The Hummingbird Project is a fictional caper set circa. 2011, concerned with the quixotic lengths to which the Top End of Town will go in order to gain a fleeting financial advantage. Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård play Vincent and Anton, a pair of financial traders who hatch a plan to lay underground fibre optic cable halfway across America, in order to shave a few milliseconds off the delivery time of stock data, and thus make buckets of money for their wannabe investors. The cousins square off against their ex-boss (Salma Hayek), a formidable foe who is none-too-pleased with the prospect of losing the upper hand to her bumbling former subordinates.
The fibre optic McGuffin is the brainchild of Kim Nguyen, best known for his 2012 foreign language Oscar nominee, War Witch. Where that film was an intense, deeply moving examination of the residual trauma of a child solider in an unspecified African nation beset by civil war, this one is a darkly comic fable of ambition and misplaced attention on Wall Street. At face value it might be difficult to see the same director at work, but there's a compassionate throughline in the data-crunching-technology-focussed The Hummingbird Project - about the unseen human 'core units' behind the megabucks data transactions - which subtly links back to War Witch's scenes of the black ore used in mobile phones, over which wars are waged.
Congratulations on the film, Kim. I'm curious, you've written a lead character with a weirdly specific fixation, to plant a fibre optic cable across three states in a straight line. How on earth did you hit on this as an idea?
I wanted to talk about the financial system for quite a while, because I thought there was some madness to it, but finding the right angle was the biggest challenge for me. I didn't want to make a film that just would take place in a trading room. So I got excited when I started reading about what people were doing to try and shave a couple of milliseconds off their transactions. I read up about a couple of people who were trying to build straighter fibre optic lines and what I saw was a quixotic endeavour where I could bring my characters through the mud, through swamps, through mountains, and that made it cinematic for me.
How do you do research for this? Did you find some of those people to see what drives them?
Yes, absolutely. Although this is not based on a true story, the actual research for the film, I had to hurry to write the script for it to stay pertinent, if I can say this French word, but I think it is also the same in English.
Yes, it is.
I wanted it to still be of the era, so I kind of rushed writing the script without actually knowing all of the details; the specifics of the science and the techniques of how they would dig this tunnel. Then I went out and started developing and doing the pre-production, as if I was a contractor almost. We got this guy who worked in fibre optic cabling and digging, drilling things, and then we saw people who specialised in welding fibre optic cables and so all of the final polish of the script really was based on real actual things that people do to get those tunnels made.
Like you said, there's a growing genre of films that have the financial system as the villain. It’s a sign of the troubling times in which we live I guess, but how did you write it so that you don't have a heavy handed morality tale?
I think that we are all part of the problem. Most of us have a little bit of money invested in stuff for our retirement funds, or we don't, or we buy cheaper products that are made outside of the country and we kind of close our eyes. We don't want to know what higher level of suffering is involved in paying cheaper prices for products. The whole economical system of getting the most bang for your buck without any concern for, What are the implications of that? I think is not just about our main characters, I think it's about all of us. I hope that's something that comes across.
As you say, Vincent and Anton's story is not based on a true story, but I'm not the first to observe that it kind of plays like a film that is based on a true story. Certainly the way with Vincent's health comes into the story. Did you intentionally try to follow the beat of films that are quote-unquote "based on a true story" in the way you wrote it? A little bit of a parody of those?
You know, with every film you have a number of questions that you expect and it's so weird because for this specific film this question comes, it's not exactly said in the way you have, but people ask me, 'Why isn't it based on a true story?' It's the weirdest question I get but I get it often. I don't know what to say to that. I just find it so interesting. Some people are actually upset about that. It's like, "But why isn't it based on a true story?"
That's a weird thing to get upset about…
I know! It was odd. I don't really have an answer for that.
Okay. I was more interested in the way you mimic the style of film that is based on a true story. But okay, never mind! Next question: The casting of Jesse Eisenberg, I think it's a nice short cut for the audience that we've got the movies’ Mark Zuckerberg in this fast talking world of data and finance. Was that intentional in getting him and what kind of qualities did he bring to Vincent that you were trying to tease out?
I could totally see Jesse in this character. There's one thing that's really interesting: This was a longer script and I knew how that could impact the final length of the film. Your average film I think is 110 minutes, but it was actually a 140-page script and I just knew that the character needed to talk super fast and still be comprehensible and I knew Jesse could nail that completely. I could totally see him in the character.
In retrospect, you feel that Jesse was made for that character. But you know, once I had cast Jesse and Alexander Skarsgård, several people I spoke to about the production, had assumed that the roles were switched. They thought that the guy who was negotiating the contracts was actually Skarsgård, with his charm and his height, and that Jesse would have been more in line with Anton, and playing someone on the spectrum. So it's quite interesting that now that the film has been done, people see that it was clearly a role for Jesse, whereas in the beginning, just from off the page, people tended to think that Alexander would have been the character played by Jesse.
