The Art of Money

The dirty business of consulting in ‘House of Lies’

Kai Ryssdal Mar 12, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: You got your masters of the universe in big business. The bankers and the brokers and the corporate chieftans. You’ve got your analysts and traders as well.

But then, somewhere a bit lower the pecking order, I’d imagine, are the management consultants. The ‘swoop in, tell you you’re doing everything wrong, charge you a gazillion dollars plus expenses, and swoop out’ management consultants.

That’s how Don Cheadle plays his character, Marty Kaan, in the new Showtime series “House of Lies.” Let’s just say he’s not a sympathetic guy. He practices what you might more accurately say is a kill-or-be-killed kind of capitalism.

Today, in our series The Art of Money, what artists and others see when they look at the economy, are Don Cheadle and “House of Lies” creator Matthew Carnahan. Hey, thanks for coming in.

Don Cheadle: Thanks for having us.

Matthew Carnahan: Pleasure to be here.

Ryssdal: Let’s play a little piece of tape, just to set up sort of the premise, I suppose, of what this thing’s all about. Go ahead and hit that.

“House of Lies” clip: After work — after work really is the goal of all consulting: get them thinking that their business is going to fail without you. They hire you week in and week out — that’s millions and millions in billable hours.

Don Cheadle, your character, basically with the philosophy of life right there.

Cheadle: Yeah, stay important, stay vital, stay needed — at any costs.

Ryssdal: Literally at any costs. And whatever the costs are, by the way, bill it to the client.

Cheadle: That’s right. Marty Kaan, I think he’s a rascal.

Ryssdal: Were he not so misanthropic and greedy and sometimes evil, rascal would be good.

Cheadle: Yeah. He’s a Disney character but with some Showtime juju on him.

Ryssdal: Well Matthew Carnahan, let me ask you then: What were you, as you took this book and tried to turn it into a television program, how did you see it evolving?

Carnahan: I imagined you’ve met a number of management consultants.

Ryssdal: Oh yeah.

Carnahan: It’s not the sexiest world on the face of it. I started to interview young management consultants — my brother’s a senior partner at a large consultancy.

Ryssdal: Oh that’s fabulous. So I have to ask you now: What does he think of this whole thing?

Carnahan: Honestly? Have not heard from him.

Ryssdal: You’ve agreed not to talk about it?

Carnahan: I have not heard from him.

Cheadle: Thanksgiving should be very interesting.

Carnahan: It’s going to be a great holiday. Thanks for asking.

Ryssdal: Give me the elevator pitch that you went to Showtime with and said, ‘Listen, I have this idea, here it is.’

Carnahan: Oh god.

Cheadle: That’s kind of how he started.

Ryssdal: ‘You’re going to hate this, but.’

Cheadle: ‘Prepare to be underwhelmed.’

Carnahan: ‘Are you ready for something sexy? Management consulting.’

Ryssdal: Yeah I know, that’s exactly it, right?

Carnahan: Well, luckily, David Nevins loves the business world; he’s the head of Showtime. And we went in with a way to kind of do a pants-down, up-skirt look at the business world.

Ryssdal: The thing about it, though, is that when my wife was in business school, she did a summer’s worth of consulting. And she was traveling and this and that — she hated it. It was horrible. You know, just not a nice, fun way to make a living.

Cheadle: No. This pod that he works with.

Ryssdal: The gang of four.

Cheadle: The gang of four, they sort of become the de facto family, this dysfunctional family. But that’s who they have. They have each other for five days out of the week, and on planes and going into this places where they feel like it’s them against us and we have to get out of this place with what we’ve got to get out of. And they are missions. We’ve dropped in behind enemy lines and we’ve got to get out of this place.

Ryssdal: This is a little grim, but it’s a little bit like, not combat, but there’s certainly an edge to what goes on.

Cheadle: Well I think they feel like it’s combat. I mean, I think those are the analogies that they use, in ways that they’re trying to create subterfuge and then go in and set up, ‘flank them this way, I’m going to run left, you’re going to run right, and then we’re going to get the flag.’

Carnahan: What we try to do is slightly away from combat, but a caper. It’s basically a caper show.

Ryssdal: I should point out that you’re an executive producer of this broadcast. What does that mean for you in terms of how you approach this project that deals with business and the economy?

Carnahan: Bigger paycheck.

Ryssdal: Bigger paycheck, yeah. Also, though, right — he’s on the hook if it goes nowhere?

Carnahan: Yeah, more money, more problems.

Cheadle: No, what’s great is that the whole team, we’re really all in the mix all the time. So we’ve already are ramping up to go on tour next season, which we got the pickup for. We’ve already started tossing these things around, what are these big ideas that we’re going to be talking about this year? What are the storylines that we want to jump into? And it’s just a part of the process that continues I think to make the show really rich and interesting for me.

Ryssdal: Other than your brother, who’s the management consultant, have you heard from real-life people in this industry?

Carnahan: Many, yeah. And I do hear from a lot, especially young management consultants, it’s like ‘How did you know about the thing that we do at the points where we train, points for how much sex we have?’ So you know.

Ryssdal: I don’t even want to know.

Carnahan: You don’t. It’s very sordid.

Ryssdal: Could this series have happened without the financial crisis? Do you think people would care enough?

Carnahan: I don’t know that I would care enough. We were all just ticked off. The 1 percent, 99 percent — there’s a lot going on that points toward this show for me personally being something I want to explore. And the financial crisis made it feel urgent and it just seemed fun to go at it from the side, from a guy who’s just about as unscrupulous as they are.

Ryssdal: Matthew Carnahan and Don Cheadle from “House of Lies” on Showtime. Guys, thanks a lot.

Cheadle: Thank you.

Carnahan: Thank you.

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