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TV's 'Too Big to Fail' chronicles the economic meltdown

Curtis Hanson

Aaron Harris/CP

Remember when the entire financial world held its breath back in 2008? The events leading up to the U.S. banking crisis and economic meltdown provide the dramatic TV fodder of Too Big to Fail.

Adapted from the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin, the HBO movie details how the fate of the world economy was determined in a matter of a few weeks by several extremely powerful men, most notably U.S. treasury secretary Henry Paulson, played by William Hurt, and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, played by Paul Giamatti.

The film was directed and produced for HBO by Curtis Hanson, whose directorial résumé includes an Oscar nomination for L.A. Confidential (he was a co-winner for best adapted screenplay) and such diverse film entries as 8 Mile, Wonder Boys and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Hanson spoke to us from Los Angeles last week.

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Do you think the average person realizes how close we came to a global depression in 2008?

I don't think they do. There's a powerful scene in the film where Ben Bernanke explains that very possibility to Congress. I certainly didn't know we were on the brink like that.

Any hesitation on your part to tell a story set in the financial world?

My initial hesitation was whether anybody would be interested in a bunch of guys in suits sitting around talking about their problems. But I love going into worlds that are new for me, whether it's the streets of Detroit where the future appears hopeless to the young people or L.A. in 1953.

Were you compelled to be explanatory in dramatizing events behind the bank meltdown?

Yeah, I wanted to tell it in such a way that the average viewer could understand what the hell was going on [laughs] I knew very little about the financial world, but I found the script very suspenseful and I loved the idea that the central character was this man, Henry Paulson, who had been a titan of Wall Street for many years and then found himself trying to deal with this crisis spiralling out of control and the only way to deal with it was to do something that he's philosophically opposed his whole life, which was government intervention.

Isn't it rare for a film to have no real heroes or villains?

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That's exactly how I thought about it, but that's how I like to approach most of my films anyway. I prefer stories about people who are in a sense trying to find better versions of themselves.

All your previous films involved fictional characters. Is it tougher to make a film about real people and events?

You know, I hadn't thought about it, but I guess it is the first time I've done that. Of course I wanted to be accurate, but at the same time tell a story. Andrew Ross Sorkin read the script and consulted with us as well. Above all we wanted to represent these people in a way that was truthful.

How did you prep your actors?

As they joined the cast, I gave each of them DVDs of the real people, testifying or giving speeches or whatever. Not to imitate them, but to get a sense of them. Two of the actors met the real people they played. Paul Giamatti spent a little time with Ben Bernanke. William and I spent a few hours with Henry Paulson discussing things. And then Paulson invited William down to his island for a weekend of fishing. William went and it was very valuable for him.

In retrospect, do you think the bank bailouts were a Band-Aid solution?

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Yes, but a necessary one. From people I've talked to, the consensus of opinion was that the bailouts did save us from what would have been a disastrous situation. It was a Band-Aid that kept us from bleeding to death.

Was it inevitable that the same people who created the meltdown in the first place ended up richer and more powerful in the end?

Only in America, but that's how it turned out. We wanted this story to end in a way that showed that it wasn't over. We wanted to show that the situation and the problems are still with us, which they are.

A sign of the times this story could only be told on HBO?

Today, sadly, you wouldn't get this picture financed by a studio. That's the unfortunate situation of commercial filmmaking in Hollywood today.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Too Big to Fail airs Monday on HBO Canada at 9 p.m.

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