‘Dumb Money’ and how to make a movie based on recent history

‘Dumb Money’ and how to make a movie based on recent history

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Stupid money hits theaters less than three years after the GameStop short squeeze dramatizes it. Director Craig Gillespie shows how it worked.
Photo: Claire Folger/Columbia Pictures

Have they made a movie about the GameStop short squeeze yet? Yes, they did: Craig Gillespie’s Stupid money hits theaters at the end of September, 32 months after a group of online investors tried to get rich by targeting the titans of Wall Street who gambled on the retail chain. (For comparison: the movie All the president’s men was released more than three years after the events of the film.) How do you make a major studio comedy so quickly – especially when that comedy has 12 main characters and more than 250 scenes set across the country?
I spoke with Vulture the week before Stupid money‘s TIFF premiere, Gillespie (whose previous credits include Lars and the real girl And Me, Tonya) broke the feverish pace of production on his latest film. “We moved very quickly, but I actually really like that,” he says. “If you have to rely on instinct, you have less time to doubt.”

Gillespie didn’t just follow the GameStop story on the news. He had a firsthand view of the emotional turmoil Reddit investors were going through because he lived with one of them. His twenty-four-year-old son, who came to live with him during the lockdown, was involved from the start. “It was one of those COVID things that happened, the alienation of everyone. He was up until three in the morning and got up at six in the morning to watch the markets before they opened,” says the director. “We had to experience the whole blow in real time: the excitement, the frustration, the anger, the outrage. I don’t think I would have been interested if I hadn’t been on that trip with him.

The son got out at the right time; Gillespie, who had mainly stuck to index funds, did not. He bought GME the day before RobinHood froze trading and the price collapsed. “I’m one of the people who lost money on GameStop,” he says, laughing. (Although he probably still came out positive in the end thanks to the movie.)

Director Craig Gillespie on the set of Stupid money.
Photo: Lacey Terrell

MGM jumped on the GameStop story early on and secured the rights to Ben Mezrich’s book The antisocial network just weeks after the stock peaked, and before the book itself was written. At the time, Gillespie was working with writers Rebecca Angelo and Lauren Schuker Blum on a film about Chippendale’s, which fell apart when Hulu’s Welcome to Chippendales was there first. “It seems to be the way in Hollywood that there are multiple attempts” for every true story, he says. The day after that project failed, Angelo and Blum sent Gillespie their project Stupid money script; he thought they were ‘doing a beautiful job’. Having already been burned once, everyone knew time was of the essence. “There was a certain momentum and we moved through the whole process very quickly,” says Gillespie. “It’s always a house of cards that can collapse at any moment.”
Maintain your lead A typical studio film might go through twelve weeks of pre-production. Stupid money had six. Much of that time was spent establishing the character of Keith Gill, the Redditor who sparked the stock market rally, who would be played by Paul Dano. “Once we got Paul, that set the tone of the movie,” Gillespie said. He looked at Dano’s performance in 2016 Swiss army man as a touchstone: “There was joy, enthusiasm and naivete in it, and it showed in Keith Gill’s posts.”

The real Gill has since retreated from the spotlight, so Gillespie and Dano spent weekends trying to unpack him as a character. “There’s a picture of him outside his house around the time he was summoned. What happened when he walked into the house? We were trying to figure out what the dynamic was, and then we called Rebecca and Lauren and said, ‘Okay, we need a scene like this” says Gillespie. “We kept adding scenes and rewriting them very quickly.”

Gillespie has built an unofficial repertoire of actors like Seth Rogen and Sebastian Stan, both of whom starred in Me, Tonya and quickly signed up for this project. And the script continued to evolve as other actors joined the cast: They couldn’t hire Broadway’s Anthony Ramos, who plays a GameStop employee, without having him dance at least once. They were even luckier with the casting than they realized: the film became America Ferrera’s sequel Barbieand the ensemble also includes two actors from OppenheimerDane DeHaan and Olivia Thirlby, they bring Stupid money exactly the same intensity as during the creation of the atomic bomb.

