PULLING OFF THE PERFECT HEIST
"It's the only crime movie I can think of where absolutely no one gets hurts," said Glenn Gers, who penned the screenplay for "Mad Money".
"This is a case of three women watching millions of dollars being shredded every day; there's no way any of us watching all that money being trashed would not think about what they could do with it. If no one else is going to use it, why not? What's the harm?"
Nearly six years ago, executive producer Wendy Kram gave producer Jay Cohen a copy of a British television film entitled, "Hot Money," which was inspired by true events in circa 1970's England. "Hot Money," produced by Granada, told the story of three women who worked in similar jobs at the Bank of England and figured out a way to steal worn and damaged money after it was counted and before it was burned (which inspired the original's title). Ultimately the women were caught because they didn't pay taxes, but no one knows for sure if they actually kept some money or lost all of it. Cohen was struck by the women's unlikely association and the fact that they stole successfully for years. He realized that a story about three women from completely different walks of life who team up to steal money (without huring anyone while improving their own lives) had tremendous potential for American audiences.
"When you think about a heist film, you don't think of humor at first," admits Cohen. "But this story was about three women who wouldn't normally be together and who are still trying to figure each other out, as they pull off this great crime. When you take people who don't belong together, you end up with a comedic situation because they're so different. And here, you also have a movie about people who are stealing money, so there's drama, too. We watch them commit this crime over a three year period, so they think they've beaten the system (and they have) which makes them a little bolder and raises the stakes."
Cohen optioned the script from Granada and brought it to Chris McGurk, who was running MGM at the time. MGM bought the script and with Cohen, brought it to Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Khouri, who loved it and wanted to direct. Writer Glenn Gers was brought in to adapt the idea for an American audience with revisions to be done by Khouri.
"Callie is probably the smartest writer I've ever worked with," said Cohen. "She understood the structure the story, which goes back and forth over several years, and knew it would be a very complicated shoot. She knows that everybody in the world struggles over money, houses, cars, family..."
Cohen and Khouri began casting for "Mad Money" and quickly signed both Diane Keaton and Queen Latifah to star. As casting progressed and the film was set to begin production, MGM was purchased by Sony and the film was put into turnaround. Cohen bought the project back and brought in producer Jim Acheson, with whom he'd been seeking to make a film.
"Jay gave me the screenplay for "Mad Money" and my reaction was 'No one's made this already?!' I couldn't believe it," Acheson said. "I was very excited and felt it was my good fortune to have such a commercial, funny, strong film that will appeal to everyone."
By late 2006, Acheson agreed to produce and Nu Image/Millennium, with producer Frank DeMartini, agreed to finance "Mad Money," so Cohen and Khouri got the project back on track. When Chris McGurk began his own production company, Overture Films, one of his first phone calls was to Cohen and Khouri to get involved in "Mad Money" again."
"Overture is so excited about the film," said Cohen. "It's a smart film for men, women, for everybody really, and they understand it. It was a project Chris loved from a long time ago, and we know he understands its potential."
When Gers was hired to write an American version of the screenplay, Khouri was already set as director. According to Gers, working with Khouri on "was pure bliss. My first thought was, 'I've got one of the world's greatest screenwriters as my boss, there's no way anything I write will make it,' but I was wrong," he said. "It was one of the greatest mentor-protector working relationships that anyone could have. She pushed me toawards the unexpected and human aspects, and to be unafraid. It was an amazing experience for a writer to have someone like Callie encouraging me."
In adapting "Mad Money" for American audiences, among other liberties, the characters were changed from English to American and the Bank of England to the Kansas City branch of the Federal Reserve Bank (Note: There are 12 Federal Districts in the United States and 12 Federal Reserve Banks). Instead of burning the money, as they did in England, they shred the money, as is done in the U.S. Gers says he doesn't know much about the true crimes that inspired the British film, but he loved the original's structure and the idea of three women from different social circles. "The idea of the class differences was very much in the English original, but the women were very English types and they didn't translate," Gers said. "American and English class systems are different. So, I took the English idea, but tried to make it real to American audiences."
