ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
In "Mad Money," the steady flow of cash and the way in which the characters react to having it, raises numerous questions about what money is and what money does to people. Can money buy happiness? Does money change people? How does it change them? How much is enough? If you had as much money as you needed or wanted, what would you do with your life?
"Mad Money" features piles of money. Carts full of cash. Suitcases and closets and garbage bags full of cash. Millions and millions of dollars sorted, bundled and stacked. Millions and millions of dollars stolen, counted and hidden. According to producer Acheson, visiting the Federal Reserve during pre-production was a perfect way for the filmmakers to understand an individual's complex relationship with money -- and what it's like to hang out with millions of dollars of cash all day long.
"When you visit a Federal Reserve Bank and you're given a tour, you actually stand really close to enormous sums of money," said Acheson. "There's a dividing wall of glass, but there's something about being in that close proximity to that much cash-- it's a visceral response. I don't know how to explain it. When you're surrounded by that much cash, even behind bullet proof glass, it does something to you. Yeah, it's just paper, but it's paper you can do things with."
"I've never seen so much money in my life," said DeSanto. "I went on a research trip to the federal bank and it drove me crazy. The story made so much more sense to me after my visit. It would drive me insane to have no money and be around money all day long. All of a sudden, it fell into place. We're talking warehouses full of cash, which is unbelievably intoxicating. I don't know how those people do it."
Likewise, Cohen recalls a tour of one reserve facility where they watched more than $60 million dollars shredded before their eyes. "You're literally seeing people's faces change thinking 'Wait, I could use that money. Why can't I have some of that money?', which is what Bridget Cardigan experiences," he said. "Bridget works there, sees, and watches it and wonders, 'Why can't I have that? I really need it.'"
"We wanted to make money itself absurd," admits Gers. "The amounts of money, the physicality of money, having piles of bills around, is something we wanted to make the center of the movie. It's weird that we use this stuff, this paper that means so much to us, and all the things that we do with it."
Contrary to what many believe, the Federal Reserve System, and its twelve regional banks, is not a part of the U.S. Government, nor is it publicly owned. The Federal Reserve Board's 12 regional banks is a private corporation, owned by investment banks and their stockholders, which has held the exclusive license to print paper currency for the United States of America since 1913. In addition, the twelve Federal Reserve Bank facilities, located throughout the country, take in counterfeit, old, damaged and worn paper money through its thousands of member banks, and replace it with the new currency they print. While touring the reserve banks and doing research, the filmmakers were allowed to take notes, but were forbidden to take photographs. Production Designer Brent Thomas says they were allowed to see everything the public could see, but there were many areas they couldn't tour.
"We took notes, but mostly we just tried to remember and get inspired by what we saw," said Thomas. "They answered many of our questions, but beyond that we were on our own. We had to invent some things, in terms of making it more plausible and cinematic."
One of the biggest changes the filmmakers made was the process by which the Federal Reserve sorts and destroys the old money. Technology has evolved since the 1970's when the original crime occurred and the filmmakers had to change the process by which paper money is destroyed in order to make the story plausible. Currently, the Federal Reserve Banks sort and shred money in the same machine, eliminating the opportunity to steal between the sorting and shredding stages, as takes place in "Mad Money." Admits Gers. "There may be ways to steal money from the Fed, but this is presently not one of them. Besides, we couldn't show the real way, if we knew it."
Despite the need to alter the process, the filmmakers were adamant to keep the story plausible and reality-based. The producers and Khouri also wanted to eschew the typical heist gadgetry and technology for good old-fashioned common sense and ingenuity. For Khouri, that's central to what the film is about. "I think anytime you surprise yourself or do something you don't expect or find a part of yourself you didn't know was there, it's fun," said Khouri. "These women all find within themselves a certain power and confidence as a result of pulling this off."
In order to make the scheme work, the women had to figure out a way to carry the ringer padlocks and the cash. Pockets sewn into bags or clothes risk discovery, so the women use their accessories and undergarments to smuggle the locks and stash the cash. "The costumes have to support a lot of things that happen for the money getting out of the Fed and the locks and keys getting in and out and around," said DeSanto. "We worked closely to make sure you can't see it."
"The way we rob the Fed isn't exactly high tech," admits Holmes. "We end up chasing each other around, meeting in bathrooms and stuffing cash in our underwear, yet it works. It's fun."
