity. They would go and they’d do something to make something faster and give up their professions. I think there’s little story here but it’s sad that our country, and especially the economics of it, has moved against the interest of the working man. She’s a very smart woman.”
Stone also commented on a remark made by Michael Douglas that he got to see the director’s soul in his old age.
“That’s not fair,” Oliver remarks, “He didn’t know me young.”
While Oliver is one of Hollywood’s most accomplished filmmakers, he’s also one of its most controversial, particularly for his reputation as an outspoken liberal activist. He had this to say for people who choose to judge him for him rather than the merits of his films.
“I think you look at it as a farmer,” Stone says, “You don’t sell all your crop to everybody, you just farm it. Do the best you can every day and if people have misperceptions and misjudgments sometimes they don’t know the whole message. But I think the crop is good, the yield is good, and a lot of people can eat off this movie.”
Finally, touching on the idea that Gordon Gekko is motivated by money, Stone was asked what motivates him.
“I look at it as a process,” Oliver says, “It’s a journey, like anything else, I just feel like it deepens as you go and you learn more consciousness, more awareness, or maybe more sensitivity in a way. If it’s interesting you stay interesting. That’s what motivates me. If I was repeating myself I don’t know if it would work the same way. I’d get tired.”