With only 31 days of shooting on the schedule, the production needed a base that could double for Massachusetts, Michigan and Colorado. They found it across the Hudson. Besides the fact that New Jersey could convincingly play large swaths of the country, was there anything else that made it stand out? “The tax benefit you get is very attractive,” Gillespie notes.
Don’t be afraid to improviseGillespie shot Stupid money with his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis. “We have a rhythm where we can move very quickly,” he says. “We are hyper-efficient in terms of setup time; the lighting is very simple. Once we get in, we can change and go really quickly.” Seth Rogen shot his part of the film in four days. “At the end I thought: I’m a little tired. I checked the camera report and we had done 84 setups the last day, and 93 setups on the penultimate day.”

That may sound like a rush job, but GIllespie says the simplicity of the setups kept everything loose. “We’re just trying to get as much time in front of the camera with the actors as possible,” he says. “It gives us a chance to try different things, and the actors can improvise too.” A scene involving Ramos’ character and his mother originally ended with an ominous line about day trading being considered a drug. “It hit a really heavy note,” Gillespie recalled, so he added a beat where Ramos snorted an imaginary line from his phone. “The way she reacted to that, and he reacted to her, you suddenly get the dynamic of a family and how they can tease each other. We always remained agile and looked for how we could push scenes a little.

Photo: Claire Folger/Columbia Pictures

No matter how great the metaphorical significance of the GameStop short squeeze was, you still couldn’t ignore it Stupid money There would be a lot of scenes of people staring at their phones. “It can get very boring very quickly,” says Gillespie. “To keep it interesting, you need hands on mice, cameras and moving feet – all these extra things to give it some momentum.”

Coverage was crucial. About half of the film was shot with two cameras simultaneously, keeping everything on schedule. The size of the cast further complicated matters. A pivotal dinner scene, in which Keith Gill and his brother (Pete Davidson) inform their working-class parents that Gill is now a millionaire, had to be shot within two hours because of Davidson’s behavior. Bupkis obligations. This could only be done by adding a third camera. “We really blocked it out,” Gillespie says. “The great thing about a scene like that is that it’s messy and everyone talks over each other. Pete can be very spontaneous; every recording is a different reaction, and everyone agrees with that.’ Filming the scene became “a beautiful dance,” Gillespie says. “I never felt rushed, even though we did it so quickly.”

After the film wrapped, Gillespie showed a lot, a lot of rough cuts for friends and family. The biggest comment was to cut back on the exhibit. “It started to feel like homework: what they’re trading, how options work, what the stock prices are,” he says. He realized that images already existed of telegenic people succinctly explaining everything to laypeople: he and editor Kirk Baxter could simply interrupt the actual news broadcasts. The same went for the memes. He didn’t have to figure out a way to dramatize thousands of Redditors and TikTokers taking up arms against Wall Street. He might have a team sift through the Internet’s ephemera until they find the perfect GIFs and TikToks, which appear as interstitial bits. “They sent us 60 memes, and we started cutting them together.” Memes were fair use, but each of the TikToks had to be approved by the individual creators. “There’s a whole world of legality out there. I was glad I wasn’t on that team,” Gillespie said.

Photo: Claire Folger/Columbia Pictures

Stupid money takes place in late 2020 and early 2021, which poses a unique dramaturgical hurdle: characters would have to spend a significant portion of their screen time wearing masks. “We had to come up with devices to simply see their faces,” Gillespie says. Food helped: they gave people drinks so they had to lower their masks to take a sip; they had set up a scene for America Ferrera’s nurse during her lunch break.

At other times they leaned into it. Ramos’ character works at a GameStop, so his mask became a shorthand for the power dynamic between him and his boss, who strictly enforces protocol. And in the scenes set in the hedge fund palaces of Florida, masks symbolize the divide between above and below. Seth Rogen’s hedge fund CEO never wears one, while his army of house staff is always masked. “Everything was calculated through that lens of wealth inequality,” Gillespie says.

You may recall that January 2021 saw another major news event. The film makes only passing mention of the Capitol riot, but in the editing room Gillespie found a way to touch on the emotional scars left over from the trauma of 2020, an inescapable part of the context of the time. “It was such an intense moment for people, they don’t need much to be reminded of what it was,” Gillespie says. Anchoring it is a speech from Dano about everything ordinary people have lost during the pandemic. “It’s a testament to Paul’s performance that he can take you to this emotional place while he’s sitting there in a cat shirt with a Santa hat on.”

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