Too Big To Fail: The story behind HBO's movie

An image capture from the "Too Big To Fail" trailer

Kai Ryssdal: It's been -- as of today -- two years, eight months, nine days since Lehman Brothers went the way of bankruptcy. In that time, there have been an almost countless number of books about the financial crisis, about who did what to whom.

One of them was Andrew Ross Sorkin's page-turner, Too Big To Fail, which has now been made into a movie for HBO which airs tonight. Director Curtis Hanson -- of "L.A. Confidential" and "8 Mile" fame -- was in charge. Good to have you with us.

Curtis Hanson: It's good to be here.

Ryssdal: Why take on this project? I mean, it's a tough story to tell this whole financial crisis.


Hanson: Well, it's interesting. Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote the book, as you know. And HBO developed a script from it and then sent the script to me. And my first reaction was, who's going to want to watch a movie about a bunch of guys in suits and ties sitting around a table? But when I read the script, what I found so compelling was at the center of it was this character of Hank Paulson, who for many years was a titan of Wall Street. And now as Treasury secretary finds himself in the midst of this crisis that's spinning out of control, and the only way to deal with it that he or anybody can think of is by resorting to something that he had been philosophically against his entire adult life, namely government intervention.

Ryssdal: Yeah, it was fascinating. William Hurt plays Henry Paulson and you wind up by the end of this thing -- and people will hear me say this and we'll get nasty letters -- but you wind up feeling sorry for Henry Paulson. The pressure and the squeeze and the not knowing what else to do.

Hanson: Yes, exactly. And also the guilt. There's a critical scene in the movie where Cynthia Nixon, who's his liaison to the press, asks and what do I tell them when they ask why this wasn't regulated? And William takes a pause and says, "No one wanted to. We were making too much money." And you just see the guilt that he's owning and he's miserable with it.


Ryssdal: The thought that kept going through my mind as I was watching this thing was, I flashed back to "Apollo 13," Ron Howard's movie.

Hanson: Interesting.

Ryssdal: Very well-known story. But you know how it ends, right? Even though you were watching the movie the whole time, you're like, man are these guys going to make it back? Are they gonna crash? Are they going to die? Same thing here. You know how the story ends, or we know how that part of this story ends, but at the same time there's this line of tension that runs through this movie that keeps you going.

Hanson: Yes. Well that's what I was trying to do was make it a suspense film.

Ryssdal: Did you read Andrew Ross Sorkin's book at any point in this process?

Hanson: I read it after I'd read the script. It's a good book.

Ryssdal: Oh, it is a good book. We had him on the show, it's interesting. And we should say you got him a cameo in the movie, too.

Hanson: Yes. He plays a reporter and asks a question.

Ryssdal: You mention Henry Paulson's guilt, his fear, and indirect culpability that Wall Street had. But you come out of this -- after having seen Dick Fuld of Lehman Brother and Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase and all of these guys -- not able to point a finger and say, you know what, it was your fault.

Hanson: Right. That was deliberate. I think it's more interesting without a black-and-white approach. I looked at these guys as being men who were doing what they did. They were doing the best they could for themselves and the best they could for their companies and none of them had the foresight to see where it was leading.

Ryssdal: Yeah, well that's kind of amazing. Right? Because you see James Woods as Dick Fuld, the CEO of Lehman Brothers, a couple of times saying literally these words: "Oh, real estate is gonna come back. It's gonna come back." And you're like, come on man.

Hanson: Exactly. He thought it was coming back.


Ryssdal: Was this a project for you of telling the story or was it trying to help the audience understand what happened?

Hanson: It was telling a story I hope people would find interesting. And what I always gravitate towards are stories where people are trying to find the better version of themselves under stress, and that's what I felt was going on here. And I thought suspense would come out of that.

Ryssdal: Curtis Hanson, the movie on HBO tonight is called "Too Big To Fail." Thanks a lot for coming in.

Hanson: Thank you.

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