Arbitrage: Nicholas Jarecki’s Thriller

Graduating at the age of 19 from NYU Film School, Nicholas Jarecki began his career as an author with Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start, a bestseller that introduced him to the subject of his debut film, a documentary called The Outsider, in which he followed one of the legendary writer/directors from his book, James Toback.

He then began to think about a subject for his feature film debut; a natural place to turn was the financial world. As a successful business owner and the son of two commodities traders, it was a world he knew well, a world which, in 2009, was coming under intense public scrutiny. He began reading everything he could find about the ongoing financial crisis.

Most intriguing to Jarecki was The Great Hangover, a collection of essays from Vanity Fair which analyzed the economic crash. “The book got into the personal lives of the players who were involved,” says Jarecki. “At the same time that I read these articles, my friend Kevin Turen called me and said ‘we’ve been trying to make a movie for two years – you aren’t the kind of guy who can wait, we need to go now- just write something!’ We started discussing concepts we could make for no money and he said I should write a script set in one house where something goes terribly wrong. I said I hated those kinds of movies and he said stop procrastinating and just write something! So we started to work…”

Jarecki’s began to think about the twenty-thousand square foot townhouses in his native New York City. “I thought about a man who lives in those mansions—what kind of guy is he? What does he do? Well if he lives in there, then I knew he had to be rich. And with money comes problems. What if he was once a good man, but as he grew richer, his life became more complicated and corrupt, since his money lets him live outside the boundaries of conventional morality. Now, who does he answer to when things go wrong and his world crashes around him (as it did for everyone in 2009)? And what will he do to protect himself and his family? That’s how the character of Robert Miller was born.”

Jarecki grew up in New York surrounded by entrepreneurs and financial traders. “I am fascinated by business. I’ve had my own company so I have the technical knowledge, and I learned about markets from my parents,” he explains.

The director’s New York City upbringing also gave him a familiarity with the diverse residents of the town, economically high and low. At the same time that he conceived the character of Robert Miller, Jarecki also created Jimmy Grant, a young black man who has a complicated history with Robert. Jimmy became a central character in the film and serves as Miller’s moral counterpoint and co-conspirator.

Writing the screenplay for Arbitrage took Jarecki nine months to complete and the project morphed from its original low-budget form into a thriller that would also delve deeply into the moral dilemmas facing a powerful and successful businessman. Producer Kevin Turen was intricately involved in the fine-tuning and research stage of the script’s development. Together they would meet at Jarecki’s house and act scenes out, to get different ideas. “We’d invite friends by and start reciting lines, asking, ‘What if Robert does this? Then what would he do next?’ I know they thought I was nuts, but actually I had this great group of friends who listened to me and let me play with ideas. I loved that process.”

Jarecki’s passion for the material attracted a strong and diverse producing team. During the development phase, Bret Easton Ellis (who had written a couple scripts with Jarecki) introduced him to Laura Bickford (Traffic), a producer with extensive experience who had worked with some of Jarecki’s favorite directors.

“I was very passionate about the script. I’m always looking for movies that are entertaining, but also take you into a world you may not have seen. Arbitrage takes you on a great ride into a world that isn’t often filmed that realistically,” notes Bickford.

“When I first met Laura I didn’t know we would make a film together. But as the script got further along, I invited her to join us,” says Jarecki. “She brought a wealth of know-how about getting a film made and how to create a great team behind it.”

Around Thanksgiving 2010, the filmmakers’ April 2011 start date fell apart when they lost their entire financing. “We had two months to raise millions of dollars or watch the movie go up in smoke. Laura kept saying ‘We have to keep going, it’s a strong script and we will find the money, cast and team to bring it to life’. She had a certainty everything would work out and she was right,” notes Jarecki.

It was around this time that the team met Justin Nappi, a young producer who assembled significant capital in a matter of weeks. Nappi loved the script and came on board immediately after meeting Jarecki and Turen in Los Angeles. “We had a kinship from that first night and we have remained close friends,” notes Nappi. “The timeliness of the subject matter and authenticity of the world immediately drew me to the material,” he continues. “Justin has a dedication to film — he believed in the project and championed it from the start,” Jarecki says of the first-time producer.

The director was also looking for a producer to put the project together physically. Laura introduced him to New York filmmaker Bob Salerno (21 Grams, A Single Man). Salerno was familiar with Jarecki’s work as a documentary filmmaker and was confident of his talent, but what most impressed him was his knowledge of the world he was portraying. “I thought it would be interesting for Nick to tell this story because he has a special insight into the financial world and the characters who populate it. He’s obsessed with conveying the fine details of their personality and the authenticity of the world they inhabit,” says Salerno.

In addition to telling a story of a man caught in an ever-tightening trap of his own making, Arbitrage is also a timely reflection of the hubristic mindset that has driven the world into its current economic crisis. “There’s a deep sense of reality in these characters – the shady moves they’re making and how they make them, and that comes from Nick’s research and commitment to portraying the truth as he knows it,” explains Turen. Says Salerno, “It’s interesting for an audience to get a glimpse into how that world works and watch a man like Miller manipulate the system.” Adds Nappi, “I was attracted to the moral ambiguity of all characters in this movie. Rarely do you see that in movies these days.”