Early on in Meera Meenon’s new film, Equity, investment banker Naomi (Anna Gunn) delivers a speech at her alma mater, asking that women admit that they do what they do because they “like money.” This desire is not something to feel ashamed about anymore.

For a movie marketed as the “first female Wall Street movie,” developed and financed in large part by women, this feminist manifesto might feel almost a little too on the nose. Writer Amy Fox and Menon are slyer than that, though, and by the end of the film, Attorney General Samantha (Alysia Reiner, who also produced) finds herself repeating Naomi’s exact lines in a job interview. This cleverly plotted bookend speaks to the power of influential people to plant positive ideas in others’ heads, even if this influence isn’t immediately recognizable to either party.

Equity is a celebration of strong women who exist in worlds almost entirely run by men—men who aren’t ready to vacate their seats of authority any time soon. After a misstep with a former IPO offering, Naomi makes a comeback in her field by taking a hot tech start-up public. When the worlds of investment banking and Silicon Valley collide, Menon digs in, showing that the casual sexism and oppression of women in the investment banking world do not exist in a vacuum.

In our interview, the director (whose debut feature, Farah Goes Bang, came out in 2013) talked about her attraction to the aesthetic of contemporary noirs, her experience at Sundance this year with Equity, and the strong parallels she found between investment banking and the film industry.

Meera Menon. Photo by Perry Bindelglass, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Meera Menon. Photograph by Perry Bindelglass / courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Caleb Hammond, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Farah Goes Bang felt very personal for a number a reasons: You co-wrote it with your friend Laura Goode and you raised funds on Kickstarter. Equity has a much higher profile and you came on board as director only after Broad Street Pictures had developed it. How did you navigate this change?

Meera Menon (Menon): I was able for this film to really just focus on the directing. Because I was wearing so many different hats in my first film, it was a more difficult, scattered process. But that was reflective in the story we were telling in Farah Goes Bang: a coming-of-age story about people who were trying to figure out who they are.

I had a lot more time to prepare in terms of how we were going to approach the filmmaking of it. My first film, we literally were figuring out locations in the morning before shooting certain scenes, and popping up scenes on street corners and figuring it out as it goes. Process-wise this was entirely different.

With Equity, I didn’t write the script, and I think there are pros and cons to that. Not having a hand in the writing gave me perspective on the material that was necessary when it came to figuring out the hard questions. The hardest challenge with this movie was figuring out how to communicate scale and wealth and the level at which the characters lived, but on an independent film budget. So there were a lot of tough decisions that had to be made about what was necessary for the story and what wasn’t. And I think that’s where, when you write the material and direct it, you can often fall into a danger zone of being too precious with the script. It was nice to have a bit of an arm’s length.

One of my favorite directors is Steven Soderbergh for this reason. The guy has done huge studio movies and he’s done tiny micro-budget films, and he’s straddled both of them on and off throughout his career, and I love that. I’d love to be able to do some version of that depending on how I move forward.

MM: What were the difficulties shooting a film, budgeted in the low millions, that takes place in New York and deals with the polished world of Wall Street?

Menon: Everything. Finding the right locations that could be believable as apartments that these people live in. Finding the right costumes. Finding the right clothing in terms of designer-level that these women would actually purchase and  wear on a day-to-day basis. Making sure the restaurants they dine at communicate a certain amount of elitism—I don’t want to use the word “elitism,” but that’s really what it is. These self-selective set of environments that only people who are making a certain amount of money can surround themselves in. That was the challenge: finding those locations, and the right set of materials in terms of costume and design, that communicated that.

We were really lucky because we had an incredible costume designer, Teresa Westby, and an incredible production designer, Diane Lederman, who both really understood how to get as specific as possible with those things. Take the apartment belonging to Michael (James Purefoy), for example: Diane’s sense of what exact set pieces would be able to communicate that wealth and opulence was really a testament to her ability to get specific, and also reflected her experience as a set dresser on Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. She had worked as a set-dresser for 20-plus years, and so I think she really had a deep understanding of objects and how specific objects can communicate a lot within a frame.

Alysia Reiner as Samantha Ryan. Photo by Steve Buckwalter, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Alysia Reiner in Equity. Photograph by Steve Buckwalter / courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

MM: Wall Street doesn’t initially lend itself to be all that visually interesting. It’s a lot of glass offices and minimalism. How did you work with DP Eric Lin to create a unique visual style for this film?

Menon: My biggest concern when we first started was how to make the script visual. There are a lot of characters sitting in a room, two characters sitting in a room having a conversation. And so our conversations were all about how to approach eye-line and how to approach negative space and how to approach shooting a profile. All of those things really unlocked a set of possibilities that I hadn’t even realized were available to us.

Eric and I spent a lot of time talking about the lighting and what a contemporary noir really feels like. To that end we talked a lot about David Fincher: Zodiac and The Social Network. And we talked a little bit about Michael Clayton and that yellowish, digital noir. And then we actually spent a lot of time developing a vocabulary around all the possibilities in a frame—the choices within the framing and how close to a characters eye-line would we stay. One of the best parts about the script is how withholding the main character felt. Naomi, Anna Gunn’s character, really felt like someone that was keeping her cards very close, and you weren’t really sure, in the course of reading the script, who was going to do what to get what they wanted or to further their ambition. Eric taught me a lot about all the possibilities of framing that exist within a closeup. How close to get to the characters, how into their psychology will we allow the audience to get based on where they’re at in the story.

MM: It’s interesting you mention Fincher, because before the screening I had read “Wolf of Wall Street with women,” but I found it to be much more in line with The Social Network, tonally and with subject matter. During those Silicon Valley IPO meetings you feel like a fly on the wall observing these characters. The jargon isn’t dumbed down, and the audience is expected to keep up. Was that ever a concern for you?

