by James Mottram

One of the most bizarre stories during the pandemic was the rise of GameStop. A video game store retailer in the United States, the Wall Street bigwigs had already bet that this ailing company was on the slide. Until, that is, YouTube finance guru Keith Gill, who went by the name ‘Roaring Kitty’, decided to urge his followers into action and encourage them to invest. The resulting call-to-arms saw the GameStop stock escalate and Wall Street traders look on open-mouthed, as those known as ‘dumb money’ – pejorative slang for day-traders – began to stick it to the man.

“I invested in GameStop at the wrong time and lost!” laughs Craig Gillespie, the Australian director behind such true-life dramas as the Oscar-winning I, Tonya, about ice skater Tonya Harding, and the Disney+ series Pam and Tommy, which looked over the controversial marriage of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee.

At the time, one of Gillespie’s two sons was living with him and was following the GameStop stock closely. “It got very intense,” he says. “He started out with a few $100, kept reinvesting…” Thankfully, his boy got out at the right time, profiting on his sale.

“So, I lived through all of this emotional arc,” explains Gillespie, when we meet during the Zurich Film Festival. “You would think that’s when I would think about doing the movie. I didn’t.” At the time, he was focused on another project, one that ultimately collapsed. Fortunately, his two writers on that film, Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo, had already been working on their very own take on the GameStop carnage on Wall Street. “They did such a beautiful job with it. Taking a complex subject and distilling it down, following so many characters. I was like, ‘Alright, I need to do this’.”

Adapted from the book by Ben Mezrich, Blum and Angelo’s script for Dumb Money is an ensemble piece, although the lead is most definitely Gill. The big issue was getting Gill’s approval. “He was a very public figure for this finite amount of time,” says Gillespie. “And so, we reached out to him several times. He kept declining. Ben Mezrich, who wrote the book, managed to talk to his brother; the writers of the screenplay, managed to talk to his parents. But Keith really didn’t want to engage, and we had to respect that. And it almost put more onus on us to really be dogmatic about what we were putting in the film.”

In the end, the script was tailored around what little Gill had put into the public domain, using an interview he and his family did with the Wall Street Journal. Other influences came from internet memes and TikTok videos created around the GameStop story. And then there were films that hugely influenced Gillespie, from David Fincher’s Facebook tale The Social Network (cut by Kirk Baxter, who also edited Dumb Money) to Bennett Miller’s baseball drama Moneyball.

“Those kinds of films [were more influential] than the actual Wall Street films like The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street, which are more films inside of that banking community,” he says. “And this was a real outsider’s point of view. We were approaching it more as that kind of narrative than necessarily being about the banking system. It was more about the frustration of the individuals living through this COVID moment that we had, which was so profound, and how it got channeled into this movement.”

The way Gillespie sees it, the GameStop saga is a story about the power of the collective. “There’s this one line, from a real piece of news footage, with a reporter saying ‘They used to be considered a fringe movement. And now they have the power to move markets and Wall Street’s paying attention’. It’s a very interesting idea that’s happened, that really is empowering, but it is as a collective. And it’s more as a form of protest. As this was happening, very clearly the finance world was saying that it’s broken the fundamentals. There’s no logical reason for the stock to be trading this high. So, it becomes much more of a social commentary than just the banking world.”

When it came to casting, Gillespie managed to gather one of the best indie casts of the year, beginning with Paul Dano as Keith Gill. “We started with that character. He’s going to set the whole tone for the film. I loved Paul Dano’s work. Crazily, he’d done The Batman and The Fabelmans in the same year, [and I was so impressed by] the range that he can have. And he’s such a classically trained actor. He’s been on Broadway since he was 12. He really was about the text and the story and tracking the character and brought so much to it. We had some great conversations. I was so lucky to get him. Once he signed on, I think he sets the tone for the film. Other actors love and respect his work.”

Others in the cast include Seth Rogen, Nick Offerman and Sebastian Stan, all of whom Gillespie has already worked with and here cast against type as the Wall Street cronies. Recruiting Shailene Woodley as Keith’s wife and Pete Davidson as his loudmouth slacker brother, Gillespie also brought in Anthony Ramos to play a GameStop employee, who invests in the stock, and Dane DeHaan, as his unctuous boss. “Having somebody of his calibre going up against Anthony was really exciting. He called me and said, ‘Hey, can I have adult braces and a rat tail?’ Yes, you can! And then an hour later, he said, ‘I don’t want to show them until late in the movie’. And I’m like, ‘Perfect’.”

Then there’s America Ferrara, fresh from her major role in Barbie. She plays Jenny, a nurse who invests in the GameStop stock. “She’s really the voice of the disenfranchised and the marginalised,” explains Gillespie. “And she really connected to the material. I like to do that dance of humour and drama, almost simultaneously. And I could see that she’s got that in her work. And she understood how to bring that. But in particular, she had that sense of outrage and injustice.”

With Barbie yet to come out, Gillespie did call its star Margot Robbie (his old I, Tonya cohort) and her film producer husband Tom Ackerley to ask about Ferrara. “They couldn’t recommend her higher.”

Since premiering the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, Gillespie is now ready for Dumb Money to hit cinemas. Of course, the person he’s most curious to gauge a reaction from is his own twin brother, Brett, a Sydney-based hedge fund manager. “He has not seen the film yet,” he says. “I feel like the film is subjective. If you’re in the banking community, you’re going to look at it and be like, ‘Yeah, that’s how it works’. They’re using the system. And it’s the system that’s broken, as opposed to the individual, necessarily. Being that that was the case, I didn’t really engage with him.” Their next family get-together’s going to be a fun one.

Dumb Money opens in cinemas on 26 October 2023