By FF2 Senior Contributor Lesley Coffin
Interview: Amy Fox and Meera Menon, Writers-Directors of Equity
When actresses Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner founded Broad Street Pictures in 2015, their goal was to tell stories women are too often excluded from in film – like stories about Wall Street greed and competitiveness. In films such as Wall Street, Boiler Room, and The Wolf of Wall Street, women are usually on the outskirts, representing the male’s home life. This led Thomas and Reiner to their first feature production, Equity.
Along with producing and starring in the film (Reiner plays attorney Samantha Ryan and Thomas plays Erin Manning, the protege of Anna Gunn’s Naomi Bishop) they also have story credits alongside screenwriter Amy Fox. A playwright, novelist and screenwriter, this is Fox’s second film (her first being the Merchant Ivory production, Heights, based on her play) and second premiere at Sundance.
Fox collaborated with Meera Menon, the rising directorial star who won the Nora Ephron Prize at the Tribeca Film Festival for her feature debut, Farrah Goes Bang and recently received the 20th Century Fox Global Directors Fellowship. Both women share Thomas and Reiner’s passion for using film to expand the narratives open to women to increase equality in the workforce. Equity has been in limited theatrical run in select cities, but opens nationwide this Friday to celebrate Women’s Equality Day.
I spoke with Amy Fox and Meera Menon about their collaboration and research to understand women in the world of high finance.
Q: When did the two of you actually meet and start working together?
Fox: We were both brought on board by the producers, who had the concept in mind and brought me on board to write the script. And then months later they brought Mira on board, so we met through them and had a great time together.
Menon: I wasn’t aware of the timeline, when were you brought on board?
Fox: It was close to a year. You were brought on in March and I was hired in April or May of the previous year, but I didn’t start writing right away because I was researching and we didn’t have a draft until September.
Q: What was the pitch Sarah and Alysia originally brought to you?
Fox: They knew they wanted a woman’s perspective of Wall Street and as actors they had a solid idea of the characters they wanted to play. Alicia wanted to be a prosecutor and Erin wanted to be an up and coming banker. And they had basic ideas about their characters home lives. But the role of Naomi was really left very open and the specifics of the era of the financial world being explored, that it was an IPO and the idea of it being a mystery and scandal, was left pretty much up to me.
Q: During your research on Wall Street, what were the biggest realizations you made about the industry and how the industry treats women?
Fox: There is certainly still sexism, although the overt sexism that existed that we saw in movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, I’ve heard stories that things like that did exist and some of that still exists on the outskirts. But by-and-large, as the banks and companies have gotten bigger and HR compliance has become more important for these companies, that overt sexism has dropped off. But to me that made our plot more interesting to write. To see a man gyrating on his female colleague, everyone would know that was wrong. We’d all agree about that. It’s much more interesting to look at unconscious bias and subtle interplay of gender dynamics in the workforce. Andreally ask the questions we don’t have answers to like, ‘Why aren’t these women getting promoted and why do the number thin out over time?’ Those are far more interesting issues to explore and far more interesting for me to write. For example, when Naomi’s boss is explaining why she won’t get the promotion, he uses very coded phrases that are used in the workforce. And during a Sundance Q&A, one of the women in the audience said she had lived the scene with her boss and heard those exact words and phrases. When they are used, we recognize them as words used to describe powerful women, usually not in a good way…rubs people the wrong way, ruffles feathers, the perception is: We hear them about women all the time, but they aren’t words you can point to as sexist by nature.
Menon: When I was in film school, I remember reading an article about Zoe Cruz, who became the first CEO of a major bank at Morgan Stanley. But she was fired during the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, and the article was really exploring how or if sexism played into that firing at the time. But the article was kind of explosive at the time because a lot of people thought the article was just looking for controversy and she might have just taken the fall the way many presidents had to when the banks were in crisis. But when you read about her history, there were incident after incident of people “perceiving” and “labeling” her as a bitch, because she was very tough. And she was being held liable for things her male counterparts never had to be held accountable for.
Fox: And we’re seeing the same thing right now: is the rampant dislike of Hillary because she’s a woman? Some people claim it is, some people claim it isn’t. But we do hear coded language in the media that is just hard to pin down, but you do know it when you hear it.