"It's just a fun movie," said Khouri. "I wanted to make something that was going to be entertainment and that's what this is. I think everyone is fighting the same uphill battle with money -- there's never enough.... Money is something we all think about all the time, whether consciously or unconsciously, and this movie taps right into that."
"Mad Money" also taps into the notion of the elusive American Dream and the paycheck-to-paycheck realities for most Americans. How can one hope to achieve and sustain the American Dream when few people ever have enough money to pay their bills? Who among us doesn't have to worry about job security, health care, debt and retirement? "I think if the film has a quiet message, one of them is, it's really tough to pursue the American Dream if you're worried about how you're going to pay your bills," said Gers. "If you're scraping and scrambling, how do you have the time to dream, to plan, to do anything but survive? This is a story of how people get the opportunity to dream."
"People worry about money, they've got to handle business, they don't have time to play", said co-star Queen Latifah, who plays Nina Brewster. "They've got to work, got to hustle. They've got to do whatever they can to put food on the table. It's simple. It's just a natural human emotion, a basic thing. When they're not stressed out and pressured by bills, they become entirely different people."
Khouri believes all the women, and their spouses, justify their continued theft of the cash with a very convenient truth. "They've got it figured out that it's nobody's money. They're not really stealing it, just putting it back into the system. I think Bridget says it best when she says, 'It's just recycling.' It's a very handy rationalization and has some truth to it."
"It's a little confusing, stealing money which no longer exists," said Ted Danson, who portrays Don Cardigan, spouse of the plot's mastermind, Bridget. "The 'wrong' is very minor in this case. It's a perfect crime that an audience can sympathize with. You want to cheer for them, not feel guilty about it, and you can."
GENRE AND GENDER-BENDING
"Mad Money" departs from most traditional crime capers not just because of the victimless nature of its crime, but also in its participants. "One of the things I wanted to do was make a woman's crime movie because there aren't many," said Gers. "Almost every heist or caper film I've seen is male dominated. This was a chance to take the classic genre of a caper movie, a crime story about a gang, but in this case, the gang members are women. It's really about the dynamics of that gang and whether or not they can trust each other."
Khouri, who won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the groundbreaking "Thelma & Louise," (the first screenplay she ever wrote), remains well-known as a women's writer, comedy writer and director. Latifah, for one, believes Khouri's talent knows no gender boundaries. "She doesn't just have a good understanding of women, she understands men and how men need to be in relation to women," said Latifah. "She'll come up on the set and demonstrate how she wants a guy to be with a woman and it's exactly what needs to happen at that particular time. She gets it. She's done some incredible writing for women and directing for women, and she's going to do it again."
"Everybody knows Callie wrote "Thelma & Louise" and that she understands women," said Cohen. "But Callie understands people -- not just women. She's also extremely collaborative and open to finding other things. As you shoot, sometimes a line doesn't feel natural and the actors will do their own versions of it. Callie tells Diane, Katie, Queen and the other actors, 'If you think you characters should do this, let's find it, how do we get there? If you don't think your character would do something, what do we do?' She has the ability to think about it, talk it through and come back the next day with pages she re-wrote that night."
Roger Cross, who co-stars as Barry, a Federal security guard who joins the caper, says Khouri's talent and collaborative attitude provide the ideal working atmosphere on set. "It's terrific because if something's not working, you can work it out and try it a different way. She's as artistic as any actor ... so in a sense it's like dealing with another actor. She understand what we go through, so it's very helpful when you're someone who knows the script inside and out and can help you with it."
Another genre departure in "Mad Money" involves pulling off the crime early in the film, instead of building tension and anticipation as to how they're going to do it -- and whether they are going to get caught, which is traditionally reserved for a caper's climax. Here, the crime itself is methodical and low tech - more of a siphoning than a sacking - which occurs over a period of years. So, the film picks up where most films in the genre leave off -- after the crime. With millions of dollars at their disposal, the women and their spouses set about covering up the money trail, keeping their spending within their perceived income levels, avoiding large, expensive purchases. After a while, the group decides to create fake jobs and sources of new-found wealth, so they can remain above suspicion.