Now, if you’ll indulge me: You’ve chosen very specific hairstyles for your supporting characters. There’s Alexander's receding hairline, of course, but also Selma's chalky dip dye… I love this kind of character detail.
What was the idea with their very specific looks?
Well, the more I start having access to quote-unquote “A list actors”, I've realised the one thing that is clear is that most of these actors are not there just out of luck. They really work hard at their characters, and they're really focused. They all have a certain gift or a certain angle or something unique. But most of them are really focused on creating the look of the character and I really welcomed that input and letting them go where they want to go.
In the case of Selma for example, I must totally giver her credit for the look that she made for herself. It was really her that had this idea for the wig— she's actually wearing a wig in the film— and the wardrobe, given she’s very involved in the fashion industry right now. She really brought in her team and thought out some cool looks for her character. For Alexander, I think being such a charming, attractive, tall, Slavic man, he really welcomed the idea of going all the way to the opposite of what's expected of him.
You can say that again.
He really was supportive and when I showed him the picture of where I wanted to go, he was still really supportive! [laughs] Of course, what I hadn't realised is that our sales people and our distributors really worried when they knew what kind of look I wanted to give Alexander.
Yes, it's probably not the poster they had in mind.
Let’s speak to more broadly about your career. I loved War Witch, by the way.
Oh, thank you.
Unfortunately we haven't had a chance to see many of the others in between, here in Australia. How have your experiences since the Oscar nomination for War Witch, shaped the way you want to make your films?
The hardest thing for me in film over the years is to have to carry the whole film and bear the responsibility of the film on your shoulders. I still feel that, and I feel that in a way my next film, will go back to what brought me on the international scene, which is War Witch, but with a bigger scope. In mean that in the sense of the number of people I can touch with the film. I do feel that it's hard to go back to this, I don't know, this ‘international birth’, I guess. That’s a horrible expression, I’m sorry, but it’s fitting here, as it's what led me to be a little bit more ‘known’ and to have the possibility of doing more films. I think it's time to revisit that. I guess sometimes you don't want to go there, because it's a darker place, but I'm looking into a film that talks about the modern fishing industry and it's set in the Indian Ocean and there's something of ‘Heart of Darkness’ in that story. In a way, in a perverse way, I'm kind of looking forward to going into that environment and I'm scared of it at the same time...
And to go from what you're making to what you're watching. We like to ask our guests what they've been watching. Either loving or hating. What have you been catching up with lately? New or old.
What have I been watching? As a viewer?
Well, I'm kind of discovering mini-series, which I love. I think it's a format that I find very exciting. But recently I really liked Roma and Cold War, which I think they were amongst the best films that were made last year.
Oh, and I rediscovered a very interesting film, I think it was made in Hungary or Poland, I don't know if you can, maybe you'll figure out what the name of the title may be. It's about these two ... a man and a woman that work in a meat industry and they dream about deers and they fall in love through their dreams. Does that ring a bell?
Yes. I know the one it’s from Hungary.
What's the name of that film?
Oh, I loved it too. I should know.. I don't want to have to Google it.
If you do, you can email me the name, but don't you think it's a great film?
It was one of the love stories that I found is so well written. At the same time, it's deep and it's profound, at the same time it's ... I love movies that have this depth and profoundness but at the same time, they carry you like a song. You know? There's the cinematic experience in them and I looked up what she did and is she working on something else? I wonder if that's her first film or something. It's a really wonderful film, I find.
Absolutely, and I remember the name now. It's On Body and Soul.
On Body and Soul. Yes. That's it. On Body and Soul. Thank you. That's great.
On the television series, I'm kind of frustrated about that there aren't more series that look like, or have the scope of a TV series called The Knick, with Clive Owen. It's a great TV series and it's only two years. It lasted, there's an ending to it.
It's exciting. Honestly, I never would have thought, two or three years ago, that I would now say it's an exciting time for content creators, but with the advent of so many new channels on television, there's almost a panic feeling of content. People need stories. People need it. They need them now. So there's something interesting about it.
I'm quite melancholic about the big screen experience. I do feel that it's going into something different. Something I feel that people kind of want to go to the big screens to be entertained, like in a merry-go-round, you know what I mean? The super big, superhero movies, and I don't know if my voice fits in with that.
A timely point, with the last Avengers movie upon us now.
Absolutely. Yeah. I definitely the big screen is transforming. We'll see.
The Hummingbird Project is now showing in cinemas.
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