It’s time for “Let’s Make a Backroom Deal!” But you won’t find genial TV host Monty Hall here. On Showtime’s “Billions,” it’s manipulative plays and Machiavellian machinations that greet you.
In the new series, co-created by Andrew Ross Sorkin, author of “Too Big To Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System – and Themselves,” an ambitious, if conflicted, U.S. attorney with an 81-out-of-81 conviction record pursues a brilliant, ruthless hedge fund manager.
The show interweaves finance, politics, ultra-wealth, corruption – and, from time to time, kinky sex.
“Billions” stars Damian Lewis (“Homeland,” “Wolf Hall”) as hedge fund billionaire Bobby Axelrod, who grew up poor, and Paul Giamatti (“Straight Outta Compton”; “Sideways”) as blue-blooded Chuck Rhoades, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
For Axelrod, it’s S.O.P. to use insider information to make mountains of money for his Connecticut-based Axe Capital. Rhoades is resolved to incarcerate him.
“What’s the point of having f— you money if you never say f— you?” says Axelrod, with a swagger, summing up his attitude.
Justifying his strategy to nab the hedge funder, Rhoades argues, in a different scene: “A good matador doesn’t try to kill a fresh bull. You wait until he’s been stuck a few times.”
Then there’s the spicy character of Rhoades’ wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff). She works as Axelrod’s in-house performance coach – even as her husband is trying to bring down the hedge fund titan. Meantime, at home, she plays dominatrix to an excited bound-and-gagged Chuck.
“Billions’” creators and executive producers are Brian Koppelman and David Levien (“Ocean’s Thirteen”; “Rounders”), together with Sorkin. A talent agent matched up the duo – who are “Billions” showrunners — with Sorkin, editor-founder of The New York Times’ DealBook and co-anchor of CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” who sought to collaborate after starting to develop the cat-and-mouse series in 2011.
Safe to say there are similarities between “Billions” and the real-life case of Steven A. Cohen, founder of hedge fund SAC Capital Advisors. In 2013, SAC Capital pleaded guilty to insider trading and paid a record $1.8 billion in penalties. On Jan. 8, 2016, Cohen made a deal with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that bars him from managing outside money for two years.
Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, prosecuted the Cohen case. Dubbed “The Sheriff of Wall Street” for convicting scores of insider traders, he attended the “Billions” premiere and reception in New York on Jan. 14.
(The show airs at 9 p.m. Eastern time on Showtime.)
Two paid consultants worked on the series: a former prosecutor, Duncan Levin, and an ex-trader, Turney Duff, as well as James Bodnar, credited as “law enforcement technical advisor.” Bloomberg LP provided creative input, according to Bloomberg Business.
Last year, many real-life hedge funds suffered significant losses. But that’s not the case with fictional Axe Capital. ThinkAdvisor recently talked about “Billions” with Sorkin, 38, named for the last three years — in DePaul University/Gorkana surveys of his peers — the most influential financial reporter in the U.S.
ThinkAdvisor: To what extent are “Billions” lead characters inspired by, based on or modeled after hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen and/or U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Preet Bharara, who prosecuted him?
Andrew Ross Sorkin: People want to draw direct parallels, but there is no specific case or person that the series is based on. We’ve drawn on decades of insider trading cases as background. Preet Bharara has brought dozens of insider trading cases recently. But you could also go back to the days when Rudy Guiliani [former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York; later, New York mayor] prosecuted insider trading cases in the 1980s and even earlier.
In creating this show, was part of your intention to criticize the system?
The public has a very two-dimensional view of how power and money work at the tippy-top of society. Being able to tell what the motivations are at that level is powerful and gives people a better appreciation of many of the themes we’re talking about today: inequality, the 1%, hedge funds, political power and corruption.
Seems that financial advisors are portrayed as pretty OK on this show.
Right. It doesn’t spend a lot of time focusing on the straight financial advisors. But when the public looks at the [hedge fund] world, it often seems very black-and-white to them. They think: there’s the good guy and the bad guy. The prosecutor is the good guy, and the hedge funder is the bad guy.
How does your series differ from that perception?
We wanted to show all the shades of gray without moralizing and telling you one guy is better than the other but to leave it up to viewers to make their own decisions. There are times you’ll be rooting for Chuck Roades and times you’ll be rooting for Bobby Axelrod.
In working on the series, you were a “conduit” to a number of folks in finance and law enforcement, Brian Koppelman has stated. Tell me about that.
We’d go to dinner and lunch, and have meetings with people in the hedge fund space and in the legal world – hedge fund managers; lawyers, including members of the Southern District.
Did you introduce Messrs. Koppelman and Levien to Preet Bharara?
As part of our research, we spent time with Mr. Bharara, and he spent time with Paul Giamatti. We spent an inordinate amount of time with prosecutors, former prosecutors and members of the FBI, trying to capture both the technical details and the essence of what really goes on when you’re investigating white-collar insider trading cases.
Were the hedge fund managers open with you?
Not all of them. Some were willing to talk; others, less so. Some wanted to see what the show would be.
Did you have to clear anything with the SEC or the Southern or Eastern districts to portray those entities on TV?
Is there actually a rivalry between the Southern and Eastern districts, as you depict on the show?
Absolutely, no question. The lawyers in the Southern District have a bee in their bonnets about the lawyers in the Eastern District. And the same goes – perhaps even more so – for the people in the Eastern District, who often look at the Southern District with a sense of competition. The Eastern District believes they’re waging a fierce battle with the Southern District. What’s at the root of that rivalry?
All the lawyers are competing for the biggest headline-driving, career-making cases they can find. That rivalry has been there for decades. Historically, the Southern District was the crème de la crème – the Harvard of these institutions; the Eastern District was Yale.
The series is packed with financial jargon. How come it wasn’t simplified or defined for the average viewer?
We made a choice to have every scene feel authentic, and the only way to do that is for the characters to speak in the way that a real hedge fund manager [and others] would speak. We appreciated that there would be lines that certain people might not be able to totally grasp but that, in the totality of the story, they would ultimately [get] the point of the scene.
There’s a scene in the pilot where Bobby is with a portfolio manager and his analyst. Bobby walks through a trade that’s pretty complicated. Some people will understand the details of the trade itself, but the larger point was to demonstrate how smart and clever Bobby is.
Rhoades’ wife Wendy is an in-house performance coach for Axe Capital. How common is it for hedge funds to maintain coaches right on their premises?
There are several that work in-house, and they’re [employed by] hedge fund managers both in Connecticut and New York. I had the opportunity to spend time with one for the show.
Why is Axelrod’s fund based in Westport, Connecticut, rather than in New York City?
In part, we were trying to put at least some of the story outside New York; it was an opportunity to create two worlds. And many of the [actual] hedge funds are based in Connecticut — many in Greenwich.
There are indeed a few surprises when it comes to the nature of Rhoades’ and Axelrod’s married lives.
Right. I imagine that the general view of hedge fund managers is that they’re all scheming cheaters. But Bobby and his wife Lara (Malin Akerman) are really loyal to each other in a way that plays against type. Clearly, the relationship that Chuck has with his wife is particularly complicated and a very different relationship than one might traditionally imagine.
Did you provide much of the input for the ambitious journalist character?
We talked about the journalist a lot. I know journalists that are like him. But he and I aren’t alike. I don’t look at him as me. He’s a very different character.
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