Filmmaker Jed Rothstein has a long background in documentaries for TV and cinema, including “Killing in the Name,” an Oscar-nominated short about terrorism in 2010. His latest film, The China Hustle, comes across like a mix between its producer Alex Gibney’s work and the CNBC TV show American Greed. It shows how investors responded to the 2008 market crash by searching the world for new investment sources. China looked like a new alternative, but Americans were barred from direct investment on its stock market. They still found a way to do so, leading to a massive amount of fraud and damaging many people in both countries. Rothstein offers a pessimistic diagnosis of a stock market the government has abandoned its interest in regulating. His film alternates between interviews with players in its story and glossy reenactments and computer-created images, with high production values throughout. One of its interview subjects, retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, was so angered by Rothstein’s line of questioning that he refused to participate halfway through.
StudioDaily: You left microphones, dolly tracks and lights in the frame during many of your interviews. Why did you decide to do so?
Jed Rothstein: I thought it would bring the places where I conducted the interviews alive and make them feel more like three-dimensional spaces instead of just a space to put the interview on-screen.
How did your subjects react?
I don’t know that they even noticed. As interview subjects, you’re just sitting there as the camera rolls. It didn’t make any difference to them if the camera was on a dolly. It didn’t make their experience any different. At least I can’t recall any of them bringing it up.
Were you surprised when Wesley Clark got angry and suddenly refused to participate?
I was surprised and saddened because I would have liked to talk to him more about some of his work. I suppose it’s a difficult topic and one he didn’t want to talk about any further. We have a release from him, so we didn’t need his permission to include it.
How did you connect with Alex Gibney and Mark Cuban as producers?
I had been working with Gibney for some time at his company Jigsaw. I directed a number of TV shows for them. Mark Cuban came in through 2929, which some of the other producers involved brought it to. That’s a film production company he’s involved with.
Do you think your style is influenced by Gibney at all?
I certainly admire Alex as a filmmaker. I hope that I have my own traits and preferences as well. As many filmmakers will tell you, they borrow and steal from everywhere.
Did you ever feel that you were taking an aesthetic risk by including so many talking-heads interviews?
It’s difficult to make a film about something as complicated as a finance story, because a lot of what’s involved is email and whispered conversations. When you think about film, you think about action, what you’re going to see. I tried to include elements of the story that were active, like some of the surveillance camera footage we had. I tried to make the interview scenes livelier by including the set, as we were talking about. I wanted to make the film visually engaging. The look was designed with my cinematographer Tom Hurwitz very carefully. I feel like we did a good job of getting around that difficulty.
How do your interview subjects feel about the comment at the beginning that no one in the film looks good?
Actually, one of the subjects himself, Dan David, makes that comment. He says “there are no good guys in this story, including me.” I’m sure some of the folks would want to argue that they’re good guys. But in the context of this story, I think it’s true. It’s a complex, messy story. People on all sides of it are conducting themselves in a grey area. I don’t know if it’s literally true, but it’s a good summation of international finance.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the film?
We shot on three different types of cameras. The Canon C300 Mark IIs, Arri Alexa Mini and Arri Amira. And I think one of the very wide shots or some of the drone shots were done on a GoPro. The bulk of the mood material — the very beautiful wide shots you see around Manhattan — was shot on an Arri Alexa Mini mounted in a [Freefly] MoVI so that the cameraman can move fluidly around space.
Did you try and use actual people in the reenactments?
There’s one scene where a salesman gives a pitch he used to do. But the rest of the reenactments don’t have people in them. They’re places. That’s on purpose, so one’s brain can imagine people there instead of us putting them there. Hopefully, it’s an effective cinema trick so your mind can engage with the scene more.
Michael Lewis has written quite a few books which have popularized fairly complicated narratives about finance. The Big Short was adapted into a Hollywood film. Were you influenced by him in terms of your storytelling?
