No Compromises, No Gimmicks: Nicholas Jarecki on Arbitrage

Writing a sympathetic corporate shyster, making a film from the ground up and his upcoming thriller about the electric car.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Nicholas Jarecki put theory into practice when he directed Arbitrage. In his book Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start, he profiled how filmmakers get their first movie. Since then he made a short and a documentary, but Arbitrage is the first narrative film he wrote and directed. It stars Richard Gere as Robert Miller, a financial CEO struggling to keep all his deals straight. We spoke with Jarecki by phone about the film and his career.


CraveOnline: What fascinated me about Arbitrage was, I feel like I see this a lot in real life, these people in these kinds of jobs think something goes wrong so they’ll move this around to fix it, but then that doesn’t go as planned so they move something else around to fix that. They never see that it never ends, they’re always chasing and fixing something. What were your thoughts and take on that?

Nicholas Jarecki: I would say that what you said is true, but I don’t feel limited to those in the financial business. It sounds like an emotion and a set of actions that I’m very familiar with in my own behavior.


Oh yeah, it’s not just at work.

[Laughs] I think what we were trying to do, apart from making an entertaining film, was to create a way for the audience to identify with the actions of Robert Miller, Richard Gere’s character, and to understand why they’re done and to feel what it’s like to do them. I think that these mistakes are universal. It’s really just human folly. Well, if I do this, then that could work out. Well, I can’t tell my wife that. Well, nobody’s really going to miss it on my report if I just… So it’s easy to get carried away. Having now lived through three financial crashes in my short 33 years, ’87, tech in 2000 and the house nightmare in ’08, I just really feel now that this is part of our DNA. Why do today what you could put off until tomorrow? There’s something nice about that in the sense that we reach for the stars and we hope for the best and that’s a lot of what gets our amazing stuff done, but when common sense takes a backseat to greed, we really get ourselves in bad trouble.


It’s true, he does it in his personal life too, covering things up for his wife and daughter.

I wasn’t trying to do a Madoff character at all. I read this thing Madoff said in jail where he said, “F*** my victims. I carried them for 25 years. Now I’m doing 125.” So that seemed to me sociopathic and thus dramatically limited. There wasn’t too far to go with that character. By making Robert Miller, and Gere’s performance does this so well in my opinion, more of a good man, a kind of goodly king who unfortunately read one too many of his own press releases, he gets carried away with his sense of invincibility and infallibility. So he starts to take liberties. People say, “Why is the film called Arbitrage? What does that have to do with anything?” Well, I feel like he’s the emotional arbitrageur. He’s got all these people in his life that love him, that care about him and he kind of buys them off cheap and gets a lot of value from them. He exploits them in pursuit of himself. I just know that that’s something I have done, I do, I will continue to do and it’s something that I don’t love about myself and I wish I could improve. Sometimes they say that creators make something to explore an imbalance in themselves and I feel like that’s what I do here.


I have a little pun I hope you like. Since he never got his internal injuries treated, did Robert Miller need some Arbi-triage?

I do like that. Well, it’s not clear. Believe it or not in the original draft, there was a scene where he goes to see a doctor and he patches him up. It was sort of a scene I stole out of Heat like when De Niro goes to see Jeremy Piven. I ended up not filming it just because I thought it raised too many questions. Now the doctor, are the police going to get to him? I just figured he took care of it or it wasn’t as serious as was first thought, or he had a private doctor on the sly. I felt we just had to keep going so I don't think he had some special Thor-like regenerative power. I think it just wasn’t that bad.


Brit Marling is my favorite actress now and I discovered her films at Sundance. What led you to her?

Precisely that. That was a very difficult role to cast. I knew what I felt I needed which was someone of great intelligence and grace, and also it was important to me that the character be very beautiful because I felt that I wanted Robert’s daughter to have chosen to follow him into this lifestyle. Sort of the more beautiful she was, the more, obviously since our society is so shallow and which I participate in, the more other opportunities she would have had to do other things, to become a model or a leader in some sense. We promote good looking people typically. So I felt that she chose to come with her father despite endless doors open to her would make it all the more painful when he put her in peril.

So Brit really possessed those qualities and I met her on Skype. I had heard about her film, Another Earth, up at Sundance. I got to see a little piece of it and I was immensely impressed. Then I talked with her on Skype and right away she told me that she had been an economics major at Georgetown. I recently just found out that she was actually valedictorian which is so completely insane because that’s impossible to achieve. Then after Georgetown, she had gone to work as an investment analyst at Goldman Sachs. One day she walked into her boss’s office and said, “I quit to decide to become a movie actor.” They said, “You need therapy.” But she said, “No, I think I’m good” and then she went to Hollywood and was only offered roles in slasher films so she wrote her own movie, or two of her own movies with her friends, raised a few hundred thousand dollars to make them, produce them and starred in them. To me, that was the kind of incredible strength, perseverance and fire that I had always hoped Robert Miller’s daughter would have in the movie.

So I just said, “You were born to play this part.” Sure enough she took the initiative. I said, “Can we meet?” And she said when, and I said, “How about tonight?” She was in Los Angeles, I was in New York with Richard. Sure enough she flew out that night and met Richard and I for rehearsal the next morning in my apartment. We sat there for 10 minutes and after 10 minutes it was evident that she was perfect. We all looked at each other and said, “Well, shall we do this?” And she said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” All right. And we kept going.


How was your experience at Sundance with Arbitrage?

