A Walk Along Stone’s Wall Street

“You know, half the people in this place could be prosecuted.”

Oliver Stone, the film director, was sitting across from me over a late lunch in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons restaurant in Midtown Manhattan last week.

Oliver Stone
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Oliver Stone

In one corner was Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman of the Blackstone Group; Felix Rohatyn, a special adviser to the chairman of Lazard, was leaving as I was coming in, as was Barry Diller, the chairman of IAC/InterActiveCorp. And Sanford Weill, the former chairman of Citigroup — “the mother of all evil,” Mr. Stone said with a wry smile — had just dashed out.

If one man epitomizes the populist view of Wall Street and corporate America, it is Mr. Stone, whose new film, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” opens next week. It is the sequel to his hit movie “Wall Street” in 1987. The original tapped into the zeitgeist of the moment — “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good,” as Gordon Gekko said — by capturing the lust for money and power that led to the market’s crash.

Two years after the height of the latest financial crisis — Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in the wee hours of Sept. 15 — the country is still grappling with the aftermath of a period that looks suspiciously similar to the one Mr. Stone depicted two decades ago.

And so it seemed only fitting that we were having lunch at the epicenter of what’s left of moguldom, surrounded by the real-life characters who populate Wall Street. For a moment, I’m a bit worried Mr. Stone won’t be able to keep his food down.

“Look, Wall Street’s gone crazy. It’s banking on steroids,” Mr. Stone said, getting a bit irritated. “Banks don’t mean what they did. When I was a kid, you had a savings account; you made 3 to 4 percent. Now you make zero, and Goldman Sachs is a bank holding company.”

If Wall Street is ever going to overcome the distrust that so much of the public has about the finance industry, it is going to have to win over the likes of Mr. Stone, whose father worked as a broker under Mr. Weill.

While the industry may think Mr. Stone’s point of view is radical — “Stone must be a communist here, a liberal; a liberal is worse than a communist,” he said of himself, talking in the third person — it is a perspective that has gained, not lost, momentum in large parts of nation’s populous, irrespective of political party or ideology. Wall Street as villain, it seems, has bipartisan support.

Mr. Stone had originally passed on remaking “Wall Street” in 2006 because he was worried it would send the wrong message. “It was just wealth, wealth, wealth. Guys like that, having birthday parties, it’s not my deal,” he said, nodding his head in the direction of Mr. Schwarzman’s table.

He decided to return to the topic after the financial crisis because he thought that the industry had finally lost some of its swagger and that a fictional account that explored the depths of that period would tap into the national mood. But ultimately, the world of high finance, he said, is just a backdrop for a film “about trust, love, greed, betrayal.”

While Mr. Stone clearly has his own feelings about Wall Street, he said the film tried to offer a somewhat more balanced view. “They’re mixed bags, and that’s what Gekko says at the end of the movie, ‘We’re all mixed bags. Human beings are mixed. Good and bad.’ ”

Mr. Stone added, “It’s silly to be simplifying and say Wall Street is evil,” pausing for a moment before stopping to correct himself. “Goldman Sachs is evil, maybe.”

“Most of the people I know on Wall Street are good people. Like my father. He really would like to make some money, yeah, but they would also like to do good for society,” he said.

His new film gives a voice to the popular rage about what has happened on Wall Street. Michael Douglas returns as Gordon Gekko out of prison, who, oddly enough, articulates the problems with the industry until, of course, he returns to his greedy ways. Shia LaBeouf plays a young trader-cum-banker who is in love with Gekko’s daughter.

Real people as inspiration ... who?

While the movie is a fictional account, Mr. Stone did take cues from real executives as inspiration for some of the characters.

Before shooting, he and Mr. Douglas met with Samuel D. Waksal, the former chief executive of the biopharmaceutical company ImClone Systems who was convicted of insider trading (and is perhaps even more famous for his friend, Martha Stewart, who was convicted of lying to investigators about her sale of ImClone shares).

“He went to jail, I think perhaps wrongly. It was more scandal, more smoke than fire,” Mr. Stone said of Mr. Waksal. “Do you know him at all? He’s a dynamo. He came out of jail, and he had the attitude like, ‘Nothing is going to stop me.’ But Michael has more bitterness.”

Other characters were influenced by real people, too, like the character played by Josh Brolin, a conniving chief executive of a big bank that bails out a failing firm.

“He reminds me of Dimon because he’s good-looking,” Mr. Stone says, referring to Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase. But then he added that there’s “a little bit of Rubin in Josh,” referring to Robert E. Rubin, the former chairman of Citigroup.

The role of the chief executive whose firm fails is played by Frank Langella, and it was inspired, in part, by James Cayne of Bear Stearns. “He was out of touch, like Cayne,” Mr. Stone exclaimed.

Whether Mr. Stone’s new film will capture the public’s attention the way the original did remains to be seen. The first “Wall Street” became a touchstone that the financial industry, oddly enough, embraced. This time, however, the industry may look upon the film less favorably. Mr. Stone appears not to be indicting a few rogue characters, but painting the entire system — one that he says has suffered from group think (“just following orders”) — as morally bankrupt.

Before leaving the restaurant, Mr. Schwarzman stopped by our table, and when he realized Mr. Stone was there, the conversation seemed to awkwardly fizzle out. After Mr. Schwarzman left, Mr. Stone looked down.

“That’s the problem with these places. If you had Henry Kissinger here,” he said gesturing over to his regular table. “What are you going to do? Not shake his hand? It’s a real problem. That’s the problem with New York society, it’s all an interlocking network.”