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Leslie Cockburn Bets on American Casino

Leslie Cockburn Bets on American Casino

Articles - Directing

When American Casino premiered at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival on April 26, it was a moment of realization of what went wrong in our financial organizations. This debut feature documentary by Leslie Cockburn takes us into the battle between Wall Street and Main Street before the economy came crashing down.

Cockburn sheds light on how congress passed the Commodities Futures Modernization Act in December 2000, which called for less regulation on Wall Street and has led to our present situation. A little more than eight years later, the United States is living through the aftermath of this giant mistake that has affected countless Americans. Cockburn juxtaposes freshly boarded-up homes in the mostly minority neighborhoods of Baltimore, Maryland and Stockton, California with defectors from Bear Stearns, Standard & Poor’s and other players in the subprime mortgage gamble.

As we’re still knee-deep in a recession, American Casino seems to be a sure bet for a success. Director and producer Leslie Cockburn spoke to MovieMaker about her enlightening film.

Nora Murphy (MM): The timing of this film is perfect. Did you predict the economy would suffer more while you were in production?

Leslie Cockburn (LC): We began work on American Casino in January 2008. By mid-February, we knew that there would be a cascade of failures that would last years, not months. At that point bank leverage—borrowing—was completely out of control and insurance against failures relied on companies that were themselves in a very bad state. When you “followed the money” you could see there wasn’t any. By March, we knew that subprime was the canary in the coal mine, meaning there were all sorts of other loans out there that would fall apart starting right now, in spring of 2009. We felt sure that the problem wasn’t going away. In fact, the problems today are much worse than most people realize.

MM: How was directing this film different than your past endeavors?

LC: Directing American Casino was very exotic for me because so many of my former films have been shot abroad, in places like Afghanistan. This is a thoroughly American film. What was shocking was to see the devastation of whole neighborhoods, the post-apocalyptic landscape of parts of Riverside County in California, where the abandoned pools are breeding mosquitoes and piles of realtors’ “100% Financing” signs are home to colonies of rats. Empty houses are meth labs. It was very spooky. At times I felt like I was in Mogadishu.

MM: You have a hip-hop score for the film, along with songs by Bruce Springsteen and Moby. What prompted your musical selection?

LC: The musical selection is eclectic but just right for this story. Springsteen’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” is, of course, one of Woody Guthrie’s most famous songs from the Great Depression. The hip-hop tracks are really fantastic because we found them as we were shooting in inner-city Baltimore. Producer Andrew Cockburn asked the local hip-hop station whether anyone was writing songs about the foreclosures that have ravaged the city and 60 tracks arrived. Three are in the film, including one called “Losing My Home” written and performed by a group that is 11 to 14 years old. They are drawing from their own experience of family and friends and that’s what makes it so powerful. I hope American Casino will be the first of many venues where people get to hear this music. My choice of Moby, whose music you hear throughout the film, is simple: Moby is an extremely sophisticated musician. His music is brilliantly subtle, but conveys a mixture of pathos and irony and foreboding that suits this subject perfectly.

MM: What kind of message do you hope the film will send to Wall Street?

LC: The film operates on a couple of levels. On one level, I tried to make it comprehensible to everyone. On another level, there are very interesting sections for even the most jaded denizens of Wall Street. There is a former Bear Sterns banker who appears in shadow with some very interesting things to say, like the fact that he sold his “CDO squared,” derivatives of derivatives, to “idiots” and that he found it absurd that he was selling CDOs [collateralized debt obligations] at $100 million to $200 million a pop to Korean bankers who didn’t even speak English.

MM: Where do you hope to see the film go after Tribeca?

LC: After Tribeca, we hope to see American Casino go into theaters in September and eventually find a broadcast slot in the U.S. and abroad. People really want to know why this catastrophe happened. There is a hunger to understand it.

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