When Thomas first read the screenplay he realized the sets would be "more bricks and mortar kind of security, as opposed to high-tech infra-red kind of stuff." He and his crew constructed numerous sets duplicating a federal reserve bank at the Midway Stages and Stageworks in Shreveport, Louisiana. Khouri's use of steadicam, dolly camera set-ups and continuous shots worked well on these sets, which were a maze of large hallways, elevator banks and inter-connected rooms. The movement and physicality of the scenes filmed at the Fed, including pushing heavy cash-laden carts and janitorial carts, required a sprawling set where action would not be interrupted. Sets built on the stages include the K.C. Fed Security Command Center, with its rows and banks of cameras, the shredding room, the sorting room, and industrial-sized doors and caged rooms.
In "Mad Money," the Fed's huge shredding machine, into which Nina stands and feeds dollars all day, was built by taking an operational industrial shredder and adding pipes and tubes. Thomas calls the shredder "the beast in the belly of the Fed.... this living, breathing thing that eats up the money." Appropriately, the beast's room is actually a steel-reinforced cage in the lower basement, where high security clearance gains access through a series of clanging metal doors and screening points. The shredder dominates the room, surrounded by cash carts, guards and steel bars. "The shredding room was the most fun environment to create," Thomas said. "It's just awe-inspiring to see all this cash go into the shredder and turn to dust." In "Mad Money," an employee calls it, "the room that makes grown men weep."
Since the various Fed banks had different types of carts, the filmmakers created their see-through carts through a series of prototypes to ensure the theft, as scripted, could take place. "We designed this so that the bottom could open without it being noticed from either the front, the top or sides, simply to make the caper work," said Thomas. "That's how we came up with this door going up and down."
The on-screen dollars in the film are a mix of real money, fake money which photographs very well and less realistic fake money. For the cash slated for destruction, which the ladies siphon off, Thomas and her crew took prop money, soaked it, painted and crumpled it and in general, tried to wear it down to resemble deteriorated bills.
"It goes from the real thing to very good fake money a couple of layers thick, less realistic fake money in the background and Styrofoam blocks that have photographs of money wrapped around them for deep background," said Thomas. "Prop master Scott Reeder did a terrific job in managing all these different notes for the cameras."
The Louisiana Exhibit Museum doubles for the lobby of the Kansas City branch of the Federal Reserve Bank. "It's a wonderful building, full of dioramas from the '30s, beautiful and spectacular, but it's not a Federal Reserve Bank," said Thomas. "So we had a significant amount of work to hide these wonderful dioramas and turn it into a Fed lobby with security."
Junior's Barbecue, where the conspirators meet, was another location the company used in Shreveport. "It had wonderful architecture, but it wasn't a blues barbecue place," said Thomas. "So we changed it and added to it to make it more of a blues place." Thomas and his crew, led by set decorator Vera Mills, replaced the floor and booths, adding a layer of materials and colors to evoke an old blues bar.
TIME AND MONEY, CHANGES THROUGH THE YEARS
"Mad Money" takes place over a period of several years... 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007. Year after year, the women regularly and methodically pull off their robberies, dividing up the stolen cash and waiting for the next opportunity. Although originally conceived to be for a limited time and amount, the scheme works so well, the women decide to just keep going.
Over the years, the various changes that time and money bring meant a lot of planning for the filmmakers. For Khouri and her designers, the challenge was allowing the money they are hiding "to seep through" into their individual tastes and lives. "We looked at it from where they started out and what they aspired to." said DeSanto. "We had to think through each character's transformation in stages and what that would be. It had to come from an organic place involving where they live, who they are, what they want."
Bridget and Don are middle class victims of corporate downsizing, living in Kansas City. Nina Brewster, is a hard-working single mother of two, living in low-income housing and struggling to make ends meet. Jackie and Bob have minimum wage jobs, live in an old trailer and drive an old car. As the years progress, and the money begins to show, filmmakers organized the set dressing, costumes and props to reflect the changes in the character's homes, clothing and possessions.
"Over time you pick up this little item or trinket or that piece of furniture or whatever and it all changes over the course of time," said Khouri. "We really had to keep track of what all of that would be. We had fun figuring out how to show it and reflect it in the characters' lives."