Dream come true. I’ve been going to the Sundance festival pretty much every year for the last 6-7 years and I love it. It’s really this terrific place for the free flow of ideas, to see interesting cinema. People work with not a ton of money but with passion and great ideas. So that they invited us there was an honor and it was enormously helpful to us because Trevor Groth who’s the head of the festival, they put us right in the first Saturday in a theater with 1200 seats and I’d never really shown this film to anyone. I’d been showing it to friends in little test screenings and boom, here we were. But they gave us that platform which allowed us to meet Lionsgate and Roadside who are distributing the film. They saw the reaction there of the audience which was enormous. We did Q&A, 1200 people stayed and were saying it was an enjoyable public service. We were just blown away by the reception, the enthusiasm of the people up there and I think the distributors saw that and decided to take a chance releasing this film nationwide.

We had no idea what to think. I didn’t know if they were going to throw tomatoes. There was a whole debate about well, is Sundance the right place? Are they going to resent that it’s about the wealthy? All this stuff. Finally, my executive producer Brian Young said, “You know, I’ve been to Sundance 10 years in a row. When I go and the lights go down, I’m not thinking about political themes. I’m hoping I see a good film and I believe it’s such a film.” So when the lights went down, they had the reaction that they did enjoy it and I was immensely relieved. Then I remember we went and had a little dinner afterwards, Richard and me, and a bunch of the guys from the movie. A piece came out right away: “Gere Scores in Arbitrage, First Oscar Contender.” Our jaws hit the floor and we went, “Man, I guess we touched a nerve. It’s so wonderful that people are connecting with this.”


How long was your process of writing the script and developing the movie?

Well, I wrote the script over a period of about nine months, which I’m doing a new one now so that seems to be about the same speed. Putting it together was quite difficult, but comparatively we did it really fast. From the day I finished the first draft of the screenplay to the day I first called action was precisely one year. The average for an independent film is six years so I consider us blessed from the gods. Somebody else looking at the situation might note that I was a defendant and plaintiff in three federal lawsuits during the making of the movie that almost derailed it. We had the financing collapse three times. We overcame incredible odds. I think what we’ve achieved is remarkable and it was harrowing to get it done, but I just had a wonderful team of producers and investors ultimately who believed in the project and enabled us to take a chance because I was really an unknown commodity. I had made a documentary film, I’d written some other stuff but nobody really knew whether I’d make a good movie or not. I had the sense that I would but we needed to go find out. To do that required quite a bit of money so they took a big gamble on me, Richard especially. You’re talking about someone with a 40 year legacy of some of the best films ever essentially taking a shot on some schmuck. But I still have the blackmail Polaroids that I used to get him.


What lawsuits were you involved with?

Oh, it’s a long story. I’m not permitted to talk about it. You’ll have to Google it. At the end of the day, it all came together in the perfect way. By the time we got to the set after what we went through to get there, Kevin Turen, one of my producers, turned to me and said, “Okay, now no compromises, no gimmicks.” That was really how we did it from that point forward.


What is the subject of your next film?

It’s a detective story set in Los Angeles but it’s about corruption within the electric vehicle industry.


Is that based on real cases?

It’s inspired by a lot of stuff that’s going on now. It’s got a bit of a broader scope so I’m trying to take some of the themes from Arbitrage and make them a bit more of an action film that has a bigger scope and a more global idea.


Who is your main character in that?

A young guy, a detective but there’s a wealthy older man as well, so you never know.


What did it take for you to work your way through documentaries and shorts to get to your first feature?

I’d say it took a fair degree of insanity because I once heard that defined as repeating the same action and expecting a different result. So the reality of film is that it’s a very small industry and there’s only a few hundred real films that get made every year of a certain level of budget and things, that get a certain distribution. It’s a very tiny community and when I graduated from film school, it became evident to me that the store was closed. I kept thinking I’d send out my tape with my old portfolio and they’d go, “Okay, kid, here you go. You can get started.” In fact, it wasn’t that they said no. It was that they never called me back.

So it was extremely difficult and I spent 15 years, it’s an old joke, 15 years to become an overnight success. The more I’m in it, the more I realize how true it is. You see these actors pop up and you’re like, “Oh, Tom Hardy, he’s new.” Tom Hardy played the villain in Star Trek: Nemesis 10 years ago. But most people forget. It requires enormous determination and dedication. I remember I went to see one of these directors in my book, John Schlesinger right before he died. It was one of the last interviews and he said, “You have to get out there. You have to let them see the whites of your eye. It’s not enough to write something, send it around. You’ve got to be in the field and say I have to make this movie, literally over my dead body. The only way it’s not going to happen is if I die.” I think it requires that type of dedication and perseverance to break through because what you’re talking about really is making something from nothing. It’s just a dream. As Ari Gold says in “Entourage” so eloquently, “words on chopped up trees.” So how do you bring that to life? By any means necessary. You have to get very lucky and also have the support of a wonderful crew and I had that with Richard, the rest of the cast and the producers.


When you got to the set of your first narrative feature, were you able to use any of the advice you got from interviewing other filmmakers?

I would say their advice was enormously useful. I worked with some wonderful people across the way. I was a big person who sought out mentors. I had Larry Karaszewski who wrote The People Vs. Larry Flynt. I had Nicky St. John [who wrote] The King of New York. I had some guys reading my screenplay for free and just giving me notes. Wonderful directors I met along the way, acting teachers. I was a huge student of film and I feel that from sitting and watching 1000s of movies, studying hundreds, getting onto sets however I could to see how it worked, all of that was enormously helpful in giving me insight into some of the tools required to do good work. Now from there, David Mamet says, “Writing is like sex. We all have a different way we do it.” So I think there’s a truth to that. You have to find your style but I think it helps to come prepared to the party.