By Ryan Vlastelica
NEW YORK (Reuters) - More than 20 years after the release of hit film "Wall Street," director Oliver Stone again looks at the world of high finance with "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," opening in theaters on Friday.
The sequel to 1987's original film, which earned Michael Douglas an Oscar in the role of corporate raider Gordon Gekko, tells of a brash young trader (Shia LaBeouf) looking to cash in on Wall Street even as financial markets collapse around him.
Thomas Belesis, chief executive officer at New York-based brokerage firm John Thomas Financial, was a technical advisor on "Money Never Sleeps," and he portrayed a Wall Street chief in the film. He talked to Reuters about working on the movie, the way it portrays his industry, and how true it is to the real Wall Street. One hint: Belesis is bullish.
Q: How did you become involved with the film?
A: "When Oliver was first researching it, he was introduced to me by the building manager at 40 Wall Street, the Trump Building where John Thomas Financial is located. He was looking for a trading floor to use in the film and we hit it off. He ended up filming at a different floor...but he offered me a role, which I gladly accepted."
Q: Did you have any previous acting experience?
A: "No, but I wasn't intimidated. I play Shia's boss, an executive at a Bear Stearns-like firm that collapses because of the subprime issue. My scenes have me in conferences or talking to traders, and those are things I live everyday. I'm used to being commanding in those situations. Plus, as a director, Oliver is a master at his trade. He knows how to get the best out of everyone."
Q: Were you familiar with the original "Wall Street"?
A: "Very. I've probably watched it a few dozen times. It was very surreal to go from watching it to seeing Oliver Stone and being involved."
Q: What did your job as technical advisor entail?
A: "Several of the actors -- Shia, Josh Brolin -- came to John Thomas for about a week to do research. They wanted to get a feel for what a trader does and what's appropriate in terms of attire and the way they talk and present themselves --the whole attitude and persona. What's the way you go about presenting an opportunity to an investor? Things of that nature. So they talked to me, talked to some of my traders.
"Beyond that, I tried to ensure that everything looked right and felt right. We did conference scene where a character is giving a presentation, and they had the conference table clear. That was incorrect, since people usually have their BlackBerrys on the table, cans of Red Bull or cups of coffee or espresso. So I told them and they added that."
Q: How do you think the culture of Wall Street has changed since the first film came out in 1987? And do you think that film's complaints against greed and excess are still valid?
A: "The mantra of the first film was "greed is good," and that had to do with the money being made in the Reagan era. This film is different. We've moved from greed is good to the greed of leverage. The biggest financial market in the world almost collapsed because the greediest wanted more than to just create jobs."
Q: Gordon Gekko was the villain of the first film, but the character has since been embraced by Wall Street. Given the events of the past few years, are you troubled that a character who ends up going to jail for financial crimes is so admired?
A: "No, I'm not really worried if people admire him. First, if there's one thing everyone knows, it's that it's a movie, not a documentary. Oliver based the character around Ivan Boesky (who went to jail for insider trading), and it shows him taking advantage of the system and not being ethical. In entertainment, when people like this do things the wrong way, it is entertaining. Gordon is charismatic and confident and powerful, and in that aspect people look at him as an icon. But at the end of the day, the real Wall Street is about building America and investing money in companies to create jobs."
Q: Both "Wall Street" films criticize the industry for not doing that, charging that it doesn't produce things of value and that it's corrupt. Is that portrayal fair or accurate?
TB: "I think Oliver's portrayal is correct for those who deserve it. America was never about credit swaps or derivatives, but you had a few banks like Goldman Sachs or Lehman or Bear Stearns that put together these crazy products that destroyed people's lives and almost destroyed the system. These were mistakes we've all paid for, so in a lot of ways Stone was right to say what he did, that this was a very bad thing and that it's right for some of these people to be villainized. They were villains.
"That said, there are bad apples in every industry and you can't throw in everyone with these bad apples. A few banks put these products together, and I don't think you can bash the whole system because of them, just like you wouldn't demonize a political system because of a few bad politicians. The bad people deserve to be called out, but there are good people, too, and that's what I see as the real Wall Street."
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)