The Banality of Certain Evils

A look at how Barry Levinson built Bernie Madoff’s world.
Wizard Of Lies
By  · Published on May 16th, 2017

A look at how Laurence Bennett built Bernie Madoff’s world.

Trying to kill a few hundred innocent civilians to make a point about human nature don’t stop little imitations of Heath Ledger’s Joker from showing up every Halloween like little weeds growing under the pavement. But our cinematic love for antiheroes crosses less frequently into the world of high finance; far more often a movie like Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street is going to be called a “sleazy glorification” of something vile than most blood-stained Hollywood spectacle. Such was the challenge facing Barry Levinson (Diner, Good Morning, Vietnam) in adapting “The Wizard of Lies,” Diana B. Henriques’ untangling of Bernie Madoff’s $65 billion dollar heist, considered, by many, to be the biggest Ponzi scheme in human history.

Madoff’, even more so than Jordan Belfort, is a different kind of Wall Street villain. He does not tell us ‘greed is good’ in the ripped body of Michael Douglas nor does he literally beat the poor to death in the also-ripped personage of Christian Bale. He doesn’t even, per Leo DeCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, seen abandon the old lady for blonde model played by Margot Robbie. Like the blood transfusion myths of old, we imagine Wall Street to be a heathy and virile place, fueled by the drunken blood of decomposed bodies climbed to the top.

And in that moral universe, Bernie Madoff presents something of a conundrum: a conservative family man, he applied himself to his Ponzi scheme much like just another guy on the daily grind. Master of the subdued sociopath, Robert DeNiro delivers one of his most downtrodden performances yet, rarely has the world of a cunning scam artist looked so grim. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the wife, whose struggles feel no different from those of the innocent investors who lost oh-so-much bread.

And behind the struggles of that world is the work of Laurence Bennett, long time set designer behind the gritty and morally delicate worlds of Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah and Crash. “I’m drawn to stories about social justice,” Bennett told me. I wondered how he approached a more ordinary-looking evil.

So, tell me about how you approached creating the world of Bernie Madoff. 

We wanted to use the set to encapsulate fragments of a scheme that we wanted to audience to know had been going on for years. And, from the beginning [of Wizard of Lies], the story is told in these fragments and ultimately nobody, at the end of the day, is sure how or why Madoff did these things. Barry [Levinson] wanted it to be a mystery. And, so, styling it as a mystery was really key, for me, to approaching all the different fragments of the script. There’s a real edge, I think, to the visuals I did. There’s an uneasiness. And there are themes of concealment and exposure constantly emphasized.

Wall Street, especially an insidious version of it, exists in the cinematic imagination. Were your visual cues different?

Oh, we didn’t look at Wall Street movies at all. For my own visual sources of inspirations, I looked at 1950’s color photography. People like Saul Leiter. And particularly the work of Ernst Haas, who worked a lot in New York in the 60s. I was looking for things with selectively saturated color. With rich velvety blacks. And lots of shadows. And, for that reason, someone like Bertolucci and especially The Conformist was a go-to place for thinking visually about it.

What elements of the set did you feel like were essential to tell that story?

The emotional cores of the movie were Madoff’s penthouse, on the Upper East Side and his offices. In real life, Bernie had three floors in the Lipstick building in Midtown. It’s a pretty flashy place. And no one knew that one of the floors, the 17th, was off-limits to everyone except the very few people in his inner circle, not even his friends were even allowed in there. And it was there where he would manufacture all the trades that churned out these billions of dollars in fake transactions. So, when we built out version of that set, we built all of those behind the scenes stuff on the same floors and the offices.

Since the Madoff scandal is still somewhat recent history, were you able to use any of the real-life locations for the movie?

The one place where we were able to use the real legitimate place where it actually happened were the FBI’s field office in New York, over at the Federal Plaza. Somehow, the location manager was able to talk them into letting us shoot in the building, but on a different floor from where Madoff was actually intervened. But it was still stylized exactly like the FBI’s real offices. And if felt pretty fantastic, to bring him [Robert DeNiro] into the actual building that Madoff was arrested in and recreate the room where he was held and where he was handcuffed to the wall.

Madoff remains a large presence in our imagination of financial scandal. Do you feel like the world of Wizard of Lies will give us a definitive telling of that event?

I think it’s the definitive physiological look at the scandal. In terms of the nuts and bolts, what was really interesting to me was that, throughout, Bernie was deceiving people and doing unconscionable things with other people’s money, but he seemed to have the feeling that he was entirely allowed to do what he did because other people we so damn greedy. In Wizard of Lies, you seem sort of play coy, how he was able to convince people to let him use huge amounts of their money, hundreds and hundreds of millions, by making them so hungry for these impossible returns that he was promising. For just more and more money. And he seemed to think they were all, invariably, just greedy rich people.

But the movie makes the decision to namely look at his family members and not the larger spread of the scandal. 

Yeah, Barry and Sam [Levinson] know that there are tens of thousands of people who were damaged financially by the collapse of Madoff’s scheme. But, by looking at it on the level of one family, just Madoff’s, we felt like we could focus more closely on the people actually involved, the events of their lives and how they led up to it. You can’t really do that when you’re looking at ten thousand people, and that’s so dispersed and diffuse and you don’t get the emotional palette you get when you have a handful of people.

One of the things that really struck me when I was in the movie is much we do all know about the tragic consequences the befall Madoff’s family. And I think that makes the movie more personal in scale because the mysteries are much more interior. They’re all in Madoff’s head.

The movie, from what I understand, had been in production for some time?

It comes at a very interesting time in our society and I think the timing of the release brings up resonances that are going to feel incredibly powerful. We finished in a year and a half ago and I think, you know, HBO held it until they thought it was the right time to release it.

Wizard of Lies airs this Saturday on HBO.

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