Menon: It was really just a matter of testing the film enough times and making sure the gist of the narrative was clear. We never really expected people to understand what an investment banker does, because, frankly, I barely understand to this day. But to the extent that I do understand it, I think any professional life involves some aspect of salesmanship and that’s basically what these people are doing. They’re traveling around the world, sitting in conference rooms pitching themselves as being the most capable to communicate the story of a company to the world. And to that extent, I think it’s very much like filmmaking, trying to get people to invest in your movie. You’re trying to sell your movies before it’s released. You’re in the business of storytelling in a way that I found investment bankers to be, too, and especially when they’re taking high-profile companies public. So there was something about that I think we all actually related to.

That’s where the script didn’t feel too different from Mad Men. Actually, Mad Men was probably the first comparison that came to mind when I read it: There are a lot of people sitting in rooms, selling ideas. That’s absolutely a credit to Amy. Amy was able to create these scenes, and create a sequence of events that made it all seem very familiar, even though it likely won’t be a very familiar world for most people.

MM: A trope that occurs in both your first film and this one is the appearance of pundits or voiceover in the background while the character is doing something else. With the election looming in Farah Goes Bang, a lot of political speeches take place while the characters respond to them, directly or indirectly. And in Equity, Wall Street pundits on TVs constantly talk shop in the background.

Menon: That’s super interesting. I didn’t think about that being a connective element between the two, because they feel so different. One of my favorite movies is All the President’s Men, and that’s another movie Eric and I talked a little bit about with this movie. I like this idea that the primary kind of drama in that film unfolds in the newsroom, and you always have these TVs communicating the largeness of what’s happening. The things they’re dealing with in that newsroom are being amplified by the TVs. So the news coverage of what they’re actually dealing with exists on a global and national scale. That’s a really interesting point at which to investigate character and create a sense of place with how people are engaging. How the greater sense of the world outside is affecting the interior spaces, in which people are living somewhat ordinary lives.

Network is actually very much about that—literally. It’s about the magnification of screens, in that straddling of private vs. public.

MM: How involved do you get as a director in the post-production process? Do you hang out in the editing room, or is it a back-and-forth process with your editor?

Menon: We had such a tight timeline that I was pretty much there the entire time. Early on when we just started putting it together, the incredible editor, Andy Hafitz, spent two or three weeks really just culling the pieces together. I had to get him there pretty quickly in order to start shaping it, whittling it down, making those tough decisions about what to leave and what to hold onto. We finished shooting mid-August and we submitted to Sundance an initial rough cut in early October—so not even two months later—and we kept sending Sundance various updates throughout the next two months. And we found out we got in Sundance late November or early December. So we had to finish the film before everyone left for Christmas. So that was pretty tight considering the density of the material we working with. In an ideal world, I would have loved to have given Andy more time to do his pass on things, because I really respect the editor as a kind of co-author of the material. But we had a very tight timeline, so I had to kind of get in there very quickly.

James Purefoy as Michael Connor and Anna Gunn as Naomi Bishop Photo by Steve Buckwalter, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

James Purefoy and Anna Gunn in Equity. Photograph by Steve Buckwalter / courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

MM: As for the actors, what type of rehearsal process did you employ?

Menon: We didn’t have much rehearsal. With Anna, we spent a lot of time talking through every scene with the character and drawing out a pretty detailed backstory as to what brought Naomi to where we pick her up at the beginning of the movie. Anna’s brilliant with that stuff. She’s so inventive and detailed with the kind of preparation she does; I want the audience to bear witness to that.

When we were on set, even though it was a really precise and “written” movie in its execution, we did improvise a little bit at the heads and tails of the scenes to just loosen it up and allow them to feel like it was new and different, and things could be thrown at them that weren’t expected. That could be the biggest problem when you approach material like this—it could start to feel a little mechanical. I do love comedy and improv. I always joke that there’s a version of this movie that could’ve been edited together that’s pure comedy, because we have that material. But yes, we made a point to improvise a lot. Very little of it is actually in the movie, but we made a point to do that as an exercise.

MM: Without delving too much into spoiler territory, do you want to speak about the ending, which is ambiguous or even pessimistic?

Menon: This film is this exploration of where ambition can take you and how it can take you into grey areas. We’re talking about an environment that’s very cutthroat, where there are very few positions for people at the top, regardless of gender, and then when you put gender on top of that equation, it makes it that much more of a competitive environment in which elbows can get a little sharp. And that’s really what we were landing on. The film industry isn’t too different. Where when you only have a few positions, and you are only able to promote so many people or reward so many people for the kind of backbreaking work that they’re doing, it often can bring out the worst in people.

MM: You got the sense that these are real people, making money just like any other people. They’re very good at their jobs, but they’re constantly forced to navigate these tricky ethical waters.

Menon: That was all I was hoping to do. I certainly could’ve inserted my politics onto this more, but there was really no place for it. It was really character-driven material via Amy’s script, because she comes from a background as a playwright. She writes great roles for actors. And so my interest in servicing the project, to the extent I was able to, was really to find what was most authentic and true about these people and communicate that as best we could.

MM: How was your first time with a film at Sundance?

Menon: Sundance was nuts. I just wish I had gotten to see more movies. I was so excited to see every movie in competition and I only saw two. It was a life-changing experience in terms of exposing me to next level conversations, meeting with production companies, and studios and things. But as a film fan I was just so frustrated the whole time that I couldn’t see more movies. MM

Equity opens in theaters July 29, 2016, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.