Director's Chair: Craig Gillespie — <I>Dumb Money</I>
Issue: July/August 2023

Director's Chair: Craig Gillespie — Dumb Money

Director Craig Gillespie is well-known for his irreverent, sharp and offbeat comedy sensibility, on display in such films as the Oscar-winning I, Tonya, Lars and the Real Girl and Cruella. His latest film, Dumb Money, is another offbeat dramedy and based on the insane true story of the infamous GameStop short squeeze. 

It tells the story of the everyday, small-time investors who flipped the script on the hedge fund CEOs and the super-rich – with aftershocks that reverberated around the world. It stars Paul Dano as the hero, and regular guy Keith Gill, who sinks his life savings into a single stock: GameStop, the mall videogame retailer, which he’s convinced is undervalued. If he’s wrong, he’ll lose everything. But if he’s right, and if he can convince other ordinary Joes to join the movement, then they’ll rocket GameStop to the moon – leaving billionaires holding the bag. 

The ultimate wish fulfillment story, Dumb Money also stars a large ensemble cast that includes Seth Rogen, Pete Davidson, Vincent D’Onofrio, America Ferrera, Nick Offerman, Anthony Ramos, Sebastian Stan, Shailene Woodley, Dane DeHaan, Myha’la Herrold, and Talia Ryder. 

Directed by Gillespie from a screenplay by Lauren Blum and Rebecca Angelo, and based on the book “The Anti-Social Network” by Ben Mezrich, the film reunites the director with his I, Tonya and Cruella DP Nicolas Karakatsanis. The editor was Kirk Baxter (The Social Network, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Gone Girl).

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Gillespie (pictured, on-set), whose credits include Million Dollar Arm, United State of Tara and Fright Night, talked about making the film, VFX and his love of post. 

What was the appeal of this GameStop story for you? It seems like the perfect fit for your sensibility.

“It’s interesting you say that, because I was living it back in 2021 as my 24-year-old son began investing in it through Robinhood as the movement grew, and he actually did well. But I experienced all the outrage and frustration and camaraderie through him, and a few months later I was working with Lauren Blum and Rebecca Angelo on a project, which fell apart, and they were also working on this script, which miraculously was sent to me the very next day. And they’d done a great job of combining the dry Wall Street angles of it with the emotional impact on the characters, so I was in immediately.”

What sort of film did you set out to make, given that the subject matter isn’t inherently that cinematic?

“First off, it was quite challenging in that you’re having to juggle a lot of characters, and you have to make sure that the audience connects with them. And then I really wanted it to have a lot of energy and momentum, and to really capture that counter-culture and that rebellious streak that was in Wall Street. And there’s a lot of fun to be had with all the humor, and also balancing that with the anger and outrage and frustration, and the huge disparity of wealth between the haves and have-nots. So I saw it as also this David versus Goliath story. And juggling all of that, we decided to zero in on Paul Dano’s character, who as ‘Roaring Kitty’ [his online alias], was the poster child for Wall Street bets. He got to $47 million and was the one individual called in to testify before the SEC. And when I researched all of this, and his journey, it was a very interesting and touching story to me.”

How long was prep and what were the big challenges of pulling this together?

“It was a very fast prep – just six weeks, and at the same time we were reworking the script. Although it was my first draft with Rebecca and Lauren, as we’d been working together on other projects, we already had a great shorthand. But the whole third act with the Congress hearings wasn’t in the original script, and I felt it was a large part of the story, so we re-jiggered it all to include that. 

“And then working with Paul Dano was key. He’s such an intelligent, thoughtful actor, and we’d sit down every week and just talk about his character and what was going on, and how the outside influences and stresses were impacting his character. So we were writing scenes with him and the writers all the way up till when we shot. And then casting all the roles was a big challenge, and we were casting like the week before, and well into shooting with actors like Nick Offerman. But I kind of like that, as it brings in all this fresh energy as you go. Most of the actors were just in for a couple of days, as we had to work around their schedules, and we just prayed that no one got COVID.”

You reunited with your I, Tonya and Cruella DP Nicolas Karakatsanis. Talk about the look you went for.

