The story behind the financial thriller "Margin Call" reads like an episode of "Entourage."
Neal Dodson, a York County native, met Zach Quinto of Pittsburgh, in the mid-90s when they attended the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts. A few years later, they met Corey Moosa while attending Carnegie Mellon University.
The trio of aspiring actors remained friends as they pursued careers. Dodson worked at a producer at Warner Bros. Quinto found work in indie films and then on the TV show "Heroes" and the 2009 "Star Trek" reboot. Moosa co-founded The Immediate Theatre in New York City.
In the summer of 2008, the they decided to join forces to fulfill a dream - tell the stories they want to tell onscreen.
They started their own production company, Before The Door. The name references an acting exercise they did as freshman. They set up shop in Silver Lake, Calif., bungalow and pooled funds for business cards and utilities.
"It was a big moment in our lives," Dodson said. "None of us has any business background."
Before The Door made several short films, two graphic novels and some clips for Funnyordie.com. It sold a TV show to the CW, but that didn't pan out.
Dodson, Quinto and Moosa poured over scripts. A project titled "Margin Call" caught their attention.
"We all read the script that night," Dodson said. "Everything about it was right. It was socially relevant. It had great acting and writing."
Dodson met the writer, J.C. Chandor, a friend of a friend, over coffee and asked him to direct the movie. Quinto signed on to act in Before The Door's first feature-length movie, which is set at the moment the housing bubble burst in 2008.
"It was a risky thing," Dodson said. "We raised the money independently. After two years and a lot of false starts, we suddenly found ourselves with $3 and a half million and 200 people working (with us)."
Quinto knew Kevin Spacey socially and asked him to look at the script. Suddenly, an Academy Award-winning actor was part of "Margin Call." Hollywood started to pay attention.
"We had been told Jeremy Irons was not available," Dodson said. Some schedule maneuvering and last-minute visa retrieving opened a window that worked with the Oscar-winning actor. Another Oscar nominee - Stanley Tucci - also signed on.
Demi Moore stepped in when Carla Gugino had to bow out at the last minute.
Dodson's wife, Ashley Williams, sister of Kimberly Williams-Paisley, had a small role. Quinto's high school friends filled in as extras.
While the cast came together, Dodson searched New York City for a place to set up a fictional financial firm. He was working both East Coast and West Coast hours and crashing in his mother-in-law's guest bedroom. On his train commutes, Dodson studied real stock brokers.
Finally, he found a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan that was recently vacated by a hedge fund. The production took over the entire 42nd floor for 17 days of shooting last summer.
The small set didn't phase the big stars. Dodson said Moore referred to the set as the studio in the sky.
After wrapping and editing the film in the fall of 2010, Before the Door sent "Margin Call" to Sundance Film Festival. That Thanksgiving, Dodson got a call that it was accepted.
Dodson, Quinto and Moosa got to walk the red carpet together and present their movie. But their mission was to set up distribution deal for "Margin Call." They sold U.S. rights to Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions and foreign rights to several countries.
The movie made the Berlin Film Festival and opening night at the New York Film Festival in March. Dodson's father, a local painter and art teacher, got to watch the movie at The Museum of Modern Art.
"Margin Call" is on 140 screens nationally, a number that will likely increase. It hasn't come to York yet, but that will change tonight.
Ian Olney organizes the York College's Humanities Film Series to connect the students with film scholars and filmmakers. He said he's always interested in finding local filmmakers, so Dodson made a great connection.
"('Margin Call' is) probably one of the most high-profile films that we've shown and have someone involved making the film appear to . . . answer questions," Olney said. "It's just got a fantastic cast of big Hollywood stars."
Olney said he's expecting a full-house and has set up an overflow room if needed.
"It's a testament to the film and to Neal," Olney said.
But "Margin Call" itself was a financial risk. Before The Door pulled off the production for less than $4 million.
"No one bought a new car or house on the money they made," Dodson said. "I'm unabashedly proud. (Critical praise) is a little embarrassing. You don't know if you love it because you're so close to it."
PopEye: York native Neal Dodson talks about producing 'Margin Call'
Neal Dodson couldn't bear to watch "Margin Call" one more time.
He admitted that fact as he introduced Before The Door's first feature length film Nov. 17 at York College.
In 2008, Dodson started Before The Door with his college friends and actors Zach Quinto and Corey Moosa. When they stumbled across J.C. Chandor's script about a firm in financial crisis, they knew they had to bring it to the screen.
"Margin Call" is playing in large markets, so Nov. 17 was the local premiere. The audience packed the theater and two overflow rooms. The film is also available on iTunes and Amazon; I had downloaded it earlier this month. I could bear to watch the movie one more time.
