When Sarah Megan Thomas set out to make the next great Wall Street movie, she had a couple objectives in mind: to feature strong women and do something that’s never been done before.
Thomas loved films about Wall Street, but felt that lately they’d all centered around the financial crisis and vilified bankers.
She wanted to do something new.
That led her to create Equity, a feature film written, produced, directed, and starred in by women, which comes to theatres Friday.
She learned a few surprising things along the way.
She found out how much investment bankers travel, and the insanely long hours they work. And that, despite many women on Wall Street having families, most wait until they have reached a certain level of seniority before daring to have kids.
“That was really surprising, and we put that straight in the script,” said Thomas, who plays Erin Manning, a young banker up for promotion who conceals her pregnancy.
Thomas coproduced and costarred in the film with Alysia Reiner of “Orange is the New Black” fame.
The “Breaking Bad” star Anna Gunn plays the lead character, a top female investment banker fighting to keep her firm in the lead on an initial public offering for a Silicon Valley startup.
Gunn’s character, Naomi Bishop, will struggle to “balance business and ethics in the post-financial crisis world where regulations are tight but aspirations remain high,” according to the filmmaker’s website.
A legendary connection
The script, written by Amy Fox, is based on interviews the filmmakers held with male and female bankers across Wall Street, including industry veterans Liz Myers, Barbara Byrne, Alexandra Lebenthal, and Elaine La Roche.
Thomas said her character was not based on any one banker, but was largely inspired by Liz Meyers, JPMorgan’s global head of equity capital markets, and a more junior vice president at Goldman Sachs.
She recalled being surprised by the Goldman VP’s apparel the first time they met — a feminine A-line skirt and blouse, rather than a suit.
“I took a picture and I sent it to our costume designer and she matched it for the opening sequence of Erin in the movie,” she said.
Thomas was introduced to Meyers by Jimmy Lee, the legendary JPMorgan investment banker and vice chairman who died last year. Coincidentally, he was working on the initial public offering of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba when he and Thomas first met.
She said they encountered a lot of great male mentors on Wall Street for women, which they tried to reflect in the script.
“We both went to Williams College — that’s our only connection,” Thomas said, adding that Lee always made time to meet with her, despite having a family and busy travel schedule. “There was no reason he had to help me.”
But Lee vouched for Thomas, and introduced her to a number of senior men and women on Wall Street. He’d also planned to invest in the film before passing away.
Barclays’ Barbara Byrne, who became a co-producer and invested in the movie, was a big inspiration for Gunn’s character, Naomi Bishop.
“Barbara talked to Anna Gunn on the phone about the character and being of a generation where sometimes you’re told you have sharp elbows for being tough,” Thomas said.
Byrne told the filmmakers that whenever she’s in an uncomfortable situation in a room full of men, she always uses humour to break the ice.
“She’s really funny,” Thomas said. “She has a British humour, very dry.”
One of the biggest challenges in making the film was finding drama in the mundane work that goes into actually doing a deal.
Bloomberg, which sponsored the film, helped the filmmakers get around this by lending reporters to anchor fake news segments and fill the audience in.
Bloomberg also created fake graphs with fake stock prices to display on terminals in the movie.
Though Thomas says she “would never personally be able to be a Wall Streeter,” she does see some similarities between the worlds of finance and entertainment. Namely, the lack of women in the room.
“If we want to see more female-driven content, it’s important to go to the movie theatre and support it with your dollar, opening weekend,” she said.
Thomas herself will attend an opening night screening of the film hosted by JPMorgan in New York.
Myers will be there, along with a number of senior women from the firm, including Jennifer Nason, the global head of tech, media and telecom banking; Noelle Grainger, the head of global equity research; Lauren Camp, an investment banking vice chairman; and Alice Wang, a managing director.