The most obvious change over the film's nearly four-year period was technology. "Even for some of the sets that didn't necessarily go through a financial change because of the theft, there were changes in technology," said Thomas. "It was a period of time where people went from CRT's to flat screens, from bigger to slimmer cell phones, things like that."
One of the production's central sets, Bridget and Don's bedroom, undergoes numerous changes, little and big, as the years pass. Thomas says their home is "visual evidence of where they are in society, of how established they are. There are layers of what happens when you live in a place for many, many years and you're established there." Layers of photographs, books, family heirlooms, antiques and trinkets are reflected in the contents of their home. Because of the numerous changes in the master suite's structure and decor, they decided to build the bedroom set on Stageworks studios. Exteriors of the Cardigan home were filmed at a private residence in Shreveport.
When we first see would-be world travellers, Jackie and Bob Truman, they live in a trailer, mounted on some cement blocks in a big open field. Their tiny silver home is stuffed full of a colorful collection of thrift store treasures, globes, lights and folk art. After the money begins to flow, the couple stays true to their wandering roots, opting to buy another trailer, but this one has wheels. "The fact they live in a trailer informs us who they are, never really wanting to live anywhere permanently, always being able to move at a moment's notice," said Thomas. "That's their dream."
For nearly four years, Bridget and Don, Jackie and Bob and Nina and Barry had the opportunity to pursue their idea of the American Dream. The money they stole brought the freedom of not having to worry about the financial aspects of their lives - a luxury few ever know. The money transformed many of their dreams into realities, fulfilling long-desired, often simple, aspirations for security, comfort and well-being. The money changed them and their lives largely for the better, bringing materials goods and a sense of power that came with beating the system.
So, doesn't the group's success beg the question, does money buy happiness? Or more specifically, how much is happiness worth? What defines happiness? What are you willing to do to get yours?
Perhaps, the answers to these questions lies in the group's decision to get rid of the money when law enforcement authorities close in. Over the years they took many risks to accumulate the cash, and know the money is the only evidence the authorities have of their crime. All the money must be destroyed.
"We wanted to make it something that would be really painful, from which there's no return," said Khouri about the idea of getting rid of the cash. "I can't imagine anything more painful than having to get rid of all that cash."
Nina, who has buried garbage bags full of cash in her backyard, decides the quickest way to dispose of the cash is to burn it. "Her character watches the American dream literally go up in smoke on the backyard barbecue," said Khouri. "On the other hand, Don's always been a business guy, so he manages to use an office product to do it. "
Bridget and Don decide to shred the money into a toilet and flush it away. "We realize the only evidence they'll have is the stolen money, so we destroy it," said Danson. "I'm sitting in the master bathroom shredding money into a toilet, doing the dirty work. Meanwhile, my wife has decided to run off and jump over the wall with a huge bag of money and disappear into the night."
Jackie and Bob choose the most avant-garde way to dispose of their stealth wealth, deciding to ignite the evidence in their old trailer, and ride off in their new mobile RV.
"Even getting rid of the money is part of the adventure," said Holmes. "It's devastating for them, but they know it's time to get rid of it all. They know what they accomplished. These women are smart. They never let the money get the best of them. No one can destroy or take that away from them."
In the end, no one does. Once again, it is the scheme's mastermind, Bridget, who figures out how to keep the group out of jail by settling their tax debt on the stolen money. About six months after their lives of crime have come to an end, Bridget meets again with her former co-conspirators, Jackie and Nina. Nina and Barry are happily married, working hard and living in a small apartment with Barry's mother and her kids. Jackie tells the ladies that Bob got his old job back and the two are well. Bridget announces she and Don are going to retire to Mexico where they will open a business. When Nina and Jackie look surprised, Bridget shares with them some motherly advice. "My mother used to say every woman should always keep a little 'mad money' somewhere,'" Bridget tells them. "Just in case."
In this case, Bridget followed mother's advice. As she takes the women down to Junior's cellar to reveal her secret stash of cash, her former partners erupt in joy and amazement. All three know what it is like to live without money and with money and realize what mastermind Bridget says is true. "Money can buy you happiness. Don't let anybody tell you differently. But maybe happiness isn't everything."
Happiness may not be everything, but combined with a sizeable amount of cash, isn't it a good start?