Dodson brought his wife, actress Ashley Williams, to the screening and reserved seats for his family in the front row.
Before he ducked out, he warned his grandmother about the swear words.
It's no wonder that the characters - employees at a financial firm - curse many times. The housing bubble is about to pop and their careers are on the line. The tension builds slowly. The script is quietly brilliant. It's smarter and less schmaltzy than "Wall Street."
But the wow factor is the acting. The cast - an All-Star lineup of Hollywood stars - includes Oscar winners Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, Oscar nominees Stanley Tucci and Mary McDonnell, BAFTA nominee Paul Bettany, Golden Globe nominees Demi Moore and Simon Baker and rising stars Penn Badgley, Quinto and Williams.
Judging from the feedback during a discussion after the screening, the local audience felt the same way. Dodson answered questions.
How did you get so many big stars?
Dodson credited the script, which Chandor wrote and made into his directorial debut. Chandor's father worked at Merrill Lynch for decades. Dodson said that all he had to do was ask agents if some stars were available. The fact that the movie had a 17-day shoot helped. It was quick enough that some actors could squeeze it in between other projects, Dodson said.
What was Spacey like?
Dodson said that he heard Spacey could be harsh, but that was not his experience. On the first night, they took Spacey out to dinner. Dodson said Spacey pulled out a stack of index cards filled with his lines and questions about the script.
The dinner lasted five hours.
Spacey, Dodson said, is dedicated. For his role in "Margin Call," Spacey gained weight, wore a wig and took a public speaking course.
How did you charm people into giving you their money to make the movie?
There was one person who financed the $3.4 million film - Michael Benaroya. His father was an early investor in Starbucks, Dodson said.
Dodson's job is to pitch a movie with a projected budget and timeline. Hundreds of people do it every day in Hollywood. When movies are made through a studio like Warner Bros., the studio takes the risk.
For independent movies, people are hired to work out distribution deals, which is the main way investors recoup their money
Dodson said the stars were willing to work way below their normal salary, since they believed in the movie.
"When you take a job for money, it can be a different relationship with the movie," he said.
Did the director feel intimidated while working with many big stars on his first film?
"He trusted them to do their job," Dodson said. Chandor's wife had a baby 10 days before the first day of shooting. Dodson said that helped keep Chandor focused on his job and not the star factor.
"He had something more important going on," Dodson said.
What do you think the movie says about Wall Street?
"It doesn't tell you how to think about the subject," Dodson said of the film. "I think it's about how people handle themselves. (The characters have) no real choice in the equation . . . no matter how the moral and ethical questions go."
The movie doesn't show papers flying or people screaming amid a market meltdown. Dodson, who spent time on trading floors to research the movie, said those things rarely happen in real life, so they don't happen in "Margin Call."
Most people assume the fictional firm is based on Lehman Brothers, but Dodson said that's not true. He said he compares the firm to those that survived the financial crisis, including Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.
Some American distributors worried that "Margin Call" would be too similar to the HBO movie "Too Big to Fail."
In other countries, people were asking him why there weren't more movies being made about the financial collapse.
"I found that difference fascinating," Dodson said.
PopEye is a bi-weekly column focusing on the ever-changing landscape of popular culture. To reach writer Erin McCracken, call 771-2051 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In their words
"I am so glad I met Neal, he's everything you want from a movie producer - intelligent, calm, dedicated to excellence, has great taste and knows how to throw a party. I can't wait (until) I get to work with him again."
- Paul Bettany, plays Will Emerson
"Neal was so instrumental to each stage of getting this film made that, had we never met, it's very clear to me that it would just be another unproduced script sitting on my shelf instead of this film that we are all so proud of. Neal never wavered for a second in standing up for and defending the original intent and integrity of the script, which is a rare and invaluable trait in a producer and collaborator."
- J.C. Chandor, director
The score was created by recording sounds of the building the movie was filmed in. The sounds were remixed into music.
Paul Bettany's character drives an Aston Martin. "We paid dearly to use it, but it was worth it," Dodson said.
There are no crimes committed in the movie.
Before The Door made $35,000 on the movie, which it spent two-and-a-half years producing.
But Dodson said, creating a good film means that investors will have more confidence in future projects.
"We're trying to figure it out now," Dodson said of the company's future. "We want to evaluate . . . what we want to do."
Before The Door has a small romantic comedy and a horror movie in the works. It's also developing another J.C. Chandor script.
"We're branching out," Dodson said. He said the company hopes to develop the two graphic novels it produces into movies.
Recently, Dodson counted 11 feature films, nine short films and two TV series in the "active" column on his project board.
For details about Before the Door, visit www.beforethedoor.com.