When Nicholas Jarecki was just 15 he was already a computer hacker with several computer businesses. At 16 he was hired as a technical advisor on the 1995 movie Hackers, one the earliest films to deal heavily with digital technology. On the set of the film, he spent time with the film’s stars, including Angelina Jolie, and the creative team, making sure that all the actual hacking was as real as possible. But on the set, he took an unexpected turn, recalls Jarecki: “I kept noticing that there was this guy that Angelina seemed to really look up to and respect, so I asked ‘Who’s that?’ and they told me he was the director. Then I knew it was clear what I wanted to do.”
Now 33, Jarecki has achieved his teenage dream, writing and directing his first feature film, Arbitrage, a financial thriller, which opens in theaters on Friday. The film stars Richard Gere as an uber hedge fund manager whose life is thrown into physical and psychological turmoil as he commits two different crimes–one personal and one related to his business. His family, including his daughter played by Britt Marling who works at the hedge fund, and his wife, played by Susan Sarandon, each are affected by his personal and business indiscretions, forcing him to make choices no wealthy man wants to make. Early Oscar buzz has been building for the film since its Sundance premiere, especially for its leading man, Richard Gere.
But to get to direct an Oscar-buzz feature at only 33, Jarecki had to hack his way there. First, he tried film school, gaining admission to NYU’s vaunted film program and graduating at 19, ready to go make movies. But he couldn’t get any work. When Jarecki explained his frustration to his mother, she asked him what he would most like to do if he could do anything he wanted. His response: “Get 20 directors that I like in a room and I wouldn’t let them leave until they told me how each of them made their first movie. She said it sounded like a great idea for a book.” Indeed, over the next few years, Jarecki would go on to interview leading directors–many of them his personal heroes–and publish a book in 2001 called Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start, featuring interviews with directors ranging from Ed Zwick to Barry Sonnenfeld, John Schlesinger, and Peter Farrelly. Jarecki says that each of them “told me that making films is not for the faint of heart, you have to feel that this is so important that you must achieve it or die. If you could do anything else than do it.”
One of the filmmakers Jarecki interviewed for his book was James Toback. A few years later, after Jarecki heard Toback planned to make a movie with no script in 12 days in New York, Jarecki immediately decided he wanted to make a documentary about how Toback would pull off such a feat. Jarecki’s film about Toback’s experiences was titled The Outsider, and it debuted on Showtime in 2007 to critical acclaim. (Some critics think much more highly of Jarecki’s documentary than Toback’s underlying film.)
After producing several other documentaries, Jarecki started thinking about the advice he had been so privileged to receive from all the filmmakers he had known. He sat down and wrote a script, which he sold quickly. But as is common in film, the project was eventually taken away from him. As a result, Jarecki went back to the drawing board. Around this time, Lehman Brothers was collapsing and Jarecki was reading a lot about the financial crisis. Soon he had developed a script for a financial crisis-related story, and was determined not just to write the script but to direct as well. This is the project that would become Arbitrage.
In developing Arbitrage, Jarecki drew on his parents’ experiences as traders. He also spent time with bankers on Wall Street and down at the New York Stock Exchange. The film captures New York high society at its pinnacle. It includes cameos from Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter–whose magazine series, “The Great Hangover,” about the financial crisis, helped inspire the film, and Julian Niccolini, the real-life maitre d’ of the New York power restaurant, the Four Seasons, who plays himself. “In order for the story to be real, all the places had to be real,” Jarecki says. Perhaps it’s his documentary side shining through. Indeed, at times the film feels like a story told by an investigative reporter, someone who although unseen, is trying to find out the truth.
Some are likely to cite the Wall Street films as an easy antecedent for Arbitrage (Susan Sarandon even plays a role in Arbitrage not dissimilar from her character in 2010’s Wall Street 2). But Arbitrage is less a ripped-from-the-headlines response to our most recent economic crisis than a return to the eternal and classical themes of King Lear and Greek tragedy. Jarecki is eager to cite the influences of Coppola—recalling his wonder at seeing The Godfather for the first time–and Aristotle in the same thought. “Aristotle wrote the Poetics 2,400 years ago. It’s really an instruction manual for aspiring filmmakers. It’s as valid today as it was then. He describes the classic example of a good man who is filled with hubris and he makes a tragic error. We like brother kills brothers, if it’s two strangers, who cares? That’s why writers write about famous families. The stakes are all so much higher.”
The Godfather and other classic films from the 1970s like Dog Day Afternoon and Chinatown have always inspired Jarecki. Those films showed the gritty and real nature of the halls of power and family relations to many audiences for the first time. Jarecki seems determined to bring those kind of stories back, beginning with Arbitrage. This film will just be the first of many stories we’ll see from this filmmaker. He is already planning his next film, which he hopes to shoot next year. Set in L.A., it centers around domestic surveillance and electric cars. Jarecki describes it as a “Chandler-esque noir.”