A Hollywood movie about subprime mortgages? No sweat. A Hollywood movie with an Asian-American lead? No way.
Saturday at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, author Michael Lewis spoke with The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach about his new book, The Undoing Project, about the friendship between psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.
Toward the end of the interview, Achenbach asked Lewis if there would be a movie based on Flash Boys, Lewis’s 2015 book about IEX, a company that launched in response to the exploitation of high-frequency trading on Wall Street. Lewis said the movie was effectively dead.
“The problem is Brad Katsuyama,” said Lewis, referring to IEX’s founder. “There were emails back and forth about how impossible it was to make a movie with an Asian lead.”
“They’ve gotten to the point where they’re nervous about making an Asian guy a white guy,” he added, apparently referring to Hollywood’s whitewashing problem—where movies are criticized for casting white actors to play characters written as non-white. “A decade ago they weren’t; they would have just done that.”
On stage at the event at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Lewis referenced emails about the movie released in a 2014 hack of Sony Pictures. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin was originally supposed to adapt Flash Boys, but emails from the hack showed his then agent, Ari Emanuel, turning down the movie. In emails from Sorkin to producer Amy Pascal, he expressed skepticism about the potential of Flash Boys as a movie, comparing it with another movie he was then working on, the biopic Steve Jobs. “There aren’t any Asian movie stars,” Sorkin wrote in November of 2014:
If I turned in a terrific draft of Flash Boys, why would it have a better chance of getting made than Steve Jobs? The protagonist is Asian-American (actually Asian-Canadian) and there aren’t any Asian movie stars. There’s no precedent for stories about high frequency trading creating a stampede to the box office. Aren’t you asking me to spend another year writing a movie you won’t make and sign a contract you may or may not honor?
This argument against making a movie of his book didn’t convince Lewis, unsurprisingly.
“It’s crazy because the whole point is he’s an unknown in real life,” Lewis said at the book festival. “You could echo it in the movie, you could surround him with–you could create a person.”
Indeed if anyone has the power to turn someone into a movie star from a film about statistics and abstruse financial details, it’s Aaron Sorkin and Michael Lewis. Sorkin—who has not responded to request for comment—adapted Lewis’s 2004 book, Moneyball, and was nominated for the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Moneyball and The Big Short, based on Lewis’s 2010 book, were both critical successes and together received nominations for a slew of Academy Awards, and one win.