"At one point Diane's character says, 'Crime is contagious,'" said Cohen. "In fact, they get carried away with their rationalization that they're recycling the same money over and over again. Over time, they figure out how to justify and cover up their crimes and spending, so it becomes easier. And then they start getting bolder and bolder. Eventually they are used to it."
Originally, the three intend to steal money until Bridget and Don save their house, Nina gets her sons into a better neighborhood and school and Jackie and Bob can pay off their bills. However, once those goals have been achieved, Bridget says she doesn't want to give it up. When she suggests the group continue, Don and Nina object. "We agreed we were gonna get what we needed and get out," Nina says. But Bridget is passionate in her rationale, noting each of them played by the rules for years, and questioned exactly where it got them. What would be so wrong with a little additional security? she argues.
The arrival of a Federal Reserve Bank examiner named Richard Mandelbrot (JC MACKENZIE) changes everything. Mandelbrot has been sent to investigate the security of the Kansas City bank branch when it's discovered that some of its employees appear to be living way beyond their means. He questions the K.C. Fed's gung-ho, quasi-military Chief of Security Glover (STEPHEN ROOT), who is adamant that the security measures and system make employee theft impossible. He tells the bank examiner that the employee's backgrounds are to Pentagon security clearance standards and that access levels to different areas and rooms are modeled on federal maximum security prisons. Glover and Mandelbrot tour the Security Command Center to see the bank's extensive series of surveillance cameras in the Treasury Department Inspection room (TDI), the sorting room and the shredding room. When Mandelbrot informs Glover that Bridget Cardigan, Nina Brewster, Jackie Truman and at least one member of the security team must be in on the conspiracy, Glover vigorously defends his security system's integrity. Before leaving, the bank examiner warns Glover that if he is party to the theft as well, he will be prosecuted.
When Bridget, Nina and Jackie realize that a bank examiner is investigating and following them, they put their heads together. It is clear that without evidence (such as the piles of cash each has stashed in their home) that the authorities would have a difficult time building a case. They decide to get rid of the cash immediately. As each accomplice goes about disposing of the evidence, the local police, the district attorney's office, the IRS and the Feds are closing in on them. One by one they are pulled in for questioning -- Don, Bob, Jackie, Nina, Barry...
However, as the interrogations progress, the biggest question of all remains, "Where is Bridget?"
ABOUT THE WOMEN OF "MAD MONEY"
Casting ideas for "Mad Money" began while Cohen and Khouri were developing the screenplay. Both agreed the lead of the movie, the plot's mastermind, had to be an actress who is funny, warm, believable and likeable. "At the end of the day, they're robbing a bank," said Cohen. "So we knew Bridget had to be someone the audience would love and want to succeed. Diane Keaton has that. The whole world loves Diane. Whether it's a scene with Ted Danson, Queen Latifah, Katie Holmes or Stephen Root, she brings out the comedy and reality of it. She has the ability, as Lucille Ball had, for physical comedy, and you love her for it."
The Oscar-winning actress's classic and classy style of comedy was the right mix for a character who could otherwise be stuffy and rigid. "Diane Keaton is a very classy, elegant, intelligent woman who can be silly, crazy and daring," said Gers. "She'll take risks, which is even funnier, because she's got so much elegance and grace. She gives Bridget all of that."
Co-star Ted Danson, who plays Keaton's on-screen husband, Don, loves the way in which Keaton keeps everything on the set alive. "You'll see her in a corner chatting to herself and she's chattering away at me right before a scene and then I realize, 'Wait a minute. She doesn't even know who I am. She's not really chatting with me. She's getting herself to some place that's appropriate for the scene.' But I love that. She's the neighborhood playhouse girl, a real actor's actor and good worker."
