Those who were as confused as they were fascinated by the GameStop short squeeze of early 2021 will find brain mist clearing during Craig Gillespie’s fizzy, lucid Dumb Money. Paul Dano plays Keith Gill, the guerrilla financial analyst – broadcasting on YouTube as Roaring Kitty – who, convinced shares in the bricks-and-mortar tech-store chain were undervalued, triggered a buying spree that boosted the stock and threatened to bankrupt hedge funds betting on GameStop to fail. If you want more technical explanations, watch the film.
“It was the middle of Covid, and we were in lockdown,” says Gillespie. “I have two sons. My 24-year-old was living with us. He was dabbling in this. We’d hear about it occasionally. He’d walk out and say, ‘Hey, Elon Musk just tweeted about GameStop. Everyone is going nuts.’”
Gillespie, director of hit movies such as I, Tonya and Cruella, got some sense of how the market now works. It’s not all suited moguls in skyscrapers. Ordinary Joes on PCs in their parents’ attics can drive change. “It’s just dumb money,” the professionals snort. But Gillespie’s film explains how those amateurs really managed to shake the system.
“The intensity levels of his staying up till three in the morning,” Gillespie remembers, still aghast. “Watching the European markets. Getting up at 6am to catch the premarkets and what was happening. Trying to time when to get out with these options.”
That gets to a key tension in the picture. Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo’s screenplay creates a number of composite ordinary Joes and Janes – America Ferrera plays a health worker, Talia Ryder is a student – who throw modest savings at GameStop and, in no time, find themselves indecently loaded (at least on paper). It is hard to stop oneself yelling “Sell! Sell, for God’s sake!” at the screen.
“That’s a visceral response in the film. And that’s me watching my son,” says Gillespie. “He ended up getting out at the right time, amazingly.”
The film plays very much like a David-and-Goliath yarn. There is unpretentious Paul Dano – Shailene Woodley frets as his loyal wife – firing out tips from the basement of his modest Massachusetts home. Blue-collar workers across the US follow his lead and become part of the insurrection. Nick Offerman and Seth Rogen play the hugely wealthy establishment financiers who find capital draining as the stock refuses to collapse. The huge downside to short positions – that’s to say, betting on failure – is that there is no limit to potential losses. But was it really a battle between decent blue-collar types and sinister caviar-scoffing snoots? Everyone was after the same thing.
“It’s funny, because my son was the gatekeeper on that as well,” says Gillespie. “He said, ‘You cannot represent this as everybody being altruistic and out for the cause.’ It was a very diverse, complex group of eight million people.”
Initially, it was largely about money. But the dynamic changed over time?
“People started coming in with a different voice – like the America Ferrera character,” says Gillespie. “They were altruistic and they were frustrated with what was happening. So this is an opportunity to really stick it. Then there were people who were a mix of the two. That’s what we were trying to represent with all the different characters.”
Gillespie, an Australian who began his career in advertising, already has some experience of basing films around living, breathing personalities. I, Tonya, nominated for three Oscars in 2018, told the story of the skater Tonya Harding with great elan and notable humanity. Most of the public would, however, have had some idea of what made that title character tick. Keith Gill is more of an enigma. Was he really a crusader or just a skilled gambler? The film doesn’t exactly answer those questions.
“He has since retreated from public life,” says Gillespie. “He literally has no social presence whatsoever. We reached out numerous times along the way – in pre-production, during production and on to post-production. He did not want to get involved. So we’ve had to respect that. As we were going through production, that almost put us under more pressure to get it right. Everything that’s in the film is drawn from his posts, from his testimony to Congress. We have taken information he’s given publicly and used that in the movie.”
Gillespie, now 56, is talking just a week after the film debuted to hoots of approval at Toronto International Film Festival. He has established his reputation as a skilled entertainer with a taste for viewing true stories from original angles. On the small screen he was director and executive producer of Pam & Tommy, the series studying Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson, and on Mike, controversial take on Mike Tyson. His feature career took off with two contrasting projects in 2007. Mr Woodcock, a comedy with Billy Bob Thornton, landed uncomfortably, but in the same year he had a big critical hit with Lars and the Real Girl, concerning a man who makes friends with a sex doll. The picture scored an Oscar nomination and assisted in the ascent of one Ryan Gosling.
“People are confused about the timeline of which one was first,” Gillespie says. “I learned so much on Woodcock. I was talking to film students last week, and the first thing I said was, ‘You’re going to learn so much more from your failures than your successes.’ I got schooled on so many levels – on how to deal with actors, how to deal with the studio and how to be transparent about what’s happening.”
He laughs in apparent agreement when I suggest he has retained a more relaxed Australian temperament. He rolled with that early punch and is now at the top of his profession. I get no sense of arrogance.
“I learned early on to just stick to what I believe is working and what I’m connected to,” he says. “Don’t try and second-guess the audience. I went through that phase, and it just doesn’t work.”
Dumb Money is in cinemas from Friday, September 22nd