Certainly, I loved The Big Short. I’ve enjoyed a number of his books. But specifically before making this film, I re-read The Big Short and watched the film. Maybe Michael Lewis does a great job of looking at things that are right in front of us that are very hard to understand on the surface but getting below them and finding characters there. So I would say I was inspired by his storytelling a bit.
There are some larger political implications to the story, which the film addresses at the beginning. It talks about the way capitalism enables people’s greed and unfairness. Then the film offers a very specific example of this. Do you see the whole film as an illustration of this point?
I do think what Dan poses at the start of the film — what is capitalism? Is it a way to distribute resources or take advantage of each other? — is the takeaway. What kind of capitalist system do we want? Is it one where it’s easier for people to get one over on each other? Is it one where there is some kind of fair play and transparency? To me, it should be the latter. I want people to demand a better, fairer system that we can all participate in. Capitalism doesn’t just have to be about exploitation. It can raise all boats. But the rules of the game have to be fair.
You have a long history of working both in TV and cinema. Do you find different strengths in each medium? What are the differences between making episodic TV and a film for theatrical release?
It’s the difference between running on a track and cross-country running. Both of them can be fun if you like running, as I do. Both can be edifying. If I’m making an episodic show on something that’s never been done and I’ve worked with the executive producer, that’s one thing. But if you’re just making one episode, it can only be an interpretation within someone else’s parameters. A feature is an open field, especially here where the story was so complicated. On some level, telling any story is complicated. But this wasn’t like telling the story of one person who tried to do something, then did it and either succeeded and failed. It was broader. I focused on Dan a lot because to some extent, he did that. It took a long time to get it right.
How long did the editing process take?
It took about seven or eight months, all told. We took a couple of breaks. That’s not uncommon for a feature documentary. You don’t have a roadmap, which you do in an episodic series or even an episodic documentary. Some of the things I’ve done for HBO and Showtime have been more open-ended and similar to a feature. But for this, I kept rearranging and rearranging things. Every time I did so, I had to watch a 90-minute or two-hour film all over again. Everything affects everything else, so if you make one change in minute 37, the rest will feel different even if you didn’t touch it. Of course, things are now more efficient with Avid. But it still takes time.
You’ve also produced films made by other directors. How satisfying do you find that? How much do you think you’ve learned from it?
I’ve had the good fortune to produce films by some great directors and mentors of mine, like Liz Garbus, Rory Kennedy and Calvin Skaggs. These are all people I’ve learned a lot from about how to tell a story, navigate the business, nurture and defend one’s own creative voice amidst so many different people and so much money. I enjoy doing that. I would be happy to be attached to some project in the future in that way. But really, my first love is directing, and that’s what I’ve been doing the past few years.
Are you currently working on any TV projects?
I’m doing a new limited series at Jigsaw on a top secret topic. It’ll be airing on Showtime later this year or early 2019.
A lot of the story takes place in China, but you interview few Chinese businessmen. Is that due to the legal risk they might run?
It was due to the disinclination of the Chinese CEOs we approached to speak. And I think it’s also due to a general disinclination on the part of people in China to talk about sensitive topics because they can really get in trouble. They are either doing it secretly, as you saw with one fellow who goes by the name of “Summer,” or as general commentators who can speak without getting super-specific about any of the companies. Or they are people like Kun Wong, who is now a Canadian citizen but grew up in China and was working there at the time of his imprisonment. There isn’t a tradition or legal basis for free speech in China. That enables these legal frauds to go on.
Given that Mark Cuban is a billionaire, did you ever have a conversation with him about the film’s politics?
I never had a conversation with Mark, just a couple email exchanges. I’m grateful for his support of the film, but his brother Jeff was far more hands-on. Jeff gave me notes on the cut.
Do you have any other projects aimed for future theatrical release?
Yes, I have other films I plan to get off the ground in the next month as soon as I am done with this television work. We’ll see. I hope to do something in a less contentious vein, like a music project. I’m also interested in a project on global water issues. We’ll see what gets off the ground first.
The China Hustle opens today in limited release in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Atlanta and elsewhere. For playdates, visit the film’s official website.
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