Q: And we of course see it in Hollywood as well, the firings at Sony and treatment of female directors. And because you can’t point to clear, unquestionable examples of sexism because you can’t read someone else’s mind, you also struggle to fix the problems.
Menon: Right, the issues just keep coming up, particularly in very competitive industries. Wall Street, Hollywood, politics…they are all competitive, cut-throat environments where one wrong move could put you on the cutting room floor. And it becomes a complicated task to disentangle what is that nature of that industry and what is sexism.
Fox: Which is why keeping an eye on the statistics is so key. When looking at any individual you can rarely prove they were the victim of sexism. But when you look at the statistics and see that only 7% of films are directed by women, you know there’s a pattern going on that needs to be fixed.
Q: What were some of the present day issues related to privacy and the dot.com world that you wanted to address by making the IPO they’re taking public an internet security company?
Fox: The idea of that company was, IPOs are one way Wall Street faces the public in a theatrical way. There are comparisons made to this fictional company to things like Facebook and Twitter, which most audiences understand and have general awareness of. If you have an App on your phone and hear that it went public, you will have a certain understanding of what that says about that company. I was researching different products and innovations in the dot.com area, but privacy popped out primarily because of how it related to the story of these three women.
Q: Farrah was primarily filmed in the daylight and in external, rural locations, and this film demanded you film in a lot of office interiors and being the tech world, everything had to feel very modern and trendy. What choices did you make regarding the look and feeling of the film?
Menon: We certainly looked at some other corporate thrillers, like The Social Network and Michael Clayton and House of Cards. David Fincher was probably my biggest influence, and I think his scores also influenced the incredible score we ended up with, from the same composers that did Farrah Goes Bang. Those were the reference points we had for a movie like this, to get an idea of how to use the interior spaces and lighting to design the mood and psychology of the the characters. Naomi read on the page, and Anna played her, as someone who kept her cards very close, so we tried to use that to our advantage, and make the audience feel like the characters were withholding information, creating tension. But also, a lot depended on the locations were able to get. We just got so many incredible locations to shoot at in Philadelphia, for free.
Q: One of the interesting things about the film is, you have two female producers who have been very upfront about wanting to have as many women working behind the scenes as possible. So the film was made with a very strong idea of inclusiveness and sisterhood. But the films about women being kind of horrible to each other and the ugly idea there’s not enough room at the top for more than one powerful women. Who came up with that idea?
Fox: For me, there’s always the ideal version of feminism, which is women supporting each other and having each others backs. But then there’s the real world we live in and fact that there are a lot of examples of women not living that ideal. But that comes out particularly in environments which feed off of that competitiveness we talked about. If everyone’s not going to make it or last for very long, and if women have an even harder time getting to the top and staying there, it’s understandable that they would see another woman as a threat. That environment’s not going to bring out the best in people, and it would have been false to suggest otherwise. Not to say there aren’t a lot of women in business who support each other, but by in large, that wasn’t the truth I heard about doing my research. And I think it’s important to show the truth if you want to make changes in the real world.
Menon: Did Naomi and Erin’s relationship always go in the direction it does?
Fox: Yeah, there were twists and turns I added, but I always knew Erin would do what she did.
Q: Did Sarah want to play a character who goes down such a dark path?
Fox: Actually, it was more important to her that we look at all the factors that led her to make that choice. Not to make that dark turn something intrinsic to the character.
Menon: There were actually a lot more markers in the script than we ended up cutting. The pregnancy was more of a ticking clock that made her feel like she only had a certain amount of time to get the promotion she wanted. But that ended up on the cutting room floor because we thought it would be more interesting not knowing how motherhood would affect her ambition, although we see it begin to color it.
Q: And we aren’t even sure how she feels about being pregnant, and the audience occasionally forgets that she’s even pregnant.
Fox: There was a scene, no longer in the movie, where she goes to see a woman about work-life balance, who basically says, “You need to get this promotion now.”
Menon: But we didn’t have the real-estate to film that scene, so we just had a scene of her looking on her blackberry at that Anne-Marie Slaughter article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” and realized it said the same thing, but did it in a subtler way. And there’s the scene of Naomi saying she knows she’s pregnant, and their exchange and look says it all. You know this is a workplace with conflicted ideas about women with children.
© Lesley Coffin FF2 Media (8/22/16)
Top Photo: Director Meera Menon
Middle and Bottom Photos: Alysia Reiner and Anna Gunn in Equity