In directing Money Monster, Jodie Foster faced a new challenge.
In the real-time, high stakes thriller Money Monster, George Clooney and Julia Roberts star as financial TV host Lee Gates and his producer Patty, who are put in an extreme situation when an irate investor who has lost everything (Jack O’Connell) forcefully takes over their studio.
“I love this movie because it has two things that sometimes people think are opposites,” says Jodie Foster, who directs the thriller from a screenplay by Jamie Linden and Alan DiFiore & Jim Kouf with a story by Alan DiFiore & Jim Kouf.
“One is that it’s a mainstream thriller that’s exciting, fast-paced, smart, and yet, still has a real accessibility. The flip side, which is the most important reason to go to the movies, is that you’re moved by a real story. It’s incredibly relevant.”
“To me, the most exciting part of the story, in addition to the cops, helicopters, guns, bombs, and fast-paced excitement,” Foster continues, “is how this man, Lee Gates, played by George Clooney, starts off one way – a shallow, smug, empty guy, who’s successful at his work but a failure in everyone’s eyes, including his own – but has a terrible moment that forces him, with Julia’s help, to rise to the occasion, find his humanity, grow up, evolve, and change.”
“The world of money has gotten out of control. When things go wrong, you don’t actually understand what it is that went wrong – and the regular guy gets screwed,” says George Clooney, who stars as the host of a financial news program who comes face-to-face with one of those regular guys who’s determined to hold someone accountable, by any means necessary.
“Jodie never lets up on the pressure cooker,” says producer Daniel Dubiecki, who produces the film with his partner, Lara Alameddine, and with Clooney and his partner, Grant Heslov. “This whole film takes place in real time as this event is broadcast on live television – it’s very tense.”
Clooney stars as Lee Gates, a celebrated stock picker and famed host of the titular financial television show, who darts and dances around his set, shouting investment advice and punctuating market talk with silly props and sound effects. “‘Money Monster,’ the show, is pretty ridiculous,” says Foster. “It’s a financial news show, but there’s lots of props, old movie clips, bells, whistles, and whoopee cushions that Lee Gates has come up with in order to explain the financial market. He sings and dances with beautiful girls, wears different hats – all so he can dispense stock trading tips – but it has left him with a buried sense of self-loathing. The film presents him with an impossibly unexpected chance at redemption.”
Re-teaming with George Clooney is Julia Roberts, who plays Patty Fenn, the unflappable, steadfast and longtime producer of “Money Monster.” “Patty Fenn is the uber-producer. She can multi-task like nobody’s business – she is amazing,” says Foster. “She controls the strings of this show and speaks in Lee Gates’ ear to tell him what his next move is. Lee Gates can be lazy. He doesn’t learn his lines. He says whatever the heck he wants to say, and she’s there to make sure that the show runs smoothly. She knows how to handle this loose cannon.”
Clooney adds that all of that showmanship is hiding a deep-seated contempt for the show’s own audience. “There’s a cynicism that reeks through these shows,” says Clooney. “You watch these guys behind their desks, telling you where to put your money – and when you do and you lose it, they go, ‘Well, that’s what happens.’”
However, Clooney notes, “The film deals much more with the three characters and what they’re going through – particularly the man that Jack O’Connell is playing.”
When one of Gates’ heavily hyped stock predictions, Ibis Clear Capital, mysteriously plummets, his blatant complacency is placed front and center for the world to see as Kyle Budwell (O’Connell), a distraught investor, hijacks a live “Money Monster” broadcast to hold Gates’ and Fenn’s feet to the fire.
In taking over Gates’ show, he sets in motion a crisis that unfolds in real time, on live television. “That was fun for us,” says producer Grant Heslov. “We’ve become almost numb to the stuff we see on TV and the internet, and by having this take place on live TV was a fun way to comment on that.”
Gates begins to talk to Kyle – at first, to simply try to prolong his own life, aided by Patty, who remains a calming presence in the control room. “Kyle doesn’t know that Lee is talking to Patty through his earpiece the whole time,” explains Heslov. “From a dramatic standpoint, it’s a great device, and I think it was fun for George and Julia to play as actors.”
Later, as Gates and Patty try to work out what’s happened, they become genuinely moved by Kyle’s pain; they rediscover some journalistic drive and bust open a Wall Street conspiracy that goes well beyond these three people.
“What was really refreshing was to do a story that was set in Wall Street, but wasn’t about all of that,” says Alameddine. “It was about three people coming together from opposite sides of the coin. This bombastic, superficial personality, by the end, finds a true connection to somebody that he never thought he would.”