“We shot digitally, but we went for a very filmic look, and especially a glossy look for the beach mansion scenes to highlight the greediness of that world. We actually shot this in a completely different way from how we’d done films in the past. We decided to do a lot of lock-offs and a lot of dolly moves motivated by the actors, and keep it looking very classic. Part of that approach was dictated by the fact that there are a lot of shots of people sitting at monitors, and we decided to do a lot of inserts, with fingers on keypads and shots of all the cameras, just to create the tension and energy that way. So the amount of coverage grew exponentially, and we were dealing with 80, 90 setups a day, just to get the number of shots we needed for going with the locked-off approach. We needed mediums, singles, tighter singles from the side and front, and so on, so it didn’t get redundant.”

How tough was it shooting so many locations?

“It’s pretty much all locations, and we shot for 31 days in New Jersey, which doubled for everywhere, like Boston, and then we did four days in Malibu for the beach mansion. I do a lot of commercials and I love shooting on location, which you do most of the time on commercials. Locations inspire me a lot, and then it’s a case of, ‘How do we combine all of them and not have to move all the time every day?’ So scheduling and logistics is crucial. We had Pete Davidson for just two days, and so on one of those days we shot him on blue screen for the cemetery scene we were doing later, then a bike scene next door to the track, where we shot the running scene, and then we rushed across the street to shoot the basement scene. So it’s a big puzzle you put together in the edit and post.”

The film was edited by editor Kirk Baxter. What was the process like and what were the biggest editing challenges?

“He does all of David Fincher’s films, and we’ve worked on many commercials and TV stuff together over the years, but this was the first movie we’ve done together. He cut it at his company, Exile, in New York, and I’d pop in at the weekends. It took a little time to get the cut together because we really had too much coverage, too much footage. 

“For instance, we shot over 26 pages with Seth Rogen in just four days. But me and Nic had it all shot listed, and we had a pretty good idea of how the scenes were shaped and where they’d go, and what shot was coming out of this scene and what one began the next scene. 

“The biggest challenge was balancing the documentary side of it, with all the real news footage and TV anchors, with the movie side. Then it was finding the tone and pace, as it jumps around so quickly and sometimes you literally need just three seconds from each character having the same moment. So we designed all that in advance, but it’s still this big puzzle in post, and Kirk did an amazing job of refining it and taking all that footage and elevating it. He has a real knack for juggling all the multiple stories and keeping the tension going, and finding the humor and keeping the pace just right.” 

Where did you do the post? 

“We did it all in New York for the tax breaks, including the sound mix at Warners and editorial at Exile. I’m very involved in the sound, and we had 50 minutes of score, and a lot going on with sound design and effects and needle drops. I really love post, and all the editorial is the most creative part for me, and the most enjoyable part of the whole filmmaking process. I like to start screening it for friends and family early on, so you get a feel for how it’s playing. And sometimes it’s not what they’re saying so much as how you feel about it in the room as they’re watching it. Interestingly, on this, there’s so much information, and my first instinct was that an audience would want it all, but it turned out to be like homework for them. So we began stripping away most of it, and then cutting nearly every phone shot and most of the exposition.”

Talk about dealing with all the VFX, as you had a lot of phones, split screens and monitors.

“Yes, we ended up with over 500 shots, which is a lot for a film like this. You’re dealing with reflections in the burn-ins, pixelation on the screens, and all that detail and texture you want to get in there. Powerhouse VFX and Chicken Bone FX did the work, and we had a research crew on it because of the sheer amount of tracking needed in terms of making sure that dates, stock prices and so on all lined up precisely. That took a lot of time and was pretty exhausting. We also had a lot of weather stuff to deal with, as we shot it all at the same time for different seasons, so we had to add snow and take out trees and foliage in the background to give a sense of time passing.”

Talk about the DI and working with your go-to colorist Tom Poole at Company 3. 

“We wanted a film look and Tom has all these LUTs he and Nic work with, and they give you all the imperfections and grain of film, and make the digital look as close to film as possible. He did such an amazing job that we couldn't even tell the difference, and although I always want to shoot on film, I'm very happy with the way it looks.”

What’s next?

“I was in the midst of a film that got shut down because of the strikes, and I’ve started work on Cruella 2, which we’ll shoot next year if the strikes finally get resolved.”