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Curtis Hanson: ‘Tell Geithner to F—ing Blow Me’ and Other ‘Too Big’ Changes

“L.A. Confidential” director faced daunting task: turn financial conversations between men in suits into a thriller

If last year's Oscar-winning film "Inside Job" was the financial crisis of 2008 turned into a sobering documentary, Curtis Hanson's HBO movie "Too Big to Fail" is the financial crisis as thriller. Although it's largely made up of conversations between bankers and Treasury officials, the movie from the "L.A. Confidential" and "8 Mile" director does a tense and gripping job of laying out the story of financial ruin, with William Hurt starring as Treasury Secretary William Paulson and Paul Giamatti as Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

The film is full of lines that would work as terrific black comedy if it weren't for the fact that, as Hanson says, "they're all tragically true." The veteran director, who had never before made a movie for HBO, talked to TheWrap about his fiilm, which premieres Monday night on the cable network. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Curtis HansonHow did you get involved with the project?
HBO had the book, and they sent me the script they'd developed with Peter Gould. I know very, very little about Wall Street, but I knew the financial crisis, naturally. And I love going into worlds that are new and different for me, learning what I can about them and trying to give that back while telling the story. So I found it really intriguing. I met with them, I told them why I found it intriguing, and they said, "Let's do it."

Why do you think this was a good match for you?
As was pointed out to me by a critic not too long ago, all of my movies tend to be about people trying to find the better version of themselves. And what I found so intriguing about the story was Henry Paulson, this guy who had been incredibly successful as a Walll Street king running Goldman Sachs, and now he finds himself as Treasury Secretary with this huge nightmare. This situation that is spinning out of control, and the only way to deal with it that he can think of is to do something that philosophically he's been against his whole life, which is government intervention.

I just found that whole dilemma so interesting – that, and also the guilt that he had as being one of the guys who brought it on.

There's a moment in the film where you almost see him acknowledge his complicity in the policies that led to the crisis.
Yeah, with his wife. I don’t know if he had that kind of self-awareness, or admitted it to anyone else, but we thought it was an important moment for his character. You need to humanize these people for the audience.

You do have a movie full of characters who are not going to get much sympathy from the viewers. We think of all of these guys as the villains in the story.
Exactly. My concern about the project was, would anybody care about a bunch of guys in suits talking? But in the work on the script, and then making the movie, we tried to make it as dramatic as possible, to show how everything was spiraling out of control.

I can't picture even an independent theatrical company wanting to make a movie like this. If HBO didn’t make it …
Nobody would. That's sad but true.

William HurtWere there limitations to doing it on a TV budget and schedule?
It was very challenging. Because when I said, "I'm in," they said, "We start shooting in five weeks." HBO has a schedule, and they want to get it done for Emmy consideration. So we had a very short prep time, four weeks to cast all the parts, find all the locations, get the costumes, do all the things that you do. But because we had William as our anchor in place, people tended to say yes. We more or less got everybody we went after.

The roles of the main bank CEOs aren’t big parts, but they're critical ones. And you got people like Bill Pullman, Tony Shalhoub and Matthew Modine for those relatively small roles.
It was crucial to have really good actors. And the advantage of actors who are recognizable is that when there's not much screen time, they invest their characters with other things, because we know them. And they were all excited and happy to be working with each other.

I've heard that William Hurt can be a little idiosyncratic in his approach. Was he?
Yeah.

In what way?
(pause) Well, he likes, as do I, a long rehearsal period. Which we didn’t have. And that made him unhappy. But we made it work.

His character, and most of the other characters, are people who were in the public eye to some degree, though most of the audience probably doesn't really know what they look or sound like.
Well, I didn’t want the actors to try and do impersonations, but in the makeup and hair and costuming, we tried to make it very similar to the real people. And some of the actors met the actual people. A group of us had lunch with Paulson, and then William and I spent a couple of hours talking with him, asking questions. And then he invited William to go down to his island for a weekend fishing, which he did. That was very valuable, because William came back really feeling that he understood the man.

There was a certain way that Paulson held his hands together when he was talking, and William started doing that. And he also moved differently. Paulson had been a football player, and old injuries made him a little stiff in certain ways, which William incorporated into the character. And also, he's a very big guy, so we padded the shoulders on William's suits.

Did the other actors meet the people they were playing?
I gave them all DVDs, but I don't think most of them met the people. Some did, and they got interesting insights. Paul met Bernanke. I said, "How did you like him?" He said, "I like him, he's a good guy. He's very deliberate, and he speaks very slowly. Which Paul did.

Tony [Shalhoub] met John Mack and told him about a scene in the script where he's in his office and they say, "[Federal Reserve president Timothy] Geithner's on the phone," and Mack says, "Tell Geithner he can go f*** himself." Tony wanted to know if it really happened, and Mack said, "That wasn't what I said. I said, 'Tell Geithner he can f***ing blow me. I'm trying to save my company.'"

Did you change the script?
Yeah, we did. 

Where there instances where you knew that what was in the movie wasn’t what happened, but dramatically it worked better?
I think there were probably a lot of those instances. You're making a movie. It’s never exactly like it was.

When you've only got an hour and a half to deal with such a complex situation, how to you make it understandable to the audience?
One way is to have a character  not understand it. We have a scene where the Cynthia Nixon character doesn't understand the idea of toxic assets, so we had a couple of other characters explain them to her. We made her the stand in for the audience. You can do things like that to make it a little clearer.

And you also just have to make people feel for these characters. The James Woods character (Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld), that was one case where you don't really like him when you see him. But you end up really feeling for him, because he's the guy where the government lets his company go under.

So what do you think: Can a company be too big to fail?
Yes. A company can be so big, like these companies were, where it would have too big an effect on the economy if they go down. They are too big to fail.