To inhabit the character of Lee Gates, Clooney created the irreverent, madcap and larger-than-life reality television show personality. “Lee Gates is a bit of a showman,” says Foster. “It was George’s idea that Lee Gates should open the ‘Money Monster’ show with a dance. When he first came to rehearsals, he said, ‘I’m just going to need a half an hour to figure out the dance thing.’ And I replied, ‘I think you’re going to need a little bit more.’ So, we had the choreographer there and he got into it.”
Heslov says that sometimes being a producer is hard work. And then there are times that your producing partner shows up to dance. “It’s just fun to watch, you know?” he says. “It was one of those times that you get to sit back and relax and watch a performance. To watch him do that ridiculous dance for a couple of days – especially for me, because I’ve known him so long, and my kids were there, too – we really enjoyed that.”
“George really got into making a complete and total ass out of himself,” continues Foster. “I do love that about him. There’s something about the absurdity of seeing this middle-aged white guy walk on and do this like crazy hip-hop dance…You can’t help but laugh, and think his character is a buffoon.”
The idea that the entire crisis unfolds on live television was another intriguing aspect for Clooney. “I grew up in live TV – every day of my life for my first 16 years was live TV, because my father had a live variety show and did the news live,” says Clooney. “Later, I sort of forced NBC to do a live episode of ‘ER,’ and I did ‘Fail Safe’ as a live production. This was before other shows started to do really risky television; I thought the only thing that TV could do that films couldn’t was live. It’s flying without a net; that’s exciting.”
“I had worked with George on Up in the Air, and there’s a similar aspect to his character in that movie and this one,” says Dubiecki. “Both characters could have been unlikeable, one because he’s flying around the world firing people, the other because he’s become so cynical about the stocks he’s hawking on his show. But the incredible thing about George as an actor is the brilliant way he embodies these characters and makes them likeable. As the character changes, he takes the audience with him.”
Roberts re-teams with George Clooney as Gates’ producer/director, Patty Fenn. Roberts describes Fenn’s relationship with Gates as one of love/hate. “He’s her wild card, and she is just trying to keep the chaos controlled. She never knows what he’s going to do,” explains Roberts. “There are aspects of their relationship where they’re a good working team, and then parts of it where, she’s just gotten fed up, and would prefer to work in a place that makes one hundred percent sense to her. At the same time, she finds an enormous amount of joy because they’re opposites, and whenever you find your polar opposite, it’s intriguing.”
The real-life friendship between Roberts and Clooney contributed to the on-screen chemistry between Fenn and Gates. “George Clooney and Julia Roberts know each other, and care for one another, and have this instant, interesting chemistry that I didn’t have to do anything for. It just exists,” explains Foster. “The two of them felt incredibly close to each other. They have this intensity, this connection and this communication that’s from this organic intimacy between friends.”
“George and I are good friends, and we understand each other really well,” adds Roberts. “We’ve found the perfect balance of me being here to support him, and to create our scenes together, and to understand the vibe and the pace, and how we want to create these people together.”
Roberts was intrigued by the real-time, ticking-clock nature of the scenario. “Certainly, any time, as an actor, you have a ticking clock, that is a great advantage to know that there isn’t any time to waste,” she says. “It’s about problem-solving and being clever because nobody saw this situation coming.”
In most major films, a director is shooting with one camera (or some other small number), all shooting in the same format. In directing Money Monster, Foster faced a new challenge. “The ‘Money Monster’ show, itself, is shot by four different broadcast cameras, plus we, as filmmakers, had to film as well.”
Simple enough – except that film cameras and broadcast cameras are incompatible. While capturing the “broadcast,” the film cameras had to be out of the way. The solution came with careful planning.
“The broadcast takes place in real time and in multiple locations. If somebody is talking on the monitor, the person he is talking with has to answer him in exactly the same rhythm,” continues Foster. “
In using different cameras, Foster could create two distinctive emotional aesthetics. “The film camera gives a dark, moody emotion that you can’t get any other way, and the broadcast camera gives you a bright, cheery perspective,” explains Foster. “When we go back and forth between the two cameras, there’s a tension and energy that comes from the audience having to constantly shift between what’s real and what’s fake.”
“The entire stage of ‘Money Monster’ was shot completely in order, and that’s almost the full length of the movie,” says Foster. “These two characters start out on day one of filming, meet each other for the first time, and as each subsequent scene unfolds, they change and their relationship grows.”
Of course, there were challenges. “One of the more difficult elements of making this movie was this fifteen-by-eight-foot control room,” continues Foster. “It was very difficult for our camera to get in there.”
“We had a professional technical director teach Julia how to be a real producer,” adds Foster. “She’s quite proud of the fact that he thinks that she did a great job, and it really looks like she knows what she’s doing.”