HOW “EQUITY,” SUNDANCE’S FEMALE-DRIVEN WALL STREET THRILLER, GOT MADE
THE PATH FROM IDEA TO PAGE TO SCREEN FOR ONE OF SUNDANCE’S MOST BUZZED-ABOUT MOVIES.
BY DAVID ZAX
Actress and producer Sarah Megan Thomas is married to a banker. For years, she’d go out to Wall Street events, and she became consistently interested in what she calls “the one woman at every work event we went to.” Why hadn’t anyone made a movie about them, she wondered?
So in 2014, she contacted a friend, Alysia Reiner, also an actress and producer (she plays the assistant warden in Orange Is the New Black). Reiner was skeptical at first —”Wall Street movies don’t necessarily speak to my heart,” she recalls thinking—but then she spoke with a management consultant friend whose job was to help workers with Fortune 50 companies retain female talent. “I heard extraordinary stories about how women treat each other, and the corporate cultures around women,” recalls Reiner, rattling off a bleak statistic about how many young women report that they plan to quit their jobs because they feel overlooked for promotions. “I thought maybe we could tell a story that helps incite change.”
Now the two needed material for a story. When it became clear her husband’s firm wasn’t inclined to submit to interviews, Thomas cold-wrote a letter to the CEO of another major bank she’d read about in the New York Times. “Sarah’s really fearless in that way,” says Reiner. Thomas’s letter played upon a shared interest in rowing, and the CEO took the meeting, then opening doors to countless other interviews. (Ultimately, several of the women interviewed became investors in the film.) Reiner and Thomas soon committed to writing a story about the “gray lines” that exist on Wall Street for women. They weren’t interested in demonizing or lionizing anyone; first and foremost, they wanted to write a strong leading role for “a real woman in her 40s.” They also wanted roles for themselves: Reiner was interested in financial regulators, while Thomas wanted to play a newly pregnant junior banker.
Thomas and Reiner hired a playwright/screenwriter they knew, Amy Fox, coming at her with the ideas for the three central roles and the rudiments of a story. Fox then dived into months of research on the financial world. Soon, she faced a major decision for her script. Should Naomi, her protagonist, be an investment banker, a trader, or a salesperson? Though seemingly banal, the decision would ramify massively, with enormous consequences for the course the writing would take.
The decision had the capacity to be agonizing, but Fox says she’s trained herself to forgo agony when possible. “For me, the best way to dive into a script is to make a set of those decisions very early on. The movie becomes the thing it’s going to become. I’ve trained myself not to obsess over those decisions.” Fox decided to make Naomi an investment banker working in the high-stakes realm of taking companies public.
“Being an investment banker is more about cultivating relationships with the client, and I felt like we hadn’t seen that as much as the ‘Buy now! Sell now!’ drama,” says Fox. To run an IPO requires a kind of confidence-inspiring charisma, and Fox was excited about writing that part for a woman. Fox soon made other big decisions for the story: Naomi would be IPO’ing a fictional secrecy-minded social network, and that she would be dating a man named Michael in another corner of the bank who would be trying to (illegally) wheedle information from her that he could exploit for profit.
By October 2014, Fox, Reiner, and Thomas had a draft, which they read aloud at Thomas’s apartment for a small audience of friends, colleagues, and Wall Street folk. Curiously, and frustratingly, the audience seemed only to have questions about the deviously charming Michael. “He just called a lot of attention to himself,” says Fox. “I don’t know if it was because everyone had been trained to pay more attention to a male character, but that upset us, because that was not the character we wanted people to be talking about.” Fox went back and cut a lot of Michael’s more scene-stealing material. “I got a lot more specific about Naomi, making sure she was more active, and let Michael recede accordingly.”
By December, the script was nearly ready to circulate to actors for the part of Naomi. “We were getting feedback that Naomi was a great role, but we needed more there to attract the caliber of the actor we wanted,” recalls Fox. So she did one more rewrite on the script that was “purely a Naomi pass, making sure I was extracting the most drama for the character.” She wanted the character to leap off the page when the script was read; a standout revision from this draft includes a withering speech Naomi barks at a junior about being given a cookie she feels lacks sufficient chocolate chips.
Reiner and Thomas interviewed numerous directors, and selected Meera Menon. Fox held her breath, since many directors are known for wanting to massively rework scripts in order to put their stamp on a project. Menon didn’t have that inclination, and was largely happy with the script. “She had the quiet confidence to say, ‘You did your part. Now I do my part,’” recalls Fox.
By spring 2015, the script was sent to actors. The team got great news: Anna Gunn, who had played Skyler White on AMC’s Breaking Bad, wanted the part of Naomi. The project was greenlit and quickly went into production. Fox remembers the heady moment she went to set to see the real live “pet fish” that had once only existed in typescript. “‘I made up a fish in my imagination, and now a fish is living in a tank,” Fox recalls thinking. “It makes you feel all-powerful.”
The film pleased audiences at its Sundance premiere last week; Sony Pictures Classics announced it would distribute the film. Equity enters the culture at a time of heated discussion over racial and gender diversity in business. With three flawed human women at its core, Equity is something of the antidote to those who protest that a cartoonishly heroic character like Rey, from the new Star Wars film, doesn’t represent real progress in mass media’s depiction of women. Fox, Reiner, and Thomas had agreed that the more genuinely feminist gesture for their movie would be to show women in all their complexity—those “gray lines.”
Reiner recalls a conversation she had with that consultant friend, the one who worked to retain female talent at Fortune 50 companies. The consultant initially fretted over a script depicting a workplace where women didn’t always have each other’s backs. “At the beginning, she was saying, ‘Oh, women have to help each other, treat each other well—that’s the story you should tell.’”
Later that year, that woman’s own boss “totally backstabbed her and fired her,” says Reiner. “She then came back to us and was like, ‘You know what? Tell whatever fucking story you want.’”