Keaton agreed to play Bridget when the film was originally being prepared for production years ago, at which time Queen Latifah joined the cast. The producers and writers believed Latifah also possessed natural warmth and likeability, while providing a strong comedic counterpart to the legendary actress.
It was the combination of character, story, Keaton and Khouri, which attracted Queen Latifah to the project early on. "I've been a fan of Diane's for a really long time, so just to be able to work with her and watch her do her thing has been amazing," Latifah said. "Her skills and energy are just unbelievable." As for Khouri, "Callie has been cool. We've all been attached to this project for a couple of years at least, so to see it come to fruition is very exciting and rewarding. Not just for myself and Diane, but to watch Callie finally be able to helm it."
Nina Brewster, the streetwise single mother who, unlike Bridget, has worked in low-paying jobs her entire life, cautiously steps into the plot, becoming the voice of reason to Bridget and Jackie. For Nina, the stakes are higher than they are for the others. She knows that if she is caught, her sons will likely become wards of the court. "If this goes bad for her, she loses her kids," said Acheson. "They will go into the social welfare system and she'll go to jail. She's worked hard and preached to her boys that 'There are no men in prison.' She reminds them to do the right thing constantly and has set a good example to them. But she's still nowhere -- so she takes the risk. Although she has succeeded, at any moment, she stands to lose it all."
Latifah says she loves Khouri's writing. "Callie's characters tend to have power," she said. "Or, at least, they find their power somewhere along the journey, which to me, as an actor, is a lot more exciting to play."
When the film was preparing for production this time, Katie Holmes was the top choice for Jackie, the girl who seems to go along with all the plans, but not if her gut instinct tells her otherwise. The role required an actress who could bring some depth to a whimsical character. The filmmakers loved Holmes' inherent sweetness and her largely untapped talent as a comedienne. "There's a lot more there than you would expect to the character and Katie's knows that," said Acheson. "Jackie is not all she appears to be, and Katie translates that to the screen."
CALLIE KHOURI won the Academy Award, Golden Globe and WGA Award for "Best Original Screenplay" for her first screenplay, the classic action-drama, "Thelma & Louise" (1992). The award-winning screenwriter worked as a theater apprentice, waitress and assistant at a video production company before Oscar-winning filmmaker Ridley Scott agreed to direct "Thelma & Louise," and made Khouri a co-producer.
Khouri went on to write and direct the film "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," based on the best-selling book of the same name. She also wrote, directed and produced the television movie, "Hollis & Rae" and the screenplay for the feature film, "Something to Talk About."
Born in San Antonio, Texas, Khouri was raised in Texas and Kentucky by her doctor father and mother. She attended Purdue University, where she studied drama, then lived in Nashville, Tennesse for awhile before moving to Los Angeles in 1982 to study at the Strasburg Institute.
SCREENWRITER GLENN GERS
The years he spent as an office temp and administrative assistant/secretary was crucial preparation for writing "Mad Money." After graduating with honors in English from Yale University in 1982, Gers' adventures in under-appreciated hourly-wage work gave him invaluable life lessons into being 'one of the girls'. While still temping, his original screenplay "Nightbirds" won him a 1991 Fellowship Grant in Screenwriting from the New York Foundation for The Arts.
Since then, Gers has written episodes of the television comedy, "Cybil," "The Jeff Foxworthy Show," and "Becker." He also co-wrote (with Steven Baigelman) the 2002 USA Network television movie, "Brother's Keeper," a thriller directed by John Badham. His original screenplay, "Off Season," became a Showtime Network Emmy Award-winning production, starring Hume Cronyn, Sherilynn Fenn and Adam Arkin. Directed by Bruce Davison, "Off Season" was nominated for a Writer's Guild Award and won Gers the Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing of a Children's Special.
Gers' feature film work includes the thriller, "Fracture," starring Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Gosling and David Strathairn (screenplay by Dan Pyne and Glenn Gers, story by Dan Pyne). He also wrote, directed and edited the low-budget feature-length independent film, "The Accountant," which was an official selection at the Atlanta Film Festival and won the 2000 Discovery Award/Grand Prize at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.
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